Sean McNeela and Tony D’Arcy died on hunger strike against the criminalisation of republican prisoners at St Bricin’s Military Hospital in Dublin, 78 years ago this week.
When Sean Russell became Chief of Staff of the IRA in 1938, he immediately appointed Sean McNeela as OC (Officer in Command) England and Tony Darcy as OC of the Western Command.
After a few months of tense activity preparing for the forthcoming bombing campaign, Sean McNeela was arrested and sentenced to nine months imprisonment. He returned to Ireland in 1939 and was appointed Director of Publicity and started to produce a weekly internal newspaper called War News. Sean was arrested three weeks later with members of the IRA’s Radio Broadcast Staff and imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail. He was OC of the prisoners from February 1940 and shared a cell with Tony Darcy, who had been arrested at a GHQ meeting in 40 Parnell Square in Dublin. Darcy was serving a three-month sentence for refusing to either account for his movements or give his name and address when he was arrested.
A crisis developed in the prison when Nicky Doherty, of Julianstown, County Meath, was sentenced to five years penal servitude. Instead of being transferred to Arbour Hill (where other republican prisoners had political status), he was lodged in the criminal section of Mountjoy.
Sean, as OC of republican prisoners, met the governor of the jail and requested that Nicky be transferred to Arbour Hill on the grounds that he was a political prisoner. The request was ignored.
Sean and his prison council met to consider the situation: it was decided they would go on hunger strike until the demand was accepted.
Four men volunteered to go on hunger strike with McNeela and Darcy. They were Tomas Mac Curtain, Cork (only son of the martyred Lord Mayor); Jack Plunkett, Dublin (son of Count Plunkett and brother of Joseph Mary Plunkett); Tommy Grogan, Drogheda, County Louth; and Michael Traynor, Belfast (later Ard-Runai of Sinn Fein).
Seven days after the commencement of the hunger strike, Special Branch officers came to take Sean to Collins Barracks for trial before the Special Court. Sean refused to go. They told him they’d take him by force. A hasty meeting of the prison council was held to decide on how to resist.
Barricades were hastily erected in the D Wing of the jail. Beds, tables and mattresses were piled on top of each other and general preparations were made to resist the removal of Sean, their OC.
A large contingent of the Gardai arrived, together with the Special Branch at full strength. The Gardai charged the barricades with batons; the Special Branch men kept to the rear and looked on while the Gardai were forced to retire by prisoners armed with chair legs.
The most effective weapon possessed by the prisoners was a quantity of lime, liquefied by some Mayo men and flung in the faces of the charging Gardai. It was reminiscent of the evictions of the Land League days.
Finally, the fire hydrants were brought into use and the force of the water from the hoses broke down everything before them. The barricade was toppled and the prisoners, drenched to the skin, could not resist the pressure of the water; they were forced to take cover in the cells.
Tony Darcy and Sean McNeela got into a cell and closed the door. After a few minutes it was burst open and in rushed about five Gardai. Tony, standing under the window facing the door, raised his hand but was silenced by a blow of a baton across the face that felled him senseless. Sean was beaten across the cell. Blood teemed from his face and head. These wounds on Sean and Tony never healed until they died.
Sean was taken away that evening and tried and sentenced by the Special Court. He was charged with “conspiracy to usurp a function of government” and sentenced to two years. He had been running a pirate radio station when arrested.
On the eve of St Patrick’s Day, all six hunger strikers were removed to St Bricin’s Military Hospital.
On the 54th night of the strike, Tony Darcy cried out, “Sean, I’m dying”. Sean replied, “I’m coming, Tony”. The other prisoners appealed to Sean not to get out of bed as he was very weak and they felt it would kill him but Tony’s cry pierced Sean’s heart and he got up and staggered across the room to his friend and comrade.
Later that night, Tony was taken out to a private ward. The IRA Volunteer from Headford, County Galway, died the following night.
The day following Tony’s removal from the ward, Sean’s uncle, Mick Kilroy, a Fianna Fail TD, came to see him.
Alas, he didn’t come to give a kinsman’s help, but attacked Sean for “daring to embarrass de Valera” the “heaven-sent leader” by such action and demanded that he give up his hunger strike at once. Sean ordered him out of the room.
The next day, 19 April, Sean McNeela, IRA Volunteer from Ballycroy, County Mayo, died.
The strike had been called off the day before by the IRA’s GHQ but word had not got into the prison in time to save Sean.