Robert Gerard Sands
Robert Gerard Sands (Irish: Roibeárd Gearóid Ó Seachnasaigh; 9 March 1954 – 5 May 1981) was a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who died on hunger strike while imprisoned at HM Prison Maze.
He was the leader of the 1981 hunger strike in which Irish republican prisoners protested against the removal of Special Category Status. During his strike he was elected to the British Parliament as an Anti H-Block candidate. His death and those of nine other hunger strikers were followed by a new surge of Provisional IRA recruitment and activity. International media coverage brought attention to the hunger strikers, and the republican movement in general, attracting both praise and criticism.
Sands was born in 1954 to Roman Catholic parents, John and Rosaleen, who were both raised in Belfast. After marrying, they relocated to the new development of Abbots Cross, Newtownabbey, County Antrim outside North Belfast.Sands was the eldest of four children. His sisters, Marcella and Bernadette, were born in 1955 and 1958, respectively. After experiencing harassment and intimidation from their neighbours, the family abandoned the development and moved in with friends for six months before being granted housing in the nearby Rathcoole development. Rathcoole was 30% Catholic and featured Catholic schools as well as a nominally Catholic but religiously-integrated youth football club known as Star of the Sea (of which Sands was a member and for whom he played left-back), an unusual circumstance in Northern Ireland. His parents had a second son, John (born 1962), their last child.
By 1966, sectarian violence in Rathcoole (along with the rest of Belfast) had considerably worsened, and the minority Catholic population there found itself under siege; Sands and his sisters were forced to run a gauntlet of bottle- and rock-throwing Protestant youths on the way to school every morning, and the formerly integrated Rathcoole youth football club banned Catholic members and renamed itself “The Kai”, which stood for “Kill All Irish”. Despite always having had Protestant friends, Sands suddenly found that none of them would even speak to him, and he quickly learned to associate only with Catholics.
He left school in 1969 at age 15, and enrolled in Newtownabbey Technical College, beginning an apprenticeship as a coach builder at Alexander’s Coach Works in 1970. He worked there for less than a year, enduring constant harassment from his Protestant co-workers, which according to several co-workers he ignored completely, as he wished to learn a meaningful trade. He was eventually confronted after leaving his shift in January 1971 by a number of his colleagues wearing the armbands of the local Ulster loyalist tartan gang. He was held at gunpoint and told that Alexander’s was off-limits to “Fenian scum” and to never come back if he valued his life. This event, by Sands’s admission, proved to be the point at which he decided that militancy was the only solution.
In June 1972, Sands’ parents’ home was attacked and damaged by a loyalist mob and they were again forced to move, this time to the West Belfast Catholic area of Twinbrook, where Sands, now thoroughly embittered, rejoined them. He attended his first Provisional IRA meeting in Twinbrook that month and joined the IRA the same day. He was 18 years old. By 1973, almost every Catholic family had been driven out of Rathcoole by violence and intimidation.
Provisional IRA activity
In 1972, Sands joined the Provisional IRA He was arrested and charged in October 1972 with possession of four handguns found in the house where he was staying. Sands was convicted in April 1973, sentenced to five years imprisonment and released in April 1976.
Upon his release, he returned to his family home in West Belfast, and resumed his active role in the Provisional IRA. Sands and Joe McDonnell planned the October 1976 bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry. The showroom was destroyed but as the IRA men left the scene there was a gun battle with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Leaving behind two wounded, Seamus Martin and Gabriel Corbett, the remaining four (Sands, McDonnell, Seamus Finucane, and Sean Lavery) tried to escape by car, but were arrested. One of the revolvers used in the attack was found in the car. In 1977 the four were sentenced to 14 years for possession of the revolver. They were not charged with explosive offences.
Immediately after his sentence, Sands was implicated in a ruckus and spent the first 22 days “on boards” (all furniture was removed from his cell) in Crumlin Road Prison, 15 days naked, and a No. 1 starvation diet (bread and water) every three days.
Long Kesh years
In late 1980 Sands was chosen as Officer Commanding of the Provisional IRA prisoners in Long Kesh, succeeding Brendan Hughes who was participating in the first hunger strike. Republican prisoners organised a series of protests seeking to regain their previous Special Category Status which would free them from some ordinary prison regulations. This began with the “blanket protest” in 1976, in which the prisoners refused to wear prison uniform and wore blankets instead. In 1978, after a number of attacks on prisoners leaving their cells to “slop out” (i.e., empty their chamber pots), this escalated into the “dirty protest“, wherein prisoners refused to wash and smeared the walls of their cells with excrement.
