31 years ago today, a 27 year old elected member of the British House of Parliament, starved to death in a prison in Northern Ireland, after 66 days on hunger strike. Bobby Sands was the first of ten men to die, all of them jailed members of Irish Republican organisations. Seven were from the I.R.A and three from I.N.L.A ( The Irish National Liberation Army).
Bobby Sands was born into a working class Roman Catholic family in 1954. A figure of contention to this day, to some a hero of the people, to others a perpetrator and supporter of terrorism and violence.
Let us remember though that Ireland was very different then,to what it is today. Growing up Bobby Sands was forced to make a choice between a status quo under which he saw his community persecuted, intimidated, and forced out of their homes by loyalist mobs. Like many young people of the time, he chose the path of resistance and joined the I.R.A. Often when a community is under a cloud of oppression,it's citizens sometimes do not passively accept their lot, but choose to fight back.
At the time native Irish people in Northern Ireland were deprived of basic civil rights, could not participate in elections, unless they owned a home. Daily many young men like Bobby Sands were harassed and persecuted, under a continual state of siege. Such was the climate and circumstances of the times that led Bobby Sands to later write ' I have seen to many homes wrecked, fathers and sons arrested, friends murdered. Too much shooting and blood, most of it on our own people. I joined the I.R.A.
In 1973 when he was 17 he was sentenced to five years imprisonment and released in 1976. In 1976 he was rearrested and charged with the involvement in the bombing of a furniture company. He was never actually convicted of this charge, the presidary judge stated that there was no evidence to support the assertion that Sands had taken part in the bombing. After the bombing, Sands and at least 5 others were alleged to have been involved in a gun battle with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, although he was not convicted due to lack of evidence. Later on the revolvers used in the attack was found in a car in which Sands had been travelling.In 1977 prosecutors charged him with possession of the revolver from which bullets were fired at the R.U.C after the bombing.
After his trial and conviction he was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment within H.M Prison Maze, also known as Long Kesh in the notorious H. Blocks.
Aerial Picture of Long Kesh Prison,
showing the H.Blocks.
In prison he was beaten regularly and was often in solitary confinement. The conditions he and fellow prisoners were held in were brutal and barbaric. Here he joined other prisoners in the blanket protests, which ran from March 1978 until March 1981, here they engaged in a slop out protest, which had begun when the prison authorities in an attempt to break their will refused the prisoners access to toilets and washing facilities, and forced the prisoners to live in filthy conditions.
During this period Sands immersed himself in books and the politics of liberation, and became an advocate for prisoners rights, calling for reform.
Beginning on the first of March 1981, Sands led nine other republican prisoners in the H.Block section of the Maze Prison on a hunger strike that would last until death. They had 5 demands.
1. The right not to wear a prison uniform.
2. The right not to do prison work.
3. The right of free association and to organise educational and recreational pursuits.
4. The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week.
5. Full restoration of remission lost through protest.
The Citizen - Richard Hamilton
The British Government under Margaret Thatcher failed to meet these demands, and were increasingly at loggerheads with thousands of people who supported their struggle, and the growing international condemnation of the British Governments unwillingness to compromise.
On April 9th , 1981, Sands was elected as an Anti H-Block/ Armagh Political Prisoner M.P for Ennniskillen, later immortalised in the Christy Moore Song ' The Peoples Own M.P'.
Christy Moore - The People'sOwn M.P
After these tragic events the Maze became an important platform for the peace process, when both Republican and Loyalist prisoners got behind calls for ceasefires and political negotiations. For many this history still carries much powerful emotion.
Bobby Sands Funeral Cortege
On Saturday 3 October 1981 the prisoners finally ended their hunger strike, after a marathon 267 days.
Although Margaret Thatcher claimed victory, her government conceded most of the hunger strikers demands shortly after the protests had ended. Even Thatcher, was moved to say later that ' it was possible to admire the courage of Sands and other strikers who died.' Nelson Mandela too has said he was 'directly influenced by Sands bravery, streets were named after him across the globe and songs and poems were written in dedication to him.
