28 March 2016
Birth of a republican – Bobby Sands, IRA Volunteer and Member of Parliament
Remembering 1981 – From a nationalist ghetto to the battlefield of H-Block
THE following is a slightly edited version of a semi-autobiographical article by Bobby Sands, first published anonymously in Republican News on 16 December 1978. It was reprinted in An Phoblacht/Republican News on 4 April 1981, when Bobby was 35 days on hunger strike.
FROM MY EARLIEST YEARS I recall my mother speaking of the troubled times that occurred during her childhood. Often she spoke of internment on prison ships, of gun attacks and death, and of early-morning raids when one lay listening with pounding heart to the heavy clattering of boots on the cobblestone streets, and as a new day broke peaked carefully out the window to see a neighbour being taken away by the Specials.
Although I never really understood what internment was, or who the Specials were, I grew to regard them as symbols of evil. Nor could I understand when my mother spoke of Connolly and the 1916 Rising, and of how he and his comrades fought and were subsequently executed – a fate suffered by so many Irish rebels in my mother’s stories.
When the television arrived, my mother’s stories were replaced by what it had to offer. I became more confused as “the baddies” in my mother’s tales were also the heroes on the TV. The British Army always fought for ‘the right side’ and the police were always the ‘good guys’. Both were to be heroised and imitated in childhood play.
At school I learned history but it was always English history and English historical triumphs in Ireland and elsewhere. I often wondered why I was never taught the history of my own country and when my sister, a year younger than myself, began to learn the Gaelic language at school I envied her. Occasionally, nearing the end of my schooldays, I received a few scant lessons in Irish history. For this, from a republican-minded teacher who taught me, I was indeed grateful.
● Bobby Sands – front row, fourth from left – playing for Star of the Sea football team
I recall my mother also speaking of the ‘good old days’. But of all her marvellous stories I could never remember any good times and I often thought to myself ‘thank God’ I was not a boy in those times because by then – having left school – life to me seemed enormous and wonderful.
Starting work, although frightening at first, became alright, especially with the reward at the end of the week. Dances and clothes, girls and a few shillings to spend, opened up a whole new world for me. I suppose at that time I would have worked all week, as money seemed to matter more than anything else.
Then came 1968 and my life began to change. Gradually the news changed.
Regularly I noticed the Specials, whom I now knew as the B-Specials, attacking and baton-charging the crowds of people who all of a sudden began marching on the streets.
From the talk in the house and my mother shaking her fist at the TV screen, I knew that they were our people who were on the receiving end. My sympathies and feelings really became aroused after watching the scenes at Burntollet. That imprinted on my mind like a scar, and for the first time I took a real interest in what was going on. I became angry.
It was now 1969 and events moved faster as August hit our area like a hurricane. The whole world exploded and my own little world just crumbled around me. The TV did not have to tell the story now, for it was on my own doorstep. Belfast was in flames as our districts, our humble homes, were burnt. The Specials came at the head of the RUC and the Orange hordes right into the heart of our streets, burning, looting, shooting and murdering.
There was no one to save us except “The Boys”, as my father called the men who defended our district with a handful of old guns.
As the unfamiliar sound of gunfire was still echoing, there soon appeared alien figures, voices and faces – in the form of British soldiers – on our streets. But no longer did I think of them as my childhood ‘good guys’, for their presence alone was food for thought.
Before I could work out the solution, it was answered for me in the form of early-morning raids, and I remembered my mother’s stories of previous troubled times. For now my heart pounded at the heavy clatter of the soldiers’ boots in the early-morning stillness and I carefully peaked from behind the drawn curtains to watch the neighbours’ door being kicked in, and the fathers and sons being dragged out by the hair and being flung in the backs of sinister looking armoured cars. This was followed by blatant murder, the shooting dead of our people on the streets and in cold blood. The curfew came and went, taking more of our people’s lives.
Every time I turned a corner I was met by the now all-too-familiar sight of homes being wrecked and people being lifted. The city was in uproar, bombings became more regular, as did gun battles, as ‘the boys’- the IRA, hit back at the Brits.
