Frank McGrath: Youghalarra’s Influential Republican Leader

Frank McGrath is well known today for his lifelong work for the Gaelic Athletic Association, marked by the fact that the North Tipperary Senior Hurling cup is named in his honour. But perhaps the present generation are unaware that Frank McGrath was one of the most influential and important Irish Republicans in the Nenagh area in the revolutionary period (1912–1922) He was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the first Commandant of the No. 1 Tipperary Brigade of the Irish Republican Army, a leader of one of the most significant hunger-strikes in Irish history, organiser of the first Sinn Fein Courts in North Tipperary and the only O/C of the Republican police force for North Tipperary. This is the first part of my tribute to my great-granduncle.

The Youghalarra Hurling Team (1909): Frank McGrath, my great grand-uncle, is sitting in the middle row (first on the left) and Jack Hogan, my great-grandfather, is standing in the back row (last player on the right). Courtesy of Liam Hogan Snr.

Frank McGrath was my great-granduncle. How are we related? My great-grandfather was Jack Hogan of Cregane and he married Margaret McGrath of Youghal Village. Margaret, a dressmaker, was a sister of Frank McGrath. For as long I can remember, my father, Liam Hogan Snr, would wax lyrical about his famous granduncle who seemed to epitomise so many nationalist ideals. When I was young this particular piece of family history took on a mythological aspect. After all, I never met Frank. He passed away fifteen years before I was born. There were no biographies of his life, no journal articles to read, no Wikipedia page to lookup. So I was not aware of the details of his life, but I was left with the sense that he had done something important and rare. My father passed on the few stories he had heard, how during the War of Independence McGrath had been on the run from the Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.) or the Black and Tans, hiding out in different houses in the Youghal area. That was all I knew. But what had he really done and why?

My father also told me that my late granduncle, the file (Irish poet) and priest Fr. Johnny Hogan, presided at Frank’s funeral in 1965. Fr. Johnny was, as everyone who knew him will attest, the most peaceable and intelligent man you could ever meet. He passed in 1995 and I feel so lucky to have known him in my formative years. He was a formidable scholar with a gentle soul, an expert on the flora of the Burren and a keen photographer. Kindness was his philosophy. He was a much loved parish priest of Terryglass/Kilbarron and a former teacher (of Latin and Irish) and Vice President at St. Flannan’s College, Ennis. Our current president Michael D. Higgins was one of his pupils. That Fr. Johnny had such regard for his uncle Frank McGrath, a former physical force Irish Republican, I think underlines the complexities of both McGrath and the wider history of the Irish struggle for political and cultural independence. As the 1916 centenary has arrived, I feel that it is an appropriate time to tell his story; to remember, to acknowledge, and to commemorate what he believed in and what he sacrificed to achieve it.

Frank was born in October 1885 into a farming family in Youghal Village in North Tipperary. His father Frank McGrath Snr was a sheep farmer and his mother Elizabeth McGrath worked as a housekeeper. He had three older sisters (Annie, Mary and Margaret) and two brothers (John and Patrick). All three of the McGrath brothers were bilingual which is notable at a time when the Irish language was not a compulsory subject in school. It was evidently taught by Daniel Nealon, their headmaster at the National School in Youghalarra. When Frank was eighteen he became an apprentice in J.F. Tumpane’s grocery and seed store in Nenagh.

Frank attributed his interest in Irish Nationalism to his family background which he describes as having “a strong national tradition” (one of his uncles had to flee Ireland for Australia due to his part in the Fenian Rising of 1867) and to the Gaelic Revival; his membership in the Youghal Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association from a young age made a deep impression. Frank was a proficient Irish dancer and committed gaeilgeoir. During the winter months he even organised Irish language and Irish step-dancing lessons in Nenagh and the surrounding areas. He played Gaelic football, handball, but was most renowned for being an exceptional hurler. He won a North Tipperary Senior Hurling title with his home club of Youghalarra in 1909 and with Nenagh in 1915. This championship is now named in his honour and every year local hurling teams battle it out to win the Frank McGrath Cup. He was a member of the famous Toomevara team that won four Tipperary Senior Hurling Championships (1910, 1912–1914) and was a member of the Tipperary Hurling team from 1912 to 1916. This included a Munster title, a Croke cup title, and a loss to Kilkenny in the 1913 All-Ireland final before a crowd of 25,000 people. According to his long time friend and comrade Patrick F. O’Brien, McGrath was “a volunteer Leader” but also “leader of everything else National and Gaelic.”