Whilst in prison Sands became a writer both of journalism and poetry - being published in the Irish Republican newspaper 'An Phoblact,' under the pen name 'Macella' his sisters name. These writings in minute handwriting, were smuggled out and still ring clearly today, asserting the spirit of freedom and injustice, that had been his inspiration.
I include a few of them below.
The Rhythm of Time
There's an inner thing in every man
Do you know this thing my friend?
It has witnessed the blows of a million years.
And will do so to the end
It was born when time did not exist
And it grew up out of life
It cut down evil;s strangling vines
Like a smashing searing knife.
It lit fires when fires were not,
And burnt the mind of man,
Tempering leadened hearts to steel,
From the time that time began.
It wept by the waters of Babylon,
And when all men were at a loss,
It screeched in writhing agony,
And it hung bleeding from the Cross.
It died in Rome by lion and sword.
And in defiant cruel array,
When the deathly word was 'Spartacus'
Along with the Appian Way.
It marched with the Wat the Tyler's poor.
And frightened lord and king.
And it was emblazoned in their deatlhy stare.
As e'er a living thing.
It smiled in holy innocence.
Before conquistadors of old.
So meek and tame and unaware.
Of the deathly power of gold.
It burst through pitiful Paris streets.
And stormed the old Bastille.
And marched upon the serpent's head.
And crushed it 'neath its heel.
It died in blood in Buffalo Plains.
And starved by moons of rain.
It's heart was buried in Wounded knee.
But it will come to rise again.
It screamed aloud by Kerry lakes.
As it was knell upon the ground.
And it died in great defiance.
As they coldly shot it down.
It lies in the hearts of heroes dead.
It screams in tyrants eyes.
It has reached the peak of mountain high.
It comes searing 'cross the skies.
It lights the dark of this prison cell.
It thunders forth its might.
It is the undauntable thought,my friend.
That thought that says 'I'm right'.
Stars of Freedom
The stars of freedom light the skies.
Uncrowned queens of yesteryear.
They were born 'mid shades of royal hue'.
From mystic wombs they did appear.
Silver gems that pierce the dark.
Heavenly virgins in disguise.
That stir the heart with love and flame.
And light great flames in all men's eyes.
Oh! Star of beauty in nightly hue.
You have inspired bondsmen to kings.
And lit the ways of despairing folk.
From dreams to living things.
In the seas of time you float serene.
Oh! silver stars of nations born.
And you draw a tear to free man's eye.
Through dungeon bars forlorn.
Oh! star of Erin, queen of tears.
Black clouds have beset thy birth.
And your people die like morning stars.
That your light may grace the earth.
But this Celtic star will be born.
And ne'er by mystic means.
But by a nation sired in freedom's light.
And not in ancient dreams.
It is said we live in modern times.
In the civilised year of 'seventy nine.
But when I look around, all I see.
Is modern torture, pain and hypocrisy.
In modern times little children die.
They starve to death, but who dares ask why?
And little girls without attire.
Run screaming, napalmed, through the nights afire.
In the gutter lies the black man, dead.
And where the oil flows blackest, the street runs red.
And there was he who was born and came to be.
But lived and died without liberty.
As the bureaucrats, spectators and presidents alike.
Pin on their dirty, stinking, happy smiles tonight.
The lonely prisoner will cry out from within this tomb.
And tomorrow's wretch will leave it's mother's womb!
Bobby Sands also famously wrote the lyrics to this song, immortalised by Christy Moore.
Christy Moore - Back home in Derry
Long after Bobby Sands death and that of his fellow hunger strikers, their are echoes of their stance today, in the recent struggles of Palestinian prisoners who have used the same tactic in protest against their illegal detention by Israel in acts of non violent resistance, and the prisoners who are currently engaged in their own hunger strike in Guantanamo.
I hope that it is possible that they do not follow in the footsteps of Bobby Sands and his comrades, with the conclusion of their actions ending tragically with loss of lives.
Writings from Prison - Bobby Sands (1998)
Prison Poems - Bobby Sands (1981)
Nothing but an unfinished Song - The Life and times of Bobby Sands
I would also recommend the powerful 2008 film 'Hunger' by Steve McQueen which dramatises events in the Maze Prison, in the period leading up to the hunger strike and Sand's death.
Bobby Sands - Rhythm of Time
a poem from an Irish hero