The TV now showed endless gun battles and bombings. The people had risen and were fighting back, and my mother, in her newly-found spirit of resistance, hurled encouragement at the TV, shouting: “Give it to them, boys!”
Easter 1971 came, and the name on everyone’s lips was “the Provos”, the People’s Army, the backbone of nationalist resistance.
I was now past my 18th year and fed up with rioting. No matter how much I tried, or how many stones I threw, I could never beat them – the Brits always came back.
I had seen too many homes wrecked, fathers and sons arrested, friends murdered, gas, shootings, blood – most of it my own people’s.
At 18-and-a-half I joined the Provos. My mother wept with pride and joy as I went out to confront the imperial might of an empire with an M1 carbine and enough hate to topple the world. To my surprise, my schoolday friends and neighbours became my comrades in the war. I soon became much more aware about the whole national liberation struggle as I came to regard what I used to term “The Troubles”.
Things were not easy for a Volunteer in the Irish Republican Army. Already I was being harassed and twice was lifted, questioned, and brutalised but I survived both of these trials.
Then came another hurricane – internment. Many of my comrades disappeared – interned. Many of my innocent neighbours met the same fate. Others weren’t so lucky; they were just murdered.
● Long Kesh Cages, summer of 1975: Gerard Rooney, ‘Tomboy’ Loudon, Seanna Walsh, James Gibney, Cyril MacCurtain and Bobby Sands
My life now centred around sleepless nights and standby, dodging the Brits, and calming nerves to go out on operations.
But the people stood by us. The people not only opened their doors to us to lend us a helping hand but they opened their hearts to us, and I soon learned that without the people we could not survive and I knew I owed them everything.
1972 came and went and I spent what was to be my last Christmas at home for quite some time. The Brits never let up. No mercy was shown, as testified by the atrocity of Bloody Sunday in Derry. But we continued to fight back, as did my jailed comrades who embarked on a long hunger strike to gain recognition as political prisoners.
Political status was won just before the first,but short-lived truce of 1972. During this truce the IRA braced itself for the forthcoming massive Operation Motorman, which came and went, taking with it the barricades.
The liberation struggle forged ahead, but then came personal disaster – I was captured. It was the autumn of ’72. I was charged and for the first time I faced jail. I was 19-and-a-half but I had no alternative but to face up to the hardship that lay before me.
Given the stark corruptness of the judicial system, I refused to recognise the court. I ended up sentenced in a barbed wire cage where I spent three-and-a-half years as a Prisoner of War with “Special Category Status”.
I did not waste my time. I did not allow the rigours of prison life to change my revolutionary determination an inch. I educated and trained myself both in political and military matters, as did my comrades.
In 1976, when I was released, I was not broken. In fact I was more determined in the fight for national liberation. I reported back to my local IRA unit and threw myself back into the struggle.
Quite a lot of things had changed. Belfast had changed. Some parts of the ghettoes had completely disappeared and others were in the process of being removed. The war was still forging ahead, although tactics and strategy had changed.
At first I found it a little bit hard to adjust but I settled in to the run of things and, at the grand old age of 23, I got married.
Life wasn’t bad but there were still a lot of things that had not changed, such as the presence of armed British troops on our street and the oppression of our people. The liberation struggle was now seven years old and had braved a second and mistakenly prolonged ceasefire. The British Government was now seeking to Ulsterise the war, which included criminalisation of the IRA and attempted normalisation of the situation. The struggle had to be kept going. Thus, six months after I was released, disaster fell a second time as I bombed my way back into jail!
With my wife four months’ pregnant, the shock of capture, seven days of hell in Castlereagh, a quick court appearance and remand, and the return to a cold damp cell nearly destroyed me. It took every ounce of the revolutionary spirit left in me to stand up to it.
Jail, although not new to me, was really bad, worse than the first time. Things had changed enormously since the withdrawal of Special Status. Both republican and loyalist prisoners were housed in the same wing.
