The funeral of Bobby Sands, whose image serves to obscure the squalid brutality of the IRA's long campaign. Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe/Getty

May 5, 2021   11 mins

I was in my last year of primary school in Belfast when Bobby Sands died, on 5 May 1981. He was the first of the IRA hunger strikers to die, and he had been refusing food since the start of March. The children at school were all talking about it, which was unusual, as we didn’t tend to discuss political developments very much. But the thickening atmosphere was unignorable, even in a habitually nervy city.

One boy said that it might be a good idea not to go into town for a while, by which he meant Belfast city centre. It sounded to me like something he had heard his parents say. When news came of Sands’s death, riots broke out across Northern Ireland. A milk lorry was stoned in the Catholic New Lodge area, and an incoming brick hit its milkman Eric Guiney, 45, on the head. He fell unconscious and the lorry crashed. His 14-year-old son Desmond, who was riding alongside him, died first. Desmond was mad about horses, his mother said, and had wanted to be a jockey: two children on horseback led his funeral cortege. Eric, who had remained in a coma, died the day after his son’s funeral.

Another three hunger-strikers died within a fortnight of Sands. The stand-off between the Irish republican hunger-strikers and Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, had become an elemental contest of wills. The IRA men in the H-blocks of the Maze prison were demanding the status of political prisoners. They had “five demands”: lost remission restored, the right to free association, better privileges on recreation and visiting, to wear their own clothes and to decline prison work. Mrs Thatcher was equally adamant that the British government would continue to regard convicted IRA members as criminals. On the face of it, all the players were immovable.

Things had taken years to reach this feverish pitch. “Special category status”, which effectively treated IRA prisoners as prisoners of war, had first been introduced in July 1972, following a shorter-lived IRA hunger strike. That status came to an end in March 1976, when Harold Wilson’s government decided to treat convicted IRA members like any other criminal in prison. IRA leaders within prison were infuriated that their command structure in the blocks had been disrupted, and the “screws” placed back in charge. They duly sent word to the organisation outside to step up the assassinations of prison officers.

The first prison officer killed by the IRA, in April that same year, was Pacelli Dillon, a married Catholic father of five children, one of whom had been blind and disabled from birth. He was shot outside his house as he got into his car, on his way to finalise the purchase of a new family home. Between the start of the criminalisation policy and the end of the hunger strikes, a total of 18  prison officers were murdered, including the deputy governor of the Maze Prison, Albert Miles. It did not improve ongoing relations between inmates and prison staff, who — despite being paid extra to work on the H-blocks — were operating under skyrocketing levels of stress.

Nor did the “blanket protest” which began in September 1976. IRA prisoners refused to put on prison uniform. Denied the right to wear their own clothes, they vowed to wear no clothes at all, but instead wrapped themselves in the blankets on their beds. When that made little headway, they escalated it in 1978 to the “dirty protest”. Instead of “slopping out” the chamber-pots in their cells each morning, they daubed the walls and ceilings with faeces and poured the urine on the floor. Conditions in the cells became unimaginable. Images began to circulate of long-haired, bearded IRA prisoners, wrapped in blankets, staring out from the swirling chiaroscuro of brown walls. Prisoners complained of random beatings and invasive strip searches from the prison officers; officers spoke of death threats to them and their families. Northern Ireland was an intimate society, where people watched each other closely. “I hear your daughter’s just started school,” might pass for polite chit-chat in other places. In the Maze, it could make a prison officer’s blood run cold.

Meanwhile, two opposing interpretations of the conditions began to emerge, involving Irish emotion and English logic. Cardinal O’Fiaich, then the Roman Catholic Primate of All-Ireland, visited the H-blocks 3,4 and 5 in 1978. He spoke passionately afterwards of his revulsion at the “stench and filth in some of the cells” and the “inhuman conditions” in which “over 300 prisoners are incarcerated”. These were conditions, he said, in which one would not keep an animal. The Northern Ireland Office responded coolly, “These criminals are totally responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. It is they who have been smearing excreta on the walls and pouring urine through the cell doors.”

