by Pat Hartman

Bobby Sands

People die every day in their thousands; every hour of every day, they die. Mostly in horrible ways. Still, some modes of death can capture the world’s attention. Back when very few Americans had even heard of Vietnam, that photo of a man serenely at rest amid flames was, for some of us, the first clue. When a monk is moved to make a point by setting himself on fire, the situation needs to be looked at.

Originally published by, in June, 2006.
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for the reader new to Irish history.
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Bobby Sands starved himself to death in order to bring attention to a great wrong: the captivity of his country and his people. He and the other Long Kesh hunger strikers knew what they died for. Unlike many impoverished youth worldwide who are grabbed off the streets, handed weapons, and sent into battle, these volunteers had no doubts or illusions. They wanted Ireland unoccupied, and they also wanted the rights specified by the Geneva Conventions for prisoners of war: exactly what the Guantanamo conflict is about. At Long Kesh, Special Category status for Irish rebels had been abolished in 1976. According to the authorities, prisoners abused their hospitality by giving classes in guerilla terrorism. The hunger strikers, when all else failed, made use of their “last, best weapon” in a final, non-violent protest that the Brits, had the phrase occurred to them, would have called an “act of asymmetrical warfare.”

Why does Bobby Sands so perfectly fill the role of culture hero? Well, he was young, vibrant, and handsome. Those traits aren’t supposed to matter, but let’s admit they do, and they make his death even more of a sad pity and a waste. There’s that famous picture you see everywhere. Leave aside what kind of lover he might have been, or what kind of father. Political activists are notoriously unable to maintain a stable family life. But he looks like a guy you’d want to buy a drink for – somebody you’d like to play cards with, go camping, or just generally hang out with. By all accounts, he was.


What would you die for? Kate Braverman poses this question in a poem, defending her cocaine addiction. Every year the Darwin Awards salute those who manage to remove themselves from the gene pool in spectacularly stupid ways. People are willing to die for the fastest car ride ever, or the biggest orgasm. Swaggering gangsta rappers, so facile with their guns – their posing bears no more resemblance to righteous action than porn does to passion. It’s all part of the clownification of Western culture.

Schopenhauer asked, “What penalty can frighten a man who is not afraid of death itself?” Like so many of the old philosopher’s sayings, this one seems deep, but on further examination is revealed as nonsense. Fear of death can easily be suppressed or bypassed. With the right combination of testosterone, pharmaceuticals, and hate, any hoodlum or suicide bomber can be brave for those few crucial seconds. How many street toughs have the courage required for willful self-starvation? If death entailed several weeks of ever-increasing pain, would they be so eager for it?

There are others who don’t fear death: the ones who have their spiritual stuff together. Even among normal, everyday folk, death is less feared than what often leads to it: long-term suffering and disability – which happen to be the very horrors a hunger striker signs on for.

A person determined to starve can deliberately make it worse by allowing himself water. The dying takes much longer. That’s how the Irish prisoners did it, strategically. The longer it took them to die, the more column inches of newsprint their message would fill, the more airwaves it would capture. But there was another reason to prolong their desperate protest. Michael Devine wrote, “Not only to die, but to choose a death which is slow and agonizing, further serves to illustrate the depths of courage and sincerity…” Long Kesh was full of rebels armed with the intention to sacrifice their lives, in a protracted and miserable way, for a principle.

“It’s an ugly death”

After the first two or three days fasting, you don’t feel hungry any more. For a while. But then you do. You’re likely to get very irritable and somewhat confused. There might even be delusions and hallucinations. Soon your eyes start to go, and before long, you can only make out light and shadow. Talking gets very difficult. Paddy Quinn says, “I could hear the scraping and screeching of the blood on the back of my brain, I could feel this terrible pain. ….. I could hear the noise in my throat, gasping for breath….It was just pain, day after day.”

The body becomes too weak to hold itself up, much less walk. You need a wheelchair, if there’s anyone around who cares enough to put you in one. The organism digests itself, mining its own cells ever more deeply in a vain attempt to feed those same cells. Even if you’re willing to drink water, your body spews it back out. “I can vividly recall the sounds of their retching,” Laurence McKeown says of his fellow prisoners.

