The Psychology of a Hunger Striker:
Factors Influencing the Death
of Bobby Sands MP

by Sean P. O'Connell


"King:...He has chosen death:
Refusing to eat or drink, that he may bring
Disgrace upon me; for there is a custom,
An old and foolish custom; that if a man
Be wronged, or think that he is wronged,
And starve upon another's threshold till he die,
The Common People, for all time to come,
Will raise a heavy cry against that threshold,
Even though it be the King's."

    from The King's Threshold by W.B. Yeats

"It is not those who inflict the most but those who endure the most who will conquer in the end."

    -- Terence McSwiney

"Supposing you were in Bobby Sands' shoes, kicked out of your home twice, threatened, beaten up, stabbed and intimidated out of your job and livelihood, what exactly would you do?"

    -- John Feehan (1983)
Bobby Sands drew worldwide attention to his name in early 1981 as he embarked upon a hunger strike in the demand that he and his fellow prisoners be given back the right to be classified as political prisoners. Having been born in the northeast of Ireland, Sands was yet another statistic on the ever growing list of young Irish Catholic men and women doomed to a bleak future under British rule. Many of these men and women, having no hope of employment due to discrimination, resorted to violence against the government after their peaceful civil rights movement was decimated by the violence of the police, British Army and those loyal to the bigoted, anti-Catholic ideals reflective of that society. The choice of many of these oppressed Catholics was to take up arms in an effort to defend their homes, lives and what dignity their oppressors left them. This new wave of morally justifiable violence, that of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), of the have nots versus the haves, was quickly deemed "terrorism" by England. England has laid claim to "Northern" Ireland for centuries, displacing much of Ireland's native population with its own. Thus the efforts of the IRA and other nationalists to force the British out of Ireland was certain not to happen overnight. Take this factor into account with the reigning politicians' mindset produced by centuries of anti-Catholic legislation and economic deprivation of the native Irish and one can see the limited options available to those likely to join the IRA.

This paper is not, however, a discussion of history. While history played an important part in the decisions Sands made in his life, primarily he was influenced by his perception of his surroundings, of his environment. It was not until after Sands joined the IRA and was subsequently imprisoned that he learned of the deeper political traditions between England and Ireland. Before he was subjected to discrimination and violence, Sands was a normal child developing in a fairly normal environment.

It is the intent of this paper to illustrate the infrastructure which supported the beliefs of Bobby Sands and ultimately led to his martyr's death. Not included in the main text of this report but still relevant to it include some visual aids showing how Sands perceived his world, how others perceived Sands and related topics. Also included as appendices are some of Sands' writings and thoughts and a timeline of Irish history.

(Note: Although the war in Ireland is often described as Catholics versus Protestants, it is not in fact a religious war. Irish people are indeed discriminated against because of their race and religion, but those nationalists who battle the British Army and their loyalist followers do so in defense of these security forces' aggressions and not over Christian principles.)

In North Belfast, 1954, Bobby Sands was born as the first child of John and Rosaleen Sands. He was followed by two sisters, Marcella and Bernadette, and a brother, Sean. For his first six years of life, Sands enjoyed the peaceful surroundings his mainly Protestant community afforded him. A lifelong love of nature and, specifically of birds, developed in these first few, carefree days of his youth. Picnicking at the park offered Sands opportunities for enjoying the outdoors and the freedom it provided. This spirit of freedom and peace of mind remained with Sands through all the years of torture, discrimination and inhumane conditions which characterized his later life. Such horrendous treatment would have broken many, but it never extinguished the fire of love Sands had for his people and his cause, an Irish tradition as old as England's 800 year occupation of the island. (Beresford 1987 and Feehan 1983)