When the Irish Volunteers were formed in Nenagh in May 1914, McGrath signed up and throughout that summer he participated in drilling at the local Showgrounds. Their drill instructors were exclusively ex-officers from the British army. Despite this expertise, all these enthusiastic men had in terms of weaponry were wooden replicas and some obsolete Russian rifles. When the internecine war broke out in Europe between the imperial powers in August 1914, John Redmond urged these thousands of men to participate. He claimed that this would serve the “interests of Ireland” by proving their loyalty to the United Kingdom and thereby ensuring the passage of Home Rule, a limited form of self-government that was far from assured due to the insurrectionary threat posed by the Ulster Volunteer Force. Inevitably the Volunteers split, with the majority siding with Redmond and they became known as the National Volunteers. This split was also seen in Nenagh where only a couple of men (out of circa two hundred) fundamentally disagreed with Redmond and continued drilling as Irish Volunteers. This small group was led by Frank McGrath.

McGrath began to recruit new members, mainly from hurling clubs in the Nenagh hinterland, until they had around thirty men in their company. He organised target practice using miniature rifles in an old hall in Sarsfield Street but was keenly aware that they were short on real weapons. To resolve this problem he purchased arms from soldiers on furlough from their service in France, as well as successfully bidding for a Mauser rifle at an auction. A Capt G.W. Finch had brought home this particular weapon from the Boer War and McGrath sourced the 7mm bullets for it in Dublin. In 1915 McGrath toured North Tipperary (and even travelled as far as Birr in Co. Offaly) as he attempted to establish new units of the Irish Volunteers. He recalls that he was ably assisted by Liam Hoolan, Edward O’Leary, Patrick “Wedger” Meagher and the O’Brien brothers of Silvermines.

It was around this time that McGrath was approached by James Kennedy, the Town Clerk of Thurles, to be sworn into the ranks of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret society whose primary purpose was to achieve political independence for Ireland by force. McGrath was a logical choice for membership considering the level of influence he had in the Nenagh area due to his reputation as a Republican idealist and a star on the hurling field. Now inducted into this circle he was meeting behind the scenes with senior IRB members such as Tom Clarke (executed after 1916 rising), Michael O’Hanrahan (executed after 1916 Rising) but more often with The O’Rahilly (killed by Crown Forces during 1916 Rising) and Cathal Brugha (killed by Free State troops during the Civil War).

“A dozen rifles are more effective than a thousand resolutions in Parliament.” — Irish Freedom (July 1914)

In 1915 McGrath, Brugha and O’Rahilly (Director of Arms) were primarily engaged in collecting weapons for the Irish Volunteers. McGrath’s major success in this regard came from a serendipitous source. Harty’s hardware store in Nenagh was put up for sale and it just so happened that McGrath’s employers were in charge of the transaction and had the keys. The store included a magazine of explosives, shotguns and ammunition which the local R.I.C. had purchased. The morning before the magazine was to be collected, Frank entered the premises at 5am and packed the arsenal into “five large casks” which were conveyed by Volunteer Doyle to Elizabeth Skehan’s public house on Summerhill. This pub is now known as Figgerty’s. They were then collected by Edward O’Leary and stored in his father’s property at Beechwood. McGrath explains that he broke the locks to Harty’s hardware store before leaving to redirect suspicion. Later he was questioned by the R.I.C. but they failed to locate their weapons or make any arrests. An interesting piece of trivia is that McGrath managed to procure the special ammunition needed for Cathal Brugha’s C96 Mauser pistol which he later used to some effect in the 1916 Rising.

