by Stephen M. Pingel
Special to the BIR
Following is the eighth in a series of articles on individuals who had a substantial impact on civic life in Ireland in the 20th century.
Beginning in the late 1960s, many of the most dramatic events in Ireland over the following two decades or so took place in the North, most of them tied to The Troubles.
Of the many figures who emerged to have a strong presence and broad influence on civic life in Northern Ireland, Bobby Sands stands out as the unofficial martyr of The Troubles era and as a prominent figure representing the struggles the Irish Catholics faced in trying to maintain their culture and language in a region mostly hostile to those aims.
Controversy followed Sands around, but this was a man who was an elected MP at the Westminster Parliament and, for many in Ireland, what Ernesto “Che” Guevara was to Latin America.
Born on March 9, 1954, in Abbots Cross, Newtonabbey, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland, Sands encountered disruption early on in life: frequent family moves while growing up in an impoverished yet growing Irish-Catholic family that moved three times before the early 1960s alone, all within Newtonabbey. Few would question the notion that upheaval at home informed the young Bobby’s view of life as he grew up in region of want and violence.
While living in Rathcoole, Newtonabbey, the Sands family encountered one of the more polarizing incidents of their lives, one that ended with Bobby finding a new home and a focus on the future: They were essentially forced out of town by heavy Loyalist threats and activity. They moved directly into run-down and violent West Belfast, the core of Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland.
It was from that base that Sands and many other young adults became caught up in the world of Irish nationalism and its struggle against the British Crown.
In 1972, at age 18, Sands joined the Provisional IRA (PIRA) and soon rose within its ranks, although with a largely poetic and peaceful take on The Troubles. During that year, though, he experienced his first arrest, on a charge of possession of several handguns that were found in a home he was staying in.
Still, life went on, and that same year, just before his arrest, Sands married Geraldine Noade. The following April, with Geraldine eight months pregnant, he was tried and sentenced to five years in prison for his involvement with the handguns found the year earlier. This would not be his last collision with the police and acquaintance with prison life.
As for Geraldine and their son, Gerard, they moved to mainland England later that year, away from the violence and instability of their homeland.
After his release in 1976, Sands returned with a vengeance to the cause off Northern Irish independence and to a life where there was always trouble ahead.
He was suspected of involvement in several PIRA bombings that year and in one major case, involving the bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company, he was tried with five others though the police didn’t have enough evidence for a conviction.
Soon after, though, Sands was implicated for playing a role in a gun battle with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Unfortunately for Sands, his weapon was recovered and he was promptly tried and convicted. This time, he was given 14 years at HM Prison Maze, infamously known in Belfast as the Long Kesh prison.
It was in Long Kesh that Sands gained worldwide notoriety – and, from many, acclaim – as he managed, in 1981 and from his cell, to get elected to Parliament at Westminster while earning praise for his writing and poetry that had his admirers from around the world, especially with Sinn Fein adherents in Northern Ireland, comparing him favorably to Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary.
Sands used his time in Long Kesh to write several articles for An Phoblacht, some under a pseudonym, several songs, poems, and, perhaps most importantly, A Day In My Life, his autobiography. His most notable quote came out of Long Kesh: “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”
His prison days also saw Sands becoming involved in several of the more notable prison strikes: The Blanket Protest, where prisoners refused to wear common prison clothes rather than be recognized as political prisoners; and the Dirty Protest, where prisoners refused to “slop out” (clean out their commode buckets) to further protest the lack of special status.
During this time the Thatcher administration in London didn’t help diplomatic matters by contemptuously referring to the prison protesters as “commion criminals.”
In March 1981, Bobby Sands began his ultimate protest: a hunger strike along with others. Beginning the first day of the month, they stopped eating. For Sands, the strike ran over 66 days until his death at age 27 on May 5 in the hospital prison with his mother at his side. In his final days, Sands spoke with priests for hours and hours each day, often recalling the beauty and peacefulness of his homeland.
In the interim, and while at death’s door, he was elected to Parliament on April 9 as the MP for Fermanangh and South Tyrone.
The idea of a prisoner on a hunger strike in Northern Ireland becoming the youngest MP in the hostile British Parliament (for 25 days) was startling to the world and brought heavy criticism to Margaret Thatcher’s door at 10 Downing Street.
Her riposte to news of his death? “Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organization did not allow to many of its victims.”
With Sands’s death, unrest broke out in Belfast and beyond as his admirers mourned the passing of a martyred symbol of independence. In Tehran, Iranians changed the name of the street the British embassy was located on, forcing the diplomats to change their entrance to avoid having their address read “Bobby Sands Street, Tehran, Iran.”
In the United States, his death was a Page One story. With Irish-American support for the IRA at perhaps an all time high in 1981, several groups, largely composed of Irish-Americans, protested in their own ways. In New York, for instance, the Longshoreman’s Union refused to unload any British ship for 24 hours.
Back in Northern Ireland’s prisons, some concessions were made to prisoners, mostly without direct reference to the death of Bobby Sands, who today holds an elevated status in modern Irish history. His youthful face dots the landscape of West Belfast in the form of murals; political prisoners in Northern Ireland remember him as a martyr to their cause; and many in Latin America, particularly Cuba, view him as an accomplished writer who gave his life to the causes of ending of imperialism and freedom of choice for peoples across the world. Some of Bobby Sands’s original works can be found in the Irish Republican History Museum, located in the Conway Mill right off Falls Road, West Belfast, two blocks from Sinn Fein headquarters.
Today, post the 1998 Good Friday Agreement sessions, there is clear evidence that Bobby Sands’s dream did come true. There is laughter among the children of Belfast, a precious peace across Loyalist and Nationalist lines, and hope in the hearts and minds of the youth who vow to end violence in the North.
Stephen M. Pingel is a student at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell where he is specializing in the socio-economic history of modern conflicts as well as 20th-century Irish history.