KING: . . . He has chosen death:
Refusing to eat or drink, that he may bring
Disgrace upon me; for there is a custom,
An old and foolish custom, that if a man
Be wronged, or think that he is wronged, and starve
Upon another's threshold till he die,
The Common People, for all time to come,
Will raise a heavy cry against that threshold,
Even though it be the King's.
-- W.B. Yeats, The King's Threshold
The practice of hunger striking has a long history. In some cultures it was (and still is) the practice for people who owed debts to fast at the doorstep of the moneylenders in order to gain more time for repayment. If the lender allowed the debtor to die on his doorstep, he was shamed for inhospitality and lack of generosity. Fasting was a form of passive-aggressive protest, taking self-injurious action for which another party would suffer blame.
Hunger striking in Ireland dates back to pre-Christian times, when those who lacked power protested against the more powerful by fasting in order to call attention to an injustice or to claim a debt owed. In fact, it was considered a duty to inflict punishment directly on the wrongdoer when all other possibilities had been exhausted. The power, and thus the responsibility, to end the fast rested on the wrongdoer. Thus, if he allowed the fasting to continue to death, the community would consider him to be at fault. The offender then was required to pay a debt to the dead man's family.
In the 20th century, hunger striking began to take on a wider political significance. By fasting against a government, a striker places the value of his life in support of the demands he makes. If the government allows the striker to die, the government is thus shamed as inhumane and callous to the loss of human life. Between 1972 and 1982, at least 200 strikes took place in 52 countries. Twenty three hunger strikers died - of those twenty-three, twelve were Irish hunger strikers in United Kingdom jails, including the ten who died in the 1981 strike.
Irish hunger striking has to it an air of uniqueness, though. Father James Healy, who monitors hunger strikes worldwide, attempted to sum up this uniqueness:
In Ireland, hunger striking carries a special significance. It "fuses elements of the legal code of ancient Ireland, of the self-denial that is the central hallmark of Irish Catholicism, and of the propensity for endurance and sacrifice that is the hallmark of militant Irish nationalism." [ibid]
The Irish first began to use hunger striking for political reasons in 1917. Thomas Ashe, who had been imprisoned for taking part in the 1916 Easter Uprising, had refused to wear prison clothing or do penal labor. He and other Republican prisoners at Mountjoy Prison embarked on a hunger strike to demand that they either be treated as political prisoners or released from prison. Ashe died after being force-fed. The Irish saw him as a martyr, and his funeral drew huge crowds of people, including several thousand members of the Irish Volunteers, who viewed Ashe as part of the "heroic legacy of the 1916 rebels whose execution had transformed the political situation in Ireland." [O'Malley]
The next famous strike was on October 24th, 1920, three and a half years later. After seventy-three days of hunger striking that was watched by all of Ireland and many people abroad, Terence McSwiney died in Brixton prison. McSwiney was the one to utter the famous words that Bobby Sands and the other strikers of 1981 adopted as their motto: "It is not those who inflict the most but those who suffer the most who will conquer." This quote summed up the mentality of hunger-striking, of passive resistance, which the Republicans adopted.
During the Civil War in 1923, anti-treaty prisoners engaged in a hunger strike that involved as many as eight thousand prisoners at one time. In retailiation, the government had the parliament pass a resoluation that any prisoner who used the hunger strike against the government was to be allowed to die. Two or three prisoners died in this strike.
In 1923, Patrick McGrath, a 1916 veteran, successfully embarked on a hunger strike after imprisonment. The public outrage accompanying his strike forced the government to free him after forty-three days.
Several hunger strikes were not so successful. In 1940, Tony D'Arcy and Jack McNeela, also members of the IRA, were allowed to die. In 1946, Sean McCaughey, who was IRA chief when he was arrested, was allowed to die after fasting for seventeen days in an attempt to gain political status. Eamon de Valera, the head of the government at the time, declared that the government had chosen the lesser of two evils, that of "let[ting] men die rather than the safety of the whole community be threatened." [O'Malley]
In 1972, Billy McKee led the successful strike in Crumlin Road prison. McKee's success was perhaps the most influental example of hunger striking from which the prisoners in the H-Blocks drew inspiration and courage.