01 March 2006

‘There’s only one solution… back on hunger strike’

Daily Ireland

In the third excerpt from the Denis O’Hearn biography Bobby Sands: Nothing But an Unfinished Song, after the end of the 1980 hunger strike, the republican prisoners in the H-blocks begin planning the 1981 hunger strike that would lead to the death of Sands and nine of his comrades.


Thursday, December 18, 1980

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThe screws brought Bobby Sands back to his cell in H-block 3 at a quarter to nine. They took him from the administrative area, in the crossbar of the H, down the long grey corridor to his cell at the bottom of the wing. As he passed by rows of solid steel doors on either side of the corridor, some of the other prisoners called out to him.

“Right, Bobby?”

“Cad é an scéal, Roibeard?” (“What’s the news, Robert?”)

Sands finally reached his cell. The prisoners around him waited anxiously to find out what was happening. They had been waiting ever since the screws took Bobby away at a quarter past six. They expected him to return with the good news of a victorious end to the hunger strike that was now over two months old. At the very least, they expected some indication that they were closer to a successful resolution of their four-year struggle to win recognition as political prisoners. They knew that one of the hunger strikers, Seán McKenna, was near death but there had been talk of last-minute British concessions to end the protest before a death ignited Irish society.

“Teapot” was in a cell beside Sands. What he heard next was “a bolt from the fucking blue”. What their friend and commanding officer told them made their hearts sink to rock bottom.

Sands spoke out the door in Irish to Bik MacFarlane, his second in command. He was bitter, deeply angry; he felt betrayed. There was more of Calvary than Bethlehem in his voice. It felt more like a week to Easter than a week until Christmas.

“Tá an stailc críochnaithe” (“The hunger strike is over”), he told Bik.

“Cad é a tharla?” (“What happened?”)

“Fuair muid faic.” (“We got nothing.”)

Sands withdrew momentarily from the door. He could not settle. Well, he could never settle but now his mind was racing even more than usual. He strode quickly to the back corner of his cell and lay down on his filthy sponge mattress by the heating pipe to talk to Teapot, who had his ear to the crack in the shit-smeared wall at the other side.

“Another fucking hunger strike… crazy… die… crazy,” were the jumbled words that Teapot could make out from Sands’ low voice. It was enough to tell him what Bobby had already set his mind to do. Then, unable to sit still for even a few seconds, Sands rose and paced back to the cell door to speak to Bik.

“Bhuel, Bik, beidh stailc eile ann.” (“Well, Bik, there’ll be another hunger strike.”)

“Tá an ceart agat.” (“You’re right.”)

And that was it. In the minds of the prisoners around Sands, the men who effectively made up the leadership of all the Irish republican prisoners in the H-blocks, the die was cast. They immediately began to plan another hunger strike, speaking through their cell doors in Irish. They talked over how it would go but, whatever way they played it, the plot ended the same way. Bobby Sands would certainly die.

Friday, December 19, 1980

Sands met twice with the officers commanding (OCs) of the other H-blocks that housed protesting IRA prisoners. The screws brought them in to see him in the “big cell” at the bottom of the wing. He could not just repeat “we got nothing” to them, as that would wreck the morale of the whole prison. He had to give them some measure of hope. He told the OCs bluntly that the agreement they got after the hunger strike ended was not what they wanted, that it was full of holes. But maybe, he said, they could step through those holes to achieve some form of political status.

At least, maybe, they could get their own clothes to wear and then continue struggling for more rights. Séanna Walsh, OC of H5 and one of Bobby’s oldest friends, did not believe the positive spin he was hearing. He knew Sands too well and he could see right through him. He could tell from Sands’ demeanour that there was really little hope of getting anything concrete from the agreement that Margaret Thatcher’s government had offered them the night before. Not even their own clothes, much less their other demands, like the right to free association and freedom from prison work.