Unable to process the toxic load, your kidneys collapse. As the seconds tick by, each one offers another chance to back down. The decision is always there to be made, over and over, because food still shows up at mealtimes, right there within reach. Two weeks into starvation, Bobby Sands wrote, “It was inviting (I’m human too) and I was glad to see it leave the cell. Never would I have touched it… Ha! My God, if it had have attacked, I’d have fled.”

As their bodies deteriorated, the strikers wrote or spoke their thoughts. Michael Devine:

“What it takes to willingly undergo this ordeal…none of us can possibly imagine.” (But he found out. Shortly after writing those words he began to deny food, and became the tenth fatality.) Bobby Sands: “Nothing else seems to matter except that lingering constant reminding thought, ‘Never give up’. No matter how bad, how black, how painful, how heart-breaking, ‘Never give up’, ‘Never despair’, ‘Never lose hope’.” Paddy Quinn: “I have to do this; I’m going to keep going.” Quinn talks about looking forward to death with a sense of contentment. “I had accepted I was going to die and I was happy with my decision”

Close to the end, a visitor reported that Bobby Sands looked 90 years old. “His eyes are sunk in his head, the bones are sticking out of his face, and his teeth are sticking out. There is no movement in his body. His face is a blackish color. When I first saw him, I thought he was dead already.” He succumbed two days later, with his family keeping watch, after 66 days of starvation.

Thatcher’s Equal

As life drained out of him, Bobby Sands was nominated for a seat in the British House of Commons. Father Joe McVeigh spoke up to denounce any implication that a vote for Sands was a vote for violence. Moreover, he reminded his fellow priests that prisoners are one of the groups specifically named by Jesus as needful and deserving of support.

Sending a strong message through the ballot box, the people elected Bobby Sands. The Prime Minister of course tried to invalidate the election results, but the Labour party stepped in, backed by the Scots and the Welsh, so the tactic failed. Now, when Thatcher still refused to consider the strikers’ demands, it wasn’t just some scuzzy yob that she sentenced to death. Bobby Sands was a Member of Parliament, equal in rank to herself.

The Vatican’s Problem Child

Unless some major organ failed first, the striker would eventually fall into a coma. At this point, next of kin could give permission for forced feeding. The Catholic Church, as an institution, was never supportive of the IRA or the nationalist movement in general. It didn’t say a mumblin’ word to Prime Minister Thatcher, but concentrated on brainwashing and harassing the families, who already had more than enough grief. Pope John Paul II sent a monsignor to try and talk Bobby Sands into quitting. Relatives were urged to undermine the strikers’ resolve, to either persuade their ungodly son or brother to give up the struggle, or to wait until the prisoner was unconscious, and then break their promises of non-intervention.

Suicides have been called the aristocrats of death, but not by the Pope. As soon as Bobby Sands died, the bishops of Ireland issued a press release to remind everyone that “suicide is a great evil,” though they were gracious enough to add that a political hunger strikes might not lead to eternal damnation. All the Long Kesh dead were given church funerals. At least one priest, Father Salvatore Riccardi, found them a loophole, going public with the theory that a hunger strike isn’t really suicide, because its purpose is not to die but to win rights; because although the possibility of death is accepted, it’s not inevitable. If, for instance, the government decided to capitulate, then death would not result.

Not bloody likely

Still, in their hearts the hunger strikers knew the government would not give in, and the game would play itself out to the bitter end. They really, truly believed in the Irish people’s right to liberty, and saw the hunger strike as a principled solution, the only one available. They were in a no-choice situation. “We here are helpless. All we have to give is our lives,” Michael Devine wrote.

When Bobby Sands died, 75 to 100 thousand people showed up for the service. Worldwide, masses were said in church and the other kind of masses were mobilized to march. In New York the Irish bars took the serious step of closing for a couple of hours. The Grateful Dead were in concert on Long Island. Some words were said about Bobby Sands, and Jerry Garcia dedicated to him the performance of “He’s Gone.” In Tehran, revolutionaries seriously annoyed the British Embassy by renaming a road. The embassy had to move its main entrance around the corner so its address wouldn’t be on Bobby Sands Street.