It was not long before the Sands family experienced firsthand the anti-Catholic sentiments of their neighbors. For a number of years, Bobby's parents had quietly practiced their Catholic faith. But, when Bobby was around age seven, his mother was mimicked by Protestant women in the neighborhood to such an extent that her ensuing emotional stress forced the family to move. They relocated in another predominately Protestant area. It was here that Sands personally experienced the nature of the hatred with which he and countless other Catholics became altogether too familiar. At age fifteen Sands quit school and got a job as an apprentice in a coach-building company. Not long afterward, Sands was attacked by a couple of knifemen, receiving some wounds. Often, Sands was forced to escape from Protestant gangs in his neighborhood as well as receive verbal abuse directed at the Catholic population. Finally, the Sands family was forced to move again after the house they were living in was "sold" to a Protestant couple without the Sands' putting it up for sale! (Beresford 1987) From here, the family settled into a Catholic housing area in West Belfast. The year was 1972 and within months Sands joined the IRA. (Beresford 1987)

Much has been said about the Irish Republican Army. Much more needs to be revealed about who the IRA is and for what exactly do they stand. The IRA shares in the ancient tradition of Irish rebellion, as opponents to British rule. They see themselves as protectors of all things Irish (language, history and culture) and as the catalyst to a united Ireland where true democracy will flourish once the British are forced out. The IRA to which Bobby Sands belonged was reorganized after an extended dormancy in direct response to violence against the Catholics by loyalists and the British Army. It was the police (Royal Ulster Constabulary or RUC) doing nothing short of supporting the latter two that launched the IRA on defensive. Many acts of violence against Catholics occurred while they were rallying peacefully for full civil rights, just as the blacks were doing in the United States. The most brutal and globally shocking attack on these demonstrators occurred on 30 January 1972 in Derry, a day known as Bloody Sunday. During a peaceful (though prohibited) march protesting internment without trial, 14 people were shot and fatally wounded by the trained killers of Britain's SAS (Special Air Services). According to the Derry City Coroner, Hubert O'Neill, the Army was "...shooting innocent people...I say it without reservation--it was sheer, unadulterated murder." While most of the world was distant to the problems faced by Ireland's northeastern population, Sands and his people realized them daily. (Conroy 1987)

As a newly deputized defender of his community, Sands, like his comrades, was trained in the secrecy which enshrouds the IRA. What can be known is that the IRA follows a strict military code and those not disciplined enough to meet its standards do not get in. Traditionally a guerrilla army, the IRA had evolved into a sophisticated and well informed foe of the British Army and those who posed a threat to them. An often overlooked point, but crucial to any argument one entertains in regard to the IRA is the role of the community as supporter of the IRA. Much of the world's media would lead one to believe that the IRA has no base of support from within their communities and that they are, in effect, a loose bunch of renegade terrorists. The truth of the matter is that without safe houses, food, drivers and middlemen, an active volunteer of the IRA would not exist.

Since England, until recently, enjoyed the status of a super power nation and remains a close ally to the United States, its media and political propaganda machinery play a very instrumental part in maintaining the IRA in a negative light. It is Britain's influence over a majority of the world's press that has the IRA labeled as terrorists and at the same time denies the IRA a voice to defend its actions. Even Sinn Fein ("shin fane"), a political ally of the IRA is denied access to radio, television and newspapers under what amounts to laws of censorship authored by the "democracy" of Great Britain. Herein lay the problems for Sands and his IRA. With no effective way to gain help, even from the Irish Free State (the 26 counties of Ireland other than the 6 Britain claims), the IRA was forced to defend their communities militarily and at the cost of world opinion. Later, when Sands went on hunger strike, the world learned more about the IRA's motivation which for so long had been suppressed by Britain. Just as the IRA in the Seventies was determined to break England's stranglehold on their communities, England resolved itself to destroy popular support for the IRA. This last step involved criminalizing the IRA by stripping away their political status, a pressure not to be enforced lightly. In perspective of the truly political nature of the IRA, the words of an IRA volunteer speak for the entire movement: "Criminals. Criminals are in it for gain! What have I gained? How have we profited? Why would we experience the physical and mental torment? The best any of us can hope for is torture and death." (Strong 1989)

