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.

40 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

    • Mike, if you have a photograph of Sean Hennessy I would love it for the memoir we are doing re the 9 survivors. Do you know from where he was finally released? I’d like his wife’s name too please. I have no problem sharing the little history my cousin and I are doing on this. Their ordeal left a huge toll on their bodies, let alone their minds. Sean was one of the youngest and subsequently died younger than all of them I think!

  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.

    • I am an 83yr old, my father Mick (Michael) Burke was one of the 94day hunger strikers. I am wondering if there are any family members of the remaining hunger strikers still living? All my siblings have passed, I am one of six. Deirdre Dempsey (nee Burke)

      • Well hello Deirdre, delighted to hear from you. I would imagine there are family members of them left; my grandfather was the oldest as far as I know (in his mid-40’s) so there must be children of those younger men about, your age more than likely! I’m only 10 years younger than you but then mom was born during the strike.
        Your father was from Folktown, Thurles (am I correct) and aged 23 at the time? Can you give me where and when he died, and a photograph too, please.
        It’s been a few months now since I stopped with this research so I am a bit rusty on all I gathered – all our time is taken up with caring for mom, still in the family home.
        Could you email me, or can I ring you?
        Looking forward to hearing from you, Clare in Cork, Ireland.

  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

      • michael burke was from a place called Garrankyle , Cloneen, co Tipperary but was originaly born in Dualla, thurles ,Co Tipperary . He was very active in the war of independence.He campaigned with Tommy Donovan of Glengoole Thurles ,Bill Quirke — later (senator ) John Smyth of Garrankyle , Dinny Sadlier of Rathkenny along with other members of the 3rd Tipperary Bgd. His sister was Dolly was imprisoned in Cork jail in 1920 but escaped. My aunt and uncle were married to Michael Burke’s brother and sister so I know a little about him. Any replys to Jim

        • Hi, sorry for late reply; my mom, the only baby born to a Hunger Striker (Sept 1920) is fading but fighting it, like her father did before her. I am trying to find out when and where the nine survivors died, or anything that happened to them after their release. I think I’m sorted with the Crowley Brothers, Sean Hennessy and Chris Upton, but nothing much on the other four. Would be delighted if you can fill in some gaps.
          Clare, in Cork, Ireland.

        • Hi Jim, was interested in your reply to who I think is my grand niece and the Michael Burke was my father meaning Doll and John my aunt and uncle. I will try and get in touch with Gillian and give her some information. Best wishes Deirdre Dempsey (nee Burke)

          • Hi Deirdre My Name is Tim Bourke. Not sure why we have an ” O”, and you have “u” My gran uncle was Tim Burke and was a priest in Chicago. Mike Burke and Dolly was my father’s first Cousin. My father was John born in 1926 and died in 2007. I was reared in the house that Mike and Dollys father came from in Garrane . We have heard many stories about Mike and Dolly. Mike was reportly involved in Newtown ambush and seemly was found with a revolver that was involved in Ambush. I would be interested in finding out more about Mike Burke and his life after the hunger strike and about you too

            best wishes


      • Hi Gillian, I have had a message reply from Deirdre Dempsey (Michael Burke’s daughter) but we need to connect privately; not sure how we manage this as she is not on FB. I did give her my email addy earlier – wondering are you on FB?
        Clare, in Cork, Ireland

        • Hi Clare / Deirdre,

          I’m currently doing research into the Newtown ambush of which Michael Burke was part of. I was wondering if i could discuss this with you.


          • Hi Gavin, I emailed you a few days ago – check your junk mail too, I gather some of mine get dumped there.

        • Hi Clare, this is Claire, the owner of the blog. I am related to one of the hunger strikers (not mentioned so far) and can give you some info. I will email you soon.

          • Hello Claire, this is the Cork Clare (without the ‘i’)! Thank you for connecting! Which of the 12 Hunger Strikers are you related to? Follows the twelve, though I’m sure you don’t need to be told!
            ‘Sean Hennessy, Michael Burke, Christopher Upton, John Power, Thomas Donovan, John Crowley, Peter Crowley, Michael O’Reilly, Joseph Kenny, Michael Fitzgerald (RIP 17/10/1920 after 68 days) , Joe Murphy (RIP 25/10/1920 after 74 days) and Terence Mc Swiney – RIP Brixton Prison, London after 74 days hunger-strike’.
            ‘Talk’ soon Clare (in Cork, Ireland).

    • Hi there,

      I was recently in Spike Island and when I walked into the room with the photographs of prisoners one caught my eye as at a passing glance it looked reeeeeally like a Gran Uncle of mine, he is also Upton from Limerick so I wonder if there’s any connection there? I would love to find out more!

      • Hi Tracy, some of the Uptons are involved in commemorating the hunger strike and other events of 1920. There is a Facebook group, Ballylanders 1920 Commemoration, and they have recently brought out a couple of pamphlets. If you would like to contact them through the group I’m sure they’d be very happy to help.

    • My great-great-grandfather was William C. Upton, the Fenian leader from Limerick, and I’ve been told that Christopher Upton is also a relation. Any of Christopher’s descendants, please reach out!

  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.

  7. Christopher Upton: RIP 1973 aged 82 – I think! An unusual name and the one I first went to for following history information – but there was another C. Upton, born, raised and died in Waterford. Needless to mention, this threw me.
    I would like some info re Mr Burke, please, and also whatever is available re the Crowley brothers.
    Sean Hennessy died in 1947, in Wexford.
    I don’t really work on this forum and unsure how to get around it but the centenary of the event is next year and it’s about time some recognition was given to the nine survivors – they had a helluva time recovering from their ordeal afterwards and most of them probably didn’t!
    I am Clare, in Cork, Ireland (I posted before in 2015 but only found this now because I Googled Ballanders Hunger Strike death, looking for info as to when and where the nine died)!

  8. Re Tom Donovan – there is a grave in Glengoogle but this refers to one of the patriots who died in 1920 and not the Thomas Donovan (apparently from Emly) who was one of the nine survivors! I’m working through notes here, hence the random comments. Apologies if my thread is a bit off-kilter!

    • If you have any photo of Thos Mossy Donovan I would welcome it for the memoir we are doing re the 9 survivors of the Cork Gaol 1920 Hunger Strike.

  9. Deirdre, daughter of Michael Burke, messaged on this forum today; I await hearing more from her. Otherwise, I got nothing back these last few months – may I ask if it is possible that some with info and an interest could connect with me privately. Hope that may be allowed and doesn’t seem rude. Thanks!

  10. Hi Clare, I would like to get in touch with you privately but don’t know how! My Father died in 1953 at the age of 55. We lived in Clonmel and he died in a nursing home there. I will have to go through photos and will let you have one when I get one. I would be delighted if you could let me know how to get in touch with. Deirdre.

  11. My father in law is related to Michael O’Reilly. One of the surviving hunger strikers. I have little to no information about Michael. I know he had a sister but I don’t know her name. I also know that he lived in Galbally before his death. Would love to have more information about him.

  12. Hi Tiona, I can give you what I have on Michael – not very much and only one bad photo. I though he had some brothers – never heard of a sister.
    Clare, in Cork, Ireland.

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