“Let tyrants tremble before men who are capable of dying for their ideals after 60 days of hunger strike!,” Fidel Castro said in a speech a few months later. The Cuban leader even denigrated the suffering of Christ on the cross, as paltry compared to this much longer agony.

Ain’t Nobody’s Business

Probably the only thing the Brits did right in the whole history of Ireland was to keep their hands off the strikers. Of course it would have been even more right to recognize the IRA and other politicals as POWs and treat them accordingly, but since they couldn’t bring themselves to do that, they did the right thing by letting the hunger strike proceed without interference. Force-feeding hunger strikers is a violation as obscene and wicked as rape. It nullifies the only sovereignty left to an abjectly powerless individual. It interferes with the spiritual development of the person who has decided to take this difficult course. It negates the sacrifice the person has determined to make for a greater cause.

Even if the suicide by starvation is for a non-altruistic purpose, simply to escape from an unbearable existence, the person’s right to take his or her own life should be respected absolutely, whatever the circumstances. A government that doesn’t like to see prisoners starve themselves to death needs to do something, for sure, but force-feeding isn’t it. Especially when that government is so eager to let you sacrifice yourself invading some country so oil billionaires can have a nice life. Especially when that government appropriates for itself the right to execute you, if you do something bad enough. Given those facts, that it should presume to prevent you from terminating your own existence is even more heinous.

The Scorecard

Did the hunger strike accomplish anything? Yes and no. By the end of May, with four dead, the London Times reported that “world opinion has begun to shift away from the British government and in favor of the IRA.” But there were riots in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Around 60 police, soldiers and civilians died in violent episodes related to the Hunger Strikes. Bobby Sands wouldn’t have called that success. And later on, as the Nineties drew to a close, Irish political prisoners were again re-criminalized.

But in 1981, the political prisoners did get some breaks, as demands were finally met. The surviving rebels described it as a massive political victory, because world awareness had been focused on their plight. The political consciousness of the Irish people was raised, refined, and focused, as nationalist splinter groups that had been at odds with each other united. The church lost its stranglehold on Ireland’s Catholic working class, who turned instead to the “gospel of the oppressed.” The sacrifices made by the Long Kesh inmates inspired downtrodden people around the world to get their solidarity on.

The US government has reason to remember the Irish martyrs. Since Guantanamo became a concentration camp, hundreds of prisoners have gone on hunger strike – unsuccessfully, because they are strapped down and fed through a naso-gastric tube. Going in, it can cause bleeding and infection. After insertion, its position in the stomach needs to be carefully verified. If it winds up in the breathing passages, the results could be fatal. The liquid needs to be introduced slowly, not just shoved in. The procedure is recommended only for short-term use, and it’s best when the tube is left in place, not reinserted several times a day. Even in a hospital, under ideal conditions, with a cooperative patient and a compassionate technician, tube feeding is hazardous and horrible. In the prison setting, it’s a brutal assault, just another method of torture.

And of course, Northern Ireland is still under British rule. But it’s a different place now. There is work, even enough work for a huge immigrant population. Not that anybody’s statistics about anything should ever be trusted, but an unemployment rate of under 5% is mentioned. Long Kesh prison is out of business, and developers have controversial plans for the huge tract of land. They aim to build a sports stadium, multiplex movie theater, fancy hotel, equestrian center, maybe an ice skating rink. One of the H-blocks and the hospital wing, and a few other structures, are listed as heritage buildings and will be preserved, and that’s where a proposed international center for conflict transformation will be housed.

So Bobby Sands has been dead a quarter of a century, a nice poetic unit of time. And that’s important, because he was, above all, a poet. He wasn’t the equal of William Butler Yeats, but poetry lives in the heart, and how it comes out on paper is pretty much irrelevant. For better or worse, the main lesson here is: today’s political prisoner is tomorrow’s saint.