The means to implement England's criminalization policy included: internment without trial (1971), Diplock courts (1972), The Prevention of Terrorism Act (1975) and the use of a suspect's silence during interrogation to incriminate them. Internment, in effect, allowed the security forces to arrest men and women without charge and to detain them for up to four years. Diplock courts are juryless and usually presided over by loyalist judges. Convictions in these courts can be given on uncorroborated testimony and even by paid perjurers if not by the forced confessions of those on trial. Ninety-four percent of 568 cases heard in the first six months of 1978 resulted in convictions in these courts. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) allows security forces to search homes without warning or reason and at any time. The PTA also took over where internment left off, allowing the RUC to arrest anyone under "suspicion" without charge for up to seven days. The detained may not consult a lawyer until after 48 hours and a security force member is permitted to be present when the prisoner consults with their lawyer. The suspect can then be charged, without bail, and imprisoned for up to two years before a trial is set. (Rice 1985)

Bobby Sands was arrested later in 1972 and taken to an RUC interrogation center--a thinly disguised torture chamber aimed at producing confessions from nationalists. In these Stalinesque police centers, suspects could expect psychological torture such as Russian roulette, beatings performed in darkness, threats against the detainee's family and the use of drugs. More common was physical torture such as constant beatings--being relentlessly punched and kicked. Kidneys and testicles were the common subject of most of these beatings. Cattle prods and instruments forced into the anus were also utilized for no practical purpose. But the IRA were trained soldiers and expected such fate if caught. Very few cracked under the immense pressure. (Feehan 1983)

Having survived his stay at the interrogation center, Sands was brought to trial, succeeded in getting a retrial and then sentenced to five years in Long Kesh prison on dubious charges.

Long Kesh, known as the Maze to most of the world and a concentration camp to those familiar with its inner-workings, is just outside of Belfast. (By the time Sands re-entered Long Kesh for his second stay, the prison had been rebuilt. It now consists of a series of twelve buildings that when viewed from the air look like letter H's. Hence the prisoners during Sands' hunger strike and today, refer to the buildings as the H-Blocks.) To an Irish Republican prisoner, the Kesh is truly the University of Freedom. Because of the discrimination against them, many Catholics had not received a higher level of education. Instead, their lives were caught in the seemingly endless violence around them.

So it was with little formal education that Sands entered Long Kesh for the first of his two stays. The second time, with the construction of the H-Blocks completed, would be radically different from the first and would see Sands die.

It was this first stay in Long Kesh where Sands became increasingly more familiar with the politics, language, culture and history of the Irish. While his original motivation to join the IRA was one of defense, his stay in the Kesh made him more aware of the reasons behind the republican values for which the IRA stood. Simply stated, Sands began to realize the just cause of Irish self-determination and to see more clearly the repeated steps of successive British governments to deny the Irish of their heritage.

Within the prison, the IRA maintained a strict command structure. Lessons in the Irish language and history were required for all republican prisoners. Sands and his comrades were, at least during his first stay, recognized as political prisoners. Thanks largely in part to another hunger striker, Billy McKee, prisoners in the Kesh were granted five basic rights. These rights which set the prisoners, both republican and loyalist, apart from "common criminals" included:

  • the right to wear their own clothes
  • the right to abstain from prison work
  • the right to associate freely within their own particular prison confine
  • the right to use educational and recreational areas
  • the right to full remission on their sentences for good behavior.

