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Breaking Their Will

Luke Gibbons

The text that follows is a slightly edited version of a talk given at “Terence MacSwiney, Cork Men’s Gaol, and the Political Hunger Strike, 1920-2020”, an online conference held by University College Cork from October 8th to 10th this year.

The hunger strike is a distinctively modern form of protest, a twentieth century weapon of the weak. Though in the Irish case it was traced to Brehon law in Gaelic antiquity, this provenance was filtered through WB Yeats’s 1904 play The King’s Threshold, which dealt with the protracted fast of the poet Seanchan at the door of King Guaire’s castle in Kinvara, because he had been deprived of the honour of sitting at high table. It is of note that honour is at stake, for in laying claim to dignity and esteem, servitude and lack of respect are being called into question.

In a modern setting, liberty and equality become central concerns but questions of recognition, will, and self-worth are still in the background. This became clear when the suffrage artist Marion Wallace Dunlop first adopted the hunger strike in Holloway prison in 1909, demanding the status of a political prisoner. As the means of protest spread, suffragette prisoners followed suit in Ireland in 1912, most notably Hannah Sheehy Skeffington. Margaret Cousins, and, following another round of hunger strikes in 1913, James Connolly, imprisoned during the lock-out, embarked on a hunger-strike in Mountjoy jail, supported by the suffragette movement. Francis Sheehy Skeffington also went on strike when imprisoned for anti-war recruitment activities in 1915, but the first major strike by Republican prisoners took place in 1917, leading to the death through force-feeding of Thomas Ashe. The physical violation of the body in force-feeding, introduced against suffragettes, highlighted issues of domination, servitude, and the desire to humiliate: “Infinitely worse than the pain,” wrote Sylvia Pankhurst, “was the sense of degradation.” It is in this manner, as Margaret Cousins pointed out while on hunger strike, that honour motivated self-sacrifice and not just the Catholic messianism often seen as the sole motivation for suffering:

We were fighting for our own personal honour, for the continuance of political treatment for all future reformers who might like ourselves break the law in order to amend the law, and for sex equality in political treatment as in everything else. Our weapons were determination, the power of mind over matter, faith in the victory of right, and sacrifice of our appetites, and if need be our bodies, rather than wrong should prevail.

The concerted attempt by the authorities to break the will of the prisoner, to subjugate, was the point of force-feeding: the government had not been so eager to fill mouths with food during the Great Famine.

The use of the body as a visceral, expressive medium in protest prefigures innovations in modernist theatre associated with Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty”, and there is a certain irony that the Irish diplomat in Paris who authorised Artaud’s ill-fated visit to Ireland in 1937, Art Ó Briain, was also the Sinn Féin organiser in London who organised MacSwiney’s funeral in Britain. It is not surprising the international press picked up on the aspect of staging during Terence MacSwiney’s hunger strike: “Call it folly, call it madness, there it is just the same,” wrote the New York Central News, “ – a gesture of deep tragedy on a stage where all the world looks on.” The theatrical aspect of the hunger strike fuses what Walter Benjamin terms “aura”, the numinous quality of persons or objects hidden from view, with the contrasting power of spectacle, the impact of exhibition-value in modern society. Aura is the basis of resistance to vision in iconoclasm which contends that making a graven image, exposing a sacred object to view, robs it of its power. For Benjamin, aura and spectacle are utterly opposed, yet the hunger strike draws on key aspects of both. No one is more isolated or hidden from view than the hunger striker, yet, as in the case of MacSwiney and more recently, Bobby Sands, no one was more likely to find themselves making headlines, depicted on the cinema screen or, in MacSwiney’s case, elevated to the secular heroism of history-painting. Hence the embalming darkness of Sir John Lavery’s depiction of the memorial service in St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, for MacSwiney’s funeral, broken by a visionary gleam from a high window illuminating the tricolour around the coffin. MacSwiney’s languishing body was re-imagined for the front cover of the French illustrated weekly Le Petit Journal, the inner sanctum, complete with chaplain, Fr Dominic, being placed on full display. The extensive newsreel coverage of the funeral by Pathe, Gaumont and others, is consistent with this. “Yesterday he was unknown outside Ireland,” Madrid’s El Sol wrote in a report on MacSwiney, “Today the whole world is familiar with his name.” The case of Bobby Sands is also illustrative: the extraordinary scene in Steve McQueen’s film Hunger in which the previously hostile prison orderly handles Sands’s dead body with reverence, echoes the scenes caught on contemporary newsreels of British army officers saluting Terence MacSwiney’s funeral as it passes by.

