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In memory of Bobby Sands
"I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May God have mercy on my soul. My heart is very sore because I know that I have broken my poor mother's heart, and my home is struck with unbearable anxiety. But I have considered all the arguments and tried every means to avoid what has become the unavoidable: it has been forced upon me and my comrades by four-and-a-half years of stark inhumanity."
When Bobby was sixteen years old he started work as an apprentice coach builder and joined the National Union of Vehicle Builders and the ATGWU. In an article printed in 'An Phoblacht/Republican News' on April 4th, 1981, Bobby recalled: "Starting work, although frightening at first became alright, especially with the reward at the end of the week. Dances and clothes, girls and a few shillings to spend, opened up a whole new world to me."
Bobby's background, experiences and ambitions did not differ greatly from that of the average ghetto youth. Then came 1968 and the events which were to change his life. Bobby had served two years of his apprenticeship when he was intimidated out of his job. His sister Bernadette recalls: "Bobby went to work one morning and these fellows were standing there cleaning guns. One fellow said to him, 'Do you see these here, well if you don't go, you'll get this' - then, Bobby also found a note in his lunch-box telling him to get out."
Of this time Bobby himself later wrote: "I was only a working-class boy from a Nationalist ghetto, but it is repression that creates the revolutionary spirit of freedom..."
In June 1972, the family was intimidated out of their home on Doonbeg Drive, Rathcoole and they moved into the newly-built Twinbrook estate on the fringe of Nationalist West Belfast. Bernadette again recalled: "We had suffered intimidation for about eighteen months before we were actually put out. We had always been used to having Protestant friends. Bobby had gone around with Catholics and Protestants, but it ended up when everything erupted, that the friends he went about with for years were the same ones who helped to put his family out of their home."
At eighteen, Bobby joined the Republican Movement. Bernadette says: "...he was just at the age when he was beginning to become aware of things happening around him. He more or less just said, right, this is where I'm going to take up. A couple of his cousins had been arrested and interred. Bobby felt that he should get involved and start doing something."
Bobby himself wrote. "My life now centered around sleepless nights and stand-bys, dodging the Brits and calming nerves to go out on operations. But the people stood by us. The people not only opened the doors of their homes to lend us a hand, but they opened their hearts to us. I learned that without the people, we could not survive and I knew that I owed them everything."
In October 1972, he was arrested. Four handguns were found in a house in which he was staying and he was charged with possession. He spent the next three years in the cages of Long Kesh where he had political prisoner status. During this time, Bobby read widely and taught himself Irish which he was later to teach to the other men in the H-Blocks.
Released in 1976, Bobby returned to his family in Twinbrook. He reported back to his local unit and straight back to the continuing struggle: "Quite a lot of things had changed; some parts of the ghettos had completely disappeared and others were in the process of being removed. The war was still forging ahead, although tactics and strategy had changed. The British government was now seeking to 'Ulsterise' the war which included the attempted criminalisation of the IRA..."
Bobby set to work tackling the social issues which affected the Twinbrook area. Here, he became a community activist. According to Bernadette, "When he got out of jail that first time, our estate had no Green Cross, no Sinn Fein, nor anything like that. He was involved in the Tenants' Association; he got the taxis to run to Twinbrook because the bus service at that time was inadequate. It got to the stage where people were coming to the door looking for Bobby to put up ramps on the roads, in case cars were going too fast and would knock the children down."
Within six months, Bobby was arrested again. There had been a bomb attack on the Balmoral Furniture Company at Dunmurry, followed by a gun-battle in which two men were wounded. Bobby was in a car near the scene with three other young men. The Royal Ulster Constabulary captured them and found a revolver in the car.
The six men were taken to Castlereagh where they were subjected to brutal interrogations for six days. Bobby refused to answer any questions during his interrogation, except his name, age and address.
He was held on remand for eleven months until his trial in September, 1977. As at his previous trial, he refused to recognize the court.
The judge admitted there was no evidence to link Bobby, or the other three young men with him, to the bombing. So the four of them were sentenced to fourteen years each for possession of the one revolver.