These conditions were experienced for the three and a half years of Sands' first stay in Long Kesh. Sands matured politically and intellectually while he desired to go even further in the defense of his people and to aid in their quest for freedom. (Feehan 1983)

During his brief recess between his prison sentences, Sands married his childhood sweetheart, Geraldine. Gerard, a son, was born not long after. The relationship was strained largely due to Sands' continued membership in the IRA, this time as a leader. He remained busy throughout this time of freedom by organizing a tenant's association, a social club devoted to Irish culture, and a newsletter for his Catholic community. His love of his people inspired Sands and he remained active among them. For the first time in years Sands was able to experience nature again. His long walks were surely of great spiritual meaning to him. (Feehan 1983)

But Sands' freedom would not last long. Late in 1976, Sands and five other IRA men were picked up by the security forces. The six had been in a car at the time IRA caused explosions ripped through a commercial building. While not able to link the men to the bombing, the police charged all six with the possession of a revolver (found in the car). Each was tried, sentenced and convicted to fourteen years in Long Kesh for possessing the gun. (Before the trial, Sands had been subjected to the torture of the interrogation center again. Again he would not break, refusing to sign a confession.)

Upon entering Long Kesh Sands was immediately placed in the "punishment blocks". These were areas where the warders or "screws" tortured prisoners they felt needed to be reprimanded. This form of psychological terrorism was commonplace in the H-Blocks. Sands' offense was turning to respond to his mother's farewell upon completion of his trial. As he turned, Sands was struck to the ground by a guard's rifle and a scuffle of other prisoners and guards ensued.

Sands spent his first twenty-one days in the punishment blocks of the new Long Kesh. Things had changed dramatically since he was last a prisoner in this Irish prison. No longer were inmates granted prisoner of war status. The five rights of his earlier stay had been taken away by Britain and the policy of criminalization implemented. In reaction to this change, republican prisoners refused to wear any clothes and instead wore only a towel and blankets. It was better to be naked than to wear the uniform of a convict. Sands joined the "blanketmen" without hesitation.

As conditions in the prison got worse, Sands and his comrades were busy thinking of ways to remedy the situation. Not only had the blanketmen been refused clothing, they were gradually not allowed to wash, shave, exercise, or to leave their cells unless they conformed and wore the uniform. Also, visits were reduced as was the amount of mail the blanketmen could receive. Conditions became so bad that the prisoners, not having a toilet in their cell, had to use a pot which was infrequently emptied. The prisoners' attempts to discard the waste out their windows resulted in their windows being blocked. As a final resort, the republican blanketmen were forced to smear their excrement on the floor and walls of their cell. Conditions in the H-Blocks remained at this inhumane level for the rest of Sands' shortened life.

It is difficult to describe, indeed even to imagine the existence that Sands and his fellow inmates were forced into over a principle. With no fresh air, no exercise and a lack of adequate food and drink, the blanketmen were deprived basic rights in an attempt to force them into submission. But through the regular beatings, verbal abuse, maggot infested cells in the summer and bitterly cold cells in the winter, the republicans endured this torture for years. Their spirit and resolve could not be crushed. They would not forsake their cause - that of their people's right to freedom from British rule - over earthly comforts that would be granted them if they were only to admit to being criminals. The nationalist struggle meant too much to the blanketmen to be trivialized. Within the prison therefore, the republicans' resolve was hardened and a tremendous solidarity forged among the prisoners. This common struggle of all gave strength to each individual blanketman.

An important aspect to the story of Bobby Sands and the other prisoners in the Kesh is communication. Since the protesting prisoners were only allowed one visit each month, and letters were limited and censored, the blanketmen had to have a system of passing information along to one another. This was accomplished in a number of ways. Firstly, while cells segregated the men from one another visibly (except for those who had a cellmate), the men could speak among themselves with little problem in their wings. Oftentimes, Irish was spoken and used to announce the arrival of the hated "screws", relay news smuggled in from the outside, and to participate in lessons. Also, news was shouted across the yard from wing to wing. Of more crucial importance to the republican prisoners inside Long Kesh was the necessity of maintaining a steady stream of communication with the outside world and the movement's leadership. This was accomplished during visiting days.

