Mercy and morality: Capuchins, Cork and the theology of hunger strikes

Mercy and morality: Capuchins, Cork and the theology of hunger strikes

“A hunger strike to death is a form of violence to one’s self and violence leads to violence,” wrote the then Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Basil Hume, to Derry’s Archbishop Edward Daly in April 1981, prompting a heated debate in these islands’ Catholic newspapers.

After Bobby Sands died the following month, Dr Daly observed that he would not describe the hunger striker’s death as a suicide. “I could not accept that,” he said, continuing, “I don’t think he intended to bring about his own death. I think that he thought there was a possibility, that he hoped that something would be achieved.”

While there was no question over whether suicide itself was a grave sin, it was not necessarily clear to the Irish bishops, who issued a statement shortly afterwards, that death through hunger strike was in fact suicide. In this, their uncertainty echoed their predecessors of over half a century earlier.

‘Catholic ethics, the hunger strike, and the struggle for Irish independence: from Ashe to Murphy, Fitzgerald and McSwiney’ was just one of four fascinating talks given in UCC on June 10 at a conference organised in connection with the Irish Capuchin province entitled ‘Ministers of Mercy: the Capuchins and the struggle for independence in Ireland’.

The hunger strikes of 1917-1920 convulsed Catholic theological debate in Britain, Ireland, and elsewhere, according to UCC historian Gabriel Doherty, who noted how matters had reached such a point by November 1920 that Dr John Vaughan, an auxiliary bishop of Salford who laboured under the exotic title of Bishop of Sebastopolis, could write in The Tablet: “… it is on occasions as the present that one appreciates the supreme authority of Rome. May we soon cry out: ‘Roma locuta est; causa finita est.’”

Rome didn’t speak, Mr Doherty observed, “and by not speaking, the matter remained open”.

When hunger strikes took place in the 19th Century they were invariably dismissed as the actions of mentally ill people, Mr Doherty explained. It was only in 1909, therefore, that hunger strikes were adopted as political tactics, he said, with suffragettes pioneering the practice and with an important court case, Leigh v Gladstone, ruling that prison authorities had a duty to preserve the life and the health of prisoners.

The death of at least one suffragette, Mr Doherty noted, was directly caused by force-feeding, with there being numerous instances of poor health and early death among others who had been force-fed.

There was little theological debate within the Catholic Church during this period about the rights and wrongs of hunger strikes, as very few hunger strikers were themselves Catholic;  insofar as there was theological debate on the subject at all it was primarily restricted to the Church of England.


Hunger strikes were used intermittently during the 1913 Lockout, with James Connolly being released from prison after a short strike, but there was no evidence that the union leaders had any sort of ‘prison strategy’ in mind, and no such strategy appears to have been adopted among those arrested and imprisoned after the 1916 Rising.

It was only with the imprisonment of Thomas Ashe, the victorious 1916 commander of the Battle of Ashbourne, that hunger striking became a republican tactic. Originally sentenced to death after the Rising, Ashe had his sentence commuted to penal servitude for life, and was in the event freed on June 18, 1917, only to be arrested again in August 1917 for having given an anti-recruitment speech.

Along with other prisoners in Mountjoy Gaol he began a hunger strike to demand political status. There he was force-fed on several occasions, the last time proving fatal when the feeding tube was inserted into his lung. Taken to the Mater hospital, he died on September 25, 1917.

His funeral Mass in Dublin’s pro-cathedral saw a huge procession to Glasnevin Cemetery, and proved a nationalist show of force comparable to the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1915, while the whole affair proved highly embarrassing for the government; changes to the prison regime were introduced later, notably in connection with the 1920 Mountjoy Strike.

During the War of Independence, hundreds of prisoners went on hunger strike, with many gaining concessions through doing so, although when a group Cork prisoners went on hunger strike in August 1920 the government refused to back down; Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, starved to death, along with Michael Fitzgerald and Joseph Murphy.

Thomas Ashe’s funeral had suggested tacit support for the man, if not necessarily the manner of his death; held in St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, an honour refused to any Great War dead, it saw the then Archbishop of Dublin being represented in the funeral procession.

While similarly refusing to take a clear stand on the issue of hunger striking itself during the War of Independence, the hierarchy’s standing committee spoke out in April 1920 in connection with the Mountjoy Strike, urging an easing of prison conditions for political prisoners and those who had been arrested without trial.

In August 1920, Cork’s Bishop Daniel Cohalan wrote to The Times of London, arguing that Terence McSwiney, then imprisoned in the city’s Brixton Prison, should be released, maintaining that his sentence had been disproportionate to whatever offences he was deemed to have committed, and the following month Southwark’s bishop, in whose diocese Brixton lay, appealed for McSwiney’s release to Prime Minister David Lloyd George, saying there would be bitter resentment among Britain’s Irish communities if he was allowed to die.

In subsequent statements, Ireland’s hierarchy shied away for grappling with the theology of hunger striking, focusing instead on its practical impact and on the issues and injustices it was intended to highlight. Significantly, McSwiney was visited by a succession of bishops,  including three Irish ones based in Australia, and he was granted a full funeral in the Diocese of Southwark, with he, Michael Fitzgerald and Joseph Murphy all being buried in consecrated ground.

While the hunger strikers still lived, the bishops facilitated the Capuchins’ spiritual attendance on  the strikers and endorsed devotional expressions of support for the men, notably through rosaries being said at Cork’s Gaol Cross.


