May 5, 1981: Bobby Sands Dies from 67 Day Hunger Strike


WHAT HAPPENED? (1)


Bobby Sands was a member of the Provisional Irish Republic Army. While imprisoned after being sentenced for firearms possession, he went on a hunger strike that lasted 67 days before his death on May 5, 1981.


He was not just participating in his own hunger strike, but was leading the 1981 hunger strike throughout the prison. Irish republican prisoners were protesting the removal of "Special Category Status", which I'll get further into below.


The hunger strike brought about national media attention to the strikers themselves and the Republican movement, and reactions were mixed between praise and criticism. Sands was one of 10 hunger strikers who died.

THE EARLY LIFE OF BOBBY SANDS (1)


Sands was born in 1954, the oldest of 4 children. He had 2 younger sisters born in 1955 and 1958, and a younger brother born in 1962.


The Sands family lived outside of North Belfast, but experienced harassment from their neighbors due to their Catholic religion. They abandoned their new home and lived with friends for a few months before getting housing in a new development in Rathcoole. Sands joined a religiously mixed youth football club while attending school in the area.


By 1966, violence in Belfast, and specifically Rathcoole, was worsening, and the Catholic population was under siege. During this time, Sands' Protestant friends refused to speak to him, and he learned to only associate with Catholics.


At the age of 15, he left school and enrolled in a technical college. He began an apprenticeship as a coach (essentially a charter bus) builder, but left after a year after harassment from his Protestant colleagues. In fact, after leaving a shift one night, he was confronted by a group of coworkers wearing armbands of the local Protestant gang and held at gunpoint, being told that the place where he was completing his apprenticeship was off-limits to people like him, and to never return.


After this, he decided if he wanted to survive in any job, he would have to join the military.


In June of 1972, the family home was attacked and damaged by a mob, and once again, they were forced to move. They found residence in the West Belfast Catholic area of Twinbrook. By the following year, nearly every Catholic family who had been living in Rathcoole was pushed out by violence.


In the same year the family moved, Sands joined the Provisional IRA (or the Provisional Irish Republican Army). But later that year, he was arrested and charged for possession of 4 handguns in the house, and was sentenced to 5 years in prison. Once released in April 1976, he resumed his active role in the Provisional IRA.


Sands and another member, Joe McDonnell, planned an October 1976 bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company. They effectively destroyed the showroom, but when they tried to flee the scene, a gun battle broke out between the IRA men and another group, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. They left behind Seamus Martin and Gabriel Corbett, 2 wounded IRA men, and Sands, McDonnel, Seamus Finucane and Sean Lavery) tried to escape, but were arrested, and a revolver used in the attack was found in their escape car. They were sentenced to 14 years apiece for the revolver... and nothing for the bomb.


Immediately after being sentenced, Sands got into a fight in prison and all of his furniture was removed for 22 days, and spend 15 days naked with bread and water delivered only every 3 days.

LIFE, AND DEATH, IN PRISON


In 1980, Sands was chosen as the Officer Commanding of the Provisional IRA prisoners. With Sands at the helm, prisoners organized strikes to regain their Special Category Status. Under Special Category Status (SCS), prisoners who were convicted of "Troubles"-related crimes (2), or crimes that were related to conflict between nationalists (Irish or Roman Catholics) or unionists (British or Protestant). The conflict between them was considered "low-level war". (3)


And, for a time, prisoners who were convicted of this type off offense were granted SCS, which essentially considered them prisoners of war, instead of just prisoners. This meant they didn't have to wear prison uniforms or do prison work, were housed within paramilitary factions, and were allowed extra visits and food. But their SCS was removed, and they were angry. (2)


The protests began with the "blanket protest", in which prisoners wore blankets instead of their prison uniforms. The protests escalated into "dirty protests", where prisoners refused to shower or wash, and smeared their cell walls with their own shit. (1)


While in prison, Republican papers published many of Sands's works, including letters and articles. He also wrote a few songs.