While in prison Sands had several letters and articles published in the republican paper An Phoblacht under the pseudonym “Marcella” (his sister’s name). Other writings attributed to him are: Skylark Sing Your Lonely Song and One Day in My Life. Sands also wrote the lyrics of Back Home in Derry and McIlhatton, which were both later recorded by Christy Moore, and Sad Song For Susan which was also later recorded. The melody of Back Home in Derry was borrowed from Gordon Lightfoot‘s famous 1976 song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The song itself is about the penal transportation of Irish republicans to Van Diemen’s Land in the 19th century (modern day Tasmania, Australia).
Member of Parliament
The sudden vacancy in a seat with a nationalist majority of about 5,000 was a valuable opportunity for Sands’s supporters “to raise public consciousness”. Pressure not to split the vote led other nationalist parties, notably the Social Democratic and Labour Party, to withdraw, and Sands was nominated on the label “Anti H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner”. After a highly polarised campaign, Sands narrowly won the seat on 9 April 1981, with 30,493 votes to 29,046 for the Ulster Unionist Party candidate Harry West. Sands also became the youngest MP at the time.However Sands died in prison less than a month afterwards, without ever having taken his seat in the Commons.
Following Sands’s success, the British Government introduced the Representation of the People Act 1981 which prevents prisoners serving jail terms of more than one year in either the UK or the Republic of Ireland from being nominated as candidates in British elections. This law was introduced to prevent the other hunger strikers from being elected to the British parliament.
The 1981 Irish hunger strike started with Sands refusing food on 1 March 1981. Sands decided that other prisoners should join the strike at staggered intervals to maximise publicity, with prisoners steadily deteriorating successively over several months.
The hunger strike centred on five demands:
- the right not to wear a prison uniform;
- the right not to do prison work;
- the right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;
- the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
- full restoration of remission lost through the protest.
The significance of the hunger strike was the prisoners’ aim of being considered political prisoners as opposed to criminals. The Washington Post reported that the primary aim of the hunger strike was to generate international publicity.
Sands died on 5 May 1981 in the Maze’s prison hospital after 66 days on hunger strike, aged 27. The original pathologist‘s report recorded the hunger strikers’ causes of death as “self-imposed starvation”, later amended to simply “starvation” after protests from the dead strikers’ families. The coroner recorded verdicts of “starvation, self-imposed”.
The announcement of Sands’s death prompted several days of rioting in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. A milkman, Eric Guiney, and his son, Desmond, died as a result of injuries sustained when their milk float crashed after being stoned by rioters in a predominantly nationalist area of north Belfast. Over 100,000 people lined the route of Sands’s funeral, and he was buried in the ‘New Republican Plot’ alongside 76 others. Their graves are maintained by the National Graves Association, Belfast.
The International Reaction to the Death of Bobby Sands
In the Republic of Ireland, Sands’s death led to riots and bus burnings.
In response to a question in the House of Commons on 5 May 1981, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, “Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims”.
Cardinal Basil Hume, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, condemned Sands, describing the hunger strike as a form of violence. However, he noted that this was his personal view. The Roman Catholic Church’s official stance was that ministrations should be provided to the hunger strikers who, believing their sacrifice to be for a higher good, were acting in good conscience.
At Old Firm football matches in Glasgow, Scotland, some Rangers fans have been known to sing songs mocking Sands to taunt fans of Celtic. Rangers fans are mainly Protestant, and predominantly sympathetic to unionists; Celtic fans are traditionally more likely to support nationalists.
Celtic fans regularly sing the republican song The Roll of Honour, which commemorates the ten men who died in the 1981 hunger strike, amongst other songs in support of the IRA. Sands is honoured in the line “They stood beside their leader – the gallant Bobby Sands.” Rangers’s taunts have since been adopted by the travelling support of other UK clubs, particularly those with strong British nationalist ties, as a form of anti-Irish sentiment. The 1981 British Home Championship football tournament was cancelled following the refusal of teams from England and Wales to travel to Northern Ireland in the aftermath of his death, due to security concerns.
In Europe, there were widespread protests after Sands’s death. 5,000 Milanese students burned the Union Flag and chanted ‘Freedom for Ulster’ during a march. The British Consulate at Ghent was raided Thousands marched in Paris behind huge portraits of Sands, to chants of “the IRA will conquer”.
