On May 5, 1981, having completed 65 days on hunger strike, republican prisoner Bobby Sands died in the H-Block prison hospital at Long Kesh. By the time the prison hunger strike ended on October 3, 1981, 10 young men had starved themselves to death. The hunger strike was a last effort by the inmates to be recognized as political prisoners. The protest had started in 1976, when the prisoners went “on the blanket.” Refusing to wear prison uniforms, they went naked or wore blankets when prison authorities removed everything from the cells except chamber pots.
The “blanket” protest escalated into the “dirty protest” in 1978. After a number of attacks on prisoners who left their cells to “slop out,” prisoners began smearing excrement on the walls. These were the conditions when, two years later, the first hunger strike began. It ended in autumn 1980, when the British government appeared to concede to the prisoners’ demands. But the government reverted to its previous hardline stance once the strike was over.
The second hunger strike started with Bobby Sands refusing food on March 1, 1981. Sands had spent nine years, almost all of his adult life, in prison, where he gradually educated himself and became fluent in the Gaelic language. He studied Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, as well as Irish socialists James Connolly and Liam Mellowes, to develop a broader understanding of colonial oppression. And he used his poetry, prose, songs, and essays to resist what the IRA saw as colonial occupation by the British.
In his book, Nothing But an Unfinished Song, Denis O’Hearn chronicles the life and death of Sands and the aftermath of the hunger strike, which according to O’Hearn, “helped bring Republicans in from the cold,” that is, into the political process that culminated in the Good Friday accords in 1998.
The following excerpt from Denis O’Hearn’s book opens with Bobby Sands beginning the hunger strike that would lead to his death 66 days later.
Nothing But an Unfinished Song
The day began quite like any other. The screws left Bobby’s breakfast at the door. His portions were much bigger than Malachy’s. There was no feeling that something big had just begun. The sense of anti-climax was heightened because it was Sunday and the regular staff was off-duty. There was no one of consequence to whom Bobby could announce the fact that he was beginning the biggest protest that ever enveloped an Irish prison. A screw tried to belittle Bobby’s refusal of breakfast by muttering, “Fuck, there’s another one,” then shouting to his fellow screw, “Sands is starting on it this time!”
The screws were taking the protest pretty lightly. They did not think it would last very long, especially after the collapse of the first one. They figured the government would come to some sort of settlement with the blanketmen. Certainly, they thought, no one would die.
There were other differences from the first hunger strike. On his doctor’s advice, Bobby kept raw salt in his cell and took bits on the tip of a wet finger whereas the previous strikers put salt in their water. Taking raw salt meant that Bobby could easily drink six pints of fresh water every day. The doctor thought salty water made the previous hunger strikers sick to their stomachs. Bobby was totally focused. Says Jake Jackson, “he knew where he was going and he knew where he would end up; as far as he was concerned his whole life was directed to this point where he was going to die . . . as far as he was concerned, he had to die.”
This level of intensity and the unwillingness to let himself be distracted came through when Danny Morrison wrote Bobby that his mother had been in a “distressed state” at a public rally just before the hunger strike began. “I don’t want to know these things,” Bobby told Bik. His concern was reflected in his diary.
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.
He explained in the diary why he was on hunger strike.
I am a political prisoner. I am a political prisoner because I am a casualty of a perennial war that is being fought between the oppressed Irish people and an alien, oppressive, unwanted regime that refuses to withdraw from our land. I believe and stand by the God-given right of the Irish nation to sovereign independence, and the right of any Irishman or woman to assert this right in armed revolution. That is why I am incarcerated, naked, and tortured… I am dying not just to attempt to end the barbarity of H-Block, or to gain the rightful recognition of a political prisoner, but primarily because what is lost in here is lost for the Republic and those wretched oppressed whom I am deeply proud to know as the “risen people.”
In the morning, Bobby went to mass. Some blanketmen treated him carefully. The conversations were short.
“What about ye, Risteard?”
That afternoon he wrote letters to the women prisoners in Armagh Jail. “There is so much I would like to say about them,” he wrote in his diary, “about their courage, determination, and unquenchable spirit of resistance.” In the evening, he began writing his last major work, his diary. He hoped to write a new poem but he kept being distracted by his thoughts. He was “very annoyed” at the news on his radio that Bishop Daly condemned the hunger strike at mass. Daly was applying double standards, he thought, condemning them but ignoring the actions of the British government over the years, not least their treatment of prisoners. Bobby reflected on the differences between Daly and Cardinal O Fiaich. He concluded, by now in a cynical mood regarding Catholic clerics, that “it’s not that these people don’t want to become involved in politics, it’s simply that their politics are different, that is, British.”
