Remembering Bobby Sands
The Irish Revolutionary Bobby Sands, died on hunger strike in Long Kesh on May 5th 1981.
Robert Gerard Sands was born on March 9th 1954 to John and Rosaleen Sands in Abbots Cross, Newtownabbey, County Antrim, outside North Belfast.
Sands was the eldest of four children. His younger sisters, Marcella and Bernadette, were born in 1955 and 1958, respectively. He also had a younger brother, John, born 1962.
After experiencing harassment and intimidation from their neighbours, the family abandoned the development and moved in with friends for six months before being granted housing in the nearby Rathcoole development.
Bobby went to school in the local Stella Maris, he played left-back for the local team also called Stella Maris, the team had both Nationalists and Unionists playing.
But by 1966 Loyalists had stirred up sectarian tensions in Rathcoole and other parts of Belfast, his friends from a Protestant/Unionist background now wouldn't talk to him.
Bobby left school in 1969 at age 15, and enrolled in Newtownabbey Technical College, beginning an apprenticeship as a coach builder at Alexander's Coach Works in 1970.
Bobby worked there for less than a year, enduring constant harassment from his Protestant co-workers, which according to several co-workers he ignored completely, as he wished to learn a meaningful trade.
He was eventually confronted after leaving his shift in January 1971 by a number of his coworkers wearing the armbands of the local Ulster loyalist tartan gang. He was held at gunpoint and told that Alexander's was off-limits to "Fenian scum" and to never come back if he valued his life. He later said that this event was the point at which he decided that militancy was the only solution.
In June 1972, Sands's parents' home was attacked and damaged by a loyalist mob and they were again forced to move, this time to the West Belfast Catholic area of Twinbrook, where Sands, now thoroughly embittered, rejoined them.
Bobby attended his first Provisional IRA meeting in Twinbrook that month and joined the IRA the same day. He was 18 years old. By 1973, almost every Catholic family had been driven out of Rathcoole by violence and intimidation, although there were some who remained.
Bobby was arrested and charged in October 1972 with possession of four handguns found in the house where he was staying. Sands was convicted in April 1973, sentenced to five years imprisonment, and released in April 1976.
Upon his release, he returned to his family home in West Belfast and resumed his active role in the Provisional IRA. Sands and Joe McDonnell planned the October 1976 bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry.
The showroom was destroyed but as the IRA Vols left the scene there was a gun battle with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Leaving behind two wounded, Seamus Martin and Gabriel Corbett, the remaining four (Sands, McDonnell, Seamus Finucane, and Sean Lavery) tried to escape by car but were arrested.
One of the revolvers used in the attack was found in the car. In 1977, the four men were sentenced to 14 years for possession of the revolver. They were not charged with explosive offences.
Immediately after his sentencing, Sands was implicated in a fight and spent the first 22 days with all furniture removed from his cell in Crumlin Road Prison, 15 days naked, and a diet of bread and water every three days.
Sands was sent to Long Kesh where Republican prisoners organised a series of protests seeking to regain their previous Special Category Status, which would free them from some ordinary prison regulations.
This began with the "blanket protest" in 1976, in which the prisoners refused to wear prison uniforms and wore blankets instead. In 1978, after a number of attacks on prisoners leaving their cells to "slop out" (i.e., empty their chamber pots), this escalated into the "dirty protest", wherein prisoners refused to wash and smeared the walls of their cells with excrement.
In late 1980, Sands was chosen Officer Commanding of the Provisional IRA prisoners in Long Kesh, succeeding Brendan Hughes who was participating in the first hunger strike. Thatcher reneged on the agreement which ended the 1980 hunger strike.
Sands believed they would have to commence another Hunger Strike but this time the Republican prisoners would join the strike at different times and he would be the first.
The IRA leadership on the outside were very much against a second hunger strike but Republican prisoners in Long Kesh were determined to go ahead.
The hunger strike centred on five demands:
1)The right not to wear a prison uniform.
2)The right not to do prison work.
3)the right of free association with other prisoners, 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 the protest.
On March 1st 1981 Bobby sands refused his food, the 1981 Hunger Strike had begun. Shortly after the beginning of the strike, Frank Maguire, the Independent Republican MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, died suddenly of a heart attack, precipitating the April 1981 by-election.
Sands was nominated on the label "Anti H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner". Sands won the seat on April 9th 1981, with 30,493 votes to 29,046 for the Ulster Unionist Party candidate Harry West. Sands became the youngest MP at the time.
Following Sands's election win, the British government introduced the Representation of the People Act 1981 which prevents prisoners serving jail terms of more than one year in either the UK or the Republic of Ireland from being nominated as candidates in British elections.
The enactment of the law, as a response to the election of Sands, consequently prevented other hunger strikers from being elected to the House of Commons.
Sands died on May 5th 1981 in the Maze's prison hospital after 66 days on hunger strike, aged 27. His death sparked protests all over Ireland and worldwide including New York and Tehran.
On May 7th, over 100,000 people lined the route of Sands's funeral, and he was buried in the 'New Republican Plot' in Milltown cemetery Belfast.
While in Gaol, Sands had several letters and articles published in the Republican paper An Phoblacht under the pseudonym "Marcella" (his sister's name). Other writings attributed to him are: Skylark Sing Your Lonely Song] and One Day in My Life.
Sands also wrote the lyrics of "Back Home in Derry" and "McIlhatton", which were both later recorded by Christy Moore, and "Sad Song For Susan", which was also later recorded.
The melody of "Back Home in Derry" was borrowed from Gordon Lightfoot's 1976 song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald".The song itself is about the penal transportation of Irishmen in the 19th century to Van Diemen's Land (modern-day Tasmania, Australia).
Sands was also a very good poet with poems like the "The Rhythm Of Time " and "The Lonesome Boatman" becoming very popular since his death.
There have been many songs written about Bobby, many films about his struggles in Long Kesh, roads named after him etc as "the people's own MP" lives on in our hearts.
"Our revenge will be the laughter of our children."
Fuair se bás ar son Saoirse na hÉireann