Since the only contact the blanketmen were allowed with the outside world was during visits, the passing of messages, hidden from prison authorities, had to occur then. (Only during visits would the blanketmen don the uniform.) And, because visitors were searched and prisoners strip searched and beaten to and from visits, the communications or "comms" as they became known, had to be hidden in the most private parts of the human anatomy. Many women volunteered their services to the movement. With a kiss to a blanketman, one comm could be delivered while another was received. Wrapped in plastic, incoming comms often contained letters from family members, news from republicans, and tobacco and rolling papers - cigarettes being the only luxury of the prisoners. (The blanketmen became quite adept at shooting comms, cigarettes and makeshift lighters through the cracks under the cell doors.) Outgoing comms also included letters to family members but, as was to become increasingly important during the hunger strike, provided the external leadership of the IRA all the pertinent details of the daily status inside. (Beresford 1987)

By late 1980, the blanketmen realized that their protest, while generating some bad press for Britain, was largely ineffective in returning their POW status. With no other alternative (it was left unsaid that the blanketmen would even consider conforming) the prisoners, with little support from the republican leadership outside the prison, decided on a hunger strike. Sands, as second in command in the Kesh, would not be embarking on this protest fast. The officer in command, Brendan Hughes, would begin the strike and needed his lieutenant to be ready to assume command in case of death. This first hunger strike began on 27 October.

While depriving oneself of food may seem a bit extreme to most, to the blanketmen it represented the supreme sacrifice. Throughout Irish history, the hunger strike has been used as a weapon against injustice. It was believed that to starve oneself at the door of another who had done you wrong was to force a reply of pity. The one causing the grievance would realize their mistake, offer the protester food and beg to be forgiven. Yes, this is an ideal situation. But to an Irish Republican, Britain had forced injustices on the Irish for centuries. Surely this act of finality of the blanketmen, of placing their own lives on the line over a few rights, would cause the English government to look more deeply into the situation and see where they strayed from the course of human decency. Or so hoped the blanketmen.

Fifty-three days into the strike it was called off. The season was Christmas and the British government seemed willing to reason with the H-Block prisoners (who had been joined by three more republicans at Armagh women's prison) over the five demands which included the right to wear their own clothes, be exempt from prison work (except wing maintenance), get full remission, use educational and recreational areas, and freely associate in their wings. It was not until after Christmas that the prisoners realized that their efforts were made in vain. England had only placated the republicans temporarily, as if to avert a gruesome spectacle which would surely sour the Yuletide season.

Again, amid much opposition by the IRA and Sinn Fein, the blanketmen decided to begin another fast. The date was set for 1 March 1981, the fifth anniversary of the removal of political status. This time, if the five demands were not met, the prisoners on the fast would die one by one being replaced by others until Britain agreed to the demands. There was no turning back now, Sands was officer in command and he chose to be the first volunteer. He was determined not to cave into the pressures of the Catholic church, Irish Free State and northern Catholic politicians, and any shallow promises of the British government. The first hunger strikers were convinced to halt their protest and gained nothing. Now, with the understanding and promise of his family that they would not interfere with his fast, Bobby Sands was ready to put his life on the line for the cause of Irish freedom. It would prove to be a slow and painful death that Sands would endure and the world would focus its attention on his last days.

Unfortunately for Sands and his fellow republicans, Margaret Thatcher was the leader of England. Thatcher, known as "Tinknickers" by the blanketmen, was a very shrewd, scornfully calculating woman who would ignore global outrage and allow Sands, followed by nine other men, to die. The word intransigence aptly describes the British attitude toward negotiations with the prisoners. Let them die rather than we losing face seemed the general theme. Remarkably, even with huge protests and shows of support for the hunger strikers worldwide and even when Sands himself was elected as a Member of Parliament - a peer to Margaret Thatcher - the prime minister stood behind the "terrorist" label, refusing to negotiate. This last show of support, a prisoner being voted into power by a constituency he does not know, illustrates the enormous concern that the nationalist population had for the hunger strikers. For Thatcher to ignore their plight amounted to a slap in the face for Irish self-determination. Sands had expected this British indifference and remained undaunted in his protest.

