‘An Experience Much Worse Than Rape’: The Force-Feeding of the Price Sisters, 1973-74
The Price sisters occupy an ambiguous space in Northern Irish history. Jailed in 1973 for their role in the IRA London bombing campaign, Dolours and Marian went on hunger strike in a campaign to be repatriated to Northern Ireland. Doctors force-fed the sisters for much of their 200-day protest. The Prices’ controversial hunger strike has failed to attract the levels of attention and sympathy awarded to Bobby Sands and his fellow hunger strikers some seven years later. Indeed, historians have commented that the (male-dominated) republican movement struggled to reconcile female prison protests (sometimes involving the smearing of menstrual blood on cell walls) with its conservative view of Irish women as home-makers. However, at the time, the Price sisters’ hunger strike garnered international attention from journalists, medical ethicists and human rights activists. For instance, it was pivotal to the World Medical Association’s formal condemnation of force-feeding in 1975.
Force-feeding involves inserting a stomach tube into the mouth of a prisoner/patient which passes downwards through the body into the stomach, causing most patients to gag, choke and vomit. Liquid food is then poured through the tube. Force-feeding can also be performed using a nasal tube. However, according to accepted medical ethics, sane patients have a basic right to be able to refuse medical treatment (including force-feeding) if they wish. Moreover, prisoners insist that doctors use force-feeding, a physically and emotionally traumatic procedure, primarily to punish. Force-feeding has also been known to kill when liquid accidentally entered the lungs, causing rapid death from pneumonia. Force-feeding emerges from the historical and present-day record as physically dangerous, ethically precarious and irrefutably unpleasant.
Throughout the 20th century, numerous prisoners were force-fed in Britain: convicts, conscientious objectors, Cold War peace protesters and anarchists, to name but a few. However, it tended to be female prisoners who attracted public attention. The levels of public controversy surrounding the Price sisters’ feedings at Brixton Prison, London, had not been seen since the suffragettes were brutally force-fed between 1909 and 1914. The Prices’ relatively young age (19 and 23) fuelled public debate, as did the apparent excessiveness of force-feeding policies given that the sisters’ requests to be transferred home seemed fairly reasonable.
The accounts of force-feeding that emerged from Brixton Prison made for disturbing reading. In a pamphlet entitled Prison Writings of the Price Sisters (published in Anderstown, a republican enclave of Belfast), the sisters wrote:
It only takes a few minutes but it feels like an eternity. To crown matters, I was violently sick afterwards and brought everything up. I feel a wee bit better now but I am dreading going through it all again tomorrow. It’s only to be expected that after 19 days without food, my stomach would reject the ‘feed’.
IRA newspaper An Plobacht wrote that ‘the mental agony of waiting to be force-fed is getting to the stage where it now outweighs the physical discomfort of having to go through with it.
Public criticism was not confined to Northern Irish republican circles. Between 1973 and 1974, the Price sisters’ feedings were discussed and heavily debated in the Guardian, Spectator¸ feminist magazine Spare Rib, New Statesman and New Society, as well as medical publications including the British Medical Journal. The Irish Press described force-feeding as ‘an experience much worse than rape’. The Irish Civil Rights Association burnt effigies of the British Home Secretary in Dublin. In January 1974, 100 demonstrators congregated outside Wormwood Scrubs at an event organised by the Irish Political Hostages Campaign. Some allowed themselves to be force-fed in the street. One elderly Wexford man, Charles O’Sullivan, needed to be taken to hospital after his feeding.
Although the Home Office insisted that the procedure was safe, harmless and ethically appropriate, the Price sisters’ medical records (held at National Archives, Kew) indicate excessive vomiting, mouth abrasions, tooth damage and persistent fainting attacks. Criticism mounted within the medical profession. In March 1974, a young London-based trainee G.P., Berry Beaumont, led a group of protestors to picket the headquarters of the British Medical Association and deliver a letter (signed by 38 doctors) asking the Association to condemn force-feeding. Back in Brixton Prison, the Price sisters were enduring their 175th day of force-feeding.
In May 1974, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins announced that the sisters’ feedings would stop. The controversy appeared to be over. However, on 3rd June Michael Gaughan (another republican hunger striker who had previously escaped media attention) died from complications with force-feeding. International debate over the treatment of IRA prisoners once again erupted. In a broader climate of concern about prison and military doctors participating in torture and other ethically dubious activities, the World Medical Association took action. At the twenty-ninth World Medical Assembly, held in Tokyo in October 1975, the WMA formally declared that hunger strikers should never be force-fed, providing the first formal outline of ethical standards on hunger strike management and ending a debate first initiated by the suffragettes back in 1909.
Not that the Price sisters’ hunger strike will be as well remembered as those staged by the suffragettes. Like the Price sisters themselves, public opinion on the IRA remains ambiguous, as evident in the ongoing debates in Northern Ireland about the highly documented male hunger strikes of 1980-81 which left ten men dead. The Price sisters’ force-feedings suffer from a double burden in Northern Ireland being marginalized in society at large because as an IRA protest and in Republican circles because the hunger strikers were women.
Ian Miller is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in Medical Humanities at the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, Ulster University. This blog post stems from a chapter in A History of Force Feeding: Hunger Strikes, Prisons and Medical Ethics, 1909-74, scheduled for publication with Palgrave Macmillan in July 2016. Ian’s other publications include A Modern History of the Stomach (Pickering and Chatto, 2011), Reforming Food in Post-Famine Ireland (Manchester University Press, 2014), Water: A Global History (Reaktion, 2015) and (co-edited with David Durnin), Medicine, Health and Irish Experiences of Conflict (Manchester University Press, 2016).