“Let our revenge be the laughter of our children,” Bobby Sands said. He’d probably be delighted with the stadium and the theater and all the other fun things. But that isn’t what he died for. “I have the spirit of freedom that cannot be quenched by even the most horrendous treatment,” he wrote. “Never … have they succeeded in breaking the spirit of one man who refused to be broken.”



He’s been dead for 25 years, which seems to be the point when things are commemorated. In fact, the moment of timeliness has already passed. Well, too bad, because I’m not ready to let go of Bobby Sands just yet. Somewhere along the twisted path I picked up this concept: if a thing matters at all, it matters not only on Official News Peg Day. In 1972 he was convicted of armed robbery during IRA fund-raising. After a short period of freedom he was re-arrested in late 1976. When the trial came up, charges connected with a bombing were dismissed for lack of evidence. He was sentenced to 14 years for possession of one-fourth of a revolver. The gun was in a car with four men, who were all convicted of firearms possession.


The Catholics of Northern Ireland, whose six counties remained under British rule after the rest of the country separated. “I am dying not just to attempt to end the barbarity of H-block or to gain the rightful recognition of a political prisoner but primarily because what is lost in here is lost for the republic and those wretched oppressed…,” Bobby Sands wrote. “He stated quite clearly what he was dying for,” his sister Bernadette Sands-McKevitt has affirmed. “It was not because of prison regimes, it was bigger than that. It was for the sovereign independence of his people.”


During its existence, the Long Kesh/Maze prison is thought to have interned or jailed between 25 and 30 thousand people. Mostly they were republicans (the side the hunger strikers were on); relatively few were loyalists to Britain. After a huge 1971 roundup of IRA suspects, about 450 were brought in at once. The first Long Kesh hunger strike was started by IRA prisoner Billy McKee in 1972, over the right of political prisoners to not be treated as criminals. He prevailed, and the government created “special category” status, which gave politicals the rights, though not the official designation, of prisoners of war. In 1974, 1,100 inmates were Special Category prisoners. In 1976 the Special Category designation was abandoned. 19-year-old Kieran (or Ciaran) Nugent declared that if the authorities wanted him to wear a prison uniform they would have to nail it on his back, thus becoming the first “blanket man.” For refusing to wear the uniform, he was punished by having the furniture removed from his cell, and was given only a blanket to wear. Hundreds of others soon followed his example. In 1977 there was the “dirty protest,” where 450 IRA inmates refused to wear clothes, and fouled their cells with excrement. The Hunger Strikers had five demands: their own clothes, free association with other republican political prisoners, the rights not to do prison work and to organize their own recreation and education, and the right to one weekly visit, letter, and package. Here’s a strange thing: during the years when Long Kesh operated, reportedly fifty prison employees killed themselves. That says something about what kind of a place it was.


After a childhood spent witnessing arrests, murders, and displacements, and after being forced out of his apprenticeship in a trade, Bobby Sands joined the Irish Republican Army in the early 1980s. His experience seems a typical one for a young lad of Northern Ireland’s Nationalist community, where unemployment hovered around 70%


The first hunger strike ran from October 1980 until December, when a prominent clergyman appealed for its end. But the British government made no changes, and the strikers felt they had been tricked and betrayed.


The world is full of political prisoners. (One theory says all victimless crime convicts are political prisoners.) Usually they catch hell from the violent criminal population, who keep the politicals in line for the convenience of the authorities. Of course nothing is ever so uncomplicated. Inside or out, most people are a blend of criminal and political. Some go in as crooks and come out politicized. Even career criminals can have political leanings. Some go in as politicals and come out with crime skills, and few other career opportunities. For a person with a record, finding a regular job ranges from difficult to impossible, so crime as a steady gig becomes attractive, even necessary. Politicals need money to operate, and resort to illegal means to do it. What else are they gonna do? Charge the revolution to their credit cards? Notice how it’s the political prisoners who get kept apart and incommunicado, in occupied Ireland as everywhere. The regular population are welcome to exchange whatever arcane knowledge they wish. They’re free to philosophize, proselytize, and share techniques, adding to one another’s stock of how-to lore. But the political types – their ideas are so dangerous, those nutcases who talk about equality and justice and that kind of crazy stuff, they need to be separated and silenced. “Of course I can be murdered, but while I remain alive, I remain what I am, a political prisoner of war, and no one can change that.” Bobby Sands