Shortly after the strikes and protests began, the Independent Republican Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone died, and his seat was suddenly vacant. Sands's supporters believed that this was a great opportunity to raise awareness of his causes, and he was nominated. He narrowly won the Parliament seat in April of 1981 by a very narrow margin. He was the youngest Member of Parliament at the time, but would die before ever taking his seat officially.


After Sands was elected, the Representation of the People Act of 1981 was passed, which prevented prisoners with a sentence longer than 1 year from being nominated as candidates in British elections.


But even while running for Parliament, Sands was protesting. His hunger strike began on March 1, 1981. He refused his food, and encouraged other prisoners to do the same. They were protesting 5 specific demands: They did not want to wear a prison uniform, they did not want to do prison work, they wanted to associate with other prisoners for educational and recreational pursuits, the wanted the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week, and wanted full restoration of remission lost through the protest.


Essentially, they wanted to be considered "political prisoners" instead of criminals.


But, unfortunately, the protest did little to change their jail-time experience. Their refusal to eat did not grant them the ability to connect or lose the prison uniform - it just lead to death. On May 5, 1981, at the age of 27 and after 67 days without eating, Bobby Sands died in the prison hospital.


The original report considered Sands' death, as well as the 9 other dead hunger strikers, as "self-imposed starvation", but it was changed to just "starvation" after protest from the families of the deceased. Sands became something of a martyr to Irish Republicans, and his death lead to several days of riots, which lead to a few deaths.

REACTION AND AFTERMATH (1)


The British reaction was fairly indifferent, Margaret Thatcher saying, "Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organization did not allow to many of its victims." The Cardinal of the Catholic Church in England and Wales believed that his hunger strike was a form of violence, but admitted the Catholic Church's official stance was that the strikers were acting in good conscience, believing their sacrifice to be for a higher good.


Elsewhere in Europe, 5,000 Milanese students burned the Union Flag during a protest march. Thousands marched in Paris behind portraits of Sands. The Portuguese Parliament's opposition stood for Sands. The Soviet Union felt it was a tragic page in a book full of oppression.


The U.S expressed a range of different reactions. Many political and religious groups honored Sands with protests. The International Longshoremen's Association in New York announced a 24-hour boycott of British ships, while Irish bars in New York City were closed for a few hours to mourn.


However, some felt that his hunger strike was nothing more than a suicide attempt so he could become a martyr for his cause.


The only memorial to Bobby Sands in the United States is in Hartford, Connecticut, and another stands in Havana, Cuba.


In Asia, authorities from Iran and Palestine sent their condolences to the Sands family, and supported his revolutionary cause and act of rebellion.


While in prison, Sands married Geraldine Noade, and they had a son together a few months later. She left the area to live in England with their son. One of Sands' sisters, Bernadette, is also a prominent Irish Republican along with her husband, Michael McKevitt.


The "Belfast Agreement" was signed in 1998 which was to end most of the "Troubles" from the past couple of decades, but Bernadette opposed it, stating: "Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern Ireland State."


The Troubles did eventually end, though it does not appear anything happened as a direct result of Bobby Sands' self sacrifice. I didn't want to get too far into 1970s Irish politics, I was just absolutely baffled that someone could voluntarily refuse food for over 2 months. Studies show that humans could survive without any food, as long as they're hydrated, for about 30-40 days, and the most severe symptoms of starvation begin between days 35-40, but as demonstrated by the hunger strikes in that prison, death may not occur until over 60 days (4).


To believe in a cause so strongly (especially when, to simplify, the cause was: I don't want to wear prison clothes and I want to hang out with my friends) that you starve yourself for 2 months is absolutely baffling to me. I'm not sure if I ever want to believe in something so vehemently. But today, 39 years ago today, Bobby Sands died miserably for what he believed in, and though it is pretty insane, it is also kind of brave.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Sands

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Category_Status

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Troubles

4. https://medicalxpress.com/news/2015-12-humans-survive-food.html

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