Irish Republican News, 5. May 2006
This mostly semi-autobiographical article was originally smuggled out
from the H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison during the 1981 hunger strike:
THE REVOLUTIONARY SPIRIT OF FREEDOM
"The callous intransigence of the British government has made the
hungerstrike a symbol of the struggle for freedom and Bobby Sands and
his comrades are symbols of Irish resistance to British rule in
Bobby Sands is a symbol of hope for the unemployed, for the poor and
oppressed, for the homeless, for those divided by partition, for those
trying to unite our people. He symbolises a new beginning and I recall
the words of his manifesto to the Protestant people: "The Protestant
people have nothing to fear from me." They too have their part to play
in building a new future, a new Ireland.
We have the moral right to struggle for freedom and self-determination.
Britain has no right in our country and has no faith in her pretence
because the moral right she pretends to have has to be backed up by a
monstrous war machine of guns and tanks and the torture chambers of
Castlereagh and the H-Blocks and by creation of division within the
Irish people." (Owen Carron, at Bobby's funeral on May 5, 1981)
Bobby Sands was born in 1954 in Rathcoole, a predominantly loyalist
district of north Belfast. His twenty-seventh birthday fell on the
ninth day of his sixty-six-day hunger strike. His sisters Marcella, one
year younger, and Bernadette, were born in April 1955 and November
1958, respectively. All three lived their early years at Abbots Cross
in the Newtownabbey area of north Belfast. A second son, John, now
nineteen, was born to their parents John and Rosaleen, now both aged
57, in June 1962.
The sectarian realities of ghetto life materialised early in Bobby's
life when at the age of ten his family were forced to move home owing
to loyalist intimidation even as early as 1962. Bobby recalled his
mother speaking of the troubled times which occurred during her
childhood; 'Although I never really under stood what internment was or
who the 'Specials' were, I grew to regard them as symbols of evil '.
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. I shall not settle until I achieve
liberation of my country, until Ireland becomes a sovereign,
independent socialist republic. ''
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."
In June 1972, the family were intimidated out of their home in Doonbeg
Drive, Rathcoole and 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.
As well as being intimidated out of his job and his home being under
threat Bobby also suffered personal attacks from the loyalists.
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
interned. Booby felt that he should get involved and start doing
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
he was staying in 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 the other blanket 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 into 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 and attempted
normalisation of the war situation.'
Bobby set himself 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 black 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
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 RUC captured them and found a
revolver in the car.
The six men were taken to Castlereagh and were subjected to brutal
interrogations for six days. Bobby refused to answer any questions
during his interrogation, except his name, age and address.
In a ninety-six verse poem written in 1980, entitled 'The Crime of
Castlereagh', Bobby tells of his experiences in Castlereagh and his
fears and thoughts at the time.
They came and came their job the same
In relays N'er they stopped.
'Just sign the line!' They shrieked each time
And beat me 'till I dropped.
They tortured me quite viciously
They threw me through the air.
It got so bad it seemed I had
Been beat beyond repair.
The days expired and no one tired,
Except of course the prey,
And knew they well that time would tell
Each dirty trick they laid on thick
For no one heard or saw,
Who dares to say in Castlereagh
The 'police' would break the law!
He was held on remand for eleven months until his trial in September
1977. As at his previous trial he refused to recognise 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 and joined
the blanket protest. 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', his sister's name. His articles and
letters, in minute handwriting, like 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.'
Bobby became PRO for the blanket men and 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
their attempts to break the prisoners' resistance to criminalisation.
The H-Blocks became the battlefield in which the republican spirit of
resistance met head-on all the inhumanities that the British could
perpetrate. The republican spirit prevailed and in April 1978 in
protest against systematic ill-treatment when they went to the toilets
or got showered, the H-Block prisoners refused to wash or slop-out.
They were joined in this no-wash protest by the women in Armagh jail in
February 1980 when they were subjected to similar harassment.
On October 27th, 1980, following the breakdown of talks between British
direct ruler in the North, Humphrey Atkins, and Cardinal O Fiaich, the
Irish Catholic primate, seven prisoners in the H-Blocks began a hunger
strike. Bobby volunteered for the fast but instead he succeeded, as
O/C, Brendan Hughes, who went on hunger-strike.
During the hunger-strike he was given political recognition by the
prison authorities. The day after a senior British official visited the
hunger-strikers, Bobby was brought half a mile in a prison van from H3
to the prison hospital to visit them. Subsequently he was allowed
several meetings with Brendan Hughes. He was not involved in the
decision to end the hunger-strike which was taken by the seven men
alone. But later that night he was taken to meet them and was allowed
to visit republican prison leaders in H-Blocks 4, 5 and 6.
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: 'We
discovered that our good will and flexibility were in vain,' wrote
Bobby. 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 saw the opportunity to defeat the IRA by
criminalising Irish freedom fighters but the blanketmen, perhaps more
than those on the outside, appreciated before anyone else the grave
repercussions, and so they fought.
Bobby volunteered to lead the new hunger strike. He saw it as a
microcosm of the way the Brits were treating Ireland historically and
presently, Bobby realised that someone would have to die to win
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 a 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. The diary was
written on toilet paper in biro pen and had to be hidden, mostly
carried inside Bobby's own body. During those first seventeen days
Bobby lost a total of sixteen pounds weight and 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.
The next morning, day thirty-one, of his hunger-strike, he was visited
by Owen Carron who acted as his election agent. Owen told of that first
visit 'Instead of meeting that young man of the poster with long hair
and a fresh face, even at that time when Bobby wasn't too bad he was
radically changed. He was very thin and bony and his hair was cut
Bobby had no illusions with regard to his election victory. His
reaction was not one of over-optimism. After the result was announced
Owen visited Bobby. "He had already heard the result on the radio. He
was in good form alright but he always used to keep saying, 'In my
position you can't afford to be optimistic.' In other words, he didn't
take it that because he'd won an election that his life would be saved.
He thought that the Brits would need their pound of flesh. I think he
was always working on the premise that he would have to die."
At 1.17 a.m. on Tuesday, May 5th, having completed sixty-five days on
hunger-strike, Bobby Sands MP, died in the H-Block prison hospital at
Long Kesh. Bobby was a truly unique person whose loss is great and
immeasurable. He never gave himself a moment to spare. He lived his
life energetically, dedicated to his people and to the republican
cause, eventually offering up his life in a conscious effort to further
that cause and the cause of those with whom he had shared almost eight
years of his adult life. In his own words: "of course can be murdered
but I remain what I am, a political POW and no-one, not even the
British, can change that."