(sarcastic aside) What a surprising insight, this concept of prison as grad school for illicit risk-takers. Who knew? (end of sarcastic aside) Granted, a percentage of incarcerated souls have, for some mysterious reason, the inner wherewithal to transmute the experience into growth. But first and foremost, the nick always has been where the young learn crooked ways from the old lags. As a corollary to this, we must acknowledge that the more people who are sent to prison for stupid reasons, the more well-trained anti-social types will come out the other end, ready to wreak havoc on what passes for civilization.


Even embracers of law and order are fascinated by outlaws, especially by noble ones. There’s a deep conflict in most of us – to varying degrees, but it’s always there. We acknowledge that things need to be pretty much lawful and orderly for the greater good of civilization. But we also realize, on however subconscious a level, that there are higher laws. To defy an evil authority, even by breaking the law, is what humans sometimes need to do. There’s a whole genre of books and movies and songs and monuments about the protest, and especially about Bobby Sands as the central charismatic figure. In planning the hunger strike, he insisted on a two-week head start before the next volunteer. If it turned out that only one death was required to accomplish the purpose, then nobody else would be too far gone to rescue. This is the way of a born leader.


In spite of spending most of his last nine years in prison, Bobby Sands managed to father a son and marry the boy’s mother. His wife later took the child to England, where they have maintained a low profile. But in a non-biological sense, Bobby Sands is the father of thousands.


While briefly free, Bobby Sands worked in his local community, helping to form a tenants’ association and a youth club. He played football and guitar and spoke of himself as a “once-upon-a-time budding ornithologist.” During his first incarceration of three years, with political prisoner status, he read a lot and taught himself the Irish language. During his last spell in prison, while the blanket protest and dirty protest were in progress, the men had no furniture, TV or other electronics, books, magazines, writing materials, or even clothes. He kept their spirits up for days by telling them in complete detail the plots of novels he had read. On his birthday, which fell during the hunger strike, they had a songfest, with each man contributing a song. They taught each other what Irish they knew.

Bobby Sands was a natural leader, even a messiah figure, whose words, whether spoken, written, or sung, inspired others. His play, *Crime of Castlereagh, is described as “a potent work of theatrical propaganda.” In prison he wrote a fable called *The Lark and the Freedom Fighter. “The lark needed no changing, nor did it wish to change, and died making that point.” This IRA “terrorist,” considered dangerous enough to justify locking him up for the duration of his young adulthood, was ballsy enough to identify with a female bird. In fact, he sometimes published poetry under the pseudonym Marcella, his sister’s name. It kind of shows the futility of profiling.

Bobby Sands kept a journal in the early days of the hunger strike. After two weeks with no food he wrote that the available books were trash and he would ask for a dictionary. “I’d just sit and flick through that and learn, much more preferable to reading rubbish.” In one smuggled-out note he asked for a book by Ethna Carberry. ‘That’s really all I want, last request as they say. Some ask for cigarettes, others for blindfolds, yer man asks for Poetry.”


They began their fasts a week apart, planned so that at the end there would be one dying approximately every week, in order to keep the story in the news.


Ten died in the Long Kesh hunger strike of 1981: Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Ray McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee, Michael Devine.


“We admit no crime unless, that is, the love of one’s people and country is a crime…I know the road is a hard one and everything must be conquered.” Bobby Sands


Thirteen came out of it alive. Brendan McLaughlin and Bernard Fox were taken off the strike when serious medical conditions intervened. After ten had died, the families of the remaining strikers made it clear that they would authorize force-feeding as soon as the men were unconscious. These had fasted for weeks when the strike was ended on the 3rd of October, 1981: Patrick Sheehan, Jackie McMullan, Hugh Carville, John Pickering, Gerard Hodgkins, James Devine. Paddy Quinn, Laurence McKeown, Patrick McGeown, Matt Devlin, and Liam McCloskey all were taken off the strike by their families, and brought back from the brink of the grave.


