Simon Donnelly, Frank Teeling and Ernie O’Malley escaped from Kilmainham Gaol on 14 February 1921, a story that is available on this site here.
(Above) Simon Donnelly at the gate through which the escapees left Kilmainham Gaol (Kilmainham Gaol Archives)
Donnelly had only been in the prison for 4 days, and at the time it was rumoured he was actually sent to the Gaol in order to engineer the escape of Frank Teeling (who was under sentence of death) and of O'Malley.
Ernie O’Malley was incarcerated under the name Bernard Stewart, and though that name meant nothing to the authorities, O’Malley was such an important IRA organiser that Michael Collins wanted him out before his true identity was discovered
Donnelly and O'Malley continued to fight in the War of Independence, and both took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War ... and both were back in Kilmainham Gaol in October 1923, this time incarcerated by the Free State Government.
On 24 May 1923, Frank Aiken, the Chief of Staff of the IRA, had ordered the men to dump arms but, though the Civil War was officially over, arrests by the Free State continued unabated. By October 1923 tension was at an all-time high in the prisons and camps because of prison conditions and with no release in sight.
The figures given by Sinn Féin at the time were :
Cork Jail: 70;
Kilkenny Jail: 350;
Dundalk Jail: 200;
Gormanstown Camp: 711;
Newbridge Camp: 1,700;
Curragh Camp: 3,390; Harepark Camp: 100;
North Dublin Union: 50 women.
On that same day, the prisoners in Kilmainham Gaol went on strike, and O’Malley wrote eloquently of it in his book on the Civil War, The Singing Flame. He noted that “practically all volunteered; some were exempted, including myself, but I refused this concession”.
Previously, the Free State Government had passed a motion outlawing the release of prisoners on hunger strike. Dan Downey had died in the Curragh on 10 June, and Joseph Witty, only 19 years old, also died in the Curragh on 2 September.
However, because of the large numbers of Republicans on strike, at the end of October the Government sent a delegation to Newbridge Camp to speak with IRA leaders there.
It soon became apparent that they were not there to negotiate the strikers’
demands, but rather to give the prisoners the Government’s message: “we are not going to force feed you, but if you die we won’t waste coffins on you; you will be put in orange boxes and you will be buried in unconsecrated ground”.
O’Malley wrote: "Any action was good, it seemed, and everyone was more cheerful when the hunger strike began.
We listened to the tales of men who had undergoneprevious strikes and we, who were novices, wondered what it would be like.
We laughed and talked, but in the privacy of our cells, some, like myself, must have thought what fools we were, and have doubted our tenacity and strength of will.
I looked into the future of hunger and I quailed".
All negotiations to curtail the strike were abandoned and the strike went forward. Poorly planned, within weeks many were going off strike, but by the end of October, there were still 5,000 on strike.
O’Malley did not know what effect the strike would have, but he felt he could not “let the side down”.
"Hunger striking was an unknown quantity for me. I did not approve of it. I was frankly afraid, but I could not see boys of sixteen and eighteen take their chance whilst I could eat and be excused.
Now, even though one thought one’s death could be of use, there was no passive acceptance. It was a challenge, a fight, and again resistance was built up……The mind would suffer more than the body. The struggle in the end would be between body and spirit".
On 20 November, Denis Barry died in the Newbridge Camp, and Andrew Sullivan died in Mountjoy on 22 November.
When Barry died, Bishop Daniel Cohalan (above) refused to let his body lie in a Cork church.
When Terence MacSwiney died on hunger strike in 1921, Bishop Cohalan had written
in the Cork Examiner:
"I ask the favour of a little space to welcome home to the city he laboured for so zealously the hallowed remains of Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney.
For the moment, it might appear that he has died in defeat…..
Was Robert Emmet’s death in vain? Did Pearse and the other martyrs for the cause of Irish freedom die in vain?
….We bow in respect before his heroic sacrifice. We pray the Lord may have mercy on his soul".
At the death of Denis Barry two years later, the very same Bishop Cohalan wrote:
"Republicanism in Ireland for the last twelve months has been a wicked and insidious attack on the Church and on the souls of the faithful committed to the Church by the law of the Catholic Church".
Denis Barry was not afforded a Catholic burial.
With the deaths of Barry and Sullivan drawing no positive response or concessions from the Free State government, the IRA command ordered the strikes ended on 23 November.
O’Malley wrote that the strike ended with no promises of release: “we had been defeated again”.
While the strike itself failed to win releases, it did begin a slow start of a programme of release of prisoners, the State being worried about the political impact of more deaths, though some prisoners remained in jail until as late as 1932.
O’Malley, writing of Tom Derrig who was in Mountjoy, related that one of the strikers there, on the last day of the strike, had asked a doctor: “What day of the strike is this?”
The doctor replied: “The forty-first”.
“Be cripes” the striker said “We bate Christ by a day!”
Joe Connell is the author of several books about the Easter Rising and its aftermath, including "Rebels' Priests" and "Unequal Patriots" in the Kilmainham Tales series. He has also written many articles for this website. You can read about Joe here.