Clare was the very centre of Irish republicanism in 1917. Following the death of East Clare MP, Willie Redmond, at the Battle of Messines in June of that year, the famous 1917 by-election saw Éamon de Valera sweep to power in East Clare.
This election, described as ‘the most important election that has ever taken place’ by one official in Dublin Castle – was the beginning of the growth of a new republican confidence.
From the moment DeValera appeared on the steps of Ennis Courthouse after the vote, flanked on either side by Countess Markievicz and Arthur Griffith, republican activity in Clare went into overdrive.
This activity led to a predictable crackdown by the British authorities – a crackdown which saw 19 Clare men imprisoned on a variety of charges.
These men played a critical role in the 1917 hunger strikes – one of the least known but most important precursors to the War of Independence.
“A lot of people just don’t know about these hunger strikers or the role that they played in helping to gain independence. In September of 1917, 19 Clare men went on hunger strike and again in late October 1917,” says Mary Crawford.
The authorities began to force feed the prisoners. That didn’t look well for the British authorities either, so a deal was negotiated between the authorities and the hunger strikers that prisoner would call off the hunger strikes in exchange for a change in their status when they were moved to Dundalk Gaol.
“These men had been imprisoned for conduct against the realm. You must remember World War I was underway at this time and tensions were very high. There had been a bit of a lull [in republican activity] after the Rising and the East Clare by-election in July of 1917 saw a massive increase in republican activity in Clare.
“The British government was afraid that any form of open [military] drilling would be difficult to manage, so any activity like that was handle harshly. So a lot of people were arrested in Clare.
“From what we can tell they were initially brought to Cork for a court hearing and they were transferred to Mountjoy – where there were other people incarcerated for the same type of activity. You had Clare people but there was others as well, people like Thomas Ashe, Austin Stack, Sean Tracey.”
After a time in Mountjoy prison the republican prisoners decided to go on hunger strike in a bid to be granted status as political prisoners. This is perhaps the first recorded time that hunger strikes was used as a political weapon in modern world history.
“They wanted to be recognised as political prisoners, not ordinary criminals. But of course that was refused. So they decided that they had no choice but to go on hunger strike,” continues Mary.
“The authorities began to force feed the prisoners. That didn’t look well for the British authorities either, so a deal was negotiated between the authorities and the hunger strikers that prisoner would call off the hunger strikes in exchange for a change in their status when they were moved to Dundalk Gaol.
“At that stage all of the prisoners had been force-fed and a number had been hospitalised as a result of the force feeding. Thomas Ashe, or course, had been hospitalised and died of pneumonia, which was undoubtably a result of the force feeding. At that time Jimmy Griffey from Ennis was also hospitalised in the Matter Hospital.
“The hunger strike was called off, they were granted political prisoners status and they were transferred to Dundalk. Once they got to Dundalk they were back in the same situation – they were treated as ordinary criminals. So they started the hunger strike again.
“This was an issue again for the authorities so they again granted status and then they were release, with the last prisoner being released on November 17. They were released under ill-health legislation, which was known as the cat and mouse act. This basically allowed them to re-arrest prisoners once they had regained their health. There was every danger that they could be rearrested at any time.”
The hunger strikes helped prompt a new wave of republican support right across Ireland.
“You had the Rising, but after the Rising, with war underway, there was a lull in activity. The hunger strikes were the next important phase in this process,” continues Mary.
“There is no doubt that the death of Thomas Ashe brought a massive amount of support. When you have these tragedies they naturally lead to a lot of support.”
Over the past year Mary and a committed group from the Mid-Clare Brigade Commemoration Committee have pieced together the history of the 19 Clare men who took part in the hunger strikes. This work included tracking down the descendants of each of the men – some of whom were not even aware of their relative’s actions.
“Nothing really seems have been done about these men so we are really happy to research them. We had the names of all the Clare men from a photograph with DeValera, but not much more,” continues Mary.
“Some of the families we were able to find straight away, but then there were other that we could not find. It was a big job to find them all but we did it. I spoke to a women in Sydney whose grandfather was involved.
“Many of them have family in Clare and many of them still have immediate family alive, their sons or daughters. We’ve had a great response from the relative, they are overjoyed that something is being done.
“The woman I spoke with in Australia was so overcome by the whole think. I guess it is more important somehow for those who are living away from the country. She didn’t know that her grandfather had been on hunger strike. She knew that her grandfather always had trouble with his stomach and he died relatively young.
“Many of them died young and many of them had lifelong illnesses as a result of the hunger strikes and force feeding.”
The Mid-Clare Brigade Commemoration Committee will host a commemoration in Ennis on Sunday, November 19. This event will include a mass by Fr Brendan Quinlivan, an ancestor of one of the hunger strikers, the unveiling of a commemorative monument by Mike McTigue and a reception at the Woodstock Hotel including talks by Mary Crawford, Tomas Mac Conmara and Pat Kirby.
For tickets or more information contact (065) 7084311 or call (087) 9319232 or email [email protected]