Remembering Bobby Sands
enis O’Hearn was born in New Mexico
and is of Irish and Native Alaskan (Aleut) ancestry. He moved to
Belfast in the 1970s and his articles for
In These Times
introduced Bobby Sands and the Irish H-Blocks
prison conflict to the broad audience of progressives in the U.S.
He is a community activist, former chair of the West Belfast Economic
Forum, and jointly professor of social and economic change at Queens
University Belfast and professor of sociology at the University
of Binghamton in New York. May 5 is the 25th anniversary Bobby Sands’s
death. I interviewed O’Hearn about his recent book,
But an Unfinished Song: Bobby Sands, the Irish Hunger Striker Who
Ignited a Generation
GRUBACIC: Tell us how you came to write a life of Bobby Sands
and how the process of learning about his life changed your perceptions
O’HEARN: When I started my research I thought I was writing
a book about Bobby Sands, hunger striker. Since he was an icon of
resistance, but also an enigma, I didn’t know whether I would
like Bobby Sands or not or what would be his notable characteristics.
I had no idea, for example, why he became a leader among his prison
comrades. One former hunger striker told me that he could never
figure out why Bobby was a leader because he was such a regular
guy. But as I talked to more and more people about him, from his
childhood to his early involvement in the IRA and his two periods
in prison, I realized that I was writing a book about Bobby Sands,
the political activist, rather than Bobby Sands the hunger striker.
That is not to deny that the story of Bobby Sands’s death,
like the other nine hunger strikers who died, is gut-wrenching.
But the life of Bobby Sands is ultimately an inspiring story of
how he overcame the most extreme forms of oppression to express
his own personal freedom and the collective freedom of his fellow
prisoners by building solidarity, raising morale, and leading very
effective and creative forms of protest.
Can you give an example of what you mean?
Bobby first went to jail at 18 years of age. He hadn’t much
formal education and his politics were pretty simple and defensive.
He had come under daily attack by sectarian anti-Catholic gangs
in his community and he saw membership in the IRA as the best way
to defend himself and his friends from these gangs. In jail, however,
he had political status and he could freely associate with his fellow
prisoners. Long Kesh was like a prison camp from an old war movie,
with Quonset huts surrounded by wire fences that the prisoners called
“cages.” They trained militarily and, most importantly,
read and debated politics. Sands loved to study Che Guevara, Camilo
Torres, and George Jackson. Later, he mixed what he learned from
their writings with Irish revolutionaries like Liam Mellowes. To
him, prison was a university where he became politically conscious
and surprisingly sophisticated. So when he was released back onto
the streets, he was not just an IRA volunteer, he was interested
in organizing his community around things like housing, transportation,
education, and cultural activities.
When he was caught a second time and sent to H-Block, this time
without political status and without the right to associate, it
had a big effect on him. He saw young prisoners all around who were
not highly aware, but who also did not have the opportunities he’d
had to raise their political consciousness in prison. You have to
remember the conditions they were living in. When they refused to
wear prison uniforms, these men were stripped of all clothing and
had to wear blankets [thus, they were known as blanketmen], they
were kept in lock-up 24/7, they had no reading materials except
a bible and a few religious pamphlets. Yet Bobby Sands was unwilling
to accept the restrictions that these conditions placed on him and
his fellow prisoners.
When he was first put in a cell with Tony O’Hara, whose brother
later also died on hunger strike, he watched Tony sleeping all day.
After a while, he asked him, “Tony, what do you do all day?”
Tony replied, “I sleep, there’s nothing else to do.”
So Bobby said, “Isn’t that a waste of your opportunities.”
He convinced his fellow prisoners to take their monthly visits with
their families and friends, even though they had to wear a prison
uniform to do it. Then they started smuggling messages out to tell
the public what was happening in the H-Blocks. They smuggled in
ballpoint pen refills and cigarette papers, as well as tobacco for
a bit of luxury. Then the corridors and other prison spaces became
battlegrounds, as prisoners and guards struggled over who controlled
them. This raised the morale of the prisoners tremendously.
