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  • "No Hope for Him Unless He Can Be Got Out of the Country":Disabled Irish Republicans in America, 1922-1935
  • Gavin Wilk

During the Irish Civil War, life for an Irish Republican Army member could be hazardous. Second Kerry Brigade member Jeremiah Murphy's account of his time as an IRA guerrilla fighter during late 1922 and early 1923 portrays the hardships that republicans faced. Murphy recalled that he and his battalion members struggled to find food, oftentimes slept rough, and contended with an overpowering Irish Free State army.1 Although he fully believed that republicans were "resolute men . . . hardened by the gains and defeats . . . and were not easily intimidated," Murphy conceded that "their nerves and physical endurance could not last indefinitely." Some of his fellow IRA members subsequently "became ill from stomach and lung ailments."2

If captured and placed in prison, conditions could become worse. Tipperary IRA volunteer Michael Flannery, detained in 1922 by Irish Free State troops, remembered the dampness in his cell at Mountjoy Prison.3 After awaking each morning, Flannery's standard routine included drying out his mattress. The bedding became so waterlogged that an oat grain, embedded in the fabric actually started to sprout. Prisoner hunger strikes also exacerbated the difficult conditions. The physical effects of malnourishment as described by IRA officer Ernie O'Malley included a slow and steady deterioration of the body's facilities. He wrote that the "unimportant tissues, seemingly, are first affected; the unimportant muscles waste, then more vital organs are attacked, memory and sight impaired."4 After sustaining forty-one days without food in a coordinated prisoner strike, O'Malley barely survived. His ordeal continued as he was forced to [End Page 106] endure an operation to remove bullet fragments from his back with only limited anesthesia. He recalled that the surgeon's knife "seared like a red-hot iron, and the forceps and probe produced the sensation of a hammer hitting me hard in the back."5

Overall, the Irish health care facilities that O'Malley and other wounded and sick republicans entered were severely inadequate. As the new Free State attempted in the early 1920s to centralize and amalgamate the country's health networks, the Local Government Board system was essentially dissolved. The transformation of health care after the Anglo-Irish Treaty proved arduous and was further set back by the events of the civil war.6 Medical institutions, including those which offered tuberculosis treatments also diminished. As a result, IRA members who developed serious health issues often were not afforded proper care in Ireland. With their lives in the balance, a number of disabled republicans traveled to the United States to avail of American medical assistance.7 The experiences of these men not only provide an important glimpse into the transatlantic dimensions of the republican movement at the time, but also offer compelling evidence of the flexibility and dynamism of the transnational social networks that existed between Ireland and the United States in the years after the period of the Irish revolution.

In late 1922, Michael Leahy, an IRA leader from County Cork, arrived in New York to take part in republican fundraising activities.8 Leahy's time in the public spotlight was brief, however, when after a few months he was forced to travel "West for the benefit of his health."9 In April 1923, Leahy revealed to a friend that he was covered with a "bad rash" on his "back and chest." He would occasionally "wake up with a terrible sore feeling" and had difficulty swallowing.10 To combat these ailments, he had permanently moved to California and "rented a nice little cottage up in Sierra Madre." Leahy believed this area outside of Los Angeles was "the healthiest part" of the state.11 The change of scene worked; two months later and after numerous medical consultations, his health had greatly [End Page 107] improved. Overall, he was "feeling in pretty good shape" and had found employment. Awaiting the arrival of his wife and daughter, he optimistically felt that he was "surely on the mend."12

But at the same time as Leahy and his family settled in California during the summer of 1923, around...


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