Bobby Sands, the first IRA hungerstriker to die, was a prolific writer and story teller. He spent four and a half years in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, most of his work being written on sheets of toliet paper with a biro refill in an excrement covered cell.
This is a small sampling of his work. I will add more regularly.…
Historians will no doubt look on the Irish hungerstrike of 1981 as a watershed in the struggle for Irish freedom. It not only led to the prisoners in the H-Blocks effectively getting their five demands in all but name – thus smashing Britain’s criminalisation policy – but launched Sinn Fein into the political arena. This change in direction by the Republican movement ultimately led to the current peace process in Ireland.
After the ending of the strike, the majority of the prisoners decided to work within the system to break it.
Less than two years from the ending of the hungerstrike, when Margaret Thatcher had boasted that the I.R.A had played its last card, thirty-eight I.R.A prisoners in a display of resourcefulness and sheer audacity, escaped from the H-Blocks in a food delivery lorry.
H-Block 7, in the centre of one of the most heavily guarded prisons in Europe, was, for over two and a half hours, fully under the control of the Irish Republican Army.
Having made their escape as far as the front gates of the prison, they ran into some trouble and nineteen of the men were recaptured almost immediately. The remaining nineteen reached freedom. Some went on to take up arms in the struggle again.
In the last days of the prison, all of the prisoners have since been released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the prisoners enjoyed political status. Such was the freedom in the prison, a number of years ago the prisoners were able to dig a tunnel from one of the blocks leading to the outside and store the earth from the ground in two of the cells. It was only when due to misfortune and adverse weather conditions, the tunnel collapsed, that the dug-out earth was found in the cells.
The prisoners had practically total control of the blocks in which they were housed. Prison authorities had to clear everything they wanted to do with the I.R.A block Officer Commanding, and that included searches. Unbelievable but true! The only thing prisoners didn’t have was the keys to unlock their cells, although do doubt they’ve tried hard to get them.
No one will ever forget the human sacrifice and the appalling conditions endured to create those conditions in the H-Blocks. Ten young Irishmen gave their lives rather than capitulate to Britain’s attempts to criminalise them.
Their names will be remembered when freedom dawns in Ireland.
Of the hunger strikers who died (with the exception of Francis Hughes who was sentenced to life in prison) all would have been released by 1987. All the hunger strikers who were taken off the hunger strike by their families are now free men. Many of them are active once again in Sinn Fein.
On September 28, 1996, politician and former hunger striker Pat McGeown aged 44, whose life was saved by his family’s intervention, died suddenly of heart failure. His death was attributed to the damage inflicted on his body during the hunger strike. He became the 11th Hungerstrike Martyr.
Father Faul, the prison chaplain at the time of the hungerstrike, came to visit Bobby Sands in his cell not long after he had begun his fast. The priest sought to question Bobby on the morals of his hungerstrike, Bobby’s only response was to quote the bible:
“Greater Love Than This Hath No Man, Than that he Lay Down His Life for his Friend”.
The priest said nothing and left.
Click Here to discover the Writings of Bobby Sands
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After the ending of the first strike, Bobby Sands, who had succeeded Brendan Hughes as O.C of the H-Blocks became heavily and frantically involved in attempts to bring the prison protest to a principled end on the basis of the five demands.
The last thing the prisoners wanted after four years of a gruelling and nightmarish hell was a return to the protest.
It soon became evident however that the Prime Minister of Britain, Margaret Thatcher and the British Government, having secured the ending of the first strike and a potentially explosive situation, were more interested in a political victory over the prisoners, and republicans as a whole, than an honourable resolution of the protest.
Subsequently, in spite of intense efforts by Bobby Sands and the other republican leaders, both inside and outside the H-Blocks, the prisoners were left politically, with no alternative than to proceed with another hungerstrike.
The second hungerstrike began on 1st March 1981 and was led by Bobby Sands.
Unlike the previous strike volunteers would be joining in different stages, thus slowly maximising pressure on the British government. This staggered approach would also avoid a repeat situation where a number of volunteers might die at the same time. The prisoners thinking being, that two or three hungerstrikers dying at once would have no more effect on the Brits than a single death.
Another tactical move came the day after the beginning of the fast when the four hundred and twenty-five non-conforming prisoners in the H-Blocks called off their dirty protest, thus centralising public and media attention on the plight of the volunteers on the strike.
Another I.R.A prisoner, Francis Hughes, 27, from the village of Bellaghy joined the fast on 15th March. He was later followed by I.R.A volunteer Raymond McCreesh, 24, from South Armagh and Patsy O’Hara, 24, from Derry City the officer commanding the I. N. L. A prisoners in the Blocks. They both joined their two comrades in refusing food on 22nd March.
