St. Patrick’s Day 1920, Wormwood Scrubs
Shamrock Box; sent with shamrock to prisoner D.J. Long, March 1920, Wormwood Scrubs.
Subsequent to the unsuccessful January 1920 attack on Kilmurry RIC Barracks by some 60 men drawn from a number of companies in the Macroom Battalion of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) there was a marked increase in activity by the Crown Forces in the area. However it was not until early March 1920 that the recently re-enforced, due to increasing IRA activity in the area, British Forces made significant arrests during roundups in the area. One of these sweeps unfortunately managed to capture Pat O’Leary, Officer Commanding Kilmurry Company along with his 1st Lieutenant Denis J. Long. These prisoners among other men from the surrounding areas were first transported to Cork Jail and then onto Wormwood Scrubs Prison, London.
It was here on 21st of April 1920 that Denis J. Long alongside some 150 fellow IRA men went on hunger-strike for political status; in a week the number on hunger-strike had swelled to over 200 men. These men, some interned without trial and others court-martialled under The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) were determined to achieve political status and/or release. A hunger-strike by republicans under similar circumstances, the same month, in Mountjoy Jail in Dublin had reached a successful conclusion with a general release of all internees. The hunger-strikers in Wormwood Scrubs were emboldened by this concession by the British and a determination to render the prison system, and the wider justice system that sustained British rule in Ireland, unworkable. The hunger-strike itself was not supported by all Republican prisoners in the prison and the pro-strike group became known as the “the Munstermens’ Strike”; most likely the anti-strike group were taking their direction from the Dublin based leadership of the IRA who were reluctant to sanction any hunger-strikes officially.
The hunger-strikers received the support of the Irish in Britain by way of protests and daily vigils outside the prison in London and supporting protests in Manchester and Glasgow. There was also the likelihood of a general strike by Irish dockers in Liverpool in sympathy with the hunger-strikers.
In the end rather than face the possibility of mass deaths on their hands the British acquiesced. At first only releasing to hospital those whose health had deteriorated sufficiently to warrant it, but eventually all were released to local hospitals. Initially the authorities hoped that the prisoners would be returned to prison but in all actuality the hospitals could not hold them and Wormwood Scrubs was happy enough to be rid of them. In all the hunger-strike lasted 23 days and on mid-May 1920 Denis J. Long was one of the last to be transferred to hospital and like most of his comrades initiated his own release, on recovery, by walking out of the hospital!
It is doubtful whether Denis had many belongings with him in London on his release; indeed the release of some 200 homeless IRA men (many were accommodated by sympathetic Irish families in London by way of the Irish Self-Determination League) onto the streets of London did cause some organisational problems and no little financial unease for the IRA leadership back in Dublin; who were anxious that the British would fund the released prisoners passage back home to Ireland.
There is one item we can be sure that Denis had with him in London and it is a cardboard gift box which he had received in jail two months previous, on 17th of March 1920, St. Patrick’s Day. This box, now part of the Independence Museum Kilmurry collection, containing a sprig of shamrock from Ireland must have been an important reminder to him as to why he was putting himself through the pain of a 23 day hunger strike and a possible last link to home