The greater part of each day was spent locked up in a cell. The Screws, many of whom I knew to be cowering cowards, now went in gangs into the cells of republicans to dish out unmerciful beatings. This was to be the pattern all the way along the road to criminalisation – torture, and more torture, to break our spirit of resistance.
I was meant to change from being a revolutionary freedom fighter to a criminal at the stroke of a political pen, reinforced by inhumanities of the most brutal nature.
Already Kieran Nugent and several more republican POWs had begun the Blanket Protest for the restoration of political status. They refused to wear prison garb or do prison work.
After many weekly remand court appearances, the time finally arrived, 11 months after my arrest, and I was in a Diplock court. In two hours I was swiftly found guilty and my comrades and I sentenced to 15 years. Once again, I had refused to recognise the farcical judicial system.
As they led us from the courthouse, my mother, defiant as ever, stood up in the gallery and shook the air with a cry of ‘They’ll never break you, boys”; and my wife, from somewhere behind her, with tear-filled eyes, braved a smile of encouragement at me. At least, I thought, she has our child. Now that I was in jail, our daughter would provide her with company and maybe help ease the loneliness which she knew only to well.
The next day I became a Blanket Man and, there I was, sitting on the cold floor, naked, with only a blanket around me in an empty cell.
● Bobby in the cages of Long Kesh in the summer of 1975. Also pictured are Cyril MacCurtain from Limerick who taught Bobby Irish (left); and Kevin ‘Dee’ Delaney who died on active service on 17 January 1980 (walking away)
The days were long and lonely. Sudden and total deprivation of such basic human necessities as exercise and fresh air, association with other people, my own clothes, and things like radio, cigarettes and a host of other things made life very hard. At first, as always, I adapted. But, as time wore on, I came face to face with an old friend, depression, which on many occasions consumed me and swallowed me into its darkest depths. From home, only the occasional letter got past the prison censor.
Gradually my appearance and physical health began to change drastically. My eyes – shrunken, glassy, piercing and surrounded by pale, yellowish skin – were frightening. I had grown a beard and, like my comrades, resembled a living corpse. The blinding migraine headaches, which started slowly, became a daily occurrence. And owing to no exercise, I became seized with muscular pains.
In the H-Blocks, beatings, long periods in punishment cells, starvation diets, torture, were commonplace.
20 March 1978 and we completed the full circle of deprivation and suffering. As an attempt to highlight our intolerable plight, we embarked upon a Dirt Strike, refusing to wash, shower, clean out our cells, or empty the filthy chamber pots.
The H-Blocks became battlefields in which the republican spirit of resistance met head-on all the inhumanities that Britain could perpetrate. Inevitably, the lid of silence on the H-Blocks blew sky high, revealing the atrocities inside.
The battlefield became worse, our cells turning into disease-infested tombs with piles of decaying rubbish, and maggots, fleas and flies rampant. The nauseating smell of urine and the stink of our bodies and cells made our surroundings resemble a pigsty.
The Screws, keeping up the incessant torture, hosed us down, sprayed us with strong disinfectant, ransacked our cells, forcibly bathed us, and tortured us to the brink of insanity. Blood and tears fell upon the battlefield – all of it ours. But we refused to yield.
The republican spirit prevailed and, as I sit here in the same conditions and the continuing torture in H-Block 5, I am proud, although physically wrecked, mentally exhausted, and scarred deep with hatred and anger.
I am proud because my comrades and I have met, fought and repelled a monster, and we will continue to do so. We will never allow ourselves to be crimialised, nor our people either. Grief-stricken and oppressed, the men and women of no property have risen – a risen people, marching in thousands on the streets in defiance and rage at the imperial oppressor, the mass murderer and torturer. The spirit of Irish freedom is in every one of them and I am really proud.
I was only a working-class boy from a nationalist ghetto but it is repression which creates the revolutionary spirit of freedom. I shall not settle until I achieve the liberation of my country, until Ireland becomes a sovereign, independent socialist republic.
We, the risen people, shall turn tragedy into triumph. We shall bear forth a nation!