Still, the issue failed to stir any great sympathy in the broader nationalist electorate. And nor did the prisoners seem any closer to achieving their goal. Then, in October 1980, came the first hunger strike.

It was led by Brendan Hughes, a well-known IRA man who had been the main organiser of Bloody Friday, the day in July 1972 on which the IRA had set off 22 bombs across Belfast, killing nine people and injuring 130. Hughes, a veteran of the blanket protest, was the IRA commander in the prison.

This hunger strike started with seven republican prisoners, including Hughes, but a much larger number joined it as it went on. It was called off after 53 days. Hughes’ fellow hunger-striker and friend Sean McKenna was at death’s door, and it seemed that the British had privately offered significant concessions. Later, upon closer examination of the offer, the IRA inmates decided that they hadn’t. The consensus among the British, wrongly, was that the IRA men were not prepared to take the hunger strike all the way.

The prisoners often spoke Irish to each other in a bid to elude the understanding of the prison officers. Bobby Sands — who had taken over as commander while Hughes was fasting — reportedly told his fellow-prisoners “Fuair muid faic.” (“We got nothing”).

Sands, 27, had come of age amid the intensifying sectarianism of the late 1960s and early 70s, when both Catholic and Protestant families were driven out of estates dominated by those of the other religion. His own family had been compelled by loyalist thugs to leave Rathcoole, a predominantly Protestant housing estate. He himself, he said later, had been threatened out of his job at an apprentice coach-builder by members of a loyalist “tartan gang”. Aged 18, he joined the IRA. Sands had a wife, Geraldine, and son, born in 1973, but his growing involvement with the IRA had put a strain on the marriage, and his wife had taken the child to live in England. Now he was willing to devote everything to the cause.

When it came to organising a new hunger strike, Sands thought he could do better tactically: this time with a staggered strike which would prolong and intensify the pressure upon the British. A true believer in the republican “armed revolution” he kept a diary for the first 17 days of his fast: it details his concern at what he is putting his family through, pleasure at the messages of support he is getting from people outside, and his loathing of the “petty vindictiveness” of the prison authorities. Sands liked ornithology and poetry: he writes of birds he can hear, such as a passing curlew, and admires some of Kipling’s verses in a book he has got from the library. The tone is high-flown, single-minded, ascetic and, to a degree, romantic. It’s sad to read.

That same month Frank Maguire, an Independent Republican MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, died of a heart attack. It was decided to run Sands as an “Anti H-Block” republican candidate against the other contender for the seat, the Ulster Unionist Harry West.

The moderate nationalist party, The Social Democratic and Labour Party, had already selected their candidate, Austin Currie, but it was eventually decided not to field him, and to give Sands a free run at the seat. The vote on 9 April would shape the direction of Northern Ireland up until the present day: Sands was returned as the MP. Less than a month later he was dead.

In order to try to understand the hunger strikes, and the radically different set of reactions to them then and now, it is necessary to keep in mind a number of seemingly contradictory pictures at once.

One picture is of the IRA activity ongoing outside the Maze prison at the time: a brutal, bloody campaign conducted without scruple for human suffering. Two days before Sands won the election, for example, the IRA shot dead a young Protestant woman called Joanne Mathers, a 29-year-old mother of a toddler who was working in Londonderry as a census-taker, an activity of which the IRA disapproved. Throughout the 1980s, the IRA continued to murder police officers, soldiers, alleged informers, civilians and those it later called “mistakes” by means of shooting, landmines, mortar bombs or car bombs.

Another picture is of the scene inside the prison, where a series of otherwise healthy young men were wilfully starving themselves to death, on a point of principle which to them had overtaken the importance of family or future. There was, however, a genuine sense of shared purpose and comradeship among the IRA men in the Maze. The images of them that reached the outside world — wild-haired, gaunt-faced — looked almost biblical. By willingly embracing a lingering death on behalf of Irish Republicanism, they were tapping into the potency of religious martyrdom. The emotions generated by the history and iconography of the Church had now been repurposed for a modern armed campaign.