Sometime in January 1916 McGrath suffered a serious knee injury on a hurling field in Cork. He spent at least the next five months in St. John’s Hospital in Limerick and so was not present in Nenagh to receive Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order on the eve of the 1916 Rising. The R.I.C raided McGrath’s home and place of employment to arrest him but on hearing he was in hospital they withdrew.

After eventually leaving hospital, McGrath threw himself back into the struggle. He attended a meeting of the North Tipperary board of the G.A.A on the 10 June 1916. At this meeting the chairman, William Flannery, proposed that they should financially support the dependents “of our brother Irishmen, who were slain, executed, deported and imprisoned during the recent insurrection.” McGrath seconded this motion and it was adopted by the Board unanimously. That Autumn he arranged to meet Cathal Brugha at Limerick Railway station to discuss the re-organisation of the Irish Volunteers. McGrath noted that Brugha “was still on crutches as a result of the wounds he had received during the Rising.” In December 1916 McGrath attended the Irish Volunteer Convention in Barry’s Hotel, Gardiner Street, Dublin. In the words of Volunteer Tomas O’Maoileoin (alias “Sean Forde”) this was the “first attempt made since the Rising to do something in a general way about the reorganisation of Volunteer units throughout the country.” At this convention McGrath was elected to the Irish Volunteer Executive whose principle aim was to form new units of armed volunteers.

McGrath returned to Tipperary and noted that from this time on he “kept in constant touch with Michael Collins, Michael William O’Reilly and Tom Cullen.” It goes without saying that all three were senior members of the Executive and veterans of 1916 Rising. He remarked that when visiting Dublin at this time to exchange intelligence and organisational updates he “usually found Collins at an office in Bachelor’s Walk.”

Now the centre of the IRB circle in Nenagh, McGrath set about establishing Volunteer companies in North Tipperary in the Spring and Summer of 1917. Martin Grace of Carrigatogher stated that the “Nenagh company was revived on the initiative of Frank McGrath” sometime in June 1917 and Edward O’Leary recorded that “under the guidance and influence of McGrath, the Irish Volunteers spread throughout the rural areas, so that by the end of 1917 a company existed in every parish within a radius of ten miles of Nenagh.”

O’Leary was not exaggerating. After a couple of months they had companies formed in Ballina, Ballywilliam, Borrisokane, Cloughjordan, Lorrha, Nenagh, Newport, Portroe, Roscrea, Silvermines, Templederry, Toomevara and Youghalarra. Liam Hoolan was centrally involved in this work and he also organised Sinn Fein clubs in the area. He was later appointed Hon. Secretary of Sinn Fein for North Tipperary. As the numbers signing up continued to grow, the various companies were divided between seven different battalion areas and the leaders of the Nenagh battalion became officers of the No. 1 Tipperary brigade of the Irish Republican Army. Frank McGrath was the Commandant and Liam Hoolan the Vice Commandant.

Their immediate priority was to raise funds for the purchase of arms and to this end they organised “concerts, dances and hurling tournaments.”

Peter Street, Nenagh (c. 1910). The Court House square can be seen in the background. Source: Lawrence Collection, National Library of Ireland

McGrath drilled an estimated 120 volunteers each Sunday after the second mass in Nenagh in the Courthouse square from that Summer onwards. He continued to drill these men in public in Nenagh until he was arrested by the R.I.C. in October 1917. The occasion of Frank’s arrest is detailed in a series of original documents he submitted to the Bureau of Military History in 1957. The arresting officers were Sergeant Brownlow and Constable Halloran. The latter described how on Sunday 21st October 1917 he witnessed

“[Frank McGrath] drilling a party of about 124 men at the Courthouse square, Nenagh about 3pm. He gave the following commands. Attention — Form Fours — Two a deep and turned them to the Right and Left. He then gave them Form Fours Left — Left wheel and marched them through the town to the Country. I saw the part returning at about 4.45pm to the Courthouse Square. He then gave them some movements in Military drill, and then marched them off.”