The bishops may have avoided direct commentary on the theological legitimacy or otherwise of hunger strikes, but others were not so loath to comment, drawing as they did on the Bible itself, and on such theologians as St Thomas Aquinas, the later medieval Dominican Domingo de Soto, the early modern Jesuits Francisco Suarez and Leonardus Lessius, and the German Jesuit Augustinus Lehmkuhl who had died only in June 1918.

The key figures in the Irish debate, battled out in the pages of The Irish Ecclesiastical Record from the July-December 1918 issue of the journal, were Canon John Waters, the President of Clonliffe College and chaplain to Mountjoy Gaol, and Maynooth’s Revd. Prof. Patrick Cleary, the college’s Emeritus Professor of Theology.


For Canon Waters, who claimed a “first-hand acquaintance with the mentality of the men on strike”, it seemed clear that the strikers’ strength of purpose derived in no small part from their having been assured of the theological rightness of their actions, with the more enlightened prisoners having the attitude of a soldier on the field of battle:  “certain deeds may cost him his life, yet it may be the part of a brave man to run such risks for his country’s sake”.

Stressing that suicide is defined as intentional killing of oneself, and that every effect or act is intentional if willed as an end in its own sake or as a means to an end, Waters argued that suicide could be committed not merely by doing something but by deliberately failing to do something and that no sin could be justified “as a means of furthering a political programme”.

He argued that soldiers killed in battle from the acts of others could not constitute suicide, and also rejected the notion that the incidental killing of oneself by, for instance, blowing up a bridge to deny the bridge’s use to the enemy but dying inevitably in the explosion, could be suicide, as that was not an intended effect so much as an unavoidable effect.  “The absence of all intention to kill oneself differentiates them from suicide,” he said.

On the other hand, he said that death through self-starvation was “intrinsically suicide”, since “the use of food is intended by nature, and to omit it is to contradict the intention of nature”, with the hunger strikers having wrongly and deliberately chosen death – or the danger of death – as the means to an end. This, he said, was clearly suicide.

“I conclude, then, that the hunger-strike is immoral on every test that can be applied to a human act, and that neither itself nor its parentage in recent times is at all such as would allow us to associate it with the time-honoured cause of a nation,” he said.

Prof. Cleary, meanwhile, avoided entirely the question of whether the causes motivating the strikes were just, and focused instead on the question of whether or not strikes might, in principle, be just, and rejected the notion that hunger strikes were intrinsically immoral, contending that even if acts are against charity or our natural inclinations they are not intrinsically wrong.

Maintaining that the story of Samson offered just one clear Biblical precedent of self-killing as a means to an end, he said that Canon Waters seemed to admit as lawful actions that, to him, were clearly immoral if self-killing was always intrinsically wrong.

Pointing to how Canon Waters had said a non-swimmer who abandoned a lifeboat by diving into water to allow others to survive was not committing suicide as he would be allowing the waves to kill him rather than killing himself, he observed, “Really, I think a sense of humour would be a great blessing for a theologian.”

Prof. Cleary pointed also to the famous case of Captain Oates who deliberately left his fellow Antartic explorers so they could stretch out their meagre rations and survive, saying that while Canon Walsh did not see this as suicide, it was hard to see how his argument added up.

“When a hunger-striker can point to theologians of note like Canon Waters, who will admit the lawfulness of certain actions which other noted theologians will pronounce self-murder,” he said, “he may very well contend that he has external authority for maintaining what is called self-murder is not always wrong.”

Prof. Cleary then wondered whether it would be intrinsically wrong to disobey the prison rule obliging prisoners to eat prison food, if disobedience could be a direct protest against injustice while obedience could be construed as an admission of guilt and of the authorities’ right to treat one as a criminal.

“Now, if a big national issue is at stake, which would be very materially benefited by a strong protest against injustice, and which, on the other hand, would be seriously compromised by even an apparent admission of guilt,” he observed, “it would seem that in these circumstances disobedience might be not only a right but even an obligation.”

The argument continued, Mr Doherty explained, stressing that there was few more eminent moral theologians in Ireland of the day than Prof. Cleary, with the debate spreading into The Tablet in England and being dramatically revived by the American-based Jesuit Michael Hogan SJ in 1933


Strikingly, at no point did the Vatican condemn hunger strikes, possibly because how its criticism of Parnell’s Plan of Campaign had backfired but perhaps because Pope Benedict XV had been moved by a defence of McSwiney’s actions by Msgr Lottini of the Holy Office – the forerunner of today’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

An enthralling paper, we should all look forward to its being published in a finished and comprehensive form, as we should the other papers from the conference, all of which were of an exceptionally high quality.

Capuchin Archivist Dr Brian Kirby’s ‘The Capuchin Order and the Revolutionary Decade’ went beyond the stories with which we should all be highly familiar now of the role of the Capuchins in the Rising to look at their backgrounds in cultural nationalism and ahead to the parts they played in the War of Independence and Civil War.


UCC’s Dr John Borgonovo’s ‘The exile, death, and repatriation of Fr Dominic O’Connor, 1922-1958’ told a fascinating story of national conflict and healing, replete with remarkable historical nuggets not least of how during the Emergency old IRA units signed up to the national armed forces on a pre-Civil War basis.

And taking the story further into the independent Ireland the Capuchins helped create, Trinity College’s Dr Ruth Sheehy spoke on ‘The Illustrations of Richard King for The Capuchin Annual, 1940-1972’.

The UCC conference, followed as it was by a Mass in Rochestown College with blessings by the graves of Fr Albert Bibby and Dr Dominic O’Connor, was a privilege to attend, and all those involved should be deeply proud of their work.