One hundred years ago: The first IRA prisoner dies on hunger strike

Michael Fitzgerald preceded the death of Cork mayor Terence MacSwiney by eight days

A memorial to the memory of  Michael Fitzgerald was eventually erected in Fermoy town centre.

A memorial to the memory of Michael Fitzgerald was eventually erected in Fermoy town centre.

 

One hundred years ago today, Michael Fitzgerald, a high-ranking IRA officer, became the first republican to die on hunger strike during the Irish War of Independence.

While greatly eclipsed in historical and republican memory by the lord mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney who died a week later, Fitzgerald was still fondly remembered by his contemporaries and within his own community.

One such individual was his old comrade in the Cork IRA, Liam Lynch. At the outset of the Civil War, in which he led the anti-Treaty IRA as its chief of staff, a mortally wounded Lynch requested of his Free State captors, “… when I die tell my people I want to be buried with Fitzgerald of Fermoy… The greatest friend I ever had on this Earth”.

Born to a large brood in his native Ballyoran, north Cork, in December 1881, Fitzgerald grew up in an area affected by land agitation and personally sought out tales of the 1867 Fenian Rising from locals.

Settling in the village of Clondulane as a mill worker, Fitzgerald was heavily involved in the local GAA and Gaelic League in the surrounding area, and was centrally involved in the centenary of the 1798 rebellion in Fermoy.

On 1917, radicalised by the events of Easter Week, Fitzgerald joined the Fermoy company of the newly revitalised Irish Volunteers as their quartermaster. On January 6th, 1919, at the outset of the War of Independence, Fitzgerald became officer commanding of the Fermoy battalion of Cork No 2 Brigade, otherwise known as the North Cork Brigade.

Arms as always remained a high priority. On Easter Sunday, April 20th 1919, Fitzgerald took charge of members of the Araglen company who engaged in an arms raid on the Araglen RIC Barracks.

Rifles

The sole policeman on duty was held unharmed until the departure of the volunteers following the raiding of the barracks. This raid added to the battalion’s arsenal a further six rifles, a Webley revolver and a considerable amount of ammunition.

Early in June 1919, Fitzgerald was arrested at his place of employment, the flour mills in Clondulane. His arrest was the result of raids and searches by both army and police in the area following the raid at Araglen barracks. A further raid on the house where Fitzgerald stayed revealed a quantity of ammunition.

Being held in 24 hour solitary confinement in Cork Jail – a fate shared by other republican prisoners at the time – took its psychological toll on the genial Fitzgerald, who was released towards the end of August.

On September 7th, 1919, Liam Lynch led members of the Cork No 2 Brigade in what because known as the Fermoy ambush; an attempt by the volunteers to seize arms belonging to members of the locally based South Shropshire regiment as they made their way to a local church.

As part of the operation, Fitzgerald was in one of the cars that collected the seized arms. The successful ambush in Fermoy saw the death of Private William Jones, a member of the South Shropshire regiment.

Fitzgerald returned to his residence on Clondulane that evening, where he was arrested by soldiers and police in the early hours of the following morning. Fitzgerald, along with four others, was confined to cells in the local RIC barracks.

Following the inquest into Private Jones’ death the following morning in which the verdict was determined by the jury to be unpremeditated, around 200 members of Jones’ regiment attacked business premises and residences in Fermoy that night.

From September, men arrested for their part in the ambush, including Fitzgerald, were remanded at weekly intervals and often paraded for identification purposes, in a convoluted legal process that continued until the following April when he was finally charged with the murder of Private Jones.

Cork Jail

At a court sitting in Derry that July, though others were acquitted, Fitzgerald and two others were deemed to be responsible for the killing of Jones and remanded again to Cork Jail.

On August 11th, Fitzgerald, along with ten others (and a day later joined by MacSwiney, subsequently deported to Brixton Prison), began a hunger strike in protest at the republicans’ continued imprisonment.

Hunger strike had been used as another tool in republicans’ battle with the British authorities at both Mountjoy Jail and Wormwood Scrubs prisons the previous April, but nobody had died.

Fitzgerald, leading the strike, was soon to find the British authorities were determined not to concede on this occasion. By the beginning of the hunger strike, Fitzgerald had been eleven months in custody.

One week into his strike, Fitzgerald told a visiting friend: “This strike is a fight to the finish. We shall continue to refuse food until our demands are met otherwise we’ll never leave this place alive.”

By September 22nd, Fitzgerald was emaciated and his body badly wasted. On September 30th, he took a turn for the worse due to the severe ulceration of his stomach. For several days, he could not keep down water.

A weakened Fitzgerald at this time said to a relative: “I have no complaint to make. They have offered me medical assistance which I refused. I am sorry to be such a cause of pain and anxiety to my relatives and friends. I am looking forward to death as a release from this suffering. I beg God for mercy and for strength to sustain me in this struggle.”

One frequent visitor to Fitzgerald in the prison was his fiancée Ciss Condon. Friends of Fitzgerald attempted to arrange for the couple to be married in the prison, Fitzgerald even securing a wedding ring which he kept under his pillow.

However, the authorities got wind of this attempt, and threatened that if the wedding were to take place, all further visits to the striking prisoners would be halted. Not wanting to deprive the other prisoners of this privilege, Fitzgerald and Condon agreed to not proceed with the marriage.

Sight and hearing

By October 10th, Fitzgerald was unable to take a drink of water, and his sight and hearing began to fade. Over the next few days he was in a semi-conscious state and on the 15th lapsed into unconsciousness.

On the morning of October 17th, the 67th day of his hunger strike, Michael Fitzgerald died surrounded by priests and nuns reciting the rosary, joined by crowds gathered outside the prison.

Fitzgerald was 38-years-old. His comrade in Cork Jail, Joseph Murphy, would follow on October 25th, along with MacSwiney in Britxon on the same date.

On the evening of October 18th, Fitzgerald was taken from the jail to St Peter and Paul’s church in Cork city. During the following morning mass, the ceremony was briefly interrupted by a contingent of British soldiers, their officer telling the officiating priest only a hundred mourners could follow the coffin on departure, and not in military formation.

From Cork City, Fitzgerald’s coffin was taken to Fermoy for a funeral service in St Patrick’s Church. Arrangements were made for Liam Lynch, then on the run, to pay his respects on the night prior to the burial.

Contemporary news reports in October 1920 refer to an impressive crowd in the town to see off Fitzgerald who was buried in what became the Republican plot in the local Kilkrumper cemetery.

After the dispersal of the crowd, a firing party of the Fermoy Battalion fired three volleys over Fitzgerald’s grave as a tribute to their late commanding officer.

Fitzgerald’s memory remained cherished by his comrades in the Cork IRA and a memorial to his memory eventually erected in Fermoy town centre. Of note, by April 1923, at the latter’s request, Fitzgerald was to be joined in the Republican Plot with the remains of his onetime comrade-in-arms, Liam Lynch.

Gerard Shannon is a historian who resides in Skerries, Co Dublin. He is currently developing a biography of IRA chief-of-staff Liam Lynch to see publication by Merrion Press in 2022.