McGrath was arrested and brought to Cork prison to await court martial. He was tried in November 1917 and his response to the charges evoked the Fenian oath. He told the presiding officer

“I am a soldier of the Irish Republic now virtually established and nothing in God’s law prevents me from doing my duty to my country. I claim the right to train Irish citizens to fight for a sovereign state for themselves. Britain cannot and will not crush us with the mailed fist.”

He was found guilty of illegal drilling and was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment, which was commuted to six months.

Frank’s arrest made the national newspapers in England (Manchester Evening News, 31 October 1917)
This is the notice that was on Frank’s cell door as he awaited his Court Martial in Cork prison. (WS1558)

McGrath noted that “there were a good number of political prisoners in Cork prison at the time.” One of them was a fellow IRB member, Robert Brennan, a 1916 veteran, future Irish Press journalist and Irish ambassador to the United States. This group of prisoners decided to go on hunger-strike to secure their release or obtain political prisoner status. This had a sudden effect as “after a few days a batch of 14 or 15 of the hunger-strikers”, of which McGrath was one, “were transferred to Dundalk prison.” Waiting for them in Dundalk was a solitary Republican prisoner, Frank Thornton, another survivor of the 1916 Rising and he was also on hunger-strike. McGrath plus the other transferred prisoners thus resumed their hunger-strike and after three or four weeks they were all released under the Cat and Mouse Act, a law introduced in response due to the hunger-strike tactics of the Suffragette movement. Prisoners had to be released when they became ill, but could be re-arrested for the original charge when they recovered.

It was not long before McGrath was re-arrested. In April 1918 he was captured and conveyed to Templemore military barracks and from there to Belfast Prison, Crumlin road. He spent six months in Belfast prison, a popular destination for many republican prisoners including Terence McSwiney, Kevin O’Higgins, Austin Stack and Michael Brennan.

Ball of twine (sliotar) made by Frank McGrath in Belfast Prison (1918) Apparently sold at an auction in 2011.

He continued to play hurling, handball and gaelic football in the prison yard while incarcerated. Perhaps the apex of Gaelic games solidarity with the struggle for Irish independence arrived on the 4 July 1918, when a proclamation was signed into effect by Lt. Gen. Shaw, Commander in Chief of the British forces in Ireland, which outlawed “the holding or taking part in any meetings, assemblies, or processions within the whole of Ireland.” This meant that a special permit would have to be obtained to hold any G.A.A. events in Ireland from then on. An incredulous John Dillon asked the House of Commons “Is it the law that says it is [now] treasonable to hold hurling matches?” The G.A.A. responded to this by organising Gaelic Sunday on the 4 August 1918, a day of protest where hundreds of matches would be played simultaneously across the country without seeking a single permit. On that day Frank McGrath took part in a Gaelic football match played in the Belfast prison yard. He was but one of circa 50,000 players who are believed to have taken to the playing fields on that memorable day. The Gaelic Sunday protest was successful. The British government reversed their decision and the G.A.A. was now excluded from the restrictions in the proclamation.

Belfast prison, Crumlin Road

In June and July 1918 he also participated in a significant prison riot alongside about 100 other political prisoners. This was the “Lewes tactic” of disrupting the prison to force political prisoner status to be recognised. This was the first break up of the prison and it involved the use of barricades, the refusal to obey prison orders, to return to cells after mass and general resistance to the prison authorities. Singing, shouting and the raising of “seditious cries” were a common tactic to disrupt the prison system. A truce was eventually declared and some of the prisoners were dispersed to different locations. Frank McGrath was deported to Durham prison.

The deportation order that was given to McGrath when he was re-arrested outside Belfast prison, Crumlin road (WS1558)

When McGrath was released from Belfast prison in early October 1918 he recalls that he was immediately “re-arrested outside the prison gates” and “served with a deportation order.” He was held briefly in Arbour Hill prison in Dublin before being put on a “cattle boat” and transported across the Irish sea. This journey was not without incident. McGrath remembered that they

“were only a short time out to sea when the ship was suddenly put on a zig-zag course and all on board were issued with lifebelts. It soon became common property that there was a German submarine in the vicinity.”