Laurence McKeown, on hunger strike for 70 days and no longer able to speak, was medically reclaimed when his family gave permission.


On the 17th day, Bobby Sands was visited by a prison official who commented on the book he was reading, “It’s a good thing it isn’t a long one for you won’t finish it.” On the same day he wrote, “The body fights back sure enough, but at the end of the day everything returns to the primary consideration, that is, the mind. The mind is the most important…..If they aren’t able to destroy the desire for freedom, they won’t break you.”


Oliver Hughes


In a novel I read once, about some hippies on a Greek island, one of the women retreated into a primitive hut and purposefully starved herself into extinction. Another character said, “It’s an ugly death.” Is it? Is one death more ugly than another?


Experts have identified at least 16 kinds of suicide, and it looks like voluntary death by starvation is a mixture of at least four of those.

Altruistic suicide is characterized by “excessive concern over the community and exaggerated sense of duty.” Excessive? Exaggerated? All depends on your point of view.

Collective suicide, to escape an invading enemy, of which Masada was the great historical example.

Heroic or honorable suicide: life is sacrificed to save another, promote a cause, or avenge a disgrace. A good example is the infantryman who throws himself on a grenade to buy the lives of his comrades.

Intellectual suicide – a conclusion arrived at as a rational decision

Some Eastern religions, although frowning on suicide by other means, accept the validity of self-starvation. The Catholic Church calls suicide a sin, but recognizes martyrdom. Many of the saints were martyred defending their beliefs. They could have given up their virginity, or the confessional’s secrets, or admitted that the pope doesn’t know everything. Instead they stubbornly allowed themselves to be killed.

“…the aristocrats of death – God’s graduate students” is a phrase from Daniel Stern


On this occasion Fidel Castro also said “Irish patriots are writing one of the most heroic chapters in human history,” and named their action “…the most moving gesture of sacrifice, selflessness and courage one could ever imagine.” He recalled a tale of ancient Rome under siege. Two young Romans were captured, and when the enemy threatened to burn them alive, they stuck their own hands in the fire to show their contempt. Of course the British, U.S., Chinese and Salvadorean governments walked out on Castro’s speech


(one verse from *The Torture Mill – H Block by Bobby Sands)

We fought back tears and scorned our fears

And cast aside our pain

And to our doors we stood in scores

To conquer their black fame

For loud and high we sang our cry

“A Nation once again!”


The hunger strikers begged their families not to interfere. Paddy Quinn told his mother, “You either back me or you back Maggie Thatcher.” But when Quinn was struck unconscious by epileptic attacks, his mother couldn’t stand it and signed for medical intervention. Even families who caved in were supportive and non-critical of those who let their sons and brothers starve, upholding their perfect right to refuse nourishment as long as they were conscious.

Imagine being the mother of a hunger striker. Your first role in regard to him was to feed him. It’s the prime directive, and there was a time when your number one purpose in life was to provide sustenance for that famished and suffering wreck you now see. By refusing to eat, on some level he is rejecting you. At least that’s how it feels. It was a hard time all around for the families. Outside there were birthdays, anniversaries, births, hospitalizations, things needing to be taken care of at home, all overshadowed by the stark reality of a slowly dying loved one.


When asked whether he, as a Catholic, was practicing suicide, Bobby Sands said “If I die, God will understand.” His poetry expresses a depth of religious faith that would be very difficult to fake – and why would anyone bother? Those who make trouble just for the hell of it are proud of their damnedness. Nobody would write stuff like this unless they really felt it.


“It must be said that an armed people are by no means a sure guarantee to liberation. Our guns may kill our enemies but unless we direct them with the politics of a revolutionary people they will eventually kill ourselves,” Bobby Sands wrote. He was politically sophisticated and didn’t embrace violence. “Guns don’t win wars; guns and bombs may kill a man but they cannot lead a man … nor will they ever coerce an unyielding man to yield.” True, the IRA was a violent organization. But also true, the aims and methods of an organization are not always totally endorsed by every member – which is all to the good. I’m willing to believe the guy was a pacifist, or evolving into one.