Something else was going on, too. The argument had dredged up and crystallised ancient enmities. On one hand were Sands and his fellow hunger-strikers, long-haired and bearded Irishmen with defiantly naked torsos; on the other, Margaret Thatcher, an Englishwoman armoured in an immaculate suit, with a golden, coiffed bouffant. They were locked in intransigence, drawing strength from conflicting notions of authority. It echoed an argument that went all the way back to the 16th century, when Elizabeth I, another unbending Englishwoman, sought to impose her government’s rule on mutinous Gaelic chiefs. One of her colonial administrators in Ireland, the poet Edmund Spenser — an enthusiast for the brutal repression of native Irish rebellions — nonetheless spoke of Irish soldiers or “kern” as “great endurers of cold, labour, hunger and all hardness” and “very great scorners of death”. The IRA hunger-strikers were ready to show Thatcher that they, too, were “scorners of death”, determined, if necessary, to carry their resistance to English rule beyond the grave.

In Northern Ireland itself, Protestant unionists were both unsettled by the hunger strikers and broadly unsympathetic to their aims (IRA demands were shared by loyalist paramilitary prisoners, who had briefly joined the blanket protest). The hunger-strikers were proud members of an organisation linked to appalling acts of violence, and had often arranged such acts themselves. Unionists saw in this new prison strategy a risk that the IRA — who they experienced as aggressors — would be seen internationally as victims. They well understood how hunger could fuse to myth, however, since Protestants had their own foundational story of stubbornness and starvation: the 1689 Siege of Derry, when Protestants locked the city gates against Catholic Jacobite forces. By the end of the siege half of those inside, around 4,000 people, had died either of starvation or injury. Those who survived had done so by eating rats, cats and tallow.

The effect of the hunger strikes on the psyche of many Catholic nationalists, in contrast, was striking and profound. Many of those who had strongly condemned the IRA’s activities — and would continue to do so — were nonetheless deeply moved by what they saw unfolding in the Maze. It was not simply the imagery of the wasting men that affected them, evocative of martyrdom as it was. It was something particular about the clutch of men’s unyielding opposition to the heavy machinery of British government and bureaucracy. The British were getting tugged into the same misunderstanding of Irish psychology that had led them to execute the rebels of the 1916 Easter Rising in cold blood, and thereby turn popular opinion against the British themselves.

The charge was that Thatcher was “letting the hunger strikers die”, but within that lay existing questions of nationhood and authority. In 1940, the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera had himself let two old IRA men die in Mountjoy Prison while on hunger strike for political status, which he consistently refused to grant. His decision had failed to kindle public outrage; he was after all an Irishman and former IRA man himself, in dispute with his own people. Mrs Thatcher was not, and resentment against her perceived hard-heartedness steadily intensified. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Sands won the seat with over 30,000 republican and nationalist votes.

Not long afterwards, the IRA leadership realised that the powerful popular emotions kindled by Sands’s suffering and death had opened the way to a new tactic, which was to accrue electoral gains in the nationalist community at the same time as carrying on with paramilitary violence. To wring the maximum success from this strategy, at a time while the whole world was watching, it was necessary to sustain the grim momentum created by the hunger strikes.

Those inside the H-blocks, and the families of the dying men, didn’t always agree. Even as a child, with only a hazy understanding of events, I found myself looking at pictures of those gaunt men with burning eyes. It was a terrible way to die. I remember thinking how difficult it might be to abandon such a course of action, even if you wanted to, when everyone else now clearly expected you to carry on to the death.