They made it to safely to Great Britain but McGrath chillingly noted in his witness statement that within a week the RMS Leinster was sunk by a German submarine just outside Dublin bay. 501 people perished. Among McGrath’s twelve comrades in Durham prison were Eamon O’Duibhir (Ballagh), Seamus O’Neill (a professor in Rockwell College), Eamon Morkan (1916 veteran and former Frongoch internee), Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha (An Seabhac), Darrell Figgis (former Secretary of Sinn Fein) and Michael Spillane. According to McGrath, Durham prison was a slight improvement on Belfast prison as conditions were “reasonably good.”

Other prisoners were not so fond of their temporary home. Morkan compared it unfavourably to Reading jail in 1916 and that in Durham “they had not as great an area of accommodation.” Morkan also revealed that this prison “housed actual delinquents” and how one of them gave him a lesson in how to successfully pickpocket.

Darrell Figgis, who was instrumental in the successful Howth gun-running operation in 1914, hated Durham prison, finding it cold and damp. Figgis was troubled at the political machinations across the Irish sea, which he felt were purposefully leaving him behind, and so he retreated into himself, sometimes passing the time at night whistling complete Beethoven symphonies, which perplexed his neighbour in the next cell, An Seabhac.

When Armistice Day arrived on 11 November 1918, the governor of the prison stopped by the Republicans to tell them that the war was over. He was understandably “very excited” by this and according to Morkan he was most disappointed to find that “this news did not appear to be so important to us as it was to him.”

Republican priosners in Durham prison (1918) An Seabhac is the second from the left (Source: Kerry 1916 Book)

Nevertheless the Armistice announcement seeded rumours among the prisoners that they now might be released early. In late November 1918 McGrath was already weary of those who were spreading such optimistic rumours of a general release by describing them as “false prophets.” He was right. He was not released until May 1919. The cause of the gradual release was something that was on their minds for the duration of their time in Durham prison. The flu pandemic (1918–1920) had led to the deaths of over 3% of the world’s human population and some republican prisoners, like W.T. Cosgrave in Reading jail, contracted it but survived. It did however claim the life of Sinn Fein T.D. Pierce McCan on 6 March 1919. He had contracted a lethal strain of influenza while languishing in Gloucester prison. There was outrage about this in Ireland and so the British government sought to defuse the anger by releasing batches of political prisoners. “Thus”, Figgis noted, “the prison gates were opened by the hand of a dead man.”

Durham Prison

McGrath was released in May 1919 after having been imprisoned by the British authorities for 14 of the previous 20 months. In his absence the Brigade had been capably managed by the other senior officers namely, Liam Hoolan, Sean Gaynor, Edward O’Leary and Frank Flannery. Now free, McGrath resumed his role as Commandant and set about consolidating the No.1 Tipperary brigade “with the other members of the Brigade staff” which included the “quest to secure more arms.” But this period of freedom did not last long. Some months later he was once again seized by Crown forces and imprisoned in Limerick military barracks and then moved to Cork prison. Sometime in January 1920 he was deported from Ireland “with a number of other prisoners” to Wormwood Scrubs Prison in London. McGrath’s deportation was part of a mass arrest campaign of what the British military had designated as “rebel leaders”, the majority of whom were sent to Wormwood.

According to Thomas J. Doyle, Wormwood Scrubs prison was a “cold, wet place” where the “walls exuded water all the time…Knutsford [prison] was a pleasure ground compared to it.” By the end of spring 1920 around 140 prominent republicans were arrested in Ireland, transported under British military guard, forced into cells and held without trial in Wormwood Scrubs prison. This was a policy of internment.

