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Post Hunger Strikers: MacSwiney, Sands, Navalny
Created by John Eipper on 04/24/21 7:35 AM

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Hunger Strikers: MacSwiney, Sands, Navalny (Patrick Mears, -Germany, 04/24/21 7:35 am)

Here is the link to a recent article in Politico Online that compares and contrasts the hunger strikes of former Lord Mayor of Cork City, Terence MacSwiney (1920, during the Irish War of Independence) and that of Bobby Sands (1981), with the hunger strike of Alexi Navalny, which I see that he has just ended:


The article is fairly straightforward in its analysis and describes MacSwiney's action and the world's reaction to it as follows:

"Hunger strikers have twice played key roles in Irish history. In the Republic of Ireland, the part of the island that gained independence from Britain in 1922, schoolchildren are taught of a martyr called Terence MacSwiney (1879-1920) who died in Brixton Prison in London in October 1920. He had been found guilty of possession of 'seditious materials' and a cipher key and was sentenced to six years in prison. He immediately went on hunger strike. The international attention he drew was immense, for MacSwiney was no ordinary prisoner. He was the Lord Mayor of Cork, the third largest city on the island of Ireland.The French newspaper Le Petit Journal devoted its entire front page to a striking, if imaginary, drawing of an emaciated MacSwiney on his prison bed. Daily bulletins on his condition attracted international attention and, when he died after 74 days without food, there were protests in the form of mock funerals with empty caskets in Boston, Chicago and Melbourne, Australia. The report of his death was the lead story on the front page of the New York Times of October 26, 1920.

"A small anti-colonial struggle in a very small country had become a major world news story. A lesson was learned that the hunger strike, with its daily bulletins of deteriorating health and approaching death, was an unmatched method of gaining national and international attention. In MacSwiney's case it also served as a 'recruiting sergeant' for the Irish Republican Army in its attempt to overthrow British rule in Ireland. Two years later independence was granted to two-thirds of Ireland--a remarkable achievement of a small group of political and military activists against what was then the world's most powerful empire. Irish republicans knew they did not have the power to win a military victory over such a powerful opponent, but they were among the first groups in the world to recognize the power of international publicity. They used it with great power and efficiency, and the hunger strikes played an extremely important role in gathering support for their cause. Nowhere was this support more effective than in the United States, and pressure on London from American politicians and the general public was decisive in persuading Britain to let go of its oldest colony."

Strangely enough, the previous Lord Mayor of Cork, Tomás MacCurtain (1884-1920), was assassinated in Cork by a group of Royal Irish Constabulary members seven months prior to MacSwiney's death on October 25, 1920, in Brixton Prison, Lambeth, London.

In October, 1970, the Irish postal service, An Post, issued a stamp of MacSwiney and one of MacCurtain, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their deaths. Here is a link to images of these postage stamps:


JE comments:  The Politico article touches on the key "strength" of the hunger strike, namely, the powerful imagery of an activist slowly wasting away.  In this sense, the hunger strike would have to be a modern phenomenon, dependent on a vibrant and wide-reaching press.  However, Wikipedia tells us that fasting as a form of protest is an Irish invention, going back to pre-Christian times.  Pat, what can you tell us about the Troscadh

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  • "Troscadh ar Dhuine": Protest Fasting in Ancient Ireland (Patrick Mears, -Germany 04/30/21 5:00 PM)
    In John E's comments on my post about the hunger strike of former Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney (April 24th), he asked for some comhrá about the ancient Irish tradition of troscadh, or more specifically, troscadh ar dhuine, which translated means to fast against someone to obtain a demand or a request.  (1)

    I first came across this concept when writing a treatise titled "Michigan Bankruptcy Law and Practice" in the early 1980s. In doing so, I sought information on Irish bankruptcy laws, and in researching this topic, I was directed to the ancient custom of Irish creditors sitting outside the doors of their debtors to publicly shame them into paying their debts. This custom of troscadh ar dhuine is described by one Irish commentator as providing "the opportunity for the aggrieved person to make his protest close by the offender's home, where the protest would draw attention both to the hunger striker's grievance and to the alleged wrongdoer. Fears of the supernatural retribution and the payment of compensation were enough to encourage offenders to seek an amicable settlement of the hunger strike." (2) This custom was thereafter incorporated into the Irish Brehon Laws, which were rules and regulations governing the behavior of the common people ("land-tillers") and were originally transmitted by oral tradition. See generally, Jo Kerrigan, Brehon Laws: The Ancient Wisdom of Ireland, O'Brien Press, Ltd., Dublin (2004).