Within weeks of arriving, Sands started writing articles about prison
life and smuggling them out. When they were published they provoked
public awareness and outrage. Without these accounts, public support
for the prisoners would never have taken hold. Sands organized a
letter-writing “factory” on his prison wing. He got other
prisoners to write letters, hundreds of them, to influential people,
from Jane Fonda to Leonid Brezhnev to trade union activists to folk
How did the prison authorities react to this challenge?
Things got violent as the guards tried to catch prisoners smuggling.
The prisoners had to keep things hidden, usually up their backsides.
You can imagine the horrific scenes that resulted where prison guards
were sticking their gloved fingers up a man’s anus and then
using the same fingers to probe his mouth. The authorities devised
new types of searches, each one more violent than the last. This
was all made worse because some guards were drunk. They had a bar
in the prison, can you imagine? The guards went to lunch and came
back after several drinks. It was a recipe for violence.
What effect did this have on the prisoners?
They were often in fear, but the more the authorities took away
from them, the stronger they became. The more they tried to degrade
them, the more dignity they maintained. The guards took away their
furniture, soap, and toothbrushes. The only thing the prisoners
could not get rid of was their bodily waste. When they tried to
throw their urine and shit out the cell window, the guards threw
it back in. Eventually, the blanketmen had to throw their food into
piles in the corner of the cell—we’re talking about 2
men in a 8 by 10 foot cell with two urine-soaked mattresses and
a couple of blankets—and spread their shit on the walls. I’m
sure you cannot imagine living in such conditions, but it is incredible
what people can endure together for a cause they feel is just. The
prison guards made snide comments about how the blanketmen were
animals, but the blanketmen actually strengthened and gained dignity
through it all. We’re not talking about a few weeks or months.
They lived on this “no-wash protest” for several years.
What was Bobby Sands doing during this period of escalating conflict?
He was right in the middle of it. He was second in command of the
prisoners. Their officer in command was Brendan Hughes who they
called “the Dark.” For some reason, the prison authorities
always kept Bobby Sands and Hughes in adjoining cells, for nearly
four years. They talked through the crack by the heating pipes at
the back of their cells and planned prison protests that way.
The thing that really made Bobby Sands a leader was his energy and
the way he turned his energy to organizing things that could raise
the prisoners’ morale. It wasn’t only things like getting
men to write letters and poems and stories to send outside. He also
organized Irish language classes. In time some prisoners who were
hardly literate in English could speak and write in Irish. This
gave them power over their jailers because they could speak openly
without being understood and felt they were getting one up on the
organized political lectures and history classes, sometimes smuggling
in study materials. But the thing that really lifted the other prisoners
was his cultural production. He organized singsongs. Bobby wrote
songs in the H-Blocks that are now standards of Irish popular music,
like “The Voyage (Back Home in Derry)” and “McIlhattan.”
Everybody knows these songs in Ireland today. He told stories out
the door of his cell at night. The blanketmen called them the “book
at bedtime.” He told stories about Geronimo, about Welsh miners,
and about people struggling to be free. He made up a story called
“Jet” about a U.S. soldier in Vietnam who deserted and
then took on the U.S. army from his motorbike. The prisoners adored
these stories. The first thing many of them wanted to tell me about
How did things escalate to a hunger strike?
One of the side effects of Bobby’s propaganda work was that
it helped supporters to build a protest movement around the issue
of political status for the blanketmen. Eventually, it became a
wider human rights campaign, organized around five key demands,
like the prisoners’ right to wear their own clothes and to
organize educational activities. When conditions in the cells got
really bad, the prisoners began to talk about a hunger strike because
it was the ultimate protest. Hunger strikes had often succeeded
before and they saw it as a way out of their conditions, perhaps
the only way.
But the movement outside prison was opposed to a hunger strike.
The IRA felt that it would divert resources away from the armed
struggle. Gerry Adams opposed it because he felt that Margaret Thatcher
would let them die and to no good purpose. So Adams and others convinced
the prisoners to postpone hunger striking while they negotiated
with Thatcher over the five demands. They had powerful support from
public figures like the Irish Cardinal Tomás O Fiaich. But
Thatcher would not move. Eventually the prisoners felt that they
had no choice.
