Celtic Junction Arts Review

Fire in Their Bellies – and Little Else

Jane Kennedy

Jane Kennedy will teach a two-session class on Nov. 3 and 10, 2022 on Irish women hunger strikers as part of Celtic Junction’s Fall 2022 history lineup. Her class includes an interview with I, Dolours producer Nuala Cunningham. This article is an introduction to what you can look forward to when you register for her class.

Hunger strikes by prisoners have occurred throughout the world over the last century, beginning with the Russian revolutionaries in the 1890s. The strikes’ intent then and in modern times is to exert “moral and legal responsibility” on the entity causing oppression. In the early 1980s, the name Bobby Sands became synonymous with hunger strikes after he stopped eating at the Maze Prison outside Belfast and starved himself to death at age 27.

Bobby Sands 1973

The later 20th century hunger strikes by IRA members, and Sands’ horrific death, can be linked to the abolishment in 1976 of the “special category” status that IRA prisoners had previously been granted. That status gave prisoners privileges denied to incarcerated criminals, such as the right to wear their own clothing and to not be subjected to prison labor.

Hunger strikes by Irish republicans who attempted to rail against British rule date back to the 1916 Easter Rising and other Irish republican conflicts all the way back to the late 18 th century. While most people think Irish hunger strikers are predominantly male, it was two Irish women hunger strikers, sisters Marian and Dolours Price, whose hunger strike in 1973 permitted Sands the right to death by starvation without the use of force feeding to which the Price sisters had been subjected. These young female hunger strikers paid a steep price to get British authorities to end force feeding. It was the Declaration of Tokyo, adopted in 1975, that established international guidelines for physicians concerning torture and other cruel punishment that was agreed to during an international assembly of the World Medical Association.

Marian Price, left, and Dolours Price

Once force feeding of IRA prisoners on hunger strikes ended, Sands was allowed to continue his radical protest and end his life on his terms.

25th Commemoration of 1981 hunger strike

While the 1981 Sands’ death and the death of nine others in 1981 in H-Cell received significant international attention, it was the Price sisters’ 200-day-plus hunger strike that received attention mainly due to the fact they were being force-fed.

In his riveting documentary about the older Price sister, I Dolours, producer and co-writer Maurice Sweeney demonstrated how fighting for a united Ireland was in Dolours’ DNA and the effect that overwhelming drive had on her entire life. He spared little in his film when detailing her time in Armagh prison, the force-feeding she endured, and the lasting impact it had on her life that ended tragically at age 62.

While Dolours and her sister demonstrated grit as they endured their lengthy hunger strike, other female Irish hunger strikers also merit consideration. Mary Doyle is one example. She was dispatched to Armagh women’s jail in 1974 for “republican activities” at age 18. In October, she joined two other women on a hunger strike in Armagh jail – just several months after seven men in H-block began their hunger strike which ultimately resulted in the mens’ deaths.

Doyle and the other female hunger strikers endured taunting and harsh treatment from the Armagh jail staff. But the strikers’ camaraderie gave them fortitude until the hunger strike ended when British officials agreed to demands that were at the heart of the strike. “… when your back is against the wall, you get the strength from somewhere. And republicans, we just get on with it. We always have,” insisted Doyle. 1

In no time, the British reneged on the terms of the agreement so a second strike was proposed. Doyle toyed with signing up to again participate in the hunger strike but she worried about the toll the initial strike took on her family and so she declined to participate.

There are many stories like the Price sisters and Mary Doyle that speak to a resolute spirit to fight for republican independence. While these and other Irish women hunger strikers eventually were freed from jail, the experiences left them sullied and, in some cases, never able to restore what was emotionally taken from them. These are Irish heroines whose stories must never go silent.

1 Clancy, Emma. “The Armagh Women’s Hunger Strike Remembered.” Green Left, May 11, 2011, Issue 878// Ireland