Wormwood Scrubs prison in London (Photo by Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images)

Frank McGrath and Joe MacDonagh, a brother of Thomas MacDonagh (executed signatory of the 1916 Proclamation), were the two individuals who began to aggressively lobby for a new hunger-strike to force their release. Both had been out on parole just previous to this, and as historian William Murphy has alluded to, they were probably influenced by the successful hunger-strike action in Mountjoy prison in early April 1920. That hunger-strike, which was backed by a two day general strike by the Irish trade unions, led to the release of political prisoners on the 14 April 1920. That night as people celebrated this news across the country a group of Crown forces fired into the crowd in Miltown Malbay, killing three unarmed civilians, Patrick Hennessy, Thomas O’Leary and John O’Loughlin, and injuring twelve others. Conor Mulvagh noted that this “indiscriminate firing had a deeply negative effect on public perceptions of the Crown forces in Ireland.” Pressure was building.

McGrath and MacDonagh believed that the same tactics should be applied in Wormwood Scrubs but before convincing the other prisoners of this they sought authorisation for this action from central command. As we shall later see, McGrath’s war of independence record shows remarkable consistency in this regard. When on parole, McGrath met with the GHQ staff (likely Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy) who informed him that they could not authorise such a hunger-strike and that it was up to the men themselves if they wished to proceed. Likewise MacDonagh, also on parole before this, met with Cathal Brugha who apparently said that he never approved of hunger-strikes and that there was “never an official order for any hunger-strike.”

McGrath and McDonagh returned to Wormwood to find that there was opposition from a sizeable minority of the prisoners to this extreme action. One of those who led the opposition was Henry (“Harry”) O’Hanrahan, brother of Michael O’Hanrahan who was executed after the 1916 Rising. About fifty men agreed with him while over 100 supported it. Sean Matthews (WS1022) described how the strike was led by Frank McGrath, Maurice Collins, and Joe McDonagh and that it soon became known as “the Munstermens’ Strike” as most of the pro-strike group were from the Munster area. This division became bitter and Eamon O’Duibhir noted that this enmity excluded himself and Frank McGrath who were firmly in support of a hunger-strike but yet “recognised the other man’s point of view.”

The hunger-strike went ahead without those that opposed the action. McGrath recalled that

“…after due consideration it was decided to take hunger-strike action to secure our release. The hunger-strike, of which I as the prisoners’ spokesman or commandant took charge, began on the 21st April 1920, and continued for approximately three weeks.”

The men had set out their position in a letter which was published in the press and which directly addressed Major Briscoe, the Governor of the prison, underlining the fact that they had not been charged nor tried for any crime. This, they said, was “contrary to the laws of humanity, and we demand our unconditional release.” After four days 108 men were refusing to eat and this hunger-strike soon led to unrest in Liverpool, Glasgow and London as supporters came out to protest against their internment without trial. As for the reaction inside the prison, Eamon O’Duibhir and Patrick Rankin (another veteran of 1916 Rising) have left us with the most detailed account of the mass hunger-strike.

WS0671 (Patrick Rankin), Bureau of Military History

After the hunger-strike had passed the fifth day the Governor of the prison approached the strikers in the exercise yard and sarcastically mocked their action and stated that “he did not know what it was all about.” O’Duibhir replied and said

“We were in that prison because we had taken Britain at her word in the war that had finished some time before; that she and her allies were fighting for the rights of small nations and that our country, being a small nation, had just as much right to be free as Belgium or England or any other country and, because of our attitude in that respect we had been brought there, and we objected to being kept in prison and that was why we were hunger-striking.”

The Governor was enraged by this and that they were “beginning to get uppish.” He warned them that if they caused any trouble the “famous” Coldstream Guards were nearby and as they outnumbered the prisoners five to one, and had “rifles and bayonets”, they would be brought in to sort them out. Joe McDonagh witnessed this threat and he soon persuaded the rest of the hunger-strikers that as the Governor was looking for trouble they “may as well give it to him.” He also thought that such an action would unite the now divided group. That evening they planned a “complete wreckage of that wing of the prison.” O’Duibhir has detailed how they achieved this.