Bobby spent the first twenty-two days of his sentence in solitary confinement, 'on the boards' in Crumlin Road jail. For fifteen of those days, he was completely naked. He was moved to the H-Blocks where he began to write for Republican News and then after February 1979, for the newly-merged An Phobhacht/Republican News under the pen-name, 'Marcella', a sister's name. His articles and letters, in minute handwriting, as with all communications from the H-Blocks, were smuggled out on tiny pieces of toilet paper.
He wrote: "The days were long and lonely. The sudden and total deprivation of such basic human necessities as exercise and fresh air, association with other people, my own clothes and things like newspapers, radio, cigarettes books and a host of other things, made my life very hard."
During this time, Bobby was in constant confrontation with the prison authorities which resulted in several spells of solitary confinement. In the H-Blocks, beatings, long periods in the punishment cells, starvation diets and torture were commonplace as the prison authorities, with the full knowledge and consent of the British administration, imposed a harsh and brutal regime on the prisoners in an effort to break their resistance to criminalization. The prisoners protested against their cruel treatment and the H-Blocks became a battlefield.
On December 19th, 1980, Bobby issued a statement that the prisoners would not wear prison-issue clothing nor do prison work. He then began negotiations with the prison governor, Stanley Hilditch, for a step-by-step de-escalation of the protest. But the prisoners' efforts were rebuffed by the authorities. Wrote Bobby: "We discovered that our good will and flexibility were in vain. It was made abundantly clear during one of my 'co-operation' meetings with prison officials that strict conformity was required - which in essence meant acceptance of criminal status."
In the H-Blocks, the British government saw the opportunity to defeat the IRA by criminalizing Irish freedom fighters, but Bobby Sands and his captive comrades, perhaps more than those on the outside, appreciated before anyone else the grave repercussions. So they fought on.
Bobby volunteered to lead a new hunger strike. He saw it as a microcosm of the way the British government had treated the Irish in the past and were now treating them in the present. Bobby also realized that someone would have to die if they were to win political status.
He insisted on starting two weeks in front of the others, so that perhaps his death could secure the five demands and save their lives. For the first seventeen days of the hunger strike, Bobby kept his secret diary in which he wrote his thoughts and views, mostly in English but occasionally breaking into Gaelic. He had no fear of death and saw the hunger-strike as something much larger than the five demands and as having major repercussions for British rule in Ireland.
On Monday, March 23rd, he was moved to the prison hospital. On March 30th, he was nominated as candidate for the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election caused by the sudden death of Frank Maguire, an independent MP who supported the prisoners' cause. Bobby won the election, but he had no illusions in regard to his victory.
"In my position," he said, "you can't afford to be optimistic." In other words, he didn't believe that because he'd won an election, his life would be saved. It wasn't. In his own words: "...I can be murdered, but I remain what I am, a political POW and no-one, not even the British, can change that."
Bobby's death was succeeded by those of nine other comrades. Arrested without evidence, convicted without trials, and stripped of their political status as POWs, these men asked for five basic rights - rights which the authorities could have easily granted - but instead, they were left to die, while the world looked on in horror.
Those five demands were:
The year 2001 marks the 20th anniversary of their deaths. The point this author is trying to make is not one of politics. What happened in 1981 was a tragedy that need not have happened; but, until mankind can treat all human beings with dignity, respect and value, we will always have cruelty, brutality and injustice.
What precipitated this article was receiving a request from the Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee to remember these men by participating in a world-wide minute of silence beginning on May 5th - the day Bobby Sands died - and again on the anniversary of each subsequent death.
The names of the nine others who died are:
Francis Hughes, IRA - died 12 May 1981
For complete details about the hunger strike, including biographies of all ten men, visit The Irish Hunger Strikes.
In the meantime, I will close with a few parting words from the diary of Bobby Sands:
"I can hear the curlew passing overhead. Such a lonely cell, such a lonely struggle. But, my friend, this road is well trod and he, whoever he was, who first passed this way, deserves the salute of the nation. I am but a mere follower and I must say Oiche Mhaith.'*
*Oiche Mhaith - Good Night.
Footnote: The author would like to acknowledge that Bobby Sands' biographical information was edited and/or adapted from an article in the November, 1981 issue of Iris.
Ilnacullen, Co. Cork - an Island Garden
Located in the sheltered harbour of Glengarriff in Bantry Bay. Ilnacullin, which means island of holly, is a small island known to horticulturists and lovers of trees and shrubs all around the world as an island garden of rare beauty.
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