Throughout the planning stages of the hunger strike and during the fast itself, officials from the Catholic church had pleaded with Sands to take another course of action. However, with the church having failed the 1980 hunger strikers and the republican slogan of "taking religion from Rome, politics from home" being implemented, Sands could not back down. Someone mentioned that for one to die when death could be prevented was suicide. A blanketman would retort that Christ himself must have committed suicide. This is a powerful piece of information worth of debate.

Sands also was visited by foreign commissions and Irish Free State politicians during the latter half of his strike. Attempts were made to get Sands off the fast and into negotiations with the British government. Sands stood his ground. Only by meeting the five political status demands could England show its sincerity. Worldwide opinion in Sands' favor, his status as an MP and his life on the line did not phase Thatcher's government. Having consumed only water and salt for his last 66 days, Bobby Sands died at the door of the British government on 5 May 1981.

Worldwide, news of Sands' death spawned opinions which were decidedly anti-British. Protests were offered in Milan, Athens, Ghent, Paris and Oslo as well as across the United States and Ireland. Violence erupted in France, Spain and Portugal and with the natives of Belfast. The Italian, part of the Indian, Iranian, and Portuguese governments as well as Poland's Lech Walesa and smaller American communities honored Sands. (Beresford 1987) Meanwhile, Thatcher addressing the House of Commons stated:

This government will never grant political status no matter how much hunger strike there may be, we are on the side of protecting law-abiding and innocent citizens, and we shall continue in our efforts to stamp out terrorism. Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organization did not allow to any of their victims.
Her government then worked on changing the laws so that no prisoner could ever again be elected to Parliament. Nine more prisoners followed Sands to their deaths. One, Kieran Doherty, was elected to office in the Free State. Again, the position held no real power when weighed against the might of British intransigence. (Beresford 1987, quote from 6 May 1981 New York Times)

After 217 days of hunger striking, with ten dead, the blanketmen called off the fast. Volunteers were still in the ready to take their place, but with no indication that the demands would be met, the movement felt that further deaths would accomplish little. In a callously late move for Sands and his nine fellow martyrs, Thatcher's government, in effect, granted the POW status - although the semantics were changed to prevent any English loss of face.

In the final analysis, this paper should serve as an indication as to how Bobby Sands perceived his world, how that world motivated him, what his reasons were for giving his life in sacrifice, and why his sacrifice can not be forgotten. The goal of this report was not to be objective but to be truthful to Irish Republicanism so that the reader might more easily understand why Bobby Sands' existence was to some extent predetermined yet the choices Sands made were uniquely his own. To a large extent, this paper should illustrate that Sands was more or less an ordinary man who reacted to extraordinary circumstances. Certainly this is evident in the worldwide attention the hunger strikers garnered. As John Conroy (1987) said in his Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life", "Television crews from Nigeria are not in the habit of covering the deaths of Irish gangsters." Bobby Sands was no gangster.


Beresford, David. 1989. Ten Men Dead: The Story of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike. Atlantic Monthly Press. New York.

Conroy, John. 1987. Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life. Beacon Press. Boston.

Feehan, John. 1983. Bobby Sands and the Tragedy of Northern Ireland. Mercier Press. Dublin.

New York Times. 6 May 1981, p 1,14.

Rice, Charles. 1985. Divided Ireland: A Cause for American Concern. Tyholland Press. Notre Dame, IN.

Sands, Bobby. 1981. Prison Poems. Sinn Fein Publicity Department. Dublin.

Sands, Bobby. 1982. Skylark Sing Your Lonely Song: An Anthology of the Writings of Bobby Sands. Mercier Press. Dublin.

Strong, Morgan. 1989. "Interview: The IRA." Playboy, Vol.36, No.4