WS1474 (Eamon O’Duibhir)

Once they had taken the cell door off its hinges they flung them “out over the railing and down through the wire netting to the ground floor, and they crashed down in continual showers….the first one we got through narrowly missed the Governor and he retreated rapidly…”

After this O’Hanrahan and his followers (who were mostly from Dublin) joined in with determination, “even if”, as historian Conor Kostick noted, “it shattered his health.” O’Hanrahan never fully recovered from this hunger strike and he died from liver cancer, which likely originated in his stomach, in 1927. Patrick Rankin declared this change of heart a “great victory for Ireland.”

By the 30th April 1920 217 of the 221 internees were on hunger-strike.

As word spread about the hunger-strike a huge crowd of between 2,500 and 7,000 Irish supporters began to gather outside to offer their solidarity. They consisted of Irish migrants in London and the London Irish community. They were organised by London Sinn Fein and the Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain.

Marlborough Express, Volume LIV, Issue 98, 27 April 1920 (Courtesy of PapersPast)

As the hunger-strike continued English counter-demonstrators attended the nightly gatherings and started to pelt the Irish supporters with stones and mud. As Sean McConville described it

“[After the first attack] Sinn Féin brought out more supporters the following evening, and this was matched by even more counter-demonstrators. Mounted police were deployed to clear away what the Daily Chronicle described as

“One of the biggest demonstrations London has ever seen.”

“Even allowing for journalistic hyperbole, events were spinning out of control. Sinn Féin now showed its determination to meet violence with violence by providing a strong body of stewards. These, armed with hurley sticks, were positioned on the sides of the column…The Morning Post put the crowd at 30,000….the following night demonstrators came prepared, with a ‘flying column’ of stewards in steel helmets, and a casualty clearing station.”

This hunger-strike also resulted in an escalation in the Labour movement. One of the Irish political prisoners interned without trial and on hunger-strike in Wormwood Scrubs was the trade union leader William O’Brien. He called on his comrades to show their support. This pamphlet was circulated in Liverpool urging support amongst labourers and the Irish community.

Source: National Library of Ireland

This is how the London Times reported the threatened strike in Liverpool.

The London Times, 28 April 1920

Michael O’Laoghaire, a dockworker and IRB member based in Liverpool, recounted how over 5,000 dock labourers went on strike in protest at their treatment.

“In April 1920, we decided to call an unofficial strike at the docks as a protest against the treatment meted out to the Irish political prisoners who were hunger-striking at Wormwood Scrubs. The dock labourers and the crews of the cross channel boats — BI, Cork, Limerick, Dundalk and Newry — came out to a man . . . The number employed was 5,024 and out of that number 5,016 came out on strike, completely crippling the movement of all ships in the port of Liverpool.”

A protest in Glasgow also turned violent as the police baton-charged the crowd.

The London Times, 28 April 1920

As prisoners began to fall ill and the pressure continued to rise across Britain the hunger-strike eventually succeeded. McGrath explained how

“…as the men grew weaker and weaker, the prison authorities, fearing that they might die in their cells, had them removed singly or in small groups by ambulance to hospitals in London. Eventually, all were out of prison and in hospital and unconditional release had been secured.”

After spending almost two years in various prisons across Ireland and Great Britain, Frank McGrath returned to Tipperary and resumed his position as Commandant of the No.1 Brigade. He was more wary than ever of being rearrested, had pushed himself to the limit, and his health was badly affected by the various hunger-strikes. Yet the war of independence was escalating quickly. Killings, assassinations and reprisals were now becoming customary. The next operation he would be involved with was an attack on the R.I.C. Barracks in Borrisokane. But they needed explosives. So he got on a train, accompanied by Co. Clare’s Michael Brennan, and headed for Dublin. There they would meet with Michael Collins who supplied them with hand grenades…

To be continued in 2017.


Librarian & Historian. Researching and writing about slavery, memory and power. Ko-Fi

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