'Bobby Sands joins Connolly, Pearse and Tone'


Irish Hunger Strikes Chapter 25

Tuesday, 1:17 A.M., 1981
Bobby Sands Joins Connolly, Pearse and Tone

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At 1:17 on the morning of Tuesday, 5 May 1981 Bobby Sands died for Ireland. At 1:52 A.M., the Northern Ireland Office released this terse statement: "He took his own life by refusing food and medical intervention for sixty-six days."

Bin lids, riots, and plastic bullets

By 2 A.M., women were on the streets in Nationalist areas banging bin lids on the concrete, like primitive drums to announce and keen Bobby’s death to the gods above and the natives alike, and in defiance of the gathering, ever present enemy army and foreign regime.

By morning, riots spread throughout the north, barricades went up, lorries hijacked and torched. This was quickly met with crown force actions against neighborhoods with armored vehicles and plastic bullet attacks on the people. Armed men and women were silently in place to protect against large scale loyalist murder squad invasions -- the oft spoken of total "civil war" scenario. Bread was hoarded in Catholic homes.

The Speaker of the House of Commons rose to make the following announcement to parliament: "I regret to have to inform the House of the death of Robert Sands Esquire, the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone." And that was that. I am sure he did regret to have to inform the House. He pointedly deleted the customary extending of sympathy to the family.
World wide reaction

The reaction elsewhere in the world was more impassioned. The US Congress and state and local governments passed resolutions honoring Bobby’s sacrifice and sent letters of condolence. The NJ state legislature noted his "courage and convictions."

NY Cardinal Cook offered a mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The New York Times, the country’s premier newspaper, editorialized: "Despite proximity and a common language, the British have persistently misjudged the depth of Irish Nationalist."

In Rome, the President of the Italian Senate did what the Brit Speaker couldn’t bring himself to do by expressing the Italian government’s sympathies to the Sands’ family. Five thousand protesters burned the Union Jack in Milan. Thousands more marched in Paris behind a large portrait of Bobby chanting "The IRA will conquer." In Le Mans they named a street after him. The British embassy there call it an "insult to Britain."

Even Hong Kong, a British direct colony, was outraged by Bobby’s death. The Hong Kong Standard said it was "sad that successive British governments have failed to end the lst of Europe’s religious wars." The Hindustan Times remarked that Margaret Thatcher’s allowing a fellow Member of Parliament to die of starvation was an act which never had occurred before in a "civilized country." Iran announced it would be sending its representative to Bobby’s funeral in West Belfast.

Protesters in Oslo, Norway, hurled a balloon filled with tomato sauce at the English Queen Elizabeth, there on a state visit. In India, the opposition party in the Upper House stood for a minute of silent in tribute [Indira Gandhi’s ruling party refused to stand.] The members of the opposition party also stood in the Portuguese legislature. It seemed that parties in power feared Brit anger. But in Spain, the Ya newspaper said Bobby’s death was "an act of heroism." Pravda called his death "another tragic page in the grim chronicle of oppression, discrimination, terror and violence" in Ireland. Poland’s Lech Walesa paid tribute, "Bobby Sands was a great man who sacrificed his life for his struggle."
Bombs on European Midland

Bombs were heard exploding in Toulouse at the British owned Dunlop tire warehouse; in Milan a bomb blew a hole in the Brit Chamber of Commerce; and in Lisbon a bomb exploded outside the Royal British Club. A parcel bomb was detected before it could be delivered to the Prince of Wales.
Cardinal Basil Hume: "It’s suicide"

The West German paper, Die Welt, however, said that the Brits were correct in allowing Bobby die and not giving in to "political blackmail." The Spanish conservative paper ABC said he was "a political kamikaze" who got his strategy wrong. But the most bitter reaction must be accorded to the English Catholic Cardinal, Basil Hume, who called Bobby’s death "suicide."
British army Lt. Colonel Dr. Thomas: "No. Bobby was like a soldier."