    This custom was thereafter revived by Irish hunger strikers protesting against British rule in the second decade of the Twentieth Century, which development had been aided by a combination of the Gaelic Revival of the late-Nineteenth and early-Twentieth Centuries, which popular movement transmitted knowledge of Irish history, literature and societal laws and traditions to the public in Ireland. According to Sweeney, via the Gaelic Revival "cultural traditions, mythology, legends and the folk hero were given a renewed place of importance by poets and playwrights." Specifically, the sacrificial themes expounded in the legends of the mythological hero Cuchulain rekindled interest in national self-sacrifice." Sweeney posits that the Irish republican leader, Pádraig Pearse (1879-1916), was the "foremost interpreter of this sacrificial motif," which he offered as a redemptive means by which the Irish nation could abandon its apostasy, viz., its acceptance of British rule. Thus, Pearse used the Easter Rising of 1916 as a "deliberate act of blood sacrifice; a redemptive reenactment of Calvary that would sanctify not only the infliction of death upon others but also the suffering of it by faithful Catholic nationalists. Militarily the insurrection was doomed from the start, but as a redemptive act, the bloody protest triumphed." Thus, per Sweeney, "the tradition of hunger-striking in Ireland emerged as an extraordinary weapon of political confrontation. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the hunger strike became an essential ingredient of both the cult of self-sacrifice and militant republicanism."

    Between 1913 and 1922, approximately 1000 Irish political prisoners participated in hunger strikes, and during 1923, 8000 Irish republican prisoners followed suit. These latter strikers, being opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, directed their efforts against the Irish Free State during the Irish Civil War. A number of these prisoners died on account of these actions during this period, including the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney in 1920, as discussed in my earlier post. For details on these other hunger strikes during this period, see https://www.anphoblacht.com/contents/27784 ; https://www.theirishstory.com/2020/04/13/the-hunger-strike-and-general-strike-of-1920/#.YIUrWC0RpKN ; and https://www.prio.org/Global/upload/CSCW/Violence%20in%20civil%20war/Irish%20hunger%20strikes%20(US).pdf .

    It is difficult to gauge what impact these hunger strikes and deaths had upon Irish and world public opinion back then, especially since the Irish War of Independence took place against the backdrop of the Versailles Treaty negotiations. However, there appears to have been significant American public support for Irish independence during this time, as evidenced, in part, by the large crowds attracted by Eamon de Valera during his barnstorming tour of the United States from June, 1919 to December, 1920. During de Valera's transcontinental travels, large, sympathetic crowds gathered for his rallies that were held in all regions of the United States from New York City and Boston to Portland, Oregon and Butte, Montana. This visit also resulted in the purchase of Irish "state" bonds by Americans in the amount of $5,123,640. See generally David Hannigan, De Valera in America: The Rebel President and the Making of Irish Independence, Palgrave MacMillan, New York (2010) for a recounting of de Valera's tour and its background.

    Overlapping somewhat with de Valera's American visit was the organization and operation of the American Committee for Relief in Ireland and the Irish White Cross, which committee was formed in 1920 for the stated purpose of devising and considering "ways and means of relieving the acute distress due to the recent (1920) occurrences in that country." This report also affirmed that the Committee's activities would be "purely non-political, non-sectarian, and solely humanitarian." The Report bears at its beginning the formal endorsements of President Warren Harding and Vice-President Calvin Coolidge. The members of the Committee's National Council reads like a "Who's Who" of 1922, and includes Bernard M. Baruch, Josephus Daniels, Charles G. Dawes, Henry Morgenthau, William McAdoo, Jane Addams, and Alfred E. Smith. Two Michiganders were also members of the National Council: Governor Alexander Groesbeck and Judge Michael J. Doyle of Menominee in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. As of August 17, 1922, the Committee had collected $5,223,496 and had disbursed $5,185,692, leaving a balance on hand of $37,804. Many states experienced difficulties in making their projected collections. Michigan, for one, pledged collections of $350,000, but realized only $110,174, for a result of 31%. The five boroughs of New York City, however, pledged $1 million in collections and realized $952,381. This Report may be accessed via this link: https://archive.org/details/irelandcommitt00amerrich/mode/2up .


