A small puzzle about (possibly) the longest continuous hunger strike

I was looking at an obituary of my grandmother’s cousin in the Irish Press. One of the nine survivors of the Cork Prison hunger strike in 1920, he died in 1965 at the age of sixty-eight. The hunger strike of Terence McSwiney, in particular, was watched with interest by the world’s media, as it was not known at the time how long a person could survive without food. McSwiney, Mick Fitzgerald and Joseph Murphy all died on the strike. The Press clipping says that the survivors lasted 94 days on hungerstrike, and incidentally that figure was also given in the Guinness Book of Records. Of course this figure is absolute nonsense. While the hunger strike itself lasted for that length of time it is impossible that any single one of them went without food for the entire length of the hunger strike, let alone all nine. For comparison, Terenece McSwiney died after 74 days and in 1981 Bobby Sands died after 66 days. (By “hunger strike” in this instance, I mean a successful refusal of food. A woman has maintained her hunger strike for several years, but she is force fed.)

I recall my mother saying something about 78 days in relation to her mother’s cousin, who she describes as cranky and obsessed with greyhounds. There’s also a mention by someone in Uinseann MacEoin’s Survivors who was in Cork Prison at the time that he knew someone there who had survived nearly 80 days. These are more realistic figures, I think. This is something I’ve intended to look into for some time, and I’m hopeful someone from the Cork perspective can point me in the right direction. Though Limerick and national newspapers haven’t yielded any useful results, family histories and local historians may help. Like three of the other hunger strikers, my grandmother’s cousin was from the Ballylanders area.

Incidentally, his uncle, my great-grandfather, was born 147 years ago yesterday.


14 thoughts on “A small puzzle about (possibly) the longest continuous hunger strike

  1. My grandfather was on hunger strike in Cork and I think one of the nine. Never spoke much of it, but some have said he was on strike longer than Mcsweeny. He took months of spoon feeding upon release (I’ve met the woman who did it for many weeks). And I have a picture of him in hospital will the sign Liberty or Death behind him. He was on Spike Island and then sent to a prison in the north. Would welcome more details if you find any. thanks, M Hennessy

    • Thank you very much for those details, Mike, that gives me a lead. I remember hearing that my grandmother’s cousin had to have half his stomach removed and he had a very restricted diet for the rest of his life. He was sentenced to years of hard labour when he was eventually tried by military court in 1921, but I’m not certain where he was kept. I will definitely let you know what I find.

      • Hi there,
        There a prison records with arrest warrants and transfer documents in the WO files at the UK national archives. Some of the record groups can be identified on line. Found the order to arrest and move my grandad, but not his release order, I suspect because he was in hospital.
        Mike Hennessy

  2. Hi Claire, my grandfathers cousin was one of the hunger strikers and he was quiet close to them. He regularly spoke of the hunger strike and of rebellion stories ? Unfortunately he passed away a number of years ago but i imagine my father and his family have numerous stories in relation to this. My grandfather kept a lot of his aunts /cousins belongings when they passed on. He kept these and lately I looked through them and their were letters from his cousin while in jail sent home to his mother whih is quiet interesting. If you contact me I can try and get more information for you.

    Thanks C.Ryan

  3. My father’s cousin Christopher Upton was a survivor of that 1918 Hunger Strike. I’m surprised his name was not mentioned. My family are also from the Ballylanders area. But we left Ireland when I was only eight years old. My father, Michael, is long since dead, and I only know one of his cousins, James, who farms there.

    • Hi Violet, I didn’t mention Christopher Upton in my post, but he is always mentioned as one of the hunger strikers. Are there any stories in the family from that time?
      Apologies for the delay in following up on your comment.

  4. My grandfather, Joseph Kenny, was one of the Hunger Strikers – he survived the 94 days! My mom was born during this time – she will be 95 in a few weeks! They did not eat food! They did drink water! But I would imagine the reason they survived so long was because the Bons Secours nuns work hard at caring for them and even bathed their bodies in olive oil on a regular basis. Joe Kenny was on Spike Island, and then on Bere Island – I have copies of an autograph book of his from the period.

  5. Christopher Upton was my great grandfather, my cousin has done a lot of research on the subject if you are still interested I could try and find it for you?

    • Hello Michael Burke was my great grandfather and I have just starting researching him I would be very grateful for any information/help you can offer. Thank you

  6. My Father’s Uncle was Christopher Upton. We were always told about his long hunger strike.
    I have just sent an e mail to great grandson of his,for copies of a booklet commemorating 100 years of independence. His name is Kieran Upton. So he will be a cousin of Blathnaid Kearney.
    My sister is Violet who commented previously.

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