Bobby Sands: Childhood before sectarian state got vicious
Every day this week Daily Ireland is running excerpts of Denis O’Hearn’s biography Bobby Sands: Nothing But an Unfinished Song. Today’s excerpt describes Bobby’s childhood in Belfast.
For six months when Bobby was seven, the Sands family lived with relatives. In December 1961, they finally got a house in the new estate beside Abbots Cross. In the 1950s, the northern Irish government had begun building big public housing estates for some of the thousands of working-class families who urgently needed somewhere decent to live. The first estate, called Rathcoole after the Irish rath cúil, meaning “ring-fort of the secluded place”, was built in phases, working its way up the foot of Carnmoney Hill. By 1961, Rathcoole comprised three square miles of public housing for 14,000 people. (Click cover pic to view)
Rathcoole was planned as a model estate for the “respectable working-class,” with jobs in nearby industrial projects. It was to be another utopia. But unlike Abbots Cross, a third of its new residents were Catholics. Among them was the Sands family, in a spacious house at 68 Doonbeg Drive, at the foot of Carnmoney Hill.
Bobby was surrounded by huge open green spaces. He and his sisters could go out their front door and climb up the Carnmoney mountain on trails that wound through dense gorse and nettles. They visited adventurous places on the mountain including the remains of ancient Celtic forts and monuments. It was thick with birds, which Bobby learned to identify.
Kids from the surrounding streets joined them. They would build a hut while Bobby built a fire. He took out his mother’s pots and some food and they toasted bread or potatoes, imagining they were camping out. When Rosaleen caught them, says Bernadette, she would “half kill” them.
Bobby was always doing something. He faced regular fights with the neighbourhood kids with a degree of stoicism, bordering on stubbornness. If he got hit, he hit back. If he was badly beaten, he walked around the corner before he cried. He often turned his stubbornness on his mother. If Rosaleen sent him outside to play as punishment, he refused to come back when she called. Yet he was very protective of his sisters. If anyone hit them he jumped to their defence. He was smaller than the other kids but he stood up for his sisters, no matter what the consequences.
Bobby’s education began at Stella Maris primary school, a mixed gender Catholic school close to his house that also served the surrounding districts of Glengormley, Bawnmore, and Greencastle. Later, he attended Stella Maris secondary school, next door to the primary school. He was never a very serious student, instead concentrating on organized sport. According to schoolmate, Dessie Black, he was intelligent but lazy in school.
“All we wanted to do was just play football. More time was spent round picking football teams for matches and that than doing schoolwork and that.”
Outside of school, Bobby played soccer with a religiously mixed group of local boys, always including his best mate Tommy O’Neill. Together, they joined the youth team of Stella Maris, the local amateur football club. Stella Maris was a remarkable institution for the north of Ireland, where religious sectarianism was rampant. Although the team trained in the gym of Bobby’s school, it attracted Protestant boys from surrounding areas. Terry Nicholls, a Mormon, joined Stella Maris because he had just one interest, football, and would have played for anybody. Willie Caldwell and Geordie Hussey, two more Protestant “football fanatics”, also joined. Nobody asked if you were Catholic or Protestant. If you were a half-decent football player, you were on the team.
Dennis Sweeney never liked Bobby Sands much. He thought he was an insecure person who tried to cover it up by showing off, sometimes even using violence on the football pitch. “Certainly not a leader by any means, more a person who was led,” he thought.
But others describe Bobby Sands as an amiable team-mate. Their recollections also reflect a trait that others would notice in his later life: extreme enthusiasm, sometimes expressed in behaviour that went “over the top”.
Geordie Hussey says Sands was “a bit of a grafter” who did his best at his position of left half. He didn’t score many goals but he could be counted on to get the ball and he was a good tackler. What he lacked in natural ability, he made up in enthusiasm.
His enthusiasm extended into other sports. Bobby loved swimming but cross-country running was his real sporting passion. He won cross-country medals and his love of running came through later in his prison writings. In The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Cripple, he compares his strength as a teenager winning a cross-country race to his deteriorating physical state in prison. In the story, Sands describes a long-distance race in the cold Irish winter that “bites deep into the lungs and reddens the nose and cheeks”. He is excited by the race but surprisingly aware, even sad at how the incursion of the runners scars the countryside. He is at once part of the environment and against it.