    1.  Niall Ó Dónaill, ed., Foclóir Gaeilige-Béarla, p. 1276,  Richview Browne & Nolan, Ltd., Baile Átha Cliath, Èire (1977). 

    2.  George Sweeney, "Self-Immolative Martyrdom: Explaining the Irish Hungerstrike Tradition,” 93 Irish Quarterly Review, pp. 337-348, Messenger Publications (2004) (available on Jstor).

    JE comments:  Pat, another fine piece of historical scholarship, even if you've "outed" us Michiganders as deadbeats. 

    I had always been curious about Irish patriarch Eamon de Valera's surname, and as I suspected, his father was a Spaniard (from the Basque Country).  Some De Valera questions:  He was born in New York City, but after his father's death when the boy was just two, he was taken to Ireland by his maternal uncle.  He still held US citizenship in 1916, which according to some sources saved him from execution alongside the other leaders of the Easter Rising.  Pat, did De Valera eventually renounce his US citizenship?  Also (this one's for Eugenio Battaglia), what can you tell us about De Valera's admiration for Mussolini, whom he considered a model for constructing the new Irish State?

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    • Eamon de Valera's Admiration for Mussolini (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 05/03/21 4:19 AM)
      John E asked about Irish patriarch Eamon de Valera's admiration for Mussolini.

      Mussolini said the following about Fascism:

      1) I did not create Fascism. I took it from the unconscious of the Italians.

      2) Fascism is an Italian phenomenon, exquisitely Italian, intimately connected with our history, psychology, traditions, and represents the culmination of a long and complicated political evolution. Without a sound knowledge of said evolution, without notes at the bottom of this great book, no correct analysis is possible. (3 August 1926)

      In spite of the above, Italian Fascism spread all over the world.  Practically every nation from the Americas to Europe, Africa, and Asia, including the Arab world, had their Fascist or para-Fascist groups and many Heads of State were inspired by some Fascist positive actions, including of course Eamon de Valera.

      I have already mentioned in past WAIS posts that according to some historians the New Deal of FDR was inspired by the Fascist social program.

      There are at least a couple of books treating this subject: Fascismi nel Mondo by Sergio Pessot and I Fascismi Sconosciuti by Maurice Bardeche.

      In Ireland, the best-known organization inspired by Fascism was the Blueshirts of General Eoin O'Duffy.

      O'Duffy in December 1934 participated in the International Fascist Conference at Montreux with representatives from Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Netherlands, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and Lithuania. During the Spanish Civil War 700 Blueshirts participated in the "Cruzada" against the "Rojos."

      The curse of Mussolini and of Italian Fascism came from their greatest admirer, Hitler. The German leader practically worshiped Mussolini and copied from him some exterior rituals and social reforms but his Nazi main postulates were quite different from Mussolini's. Regarding the Jewish question, Hitler wanted to get rid of the Jews, while Mussolini even stated that among the Jews he had his best and most trustworthy friends.

      The temporary alliance of Fascist Italy with Nazi Germany practically destroyed in most of the worldwide public opinion all the good that Mussolini and Fascism had and could have achieved.

      JE comments:  WAIS has explored nearly every aspect of the Spanish Civil War, but I never knew of the Irish Blueshirts on Franco's side.  (It would be instructive to assemble a list of all the colored "shirt" movements of the early-mid 20th century--blue, brown, black, green.  What, no pink?)

      Channeling Mussolini here, Eugenio Battaglia raises an issue I'd like to explore further:  can political systems ever be "organic," as in naturally suited to a particular culture?  Is there any truth to this, or is it a mere rhetorical device?

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