Though it took place in a world far removed from the literary avant-garde, the death of MacSwiney touched a nerve in modernist sensibilities, as befits, perhaps, an experience at the limits of human endurance. One of the more unlikely figures to be moved by MacSwiney’s death was Marcel Proust, who brushed aside a query by a visitor about Le Cóté de Guermantes (Guermantes Way), the latest volume in his masterwork, with the suggestion they might speak instead “about the Lord Mayor of Cork, that will be more interesting”. As MacSwiney’s funeral wound its way through London, Virginia Woolf also took stock, writing in her diary that

it’s life itself, I think sometimes, for us in our generation [that is] so tragic – no newspaper placard without its shriek of agony from someone. McSwiney (sic) this afternoon and violence in Ireland; or it’ll be the strike. Unhappiness is everywhere; just beyond the door; or stupidity, which is worse.

She considers that getting back to her work might be restorative, except for these forces: “To write Jacob’s Room again will revive my fibres … If it weren’t for my feeling that it’s a strip of pavement over an abyss.”

The idea that hunger-striking elicits a need to pave over the abyss, that the ground may open up under one’s feet, also ran also through Wyndham Lewis’s mind as the MacSwiney funeral turned his thoughts towards Ireland. Lewis used the occasion in The Lion and the Fox (1927) to raise questions over Irish claims to political independence given that, as far as he could see, there were no obvious visible differences between Irish and English people watching the cortege as it moved through London:

During the martyrdom of the Lord Mayor of Cork I had several opportunities of seeing considerable numbers of irish people [Lewis refused to capitalise adjectives referring to nationality] demonstrating among the London crowds. I was never able to distinguish which were irish and which were english, however. They looked to me exactly the same. With the best will in the world to discriminate the orderly groups of demonstrators from the orderly groups of spectators, and to satisfy the romantic proprieties on such an occasion, my eyes refused to effect the necessary separation, that the principle of ‘celtism’ demanded, into chalk and cheese. I should have supposed that they were a lot of romantic english-people pretending to be irish people, and demonstrating with the assistance of a few priests and pipers, if it had not been that they all looked extremely depressed, and english-people when they are giving romance the rein are always very elated.

There is a mote in Lewis’s eye regarding the physiognomy of politics as the London Times, for one, had no difficulty picking out “a variety of Irish types”. The perception of homogeneity in the crowd suggests, as the Times went on to note, a desire for “aloofness from all political feeling”, but if the funeral transcended politics, why was the cortege prohibited from landing in, and passing through, Dublin? That it elicited respect from a general public in Britain does not rule out different affective responses in Ireland; “mass” spectacle was not in fact addressing an undifferentiated audience but highly specific political constituencies.

Lewis may have been indifferent to the impact of MacSwiney’s death but it devastated Irish public opinion to the extent that even James Joyce was forced to break his silence on the War of Independence, penning a scurrilous squib against the English authorities. The Cork MacSwineys were relations of the Joyce family though their connection with “my cousin” (as Joyce called him) Peter Paul MacSwiney, twice lord mayor of Dublin and benefactor of Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus. In response to the death of MacSwiney, Joyce composed “The Right Heart in the Wrong Place” in October 1920, which he sent on a postcard to his brother Stanislaus. The lines are notable for their acuity as much as their petulance, given that the spite is also directed at a British official, Sir Horace Rumbold, who had made life difficult for Joyce in Zurich:

The Right Heart in the Wrong Place
Of spinach and gammon
Bull’s full to the crupper
White lice and black famine
Are the Mayor of Cork’s supper
But the pride of old Ireland.
Must be damnably humbled
If a Joyce is found cleaning
The boots of a Rumbold.

Joyce considers MacSwiney’s death through starvation in terms of England’s larder being full at the expense of Famine in Ireland, but it is also related to a refusal, on the part of both MacSwiney and Joyce, to collude in one’s own humiliation. The refusal to yield to pressure also linked Joyce to MacSwiney in Ezra Pound’s eyes, who noted in late October 1920 Joyce’s unwillingness to accede to prudent edits following the suppression of Ulysses chapters in the magazine The Little Review: “I think Joyce has the same mania for martyrdom that Pierce (sic) had, that MacSwiney had, it is the Christian attitude, they want to drive an idea into people by getting crucified … I think Joyce has got this quirk for being the noble victim.”

Yeats famously waited to publish his poem “Easter, 1916” until October 23rd, 1920, two days before MacSwiney’s death, and the poem was placed in the same issue of the New Statesman that voiced strong criticisms of Britain’s conduct in the Anglo-Irish war. Yeats’s play The King’s Threshold (1904), as noted above, was the first Irish literary work to bring hunger-striking (though not termed as such) to wider public attention, but in the shadow of MacSwiney’s grim protest, Yeats changed the ending of the play: instead of surviving as in the earlier version, the bard Seanchan dies second time around as, in Yeats’s words to Lennox Robinson, “the mayor of Cork may make it tragically appropriate”.