In 2005, a former IRA prisoner called Richard O’Rawe published a book called Blanketmen: An Untold Story of the H-block Hunger Strike. O’Rawe had acted as a public relations officer for the hunger strikers while in prison for armed robbery. He now disclosed that the British government offered a deal in July 1981 which fulfilled most of the prisoners’ demands. By then four hunger strikers had died, he said, and the prison leadership was willing to accept the British offer. But the IRA army council outside the jail — represented by Gerry Adams — prevented it from doing so. Owen Carron, Sands’s election agent, was standing as a republican in the now-vacant seat. One explanation for the IRA’s decision, O’Rawe suggested, was that the six IRA and INLA men who died after the prospective deal was rejected were used as “cannon fodder” to boost Carron’s election campaign, “thus kickstarting the shift away from armed struggle into constitutional politics”.

When O’Rawe’s book came out, its assertions were regarded as a form of heresy in Sinn Fein circles, and it was bitterly denounced and denied by senior party figures, as well as the IRA commanding officer in the Maze at the time. O’Rawe stood his ground, however, and two other Maze prisoners — including a former cellmate — later backed up his story.

Whatever the IRA leadership’s intention, the tenth and last hunger-striker to die, the INLA man Michael Devine, did so early in the morning of August 20th. Not long before, Devine’s son, aged three, had sat by the bed asking his father to give up the hunger strike: “Please Daddy, don’t die!”. But there was no way back. Later that same day Owen Carron was elected MP in Bobby Sands’ place by an even larger majority than his predecessor, with over 31,000 votes.

After Devine’s death, new prisoners were still joining the hunger strikes. But they were increasingly coming up against a force equal in obstinacy to either the young republican prisoners or Margaret Thatcher: that of mothers, in conjunction with a redoubtable Catholic priest, Father Denis Faul, who successfully urged the families of hunger-strikers to intervene medically to stop their loved ones from dying. The unity was disintegrating. On 3 October, the hunger strike was officially called off. The following month, Sinn Fein unveiled its new strategy: to take local government seats in Northern Ireland, “with a ballot box in one hand and an Armalite in the other.”

The republican and loyalist paramilitary violence would grind on for another 13 years, until the ceasefires of 1994, and sporadically thereafter. But looking back, the course of Ireland today was indeed set by the feverish events of 1981. The differing responses of many Northern Protestants and Catholics to the hunger-strikes created a fresh gulf of understanding between them, to add to those that already existed. Sinn Fein has continued to surge electorally, to the point where — at the last Irish general election — it had the largest share of the popular vote. The moderate nationalist SDLP vote has correspondingly declined.

Bobby Sands has become a treasured icon for today’s Sinn Fein, a touchstone of republican purity, and a form of secular saint. But since the 1998 Belfast Agreement members of the Sands family, in particular his younger sister Bernadette, have shunned Sinn Fein and rejected its participation in a political settlement which falls short of a united Ireland. It was a sellout, Bernadette Sands said, deploying the memorable phrase: “Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers.” She married Michael McKevitt, a former IRA quarter-master who went on to found the dissident Real IRA and died in January this year.

“The Armalite and the ballot box” strategy has split, leaving Sinn Fein with a bursting ballot box, and the dissidents holding the Armalite. Would Bobby Sands have agreed with his younger sister? He certainly loved her, but we’ll never know. The world was extremely interested in him: when he died cities, including Paris and Tehran, named streets in his honour. Irish bars in New York were closed for two hours in mourning, and Milanese students burned the Union flag. And the curious world keeps returning to his story, in films such as Terry George’s Some Mother’s Son, Steve McQueen’s Hunger, and the more recent documentary 66 Days. There is something that fascinates it about this young man who chose to die rather than back down. Abroad, his image has often served to obscure the squalid brutality of the IRA’s long campaign.

Still, when you’re from a place, you so often remember the people who didn’t choose to die, even more than the ones that did. And when I recall that particular, febrile time just before I went to secondary school, those death-laden months that belonged to the hunger strikers, I can never stop my thoughts from also turning to the milkman and his son.

Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.