What Would You Die For? notes

01 – Bobby Sands

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.

02 – captivity of his country

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.”

03 – Long Kesh

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.

04 – impoverished

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%.

05 – volunteers

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.

06 – culture hero

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.

07 – father

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.

08 – all accounts

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.”

09 – strategically

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.

10 – Michael Devine

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.

11 – rebels

“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

12 – Paddy Quinn

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.

13 – Laurence McKeown

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

14 – starvation

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.”

16 – visitor

Oliver Hughes

17 – dead already

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?

18 – Suicides

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

19 – speech

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.

20 – poet

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!”

21 – families

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.

22 – Bobby Sands wouldn’t

“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 man was a pacifist, or evolving into one.

23 – classes

(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.

24 – political prisoners

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

25 – quitting

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.

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