By Nora Richardson, Green Left Weekly
Bobby Sands was born in March 1954 in Newtownabbey, a Unionist area. His first introduction to violence came when he was six. The Unionists found out that the family was both Catholic and Nationalist -- and so started the intimidation and harassment. Twice the family had to move.
Worse was to come as Bobby grew older. He was forced at gunpoint to give up his job as an apprentice coach-builder. Before that, he was waylaid one evening by a Unionist gang which stabbed him several times. He barely made his way home, half crawling, half staggering.
Bobby Sands joined the IRA in 1972. In the autumn of 1972 he was picked up by the police and taken to one of the Royal Ulster Constabulary centres, where he was tortured -- this being common practice by the police towards the nationalists. He got five years in Long Kesh concentration camp.
While in prison, he developed into a strong and disciplined Republican. He established what came to be known as the Long Kesh "Gaeltacht" (Gaelic-speaking area). After three and a half years he was released and again made himself available to the IRA. As well, he became deeply involved in the social affairs of his community.
He married his childhood sweetheart and they had their first baby, Gerard. The joy of freedom, however, came to a sudden and untimely end. In autumn of 1976, Bobby and five companions were sitting in a parked car. The car was surrounded and searched by the RUC, who claimed that they found a Colt revolver under the back seat of the car.
They attempted to link Bobby to an explosion at a furnishing company in nearby Dunmurray. Scientific examinations could not find the slightest trace of evidence that Bobby was involved. He was subjected to endless hours of beatings and torture -- described in his poem, "Castlereagh".
The torture of defenceless Irish prisoners, of whom Bobby Sands was only one of thousands, was the direct result of instructions from the British government, which said in effect, "Get convictions no matter how". In 1977 they hauled him before the court on a charge of possession of a revolver. He and his five companions were given 14 years each in Long Kesh.
Bobby spent his first 21 days "on the boards" -- a special punishment cell in solitary confinement -- subject to daily beatings and deprived of all human contact, as well as books, papers or cigarettes.
For the remaining few years of his life, Bobby Sands was deprived of t pain and suffering. Yet these years brought forth in him dormant qualities of greatness, courage and determination. From the dirt, filth and stench that was Long Kesh came some of his most inspiring poetry and prose.
He became the spokesperson and negotiator for his fellow prisoners. Bobby wrote, "I refuse to change to suit people who oppress, torture and imprison me. They have suppressed my body and attacked my dignity, but I have the spirit of freedom that cannot be quenched by even the most horrendous treatment. Of course I can be murdered, but while I remain alive I remain what I am -- a political prisoner."
The first hunger strike was started on October 27, 1980 and ended on December 18. The British government, under pressure from people in the US, Europe, Ireland and Britain, said it would comply with the prisoners' demands.
As usual, Britain's promises were broken. So, on the fifth anniversary of the withdrawal of political status in the H-Blocks and Armagh Gaol -- March 1, 1981 -- a second hunger strike began.
From the first day of his hunger strike, he kept a diary. He made his last entry on March 17, in Irish. Translated, it read: "If they aren't able to destroy the desire for freedom, they won't break you. They won't break me because the desire for freedom, and the freedom of the Irish people, is in my heart. The day will dawn when all the people will have the desire for freedom to show. And it's then that we'll see the rising of the moon."
At the end of March, Frank Maguire, the independent MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone died. Sinn Fein decided to run Bobby Sands as a candidate. In a personal message to his electorate, Bobby wrote: "There is but a single issue at stake, the right for human dignity of Irish men and women. Our protest and this hunger strike is to secure from the British government an end to its policy of labeling us as criminals."
Bobby Sands won 30,492 votes, winning the seat and humiliating the British. The Irish people had shown themselves to be totally behind the hunger strike.
Even during the last hours of his life, his family were subjected to humiliating treatment by prison officials. In the early hours of the morning of May 5, Bobby Sands, one of the noblest Irish of the century, died.
On May 7, 100,000 people walked in silence behind the coffin and almost as many more lined the streets. The funeral of Bobby Sands MP was the largest in Ireland since that of Parnell.
Owen Carron, Bobby's campaign manager and later his successor to the seat of Fermanagh-South Tyrone, delivered the oration: "Bobby Sands, as a representative of the blanket-men and women, died rather than be branded a criminal. The callous intransigence of the British government has made the hunger strike a symbol of the struggle for bol of hope for the unemployed, for the poor, for the homeless, for those divided by partition and for those trying to unite our people. Bobby Sands has not died in vain -- he symbolises the true Irish nation which has never surrendered and never will."
Tiocfaidh ar la.
(This article was originally posted on the Green Left Weekly Home Page.)