Monday, the second day of the hunger strike, was a momentous day. The prisoners ended the no-wash protest. They looked forward to washing and shaving. Things, however, did not go according to plan. The warders were on a go-slow and only five men got to wash, including Bobby. Then the screws refused to supply hair cutting equipment until everyone had washed. …
On Wednesday morning, Bobby took another shower and then he had a shave and haircut, which made him feel good. Some prisoners joked that it made him look 10 years younger, but Bobby wrote in his diary that he felt 20 years older. As usual, he saw the doctor and told him that he had no complaints. He was sleeping well at night although not at all during the day. Bik MacFarlane figured that that was because he spent the whole day “yarning” to Philip Rooney. When a [prison] governor visited him, he asked for more books and papers and, against expectations, he got everything he requested. He was trying to simulate normal cell conditions so that if the authorities tried to move him he could say that there was no reason to do so because he was perfectly comfortable where he was. In the evening, Bobby noticed that his supper included jam with the bread, a “rarity.” “The screws are glaring at the food,” he wrote. “They seem more in need of it than my good self.” For the first time, he noted his “energy beginning to drain.” If his physical energy was beginning to flag, his political energy was not. In his newspapers, he read about the first meeting between Margaret Thatcher and the new U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The two announced plans to counteract “Soviet expansionism” in Latin America and the following day Reagan announced an escalation in U.S. troops to support the El Salvadoran government against the FMLN guerrillas. Bobby wrote of the Reaganite expansionism with passion and anger.
I am abreast with the news and view with utter disgust and anger the Reagan / Thatcher plot. It seems quite clear that they intend to counteract Russian expansionism with imperialist expansionism, to protect their vital interests they say. What they mean is they covet other nations’ resources. They want to steal what they haven’t got and to do so (as the future may unfortunately prove) they will murder oppressed people and deny them their sovereignty as nations. No doubt Mr. Haughey will toe the line in Ireland when Thatcher so demands.
The next day, Bobby’s physical condition continued to deteriorate. He felt cold, a complaint that would dog him over the next few weeks. He also had a “threatening toothache.” But his main concern was that the authorities would use his family against him. His father had fallen and word of the accident reached the prison welfare office, who informed Bobby that his father had “taken ill.” Bobby did not want to know. He wrote in his diary that the welfare people “tried to get me to crawl for a special visit with my family.” He asked Bik MacFarlane to tell Liam Óg to take action to “completely cut off” the prison administration from his family. The newspapers carried a statement in the House of Commons by Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins, stating that the government would not give in to pressure from the hunger strike.
It does not annoy me because my mind was prepared for such things and I know I can expect more of such, right to the bitter end.
His other reading was more productive. He got stuck into some of Kipling’s poems and especially liked one that applied to their own situation: The earth gave up her dead that tide, Into our camp he came, And said his say, and went his way, And left our hearts aflame. Keep tally on the gun butt score, The vengeance we must take, When God shall bring full reckoning, For our dead comrades’ sake.
“I hope not,” he said to himself. But he quickly added that,
I have hope, indeed. All men must have hope and never lose heart. But my hope lies in the ultimate victory for my poor people. Is there any hope greater than that?
Bobby was slightly embarrassed to admit that he was paying a bit more attention to religion. I’m saying prayers – crawler! (and a last minute one, some would say). But I believe in God, and I’ll be presumptuous and say he and I are getting on well this weather. I can ignore the presence of food staring me straight in the face all the time. But I have this desire for brown wholemeal bread, butter, Dutch cheese and honey. Ha! It is not damaging me, because, I think, “Well, human food can never keep a man alive forever,” and I console myself with the fact that I’ll get a great feed up above (if I’m worthy). But then I’m struck by this awful thought that they don’t eat food up there. But if there’s something better than brown wholemeal bread, cheese and honey, etcetera, then it can’t be bad.
Bobby Sands died on the 66th day of hunger strike. Nine of his comrades followed him to their deaths. Francis Hughes, Ray McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee, “Red Mickey” Devine. Just under a month before his death Sands was elected to the British parliament.
This excerpt was printed in the June / July 2006 issue of Irish America. ♦