The story of the hunger strikes, there were actually two of them,
is complicated. But, briefly, Brendan Hughes led the first hunger
strike in late 1980. He called it off on the verge of a settlement
in order to save one hunger striker’s life. He thought he had
a settlement, but it was not in writing. When Sands finally saw
the agreement that the British government put on paper, he exploded.
It was not even near what they wanted. By the time Sands got back
to his cell that night after visiting the hunger strikers in the
prison hospital, he vowed that he would lead a new hunger strike
and this time it would be to the death. He knew he would die, but
he was determined to go through with it.
How could he follow such a course when he knew that he and others
would have a very slow and painful death?
I put that down to two factors. One is the intense solidarity he
felt with his comrades, a level that we cannot understand unless
we have been in such a remarkable situation. Such solidarity can
empower people to do things that are beyond the usual. Many ex-blanketmen
express a surprising nostalgia for life in the H-Blocks, despite
the violence and deprivation. One told me that he had never experienced
such intense comradeship and he really misses that. Another described
a time when he was in his cell and he was listening to Bobby Sands
singing. He asked himself, “Even if I do get out of here, will
I ever experience anything as good as this?” Bobby Sands told
a cellmate that life as a blanketman was the closest thing he would
ever get to true communism. So this intense solidarity, even love,
for his comrades provoked him to do anything to help them to get
out of their horrific situation. I know, it is ironic that a prisoner
would say at the one time that his life is almost utopian and in
the next sentence talk about what extremes he is willing to go to
in order to get out of it. But that was the reality of the H-Blocks.
The second factor, of course, was Bobby’s political commitment.
He believed in himself and he knew that someone would have to die
for the prisoners to win their rights. So he took a personal responsibility
to ensure that the second hunger strike was not interrupted short
of victory as the first one had been.
the course of that final act, he changed everything, even getting
elected to the British parliament. What is his legacy—for the
prisoners, the Irish movement, and beyond?
Well, he won a by-election to British parliament while he was dying
in a prison hospital and that opened a new form of struggle for
Irish Republicans, one that provoked much debate and controversy.
It is worth noting that although Bobby Sands was in favor of fighting
elections he was never in favor of taking office. He thought winning
elections would gain legitimacy for the struggle and he argued that
his movement should bank those gains by creating autonomous, parallel
structures of governance in communities where it had popular support.
Times have changed and in many ways Irish Republicanism, like other
movements, has become less radical since the death of Bobby Sands.
Many people ask me where I think Bobby would stand today, were he
alive, on Sinn Féin’s peace strategy and the IRA’s
ceasefire. I cannot say, although it is worth noting that almost
all of Bobby’s closest friends support the current peace strategy.
Some people see “irony” in Bobby Sands supposedly giving
his life for armed struggle while Gerry Adams used the hunger strike
and Sands’s election victory to move the IRA away from armed
struggle. Yet Bobby did not die for the armed struggle, he died
to defend the right of people to resist oppression and to be able
to choose the means by which they resist—armed struggle if
necessary, other means if possible. Bobby’s commitment to grass-roots
organizing shows that his politics were far more developed than
simple adherence to armed struggle.
These days people are talking about autonomy and prefigurative politics,
that is, the idea that we base our political actions today according
to the future we want to build. Back in the cages, Bobby Sands and
others were developing precisely these ideas. Gerry Adams, for example,
was talking about “making the Republic a reality” by building
autonomous representative governance in the communities and building
alternative and autonomous services, administration, even industry
and healthcare. Bobby tried to introduce these ideas into his own
community of Twinbrook during the six months of his adult life when
he was not in prison.
You know, as soon as he went into jail he learned Irish and within
two years he was writing really interesting essays in Irish about
building autonomous Irish-language communities in Belfast, with
autonomous schools, services, and factories. The school part of
it has actually become a reality in Belfast, to some extent. I spent
time in Oventic and I saw parallels between what he was trying to
do and the kinds of things the Zapatistas, for instance, are now
making a reality in Chiapas.
What I would hope, 25 years after his death, is that more people
will recover memory of him. I hope that those who never heard of
Bobby Sands will learn to remember him and that others to whom he
is an example for his way of dying will rediscover how extraordinary
he was for his way of living.
Grubacic is an anarchist historian from somewhere in the Balkans.
Photos from www. irishhungerstrike.com.