These four young Irish men in the prime of their lives had grown up knowing nothing but oppression and discrimination in their own country. Contrary to British claims of criminality, the four would never have seen the insides of a prison were it not for the political situation prevailing in Ireland at the time.
An opportunity to dispel the myth that these men were mere gangsters and part of a criminal conspiracy arose when a special election was called for after the death of Independent Nationalist M.P for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Frank Maguire.
It was quickly decided that Bobby Sands should run for this seat on the issue of the H-Blocks unaligned to any political party. The rallying cry of “Don’t let them die” employed during the many rallies held throughout the country became a campaign slogan.
The H-Block Committee were not only calling on nationalist people to elect Bobby as a member of parliament but were urging them to save his life.
The people of Fermanagh/South Tyrone spoke with a resounding voice, when on 9th April 1981, 30,492 of them elected Bobby Sands, by now six weeks without food, as their political representative to the Westminister parliament.
Bobby Sands political prisoner, became Bobby Sands M.P. Unbelievable result for a man who was labelled a criminal. Graffiti on the walls throughout the six counties began to decry this fact.
Surely to God Margaret Thatcher and the British government wouldn’t let a fellow M.P starve to death?
Signs looked ominous however, when in response to this victory, a law was drafted in the British House of Commons preventing any more prisoners from standing in future elections. The situation was very bleak indeed.
Despite this election result and political pressure from both Ireland and abroad, Margaret Thatcher refused to even enter into negotiations with the political prisoners.
As a direct result of British intransigence Bobby Sands M. P for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Irish political prisoner, poet and Irish soldier, died at 1:17am May 5th 1981 after sixty-six days without food.
He died as he had lived, an Irish freedom fighter who would rather die than see the cause, for which he ultimately paid the supreme sacrifice, be criminalised.
One hundred thousand people turned out for Bobby’s funeral from his terraced home in Twinbrook, West Belfast. Proportionally, on a population basis, it was as though two million people had marched through London.
Sympathy messages flowed in from all corners of the globe condemning the British governments position and paying tribute to the courage and selflessness of Bobby Sand’s martyrdom.
Rallies were held in Ireland and abroad in protest at the British refusal to bring the strike to an honourable end – and in support of the prisoners in the H-Blocks.
Serious rioting broke out all over the six counties with many people losing their lives. The British, true to form, still didn’t take heed.
Sadly nine more young Irishmen followed Bobby Sand’s footsteps into martyrdom before the hungerstrike came to an end.
Nine more coffins were followed through the narrow streets and country lanes of the six-counties. Nine more families were left broken-hearted, after watching their loved ones die a slow and agonising death because of Britain’s point-blank refusal to give them their five just demands, their rights as political prisoners of war.
Francis Hughes died a week after Bobby Sands on 12th May. Patsy O’Hara and Raymond McCreesh both died on 21st May. Joe McDonnell died on July 8th. Martin Hurson died July 13th. Kevin Lynch died August 1st. Kieran Doherty died August 2nd. Thomas McIlwee died August 8th and Mickey Devine died August 20th.
The hungerstrike came to an end on 3rd October 1981 after 217 days due to the fact that the Catholic Church, the Dublin government and the S.D.L.P(Social Democratic Labour Party) had all consistently refused to side with the prisoners and found it more politically beneficial to capitulate to the British Government.
Thus insufficient pressure was brought to bear on the British by the Irish establishment.
It was evident that Margaret Thatcher was quite happy to sit back and watch the entire Republican population of the H-Blocks starve to death.
Also by this stage, because of pressure brought upon the families by the Catholic Church, the prisoner’s families had begun to take the prisoners of the fast once they had lapsed into a coma, as was their right.
So, it looked as though the hungerstrike was on the verge of collapse anyway, when the prisoners released their statement on October 3rd declaring that the hungerstrike was over. Click Here to read the full text of that statement(Link will open in new tab).…
The first hungerstrike, undertaken by seven republican volunteers began on October 27th 1980. Brendan Hughes the I.R.A Officer Commanding the prison would lead the prisoners on the strike followed by six others John Nixon, Sean McKenna, Raymond McCartney, Tommy McKearney and Leo Green.
The Five Demands:Five basic demands had been drafted by the prisoners beforehand and made public. These demands were basically political status in another form:
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;
4. The Right to organize their own educational and recreational facilities;
5. The Right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week.
It has to be said that the I.R.A on the outside were vehemently opposed to a hungerstrike, at least in the early stages. Mainly because of the logistics involved in organising and maintaining support for such a venture.
