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Death of an Irish Hunger Striker

One hundred years ago Thomas Ashe became the first Irish Republican to die on hunger strike. Ashe was imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail in Dublin for delivering a ‘seditious speech’ to a public gathering in County Longford. On the 20th of September Ashe decided to go on hunger strike when he was denied the status of political prisoner. Five days later on September 25th he was dead.

Although Ashe is considered the first Irish Republican prisoner to die on hunger strike, his death was not the direct result of starvation, instead it was caused by force feeding. This brutal act carried out by prison authorities involved inserting a tube into the mouth of the hunger striker and pushing it down into their stomach. Gruel was poured down this ghastly device which caused gagging, vomiting and for Thomas Ashe – death.

Austin Stack was also a Republican prisoner who went on hunger strike around the same time as Ashe. Stack also underwent force feeding but lived to recall the terrible technique used by the prison authorities: ” It was very painful. My eyes watered during the whole time so that I could see nothing. I vomited during and after the process so that not one half of the food entered my stomach. My clothes were covered with vomit. There was no attempt made to examine me.”

The act of refusing food is a powerful weapon used by those who have nothing else left to fight with. This tool of protest against injustice was first used in the early 1900s by imprisoned British and Irish suffragettes. It was also the first time force feeding was used to break a hunger strike.

In 1912 Suffragettes Gladys Evans and Mary Leigh became the first prisoners in Ireland to hunger strike for political status and receive the treatment of force feeding. They were jailed along with Lizzie Barter who flung a hatchet at British Prime minister Herbert Asquith while he was visiting Dublin. She missed Asquith but hit Irish Home Rule leader John Redmond instead!

Barter evaded arrested but was apprehended the next day when she was involved in a ¬†disturbance at Dublin’s Theatre Royal where the British PM was due to speak. Barter hurled a burning chair into the orchestra pit while Leigh and Evans were caught at the same venue attempting to set fire to the royal box.

The Suffragettes were jailed in Mountjoy for “having commited serious outrages at the time of the visit of the British Prime Minister”. Leigh and Evans went on hunger strike and were force fed until they were released months later.

In September 1913 Labour leader James Connolly was arrested after speaking at a mass rally with Jim Larkin outside Liberty Hall in Dublin city. Connolly was sentenced to three months imprisonment and was labeled a common criminal. Inspired by the Suffragettes, he went on hunger strike which lasted eight days before he was released. While Connolly came out of his hunger strike unscath, the same cannot be said for James Byrne.

In October 1913 Labour activist James Byrne was arrested on false charges of intimidation and he was sent to Mountjoy jail. The 38 year old father of six from Dun Laoghaire was a secretary of the trades council and when he was denied political status in prison he followed the example set by Connolly just months previously and he went on hunger strike. Byrne also undertook a thirst strike and his health rapidly declined while imprisoned. The authorities released Byrne when his condition worsened and just under two weeks later he died of pneumonia. His funeral drew thousands of mourners and James Connolly delivered the graveside oration.

In 1917 the death of County Kerry native Thomas Ashe resulted in an inquest which revealed the barbarity of force feeding. The inquest also revealed that he had been stripped of his boots, bed, bedding and clothes. Ashe was left with a single blanket and the cold stone ground to lie on. The pathologist’s report revealed markings and bruising around Ashe’s mouth and jaw indicating the brutality of force feeding.

The verdict of the inquest declared that Ashe “died of heart failure and congestion of the lungs…..that his death was caused by the punishment of taking away from the cell, bed, bedding and boots and allowing him to be on the cold floor.” ¬†British authorities refused to accept the result of the inquest and many copies of it were burned by order. The copies that survived ensured the truth was revealed and the act of force feeding was later abandoned but, the act of hunger striking for political status would remain a staple of protest for Republicans throughout the rest of the 20th century. Following the death of Thomas Ashe 100 years ago, 22 more Republicans would die in prison in the following years and decades after 1917.