“Bang. The thrush fled and I sprang forward. The marshy ground churned and sucked and squelched as hundreds of foreign spiked feet mutilated and scarred its face. Across an open field we charged in a bunch. My mind was racing as I tried to weigh up the situation and opposition as the lay of the land was seen then gone in a matter of a few strides.”
Sands struggled to overcome the challenges both of the environment and the other runners until, finally, “I broke the finishing line, breathing like a racehorse in deep vast gulps.” Although it was only a schoolboy race, “Victory was mine and I felt like an Olympic champion.”
As Sands grew into his teens, his circle of friends widened. He went to the Alpha picture house or to dances at the local church hall. There was roller-skating in the religiously mixed Floral Hall in Bellevue near Belfast Zoo. Weekend dances there were mainly Protestant, but mixed. On Sundays, a more Catholic, but still mixed, group attended dances in the Star of the Sea hall in Rathcoole or St Etna’s hall in Glengormley. Bobby’s friends at the time remember him as a “happy-go-lucky” boy who loved dancing and the socializing that went with it.
Things were beginning to change, however, in the society around him. Systematic sectarianism was emerging. By 1966, Rathcoole was sitting on a powder keg. Many Protestants worried about losing their marginal advantages as traditional sources of employment dried up in the shipyards and elsewhere. Either they or someone they knew had lost a job. They responded by excluding Catholics.
Protestants clung onto cultural advantages that assured them that they, and not Catholics, could fly certain flags, walk certain streets, and call on the support of the police and B-specials. But a liberal unionist prime minister named Terence O’Neill began talking about reforms that looked a bit too much like civil rights to many Protestants. O’Neill did such provocative things as visiting a Catholic school and inviting the southern Irish Taoiseach to visit Belfast. While O’Neill’s image as a reformer scared many Protestants, it raised Catholic expectations that discrimination would finally be addressed.
Simultaneously, 1966 was a highly emotive year for Protestants because it was the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Although Catholics also died there, some Protestants held them responsible for treason against Britain because the mostly Catholic Irish republicans launched an independence struggle while their forefathers were fighting and dying for Queen and country. Loyal Protestants were, therefore, on high alert for public manifestations of republicanism. This was a problem, since 1966 was also the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, the most significant event in the history of Irish republicanism. Protestant paranoia increased after the IRA blew up the huge statue of Admiral Nelson that stood on an imposing pillar in the middle of Dublin for many years. You did not have to go far from the Sands’ front door to find the centre of Protestant intolerance. Ian Paisley, whose power-base was in the area around Rathcoole, freely mixed his religion with his politics. He was the head of his own church, the Free Presbyterians, and he received an honorary doctorate from the fundamentalist Christian Bob Jones University in the United States.
During 1966, while Paisley preached against treason and popery, the re-formed Ulster Volunteer Force launched a series of attacks on Catholic homes, schools, and shops. Late at night on May 7, the UVF killed an old Protestant woman who they mistook for a Catholic. On May 27, a UVF unit went to the Catholic lower Falls area and shot dead the first Catholic they could find. A few weeks later, some UVF men went for a late-night drink and shot dead a Catholic as he left the bar.
About this time, Sands later told a friend, he noticed some of his Protestant friends starting to withdraw from his social circles. The parents of a Protestant friend from the Stella Maris football club told him not to bring Bobby around to the house. Sands wondered why some of his mates no longer treated him as a friend. He was still naive about the virulence of sectarianism, and he had only a distant memory of how his mother was treated at Abbots Cross. Over the next few years these divisions would intensify, until things erupted after the rise of a Catholic civil rights movement in 1969. For Bobby Sands, this would be an education in sectarianism.
Tomorrow’s excerpt describes Bobby Sands’ first time in the cages of Long Kesh.
Bobby Sands book launches:
Belfast: Thursday, March 9 at 7pm, St Mary’s College, Falls Road.
Dublin: Friday, March 10 at 7pm, Pádraig Pearse Centre, Pearse Street.
Dundalk and Drogheda: Monday, March 13. Details to be confirmed.
Derry, Tuesday, March 14. Details to be confirmed.
Mid-Ulster, Wednesday, March 15 at 7pm, Mid-Ulster Republican Centre, Gulladuff.
Dennis Sweeny was an unlikeable person. The kind who thought himself better than the working class. Bobby was well liked and a gentle soul.Post a Comment