In the Portuguese Parliament, the opposition stood for Sands. In Oslo, demonstrators threw a tomato at Elizabeth II, the Queen of the United Kingdom, but missed. (One 28-year-old assailant said he had actually aimed for what he claimed was a smirking British soldier.) In the Soviet Union, Pravda described it as “another tragic page in the grim chronicle of oppression, discrimination, terror, and violence” in Ireland. Russian fans of Bobby Sands published a translation of the “Back Home in Derry” song (“На Родину в Дерри” in Russian) Many French towns and cities have streets named after Sands, including Nantes, Saint-Étienne, Le Mans, Vierzon, and Saint-Denis The conservative West German newspaper Die Welt took a negative view of Sands.
News of the death of Bobby Sands influenced political prisoners and the African National Congress in South Africa, and reportedly inspired a new form of resistance.
A number of political, religious, union and fund-raising institutions chose to honour Sands in the United States. The International Longshoremen’s Association in New York announced a 24-hour boycott of British ships. Over 1,000 people gathered in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral to hear Cardinal Terence Cooke offer a reconciliation Mass for Northern Ireland. Irish bars in the city were closed for two hours in mourning.
The US media expressed a range of opinions on Sands’s death. The Boston Globe commented, a few days before Sands’ death, that “[t]he slow suicide attempt of Bobby Sands has cast his land and his cause into another downward spiral of death and despair. There are no heroes in the saga of Bobby Sands.”. The Chicago Tribune wrote that “Mahatma Gandhi used the hunger strike to move his countrymen to abstain from fratricide. Bobby Sands’ deliberate slow suicide is intended to precipitate civil war. The former deserved veneration and influence. The latter would be viewed, in a reasonable world, not as a charismatic martyr but as a fanatical suicide, whose regrettable death provides no sufficient occasion for killing others.”
The New York Times wrote that “Britain’s prime minister Thatcher is right in refusing to yield political status to Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army hunger striker”, but added that by appearing “unfeeling and unresponsive” the British Government was giving Sands “the crown of martyrdom”.The San Francisco Chronicle argued that political belief should not exempt activists from criminal law:
“Terrorism goes far beyond the expression of political belief. And dealing with it does not allow for compromise as many countries of Western Europe and United States have learned. The bombing of bars, hotels, restaurants, robbing of banks, abductions, and killings of prominent figures are all criminal acts and must be dealt with by criminal law.”
Some American critics and journalists suggested that American press coverage was a “melodrama”. Edward Langley of The Pittsburgh Press criticised the large pro-IRA Irish-American contingent which “swallow IRA propaganda as if it were taffy“, and concluded that IRA “terrorist propaganda triumphs.”
Archbishop John R. Roach, president of the US Catholic bishops, called Sands’s death “a useless sacrifice”. The Ledger of 5 May 1981 under the headline “To some he was a hero, to others a terrorist” claims that the hunger strike made Sands “a hero among Irish Republicans or Nationalists seeking the reunion of Protestant-dominated and British-ruled Northern Ireland with the predominantly Catholic Irish Republic to the south.”
The Ledger cited Sands as telling his friends: “If I die, God will understand” and one of his last messages was “Tell everyone I’ll see them somewhere, sometime.”
In Hartford, Connecticut a memorial was dedicated to Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers in 1997, the only one of its kind in the United States. Set up by the Irish Northern Aid Committee and local Irish-Americans, it stands in a traffic island known as Bobby Sands Circle at the bottom of Maple Avenue near Goodwin Park.
In 2001, a memorial to Sands and the other hunger strikers was unveiled in Havana, Cuba.
The Iranian government renamed Winston Churchill Boulevard, the location of the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Tehran, to Bobby Sands Street, prompting the embassy to move its entrance door to Ferdowsi Avenue to avoid using Bobby Sands Street on its letterhead. A street in the Elahieh district is also named after Sands. An official blue and white street sign was affixed to the rear wall of the British embassy compound saying (in Persian) “Bobby Sands Street” with three words of explanation “militant Irish guerrilla”. The official Pars News Agency called Bobby Sands’s death “heroic”. There have been claims that the British pressured Iranian authorities to change the name of Bobby Sands Street but this was denied. A burger bar in Tehran is named in honour of Sands.
- Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in the Israeli desert prison of Nafha sent a letter, which was smuggled out and reached Belfast in July 1981, which read; “To the families of Bobby Sands and his martyred comrades. We, revolutionaries of the Palestinian people…extend our salutes and solidarity with you in the confrontation against the oppressive terrorist rule enforced upon the Irish people by the British ruling elite. We salute the heroic struggle of Bobby Sands and his comrades, for they have sacrificed the most valuable possession of any human being. They gave their lives for freedom.“
- The Hindustan Times said Margaret Thatcher had allowed a fellow Member of Parliament to die of starvation, an incident which had never before occurred “in a civilised country”.
- In the Indian Parliament, opposition members in the upper house Rajya Sabha stood for a minute’s silence in tribute. The ruling Congress Party did not join in. Protest marches were organised against the British government and in tribute to Sands and his fellow hunger strikers.
- The Hong Kong Standard said it was ‘sad that successive British governments have failed to end the last of Europe’s religious wars.’
- A large monument dedicated to Irish nationalists and republicans, including Bobby Sands, stands in Waverley Cemetery, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.
Nine other IRA and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) members who were involved in the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike died after Sands. On the day of Sands’s funeral, Unionist leader Ian Paisley held a memorial service outside of Belfast city hall to commemorate the victims of the IRA. In the Irish general elections held the same year, two anti H-block candidates won seats on an abstentionist basis.
The media coverage that surrounded the death of Sands resulted in a new surge of IRA activity and an immediate escalation in the Troubles, with the group obtaining many more members and increasing its fund-raising capability. Both nationalists and unionists began to harden their attitudes and move towards political extremes. Sands’s Westminster seat was taken by his election agent, Owen Carron standing as ‘Anti H-Block Proxy Political Prisoner’ with an increased majority.
In popular culture
The Grateful Dead played the Nassau Coliseum the following night after Sands died and guitarist Bob Weir dedicated the song “He’s Gone” to Sands. The concert was later released as Dick’s Picks Volume 13, part of the Grateful Dead’s programme of live concert releases. French musician Léo Ferré dedicated performances of his song “Thank You Satan” to Sands in 1981 and 1984.
Songs written in response to the hunger strikes and Sands’s death include songs by Black 47, Nicky Wire, Meic Stevens, The Undertones, Eric Bogle, and Christy Moore. Moore’s song, “The People’s Own MP“, has been described as an example of a rebel song of the “hero-martyr” genre in which Sands’s “intellectual, artistic and moral qualities” are eulogised. The U.S. rock band Rage Against the Machine have listed Sands as an inspiration in the sleeve notes of their self-titled début album. and as a “political hero” in media interviews.
Celtic F.C., a Scottish football club, received a €50,000 fine from the UEFA over banners depicting Sands with a political message, which was displayed during a game on 26 November 2013,by Green Brigade fans.
Bobby Sands has also been portrayed in the following films:
- Bobby Sands was played by John Lynch in the 1996 film Some Mother’s Son. It was directed by Terry George and written by George and Jim Sheridan.
- Bobby Sands was played by Mark O’Halloran in the 2001 film H3.
- Michael Fassbender played Bobby Sands in Hunger, a 2008 film by Steve McQueen about the last six weeks of Bobby Sands’s life in the context of the 1981 Irish hunger strike. It premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and won McQueen the prestigious Caméra d’Or award for first-time filmmakers.It was broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK for the first time on 15 December 2009.
- The Netflix original documentary The Art of Conflict has a segment describing the hunger-strike, election, and Sands’ death.
Sands married Geraldine Noade while in prison on robbery charges on 3 March 1973. His son, Gerard, was born 8 May 1973. Noade soon left to live in England with their son.
Sands’s sister, Bernadette Sands McKevitt, is also a prominent Irish Republican. Along with her husband, Michael McKevitt, she helped to form the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and is accused of involvement with the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA).
Bernadette Sands McKevitt is opposed to the Belfast Agreement, stating that “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 RIRA was responsible for the Omagh bombing on 15 August 1998, in which 29 people, including a mother pregnant with twins, were killed and more than 200 injured. This is the highest death toll from a single incident during the Troubles. Michael McKevitt was one of those named in a civil suit filed by victims and survivors.
See Hungry Strikes
The grave of hunger striker Bobby Sands, just one of the graves smashed at the Republican plot in Milltown cemetery, Belfast.