Self-starvation timeline part 1: the Suffragettes and Irish republicanism

Since starting research for this project, I have sifted through various English-language newspaper articles from the last sixty years or so looking for stories on hunger strikes. We decided to put together a timeline of instances of hunger strike and self-harm carried out as acts of protest or civil disobedience, primarily in order to collate a lot of this information and present it visually over time. So here is a bit of a deeper dive into some of the key events, many of them well known, and some lesser-known cases too.

It’s difficult to start a timeline of hunger strikes chronologically, since instances of hunger strike stretch back to antiquity. But in order to trace the origins of the modern phenomenon of political hunger strikes, carried out primarily by prisoners, the Suffragette hunger strikes are some of the earliest, most visible examples. These were undertaken by women who had been imprisoned for politically-motivated crimes and were striking to demand recognition as political prisoners. The first was Marion Wallace Dunlop, a Scottish member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, who went on hunger strike in 1909 for political status. Marion had been arrested on numerous occasions, and in July 1909 was caught stencilling a passage from the Bill of Rights on a wall on the House of Commons. She applied to be placed in the first division of Holloway Prison upon entry, which would have required acknowledging her offense as political, and when this was rejected embarked on a hunger strike. She was released after four days.1

Cat and Mouse Act represented in a political poster

These hunger strikes are key to understanding self-starvation as a political tactic. Force feeding was introduced in 1909 to avoid the creation of political martyrs. It was a tool already used in asylums, and in September that year was used on Mary Leigh in Winson Street Gaol, Birmingham. The use of force feeding by the prison authorities was brutal and regularly described as torture. During this period, hunger striking women were belittled as psychologically troubled, denying their political motivations as well as their bodily autonomy. In response to public outrage over force feeding, the government introduced the so-called Cat and Mouse Act in 1913, allowing hunger striking prisoners to be released and re-arrested when they had returned to full health.

Self-harm was widely used by suffragettes – Emily Davison jumped from the top floor of prison after force feeding, which she suffered on 49 occasions, and later died by jumping in front of the King’s horse at Epsom.

The influence of the Suffragette hunger strikes on subsequent political movements has been significant. Indeed when three English suffragettes went on hunger strike in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin in August 1912 they were joined by four Irish suffragettes who had been imprisoned in June for throwing stones at government buildings, including Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington.2 Sheehy-Skeffington’s  Irish Women’s Franchise League supported Irish republican James Connolly’s 1913 hunger strike.

Whilst James Connolly’s hunger strike protested his imprisonment for involvement in industrial action, Thomas Ashe’s 1917 strike was for political status, having been imprisoned for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising. Three years later Terence Macswiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, died in Brixton prison whilst taking part in a hunger strike for political status along with prisoners in his hometown. Macswiney, like Ashe, had been force fed. Joe Murphy and Michael Fitzgerald died in Cork, but it was Ashe and particularly Macswiney whose names would take on legendary status amongst Irish republicans as examples of martyrdom – Macswiney’s words “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer” became a key motivating sentiment for later generations.

Demonstration following the death of Terence Macswiney on hunger strike

  1. Ian Miller, A History of Force Feeding: Hunger Strikes, Prisons and Medical Ethics 1909-1974, p. 39.
  2. Miller, A History of Force Feeding, p. 71.

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