The long history of the Irish hunger strike

New exhibition in Kilmainham Gaol tells the story from Thomas Ashe to Bobby Sands

On Friday, the official State commemoration of the centenary of the death of Thomas Ashe takes place in Glasnevin cemetery.

Ashe, the Easter Rising leader who had his execution commuted by the British government in 1916, died while on hunger strike on September 25th, 1917. He was the first Irish republican prisoner to die on hunger strike, but would not be the last. Today, minister of state Kevin "Boxer" Moran will open a new exhibition in Kilmainham Gaol, charting the history of the hunger strike in Irish political culture.

His funeral was a huge event and his political martyrdom marked a significant turning point in the radicalisation of Irish nationalist opinion in the period between the Rising and the 1918 general election. Three years later, the death of lord mayor of Cork Terence McSwiney would send ripples around the world.

During the second World War, interned IRA members would die on hunger strike, and the tactic was used again during the 1970s, culminating in the deaths of 10 men in Long Kesh prison in 1981.



MacSwiney endured 74 days without eating. In 1981, some prisoners in Long Kesh lasted for over 70 days. Symptoms of starvation included severe weight loss, hallucinations, delusions, impaired vision, limited ability to speak, headaches, stomach pains, exhaustion and scurvy.

Ashe, however, did not die of hunger; his inquest found a “botched” force-feeding was responsible for his death. The history of force-feeding is also explored, which includes copies of letters between doctors discussing their uncertainty about force-feeding feminist and activist Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington in 1913.

According to Niall Bergin of Kilmainham Gaol Museum, the medical ethics and science of the issue have often been overlooked.

“The medical people faced a conundrum,” he says. “Their responsibility was to not let a prisoner who was technically under their care die. But a lot of the medical people get a bad press because there’s a focus on the Ashe botched force feeding in the Mater hospital. Obviously, it does look inhumane.”

In the 1970s, controversy over the force feeding of sisters Dolours and Marion Price led to a revised ethical approach. "Interestingly the World Health Organisation then declares that force feeding is unethical," says Bergin. "That wasn't accidental, there was a lot of attention on the Price sisters worldwide. It was made illegal in 1975 but we do know there were other incidents around the world after that. So this exhibition is looking at all of that from those different angles, including the medical one."

Protest at conditions

Although stories of people deliberately starving themselves run deep in several cultures, the history of the modern hunger strike starts in the late 19th century, when non-political inmates began to use it as a way to protest at conditions in prisons. The first political movement to deploy the tactic was the suffragettes in their campaign for the right to vote in the early 20th century, before it was picked up by revolutionary Irish republicans like Ashe and McSwiney.

The exhibition goes on to explore less-known stories, including women such as May Zambra and Hannah Moynihan who went on hunger strike in Kilmainham Gaol during the Civil War.

The IRA internees who died in the 1940s have been nearly entirely forgotten, says Bergin. “The government of the day didn’t intervene in any of those cases. Not very many people would be conscious of that, and also of the consistent history running through the decades up to the 10 men who died in Long Kesh.”

Hugh Linehan

Hugh Linehan

Hugh Linehan is Arts and Culture Editor. He also presents the weekly Inside Politics podcast