The prospect of language disintegrating under the stress of hunger is evident in Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies (1951), as soup, starvation, and pots “not seem[ing] to be mine” call up memories of the Great Famine: “To think I shall perhaps die of hunger, after all, of starvation rather, after having struggled successfully all my life against that menace.” Later, when Malone imagines a young girl that might “bring me soup” or “when they got to know she was with me they would bring soup for two”, his thoughts turn to how long a body can withstand hunger:

That reminds me, how long can one fast with impunity? The Lord Mayor of Cork lasted for ages, but he was young and then he had political convictions, human ones too probably, just plain human convictions, And he allowed himself a sip of water from time to time, sweetened probably. Water, for pity’s sake. How is it I’m not thirsty? There must be drinking going on inside me, my secretions.

The idea that principled positions – “political convictions, human ones too probably” – prolonged the life of MacSwiney, reinstates the connection with history as the last barrier against despair, if not death, as does the subsequent colloquial turn in diction, reverting to cliché and Hiberno-English: “What shall I die of, in the end? A transport of blood to the brain? That would be the last straw. The pain is almost unbearable, upon my soul it is.” The un-Beckett like interjection “upon my soul it is”, a direct translation of the Irish “Ar m’anam”, brings Beckett back to Irish, even stage-Irish, idioms, at the very moment he questions Irishness. (He may have been reminded of the phrase in Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman, which he had seen with his friend Geoffrey Thompson, but it is still notable that under duress standard English in Beckett’s prose breaks down into the degraded “language of the tribe”.)

Another component of the hunger strike links it to modernism: the gap between the “sign” and “the real” is closed, just as real life in the form of collage, found-objects, and ready-mades invaded the symbolic world of modernist art, made its way into Ulysses and, indeed, rewrote the ending of Yeats’ play The King’s Threshold. Though symbolic and performative, hunger-striking does not only stage suffering but involves real pain, testing human experience to the utmost. If the body as medium dematerialises and wastes away, the consequence is extreme pain and weakness. But paradoxically, in the battle of wills, subjugation is overcome by not caving in, which itself amounts to a cruel victory. The hour of utter isolation is also an assertion of solidarity and collective purpose: the hunger strike in Brixton began as a group protest in Cork Jail that led to the death of two other Volunteers, Michael Fitzgerald and Joseph Murphy.

The modernist turn in prison protest can be seen in the stylistic experiments of the first sustained account of a hunger-strike, Frank Gallagher’s Days of Fear, written in a telegraphic style of montage and interior monologue during the mass hunger strike in Mountjoy, April, 1920, but not published, on account of the difficulty of its style, until 1928. In the diary, the train of thought is close to delirium at times and, and just as Molly Bloom in Ulysses hears church bells from nearby Hardwicke Place – “wait theres Georges church bells wait 3 quarters the hour wait 2 oclock well thats a nice hour of the night for him to be coming home at” (Ulysses 18.1231-3) – the reverie of the half-dozing prisoner in Mountjoy is invaded by external sounds, imagined or otherwise:

The clocks again, thank God! … One … Two … Three … Fo … Fo… Ah! I missed it … But there’s the Rathmines Town Hall … How long after the chime it strikes! … Ah! … One … Two … Three … Fo … F … Three O’Clock! … Oh, God … God. I will take all the suffering of a generation on me tomorrow if I sleep now …
Perhaps by thinking of drowsy things … bees … sunlight … tall soft grass […] they are only a shadow … a … shadow … softly … deepening … a shad … ow … a
‘Friend.’ […]
Wonder how the others are. What if some of them be already dead? Am I responsible? Men joined the strike voluntarily …

Vagaries of time and place are a recurrent theme, and psychic drift is frequently arrested by a sudden intrusion from the outside world, bringing the mind back to its brutal physical surroundings. The jarring modernist idioms of the diary raise the question of whether, having possibly gained access to Ulysses in the meantime, the amputated phrasing and stream of consciousness technique in Gallagher’s journal had acquired a new legitimacy in the intervening years.

The wider issue though is the extent to which the fragmentation of modernist writing may be seen as a direct response to, or even a symptom of, fractures in human experience that culminated in the Great War; or whether, by contrast, modernism is a distinctive aesthetic movement diffused through the avant-garde, whether by Proust, Joyce, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf or others. Certainly, in Gallagher’s case, the language comes across, like hunger-striking itself, as a reflex of the real world with no evident awareness of the breakthroughs in style that were being conducted by his countryman Joyce in Paris, or writers elsewhere. This is not to say there is no connection between them but the opposite: at a more extended experimental level, Joyce’s Ulysses can be seen itself as response to the changes that convulsed Ireland during the time of its writing, an epic rejoinder to the nightmare of Irish history. Gallagher’s is a response to one event; Joyce addresses, in TS Eliot’s famous words, the whole “panorama of futility” in the imperial conflict of the Great War, against which the Easter Rising, and the death on hunger strike of his distant cousin, Terence MacSwiney, struck such defiant notes of dissent.


Luke Gibbons has taught as professor of Irish Studies at Maynooth University and the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Joyce’s Ghosts: Ireland, Memory, and Modernity (2015).



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