Furthermore, they didn’t want the prison campaign detracting from the struggle as a whole which at this stage was whole-heartedly militarist. In fact Gerry Adams publicly outlined the position:
“We are tactically, strategically, physically and morally opposed to a hungerstrike”.
The hungerstrikers were later joined on December 1st by three republican prisoners from Armagh women‘s jail, one of whom Mairead Farrell, was killed by the S. A. S in Gibraltar in 1988. Mairead was joined by Mairead Nugent and Mary Doyle.Nevertheless after much toing and froing from the prison, the hungerstrike began on October 27th with the seven refusing food in a fast to the death.
After protracted negotiations, both public and behind the scenes, the prisoner’s fast ended on 18th December after fifty-two days.
With Sean McKenna being very close to death, the other prisoners all seriously ill in hospital and more and more public pressure being brought to bear upon the republican prison leaders, the decision was taken to end the fast in the hopes that Margaret Thatcher and her government had acceded to the stikers five demands.
It was thought that an honourable compromise had been reached, the reality was very different. This “paper” that the British had drafted up, on which the prisoners hopes had been raised, amounted to nothing more than a diluted form of criminalisation.
It was decided that a second hungerstrike would be embarked upon,and that it would be led by the O.C(Officer Commanding) of the prison during the first strike, Bobby Sands.…
The hungerstrike of 1981 was one of the most influential periods in the present phase of the struggle for Irish freedom. It not only thwarted Britain’s plans to criminalise Ireland’s long and noble fight for freedom, but concentrated world-wide media attention on the war in Ireland.
The strikes paved the way for Sinn Fein’s entrance into the political arena and the many electoral successes that followed.
The events surrounding the prison protests, and culminating in the fast to the death of ten I.R.A(Irish Republican Army) and I.N.L.A(Irish National Liberation Army) volunteers began in 1976 when the British Government introduced a policy which was an attempt to portray Irish P.O.Ws as common criminals. This policy became known as Criminalisation.
From the 1st march 1976 any sentenced volunteer would no longer be afforded the rights of a political prisoner, a right that was won after a hungerstrike by Belfast man Billy Mc Kee in 1972, but would be treated like any other O. D.Cs(Ordinary Decent Criminals), as they were known.
For the prisoners this would mean, wearing a prison uniform, doing prison work and a restriction in the amount of free association with their comrades inside.
This shift in policy by the British was seen by republicans as not only an attempt to criminalise the prisoners, but as an extension of this, a well thought out plan by the British government, to break the liberation struggle in Ireland.
The prisons would be used as a breakers yard where the prisoners would be de-politicised, and therefore no longer a threat to the British state.
Unfortunately for the Margaret Thatcher’s government the P.O.Ws had other plans.
The first prisoner to be sentenced after the cut-off date was a nineteen year old Belfast man, called Kieran Nugent. He refused to wear a prison issue uniform telling the screws(warders):
“If you want me to wear a convict’s uniform you’re going to have to nail it on my back”.
His civilian clothing was thus taken away. So he sat almost twenty-fours hours a day wrapped in nothing but a prison blanket. The blanketmen, as they became known, were born.
The tension within the H-Blocks soon heightened as more prisoners joined the protest, beatings became a daily occurrence as the I. R. A and I. N. L. A volunteers refused to yield to the full might of the British state in Ireland. Their spirits were bowed but unbroken.
While all this was going on within the prison, the republican movement was piling on the pressure on the outside with rallies and protests in defence of the blanketmen.
Rallies were organised throughout Ireland and further afield. On the military front the I.R.A had begun to target prison officers, killing several, including a deputy governor.
Again the situation inside escalated and because of the severe beatings and forced mirror searches – in which prisoners would be forced to squat over a mirror in order to have their back passages probed – the P.O.Ws refused to leave their cells, unless to use the toilet.
The beatings, which often led to prisoners being left unconscious, and the mirror searches, were seen by the prisoners as a further attempt by the prison authorities to degrade them and force them into submission.
A further development came when the prison authorities refused to give the prisoners an extra towel to cover themselves when they used the bathroom facilities.
This led to the no-wash protest which later became the dirty protest when prisoners, because they were being severely beaten every time they left the confines of their cells, refused to come out even to relieve their bodily functions.
As a result volunteers were forced to smear their excrement on cell walls and funnel urine out the cell doors.
The screws would often come along with a mop and force the pools of urine back under cell doors soaking bedding material which by this time was on the floor because all the furniture had been removed from the cells as a further punishment.
After many months of living in their own excrement in scenes which the primate of all Ireland, Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich had described as “similar to the slums of Calcutta” the prisoners decided that enough was enough. They reached the conclusion that the only way to resolve the issue was by the age-old Irish weapon of last resort, the hungerstrike.…