IN THE AUTUMN of 1920, at the height of the Tan War, with the IRA engaged in a bitter armed struggle against the British forces of occupation, republicans imprisoned in camps and jails throughout the country intensified their fight to be treated as prisoners of war.
By August, political status won by republican prisoners following the death on hunger strike of Thomas Ashe in September 1917 and more recently after the two-week-long mass hunger strike in Mountjoy Jail in April 1920, which saw the release of many of those engaged in the fast, was withdrawn by the British authorities. From now on, republican prisoners were to be treated as 'criminals'.
On 11 August, a mass hunger strike began in Cork Jail when 60 IRA Volunteers, most of them held without charge or trial, embarked on a fast in support of their demand for political status and release.
The British Government, whose attitude had hardened following the successful hunger strike of the previous months, decided to risk the deaths of prisoners rather than concede their demands.
During the weeks that followed, the British released or transferred many of the hunger strikers until only 11 – Michael Fitzgerald, Joseph Murphy, Michael Burke, John Crowley, Peter Crowley, Thomas Donovan, Seán Hennessy, Joseph Kelly, Michael O'Reilly, John Power and Christopher Upton – were left of the original 60.
On 12 August 1920, Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, TD for mid-Cork and O/C of the IRA No. 1 Brigade, and ten others were arrested during a raid on City Hall, Cork, and immediately joined the hunger strike by republican prisoners in Cork Jail which had begun the previous day.
Three days later, those arrested with MacSwiney were released but on 16 August he was brought before a court-martial in Cork military barracks and charged with possession of incriminating documents. MacSwiney, who refused to recognise the authority of the court, was sentenced to two years' imprisonment but defiantly challenged the court:
“I wish to state that I will put a limit to the term of imprisonment you impose because of the action I will take. I have taken no food since Thursday, therefore I will be free, alive or dead, in a month.”
The prolonged agony and sacrifice of MacSwiney had begun. He was deported that night to England and conveyed to Brixton Prison, London, where his hunger strike continued.
During September and October 1920, as the hunger strikers in Cork Jail deterioiated, crowds gathered daily outside the jail to pray and sing hymns. World attention, however, was focused on MacSwiney's lonely struggle in Brixton Prison.
On Monday 17 October 1920, having endured the agonies of hunger strike for 67 days, Michael Fitzgerald, one of the prisoners fasting in Cork Jail, died.
On the Monday night, Fitzgerald's comrades transferred his remains to the Church of St Peter and Paul in Cork City and the following Thursday, despite intimidation of mourners by heavily-armed British forces, thousands of people attended his funeral to Kilcrumper Cemetery in Fermoy. Later the same evening, IRA Volunteers returned to fire a farewell volley over their comrade's grave.
The following Monday, 25 October, another of the Cork prisoners, Joseph Murphy, died on his 76th day on hunger strike.
His body, accompanied by IRA Volunteers and members of Cumann na mBan, was brought through his native Cork City to the Church of the Immaculate Conception. The following day, after Requiem Mass, the funeral took place at the Republican Plot in St Finbarr's Cemetery.
Several hours before the death of Murphy in Cork Jail, MacSwiney, after 74 days on hungerstrike, died at 5:40am in Brixton Prison, London. His heroic struggle had ended.
On Wednesday 27 October, an inquest was held in the prison and, that night, MacSwiney's body was delivered to his relatives. The remains were removed to Southwark Cathedral where they were received by Archbishop Mannix. Thousands of people filed past the coffin to pay their last respects. On Thursday morning, after Requiem Mass, thousands of people followed the cortege headed by IRA Volunteers and members of Dail Éireann and Cork Corporation to Euston Station while thousands more lined the route.
From Euston the remains were taken by train to Holyhead. But the British Government, fearing the effects of MacSwiney's body arriving in Dublin and travelling down through the country to his native Cork, seized the body from relatives and transferred it by sea directly to Cork.
The Cork IRA Volunteers were out in force to meet the remains and MacSwiney's body was brought to the City Hall for a lying-in-state, where thousands more filed past to pay their respects. On Sunday, 31 October, after Requiem Mass at the cathedral, the funeral took place to St Finbarr's Cemetery, where MacSwiney was laid to rest in the Republican Plot beside his friend and comrade, Tomás Mac Curtain.
The hunger strike in Cork Jail, however, continued for a further three weeks. At the request of Arthur Griffith, acting President of the Irish Republic, the remaining nine prisoners on hunger strike ended their fast on 12 November 1920 after 94 days without food.
Michael Fitzgerald, Joseph Murphy and Terence MacSwiney died on hunger strike on 17 and 25 October 1920, respectively.