Strike in Lewes Jail Handbill

The handbill see here was published in June 1917 and discusses the plight of the Irish prisoners in Lewes Jail who had been held since the Easter Rising in 1916.  The prisoners had gone on hunger strike in an effort to try and force the British government to treat them with the same rights afforded to prisoners of war instead of treating them like common criminals.  The handbill states that “121 Irishmen in Lewes Jail are being slowly starved to death” and raises attention to the conditions in which the men were being kept.  The men were “made to endure the horrors of solitary confinement in badly ventilated cells, deprived of all visits and letters and prevented from going to Mass.”  The authors of the handbill likely sought to appeal to the common Catholic population who would’ve been upset that a prisoner wasn’t allowed to attend Mass and seek atonement for his sins.  The handbill concludes by stating that “A public meeting will be held at Beresford Place, on Sunday, June 10, at 7:30p.m.”

After the election of Joe McGuinness to the South Longford Parliamentary seat, all nationalist efforts turned to trying to secure the release of the remaining Irish prisoners in Britain.  This handbill and the meeting that it was promoting were the first steps in this new campaign for release.  Lieutenant-General Mahon of the British Army banned the meeting at Beresford Place, but roughly three thousand people still turned out hoping to hear Cathal Brugha and Count Plunkett speak.  When the two men arrived at 7:30pm, Inspector John Mills of the Dublin Metropolitan Police promptly arrested both of them in front of Liberty Hall.  The crowd obstructed the route that Mills needed to take to get his prisoners back to Store Street Station, and a large force of police officers needed to clear them out.  The crowd threw stones at the police as they passed and as they neared the station, someone came out from the crowd and struck Inspector Mills in the head with a hurley.  Mills went down instantly and would later die from his wounds in Jervis Street Hospital.  The man who struck Mills was pursued by two constables, but the constables were obstructed and attacked by the crowd and were unable to capture the attacker. That night, riots broke out throughout the city as word of the arrests of Plunkett and Brugha began to spread.[1]

The state of Dublin likely had some influence on the British government as Lloyd George announced the release of the prisoners five days after the death of Inspector Mills.  The release was ultimately timed to coincide with the launch of the Irish Convention and was done in the spirit of goodwill in hopes that a compromise could be reached during the convention.  This would prove to be an ill-founded hope as the more radical Irish Nationalists in Sinn Fein and the Irish Volunteers would continue to push forward with a revolution.[2]

The British government purposely kept the release of the prisoners low key and didn’t even provide them with time to inform their families.  This did little to keep the leak of information regarding their release from spreading rapidly throughout the city, though, as a crowd of a few thousand people were waiting to greet the prisoners when they arrived in Dublin.    The prisoners were ultimately caught up by the crowd as they exited Westland Row Station, and the press reported a festive mood throughout the city as tri-color flags were seen flying from various houses, as well as two from the top of the General Post Office.[3]

Documents like this handbill are important for the study of the Irish Revolution as they help to put us into the shoes of the people who were living through the event.  Without this handbill, the crowd of people would’ve never turned up to the Beresford Place meeting.  If that evening had taken a different course, then the British Government likely would’ve continued to hold the prisoners and wouldn’t have felt the need to make amends with the nationalist politicians prior to the Irish Convention.