Hume’s callous stupidity was answered best by Dr. Michael Thomas in the August edition of the British Medical Association’s News Review. Thomas was the chairman of the Association’s Ethics Committee and a serving lieutenant-colonel in the British army. His remarks were made all the more poignant considering his stature and his professional background. He said Bobby was "like the piper walking in front of a highland battalion, the bloke who was prepared to be shot down first."

Specifically to Hume, Dr. Thomas wrote: "Is it suicide for a soldier to charge a machine-gun nest, knowing that he was almost certain to get killed? Isn’t it what we describe as laying down one’s life for a brother? That’s what Bobby Sands was doing..."
Screws: "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning"

Meanwhile inside the Kesh, the screws didn’t know how to act. Several made their delight evident; one serenaded the Blanketmen in his wing with his rendition of "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning". But the general reaction of the screws was to let it pass, no doubt under orders not to cause a problem or for fear of getting the contents of slop out pots in their faces.
"Old Bobby" -- The Protestant Hospital Orderly

Not everyone on the so called "other side of the religious divide" in the prison was a monster, although most certainly qualified. Good people are everywhere and even those that disagreed with Republicans or their methods could appreciate the bond of a common humanity.

Such a man was "Old Bobby", a Protestant man in prison for tax irregularities. He was a hospital orderly during the hunger strike years of 1980 and 1981. Raymond McCartney recalls how he meet Bobby H., " a very warm and genuine man", the year after the hunger strike deaths when he was in the prison hospital himself. Old Bobby, who they also called the Old Man or "Sean Fhear" in Irish, gave Raymond a heart wrenching tour of the rooms where the ten men died and told stories of those terrible times. But there was good humor too and unexpected human kindness under horrific circumstances.

The Sean Fhear was probably the human being closest to the men as they died in at least a physical sense, and he a Protestant "ordinary criminal". He was approached by the British and Irish press for interviews after his release. He told Raymond that he told those media people, "What I shared with the hunger strikers was not for selling newspapers." He affirmed that he witnessed "unparalleled courage." He would sneak in books, papers, tobacco, or anything that he could to make the last days of the hunger strikers easier. He told of how Bobby Sands’ was using package after package of "fag papers" and yet the tobacco that was smuggled in to him was hardly touched. Old Bobby H. was concerned that Bobby Sands was eating them or was engaged in some other dangerous pursuit. Imagine how the two laughed when Bobby explained to Old Bobby that he was using the paper to write comms on. Old Bobby also got the screws angry on occasion, such as when he commented to one that he had to clean up Bobby’s hospital room really well today, "After all, we have an MP in the wing now." Old Bobby’s good nature didn’t spare him the glares of the prison personnel who heard that remark.
"May God forgive them"

On the day before Bobby Sands died, and he was coming in an out of coma, Old Bobby, the Sean Fhear, was in the TV room while the Sands family were by Bobby’s side. Bobby asked for Old Bobby and once he recognized him, said, "Bobby, I’m going to die but I want to thank you for all you have done for me and the other lads, We will never forget you; you are a real gentleman." Old Bobby held young Bobby’s hand and cried.

Old Bobby, the sean fhear, told Raymond McCartney: "Despite all his own suffering, the prospect of imminent death, this man whom I met hardly a month before this remembered me and thanked me. For what? A bit of tobacco and some papers. For a man so noble and brave that he gave his life for his friends and in a strange was, even for me, they let this man die. May God forgive them."
The Dublin government’s reaction?

In March 1982, the year after Bobby Sands’ passed into Irish history, he was selected Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City. A prominent Irish born businessman praised Bobby’s selection and saluted his sacrifice for Ireland in a paid advertisement in the Irish Echo. The man did a lot of business with the Irish government. He soon received a call implying that he had insulted Dublin by honoring Bobby and was losing his Irish business connections.

A friend of the Irish American businessman intervened on his behalf with Sean Donlon, then Irish Ambassador to the US, to get things straightened out. Donlon told the friend what the businessman, who dared to honor one of the greatest Irish heroes of all time, could do to get back into the good graces of the Irish government: "He can crawl."

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