As the Irish Civil War was coming to an official end in May 1923, Republican prisoners remained in incarceration and this internment without trial led to IRA prisoners taking to a hunger strike.
The Free State used various tactics to break this hunger strike including supplying prisoners with forged orders from IRA HQ to call off the strike. The provisional government also had the overwhelming support of the Catholic church which was also used as a tool to break the strike.
The Catholic hierarchy was a staunch supporter of the Cosgrave-led government and established a strong opposition to the IRA during the Civil War even though it had supported it during the War of Independence.
IRA volunteers were condemned from the pulpit while some priests even refused family members of hunger strikers to enter a church or even light a candle for their loved one.
Without any release in sight for the many IRA prisoners still incarcerated after the end of the war, 300 Republicans in Mountjoy started a hunger strike in October. The hunger strike soon spread to other institutions of incarceration resulting in over 7,000 prisoners going on hunger strike across Ireland.
The total tally of hunger strikers in Mountjoy was 462 while in Cork jail they numbered 70. The Curragh camp had the highest proportion of hunger strikers with 3,390 while in the Newbridge camp they totaled 1,700. In Kilkenny jail, there were 350 hunger strikers while 711 prisoners went on strike in Gormanstown camp. In Dundalk jail, there were 200 hunger strikers and in Harepark camp there were 100. Members of Cumann na mBan also joined the strike and had 50 of its members on hunger strike in the North Dublin Union.
Conditions in these places were appalling while the treatment handed out to the hunger strikers was calculated to break the strike. Medical attention was nil regarding the prisoners while simple things such as clothing and bedding were denied to many. Lice, fleas, and rats infested the jails and conditions worsened as the winter wore on.
The hunger strike of 1923 lasted for 41 days and tragedy rather than victory was to be the result.
Staff officer of the Cork No.1 Brigade of the IRA Denis ‘Denny’ Barry (Donnacha De Barra) from Riverstick died on November 20 while Andrew O’ Sullivan from Mallow died two days later and even though death had occurred, the stance of both the provisional government and the Catholic church did not soften towards the prisoners.
Barry was born into a farming family at Cullen, Riverstick Co. Cork in 1883 and hurled with the local Ballymartle club. When he moved to Cork city he hurled with Blackrock and won four county titles in a row with the famous Rockies team of that era. He was a founder member of Sinn Féin and in 1913 he helped form the Irish Volunteers.
Although he didn't take part in the Easter Rising he was arrested in the crackdown that followed and like many others, he was sent to Frongoch prison camp. In 1917 he became election agent for W.T Cosgrave in the Kilkenny by-election, which Cosgrave was successfully elected but just six years later Barry would find himself imprisoned by the government Cosgrave was in charge of.
In 1922 Barry was imprisoned in Newbridge camp in Kildare and took part in the hunger strike of 1923. After 34 days protesting against the harsh regime and undignified conditions Barry died on November 20 but even in death, he was still refused dignity.
The body of Barry was not released to his family and was instead on the orders of Richard Mulcahy buried in the grounds of Newbridge camp. The Barry family took legal action against this and eventually achieved the body of their loved one but their stress did not end there.
Upon returning back to Cork with the body of the dead hunger striker, Daniel Cohalan, the Bishop of Cork, instructed his priests not to allow his funeral in any church. Ironically just a few short years before, Bishop Cohalan had been a supporter of hunger striker Terence McSwiney but shortly after McSwiney‘s death, the bishop‘s attitude towards the IRA changed.
After MacSwiney’s death, Bishop Cohalan issued a decree condemning the IRA in which he stated that: Anyone who shall within the diocese of Cork organize or take part in an ambush or in kidnapping or otherwise shall be guilty of murder or attempted murder and shall incur by the very fact the censure of excommunication.
On December 10, 1922, the bishop preached publicly his support for the treaty and urged his flock to do the same. This led to an even greater wedge between the Catholic church and many IRA volunteers, yet it would be the incident with Denis Barry that would seriously taint the Bishop of Cork in Republican eyes.
Because of Bishop Cohalan’s stern objection to Barry’s body being let into a Catholic church, the dead hunger striker had to lay in state in the Cork Sinn Féin headquarters on Grand Parade. Barry was then taken in a funeral procession to St. Finbarr’s cemetery where he was buried in the Republican plot next to Terrence MacSwiney whose funeral Bishop Cohalan presided over three years previously.
In place of a priest was David Kent TD, brother of 1916 martyr Thomas Kent. David Kent recited the rosary and sprinkled holy water on the grave.
On November 28, 1923, the day Barry was buried, Cohalan sent an open letter to the Cork Examiner publicly denying a Christian burial for Denis Barry and urging all men of the cloth to stay away from any such attempts for a funeral for the dead hunger striker.
When Mallow's Andrew O’ Sullivan died two days after Barry the strike was then called off and only women prisoners were released while men remained in prison until the following year.
Today in Barry's native Riverstick there stands a stone memorial in his honor and he is remembered with a wreath-laying commemoration every November.
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