Last Sunday was the 32nd anniversary of the death on hunger strike of Bobby Sands. The death of Bobby and his nine comrades, and of many others outside the prison radicalised a whole new generation. The 1981 hunger strike was a watershed in recent Irish history. Two other Irish republicans died on hunger strike in English prisons; Michael Gaughan in 1974 and Frank Stagg in 1976.
Hunger strike has long been a weapon in the arsenal of political prisoners fighting for improved conditions or release from illegal detention. It was used by republican political prisoners almost 100 years ago before and during the Tan War and Civil War. In more recent time ANC prisoners in South Africa marked Bobby’s death in 1981 and used hunger strike during their struggle with the prison regime. Palestinian, Basque and Kurdish prisoners have similarly used the hunger strike weapon and now some 100 detainees are on hunger strike in Guantánamo Bay. Reports state that four have been hospitalised and 23 are being force-fed.
As I read about this development I was reminded of the experience of republican comrades in the 1970’s in jails in England who were forced fed. Michael Gaughan died on hunger strike in Parkhurst prison in England in June 1974 after 64 days without food. He was 24. Michael Gaughan had been force fed for almost six weeks and it later emerged that a tube, which was forced down his throat, had punctured his lung and led to pneumonia and his death.
Michael wasn’t the only one to be force fed. Frank Stagg, who died in February 1976, Gerry Kelly, Hugh Feeney, Dolores and Marian Price were also forced fed for over 200 days. The experience was horrific.
At that time I wrote about this based on first hand accounts from Gerry and Hugh who had been repatriated to Long Kesh. I was trying to highlight the trauma that Frank Stagg would face. I am sure that the conditions of force feeding will not have changed much since then.
“He will face at least one and maybe two ’feedings’ daily. Force-feeding is always brutal. No matter how often it occurs, the victim does not get used to it. If the ‘feedings’ are not at regular times each day, and usually they are not, then he spends his entire day trying to prepare himself emotionally, trying to restock his determination to fight.
A team of screws are the first to appear. They come into the cell with varying expressions on their faces, ranging from snarls through impassive indifference, to sheepish, apologetic smiles. Frank will either be ‘fed’ in his cell or dragged outside into another one where he will be held in a bed or on a chair. Usually six or eight screws are involved. They swoop in a planned manner, holding and pressing down on arms and legs. Frank will struggle as best he can even though he knows it is useless. One grabs him by the hair and forces his head back and when he is finally pinned down the doctor and his assistant arrive.
Various methods will be employed to open Frank’s mouth: his nose will be covered to cut off air, or a screw or doctor will bunch his fists and bore his knuckles into the joints on each side of the jaws. A ‘Ryle’s tube’ will be used. This is a very long, thin tube which is pushed through the nose. It is supposedly for nasal feeding but in force-feeding it is simply a weapon used to force open the jaws. It rubs against the membrane at the back of the nose and, if not coated in lubricant (it seldom is), it causes a searing pain, akin to a red-hot needle being pushed into one’s head. If Frank cries out, a wooden clamp will immediately be pushed between his teeth. If this fails to work the doctor will use a large pair of forceps to cut into the gums, the ensuing pain again forcing the jaws open sufficiently for the clamp to be pressed in. Sometimes a metal clamp, rather like a ‘bulldog’ clip, is used. It is shoved between the teeth and a bolt is turned, opening a spring and forcing the jaws apart.
When Frank’s jaws are finally prised open, a wooden bit, rather like a horse’s bit, is forced into his mouth. It ‘sits’ across his mouth with a screw holding each end, and there is a hole in the centre of it through which the feeding tube passes. A flat piece of wood is used to press the tongue down and then a three-foot-long rubber tube, coated in liquid paraffin, is shoved in and down his throat. A funnel is placed on the open end and some water poured in. If the water bubbles they know the tube is in Frank’s lungs. If so, the tube is removed and the process starts again. Michael Gaughan was murdered in this way. When the tube is eventually fixed properly, it is pushed down into Frank’s stomach.
There are different widths of tube, and obviously the wider they are the more painful the torture. Doctors usually use the widest as it gets the food down quicker and they don’t have to delay overlong. Frank will feel his stomach filling up and stretching, an experience he has undergone before. Automatically he will vomit, the disgorged food being caught in a kidney-dish. If the doctor in charge is especially sadistic, the vomit will be forced back down his throat again (as happened to Gerry Kelly).
When the tube is being removed it tears at the back of the throat, more so than before because the liquid paraffin will have worn off on the way down. The last few inches will be ghastly. Frank will get violent pains in his chest. He will choke and at this point he will be sicker than before, as the tube coming out triggers off more retching (Marian Price passed out at this stage once).
This then is force-feeding. Last week the UN Commission for Human Rights stated that this force-feeding is ethically and legally unjustifiable. The use of force-feeding should end and Guantánamo Bay should be closed.