The Avondhu - By The Fireside
‘IT MADE MEN FROWN & WOMEN SHUDDER’
It was an historic day on Sunday, September 25th this year as a memorial plaque was unveiled in Grenagh, County Cork to remember the 11 men who endured the 94-day hunger strike at Cork Gaol from August 11th, 1920 until November 12th, 1920. These were brave and heroic men.
The names of these men were: Christopher Upton, Ballylanders; Peter Crowley, Ballylanders and his brother John Crowley, Ballylanders; Michael O’Reilly, Ballylanders; Sean Hennessy, Carey’s Road, Limerick; Michael Burke, Foulkstown, Co. Tipperary; Thomas Donovan, Emly, Co. Tipperary; John Power, Rosegreen, Co. Tipperary; Joseph Kenny, Grenagh, Co. Cork; Michael Fitzgerald, Fermoy, Co. Cork - died after 68 days; Joseph Murphy, Pouladuff Road, Cork City died after 76 days.
The unveiling of the memorial plaque on the day was performed by Deirdre Dempsey, daughter of hunger striker Michael Burke and Mike Upton, grandson of Christopher Upton. During the unveiling, two laments were played on the bagpipes by Sean Murphy – namely ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Wrap The Green Flag’.
MC for the occasion was organiser, Conor Kenny, grandson of Joseph Kenny. The two speakers on the day were Clare Cronin, granddaughter of Joseph Kenny and John Mulcahy, expert in history, but most importantly local history.
Addressing those present first on the day was Clare Cronin, granddaughter of Joseph Kenny:
‘I never thought I’d be standing at a podium in the middle of Grenagh; my Godfather lived here and this is all entirely his son’s fault!
My goal when I first started this was to get something on the local papers, some recognition for these forgotten heroes! That’s all – well I got more than I’d bargained for. Conor is a train on a track – brick walls don’t even stop him, but because of this, we got much more than just an article in The Examiner.
The story of these men is now in school libraries, in Cork anyway. I know of secondary school students doing projects on them; those who had a personal insight got excellent marks. A ten-year-old in Waterford mentioned it to her teacher; the next history class had a lesson devoted entirely to these men, and with a slide show. So it is out there now and no longer buried as it was before!
Joe Kenny was arrested July 1920 in a house just up the road there, near where his grandson and namesake now lives – there are at least two Joseph Kennys here today! His youngest baby, a daughter, was born there; the only child of a hunger striker to arrive during those 94 days! She always said she was in gaol for her country as a baby. Ita nearly made it to the centenary; she would have been 102 yesterday.
These men suffered so much, many died young – Sean Hennessy being the youngest; his grandson, Barry Butler in the US, emailed that he wished he could be here today. Michael O’Reilly and Chris Upton were the last 2 survivors and like many at those times, they never spoke of their ordeal. To quote Maurice Walsh in the Quiet Man short story – ‘it made men frown and women shudder’!
One of the many autograph entries in my grandfather’s book has the phrase; ‘These, just these, brought to their knees the Gods of Power and Place’!
Their record 94 days (it still holds I believe) gained world-wide attention! And yes, it shook a big nation, and brought it to its knees.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anam!’
THE EVENTS LEADING TO
Historian, John Mulcahy then overviewed the events that led to these 11 men going on hunger strike in 1920 and the repercussions.
‘The events of July 10th, 1920 and the peaceful days following left a dark shadow on the townlands around Grenagh. On that morning two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary left Rathduff Barracks to walk the mile or so to Grenagh to deliver the post. They were heavily armed as was the practice of this paramilitary police force. As they walked the road, they were suddenly surprised by a small group of men who jumped over the ditches and grappled with them and endeavoured to grab hold of their guns. In the struggle a shot was fired which struck Sergeant Seery, leaving him critically wounded. Seery, an Ulsterman from Co. Down, had only very recently been posted to Rathduff. Having dispossessed the two policemen of their weapons, the assailants, members of the Grenagh IRA Company, made their escape across the fields.
There were immediate consequences. Troops and police from Cork and Mallow arrived in the area and immediately imposed a reign of terror on Grenagh and its neighbourhood in the search for the assailants. In one of the few recorded cases of using bloodhounds during the Troubles, they followed a scent to the home of Timothy McCarthy, Lyredane, whom they arrested. People were held up, beaten, young men threatened with shooting, homes searched, money and goods stolen.
John Dwane was arrested. And then they came for Joe Kenny. It was, in a way, inevitable. Joe Kenny stood out in many ways. He was considerably older than the bulk of the local volunteers. He was married and a father of seven children, soon to be eight. He was a returned yank, back to his native sod after spending a large part of his life in the western states of the USA. He was adjutant of the local company of the IRA, in charge of weapons and making grenades, a veteran of conflict having held off British forces at Healy’s Bridge during the attack on Blarney Barracks. And he was an elected Sinn Fein member of Cork Rural District Council.
In the early hours of the morning of the 13th soldiers came knocking at the door of the Kenny home. Mary Kenny swore on oath that she saw soldiers placing ammunition in a bag of meal in the kitchen and then pretend to discover the bullets. She and her children were forced to watch helpless as her husband was dragged away from them and taken to a prison cell in Cork Male Prison in the Western Road.
By this time the jail was full of political prisoners from across the Sixth Division military area, prisoners from all over Munster and even from as far as Kilkenny and Wexford, mostly on remand, some deprived of freedom for as long as twelve months, as was the case of Michael Fitzgerald and others taken prisoner in Fermoy the previous September.
In protest, the prisoners threatened to go on hunger strike unless they were released immediately. This didn’t happen and the strike began on August 11th, 1920. The following night they were joined on hunger strike by the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence McSwiney and other prominent IRA leaders who had been arrested during a meeting held in Cork City Hall.
On previous occasions the threat of prisoners dying on hunger strike had been enough for the government to concede their demands and grant them release. Most expected the same to apply in this case. But the British government had decided to take a tough line and not give in on this occasion. It was to be a battle of wills, a struggle to the death.
It is estimated that over eighty prisoners began the hunger strike. The authorities began to release those against whom they wer