Tooth and Claw
The authorities responded with the controversial strategy of forcible feeding or, as they called it, artificial feeding. Again, they took their lead from developments in Britain. When a hunger striker actively resisted, this process involved restraining her in a padded reclining chair while pumping food into her stomach through a tube inserted either through the mouth or nose. Hoping to avoid some of the inevitable negative publicity, the Irish authorities waited until the expiration of the IWFL strikers’ sentences and released Lizzie Baker, the WSPU striker with the shortest sentence, before forcibly feeding Mary Leigh and Gladys Evans. They fed Leigh for a month and Evans for six weeks, releasing them when medical officials became alarmed about their health. Although 24 more suffragettes would be imprisoned in Ireland, and most would hunger strike, the Irish prison authorities did not forcibly feed suffragettes again. They first pursued a twin strategy of isolating them in a provincial prison, Tullamore, and improved their conditions hoping to prevent or end hunger strikes.
This changed in 1913 when most suffragette prisoners in Ireland were members of the WSPU, which had established a branch in Belfast. These women, and radical members of the Belfast-centred Irish Women’s Suffrage Society (IWSS) who assisted them, were more aggressive and less amenable to compromise. Their offences became more extreme, reflecting the trend in Britain, and included arson, bombing, and destruction of sports grounds. They also went on hunger strike to protest their actual imprisonment rather than their prison status, a further rejection of the law.
By then the authorities had a new weapon, the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act, passed in April 1913, and commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act. This allowed temporary release on condition the hunger striker returned on a specified date to complete her sentence. Suffragettes warned that this would become a form of torture, leading individuals to conduct damaging serial strikes. In Ireland, the authorities rarely insisted on the return of released prisoners, seeking to use the Act to rid themselves of troublesome dissidents. The dissidents, however, consistently re-offended to ensure re-arrest and re-imprisonment, before striking again.
The militant campaign ended with the outbreak of the first World War. It had not by then achieved its goal and it is not clear that it won many converts to suffragism in Ireland. It had, however, drawn attention to the cause and made government’s life difficult. Less frequently commented on was the militants’ success in weakening a key pillar of the state – the prison system became a less effective means of law enforcement because of the concerted protests, while the prisons became places where the law was consistently and publicly undermined. This had a profound influence on later Irish political dissidents.