Following the conviction and sentencing of the London bombers, the eight IRA activists immediately announced they would go on hunger strike in pursuit of a demand to be returned to Northern Ireland to serve out their sentences there.
Within days, four of the prisoners dropped out leaving the Price sisters, Dolours and Marian, and two of the men, Hugh Feeney and Gerry Kelly to pursue the protest.
Not only would transfer to a jail in Northern Ireland bring the four hunger strikers closer to their families and to IRA comrades, but they would then qualify to be treated as special category prisoners, a status close to the classification of ‘political prisoners’. This would mean that they would not have to do prison work, could wear their own clothes and mingle more or less freely with associates.
The contrast to the strict, disciplined life that faced them in an English jail could not have been greater.
In IRA mythology, ‘special category’ status had been won as a result of a hunger strike in 1972 led by two of the organisation’s Belfast leaders; in reality the concession was as much made by the British to encourage the IRA to declare a ceasefire. Nonetheless the belief persisted in the IRA that fasting in protest was the only way to improve prison conditions.
Hunger striking has long been regarded not only as the most Irish of protests but an action uniquely associated with the struggle for Irish independence. The ten deaths during the 1981 IRA hunger strikes in the Maze prison in a bid to restore special category status five years after the British had scrapped it, is widely seen as the exemplar of this type of republican protest.
The truth is very different. Hunger striking by Irish republicans in protest at their jailing or against British rule in Ireland is relatively new and only began in the wake of the Easter Rising of 1916; by contrast Irish republicanism can trace its origins to the United Irishmen’s rebellion of 1798, more than a century earlier.
Some experts believe that the first republicans to embark on a hunger strike were inspired by Irish suffragettes whose use of the tactic in pursuit of voting rights for women was remarkably successful, leading both to early release from jail and the extension of voting rights in 1918.
And the first Irish republican to die on hunger strike, died not of starvation but of injuries caused by forced feeding ordered by prison authorities to mitigate his protest.
Thomas Ashe was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916. A founder member of the Irish Volunteers, the precursors of the IRA, he commanded a Battalion in north Dublin during the Rising. Later he and Eamon de Valera were court-martialed and sentenced to death but then their sentences were commuted. He was later released under general amnesty.
In August 1917, Ashe was charged with sedition for making a pro-republican speech, was sent to Mountjoy jail and along with other republicans embarked on a hunger strike for prisoner-of-war status. He lasted just six days before he died; his inquest heard that while he had a weak heart, his bed and bedding had been removed from his cell, obliging him to sleep on the floor of a cold cell and was then subjected to the insertion of a feeding tube into his stomach by an inexperienced doctor. The British claimed his death was an accident but Ashe’s lawyer said he had been ‘tortured’; the inquest became a contested metaphor for the nature of British rule in Ireland.
A contemporary of Ashe’s, Eamon O’Dwyer later described to the Bureau of Military History what had happened to him during the forced-feeding process, which the British authorities preferred to call ‘artificial-feeding’:
Each man in turn was brought to a large room in which they had the usual operating chair. We were tied into this chair with bands around the legs and arms, a band around the body and also a band around the neck, and into each man’s mouth an instrument was passed to keep it open. The forcible feeding outfit was brought along—a pint of milk with an egg broken into it, the pump and the tubing. The tubing was passed down through the mouth and into the stomach. I never had any fear of hunger striking and that was the first one, but I certainly did not like this pipe being passed down through my throat and I began to have a horror of it. I must admit that I was very much afraid of it, and often in years afterwards I woke up and felt this damn pipe or tube going down my neck like a snake. Every one of the crowd who suffered this vomited terribly. The days passed with this [force-feeding] as the only relief from the monotony of being held in the cell.
Within three weeks of their hunger strike protest the four London bombers were exposed to exactly the same procedure, an ordeal described in graphic terms by Marian Price:
Four male prison officers tie you into the chair so tightly with sheets you can’t struggle. You clench your teeth to try to keep your mouth closed but they push a metal spring device around your jaw to prise it open. They force a wooden clamp with a hole in the middle into your mouth. Then, they insert a big rubber tube down that. They hold your head back. You can’t move. They throw whatever they like into the food mixer; orange juice, soup or cartons of cream if they want to beef up the calories. They take jugs of this gruel from the food mixer and pour it into a funnel attached to the tube. The force-feeding takes fifteen minutes but it feels like forever. You’re in control of nothing. You’re terrified the food will go down the wrong way and you won’t be able to let them know because you can’t speak or move. You’re frightened you’ll choke to death.
It is more than likely that Dolours Price’s psychological difficulties, in particular her PTSD, had their origin in the ordeal described by Eamon O’Dwyer, especially the memory of the feeding tube passing into his stomach like a snake.
British government documents lodged at the official archive at Kew, Surrey record that of the two sisters, Dolours Price suffered most from the forced feeding ordeal:
‘…. the Price sisters’ medical records indicate a large degree of vomiting, mouth abrasions, tooth damage, and fainting attacks. Their doctors insisted that vomiting was a self-induced attempt to rid the stomach of food. One reported that Dolours was particularly prone to vomiting and physical weakness, a problem which he attributed to her erratic mental state (as evidenced by her bouts of weeping and irritability) and her slender build. Despite such justifications, a vivid sense of pain and trauma in the prison medical encounter permeated their reports’. (‘A History of Force Feeding’, By Ian Millar. Palgrave MacMillian, 2016, p 211)
Dolours Price and her sister Marian – along with Hugh Feeney and Gerry Kelly – spent 205 days on hunger strike, 167 of which were punctuated by daily, and sometimes twice daily bouts of forced feeding. Feeney’s and Kelly’s prison protests had attracted only a fraction of the public attention that the Price sisters had enjoyed, no doubt due to their sex.
The two sisters were force fed in the same cell in Brixton jail which held Terrence MacSwiney, the Lord Major of Cork, who died on hunger strike in October 1920.
As time went on the physical condition of the sisters deteriorated and it seemed that forced feeding would not save them from death. A number of public figures intervened, notably Lord Fenner Brockway (who had himself gone on a limited hunger strike when jailed for his pacifism during World War II). In May 1974, British Home Secretary Roy Jenkins announced that forced feeding would end.
It was, however, the death of another republican prisoner, in circumstances eerily similar to Thomas Ashe, that brought the Price sisters’ prison protest to an end. A Co Mayo member of the Official IRA, Michael Gaughan had been convicted of participating in an armed robbery in the capital and he went on hunger strike for political status. He was force fed in the same way as the London bombers.
Two weeks after the forced feeding of the Price sisters had ended, Gaughan died, apparently as a result of intestinal injuries caused by the feeding tube. Gaughan’s death persuaded Jenkins to agree to the transfer of the Price sisters to Armagh jail and Feeney and Kelly to Long Kesh.