They had been protesting for four years to achieve this goal, ever since young Kieran Nugent refused to wear a prison uniform after he was convicted of hijacking a car for the IRA in 1976. Sands had only to look around him to see how far the protest had come, for bad and for good. Now, more than 300 prisoners had joined the protest. Not only were they living naked in their eight-by-ten foot cells, as they had been from the beginning of their protest, with only a blanket and a small towel to keep them warm and hide their nakedness. Not only were they locked up 24 hours a day, without even a book to read, a radio to listen to, nor pen and paper with which to write. They were not even allowed to leave their cells for exercise or meals or even to go to the toilet and have a wash.

Now, they were literally living in their own shit —heaps of it, along with rotted food and maggots, lay in the corners of each cell. The cell walls were plastered in it. Some of the lads hadn’t seen their families or loved ones for years.

Never mind their families, some of them had not even seen each other. Some of their closest friends were just disembodied voices that came out of a crack in one cell door and back in through a crack in their own cell door. By now, they knew more of the intimate lives of these disembodied voices than they did of their own family members.

Despite these unimaginable conditions, they had never been crushed. Deprived of radios and reading materials, they invented their own forms of entertainment: bingo, quizzes and, best of all, the “book at bedtime” where they told each other stories out the door. Kept from formal education, they organised their own classes, with teachers shouting out the lessons through the cell doors. Many men who never finished secondary school were now fluent in Irish and experts in history and political theory. Paper and pens were banned, yet they had developed a communications infrastructure that kept them in constant contact with each other and with their comrades outside of prison. Under Bobby Sands’ direction, they were running a virtual propaganda industry, churning out hundreds of letters about their protest to movie stars, journalists, and politicians around the world. Tobacco was banned, so they found ways to smuggle it into the jail and then to manufacture cigarettes and to distribute them from cell to cell so that each prisoner could enjoy a smoke in the evening.

After all they had endured and all they had achieved, Sands told the other OCs, they would not quit now, short of gaining recognition as political prisoners. He said he would talk to the prison governor and offer to end the prison protest if the prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothes. He expected that the appeal would fall on deaf ears.

Sands’ prediction came true within hours. Bobby met with the governor, who took his offer to his political bosses and then came back and told him that all he could offer was “prison-issue civilian-type clothes” during non-working hours. After a few days to build up their strength after their long protest, they would have to start doing prison work. And they would have to wear the prison uniform when they were working. After all, the government still considered them to be criminals.

“Your civilian clothing is nothing but a uniform,” Sands bitterly told Governor Hilditch. “Not only will we not be ending the protest but we will escalate it and take other actions.”

“What actions?” asked the governor.

Sands knew that he was taken aback by the blunt refusal of his offer of civilian-type clothing.

“You’ll find out,” was Bobby’s reply.

Back in his cell at three o’clock, Sands asked his cellmate Malachy for a pen and some paper. Malachy carefully slid his thumb and forefinger into his anus and slipped out a huge wad wrapped in plastic wrap. He carefully unwrapped the package, took out a refill for a ballpoint pen and some cigarette papers, and handed them over. Sands hunched down on his bit of filthy foam mattress and wrote a letter to his old friend Gerry Adams, the man he called comrade mór (“big comrade”). He told him what had transpired over the past 24 hours and gave him the “disturbing” news that they would soon be starting another hunger strike.

Two hours later, at five o’clock, Sands told the other prisoners around him about the meetings he had held earlier in the day and about his encounters with the prison governor.

Again, they debated their options. With cooler heads than the previous night, Sands, Bik MacFarlane, Richard O’Rawe, Jake Jackson, and Pat Mullan discussed how they could carry the protest forward. Was there another way, short of another hunger strike? Bobby already knew the answer in his heart, but they all wanted to find some way out. The debate went on and on. People suggested some alternatives but they kept coming back to the same thing.

Finally, Pat Mullan stopped the discussion in its tracks.

“Níl ach freagair amháin… ar ais ar stailc arís.” (“There’s only one solution… back on hunger strike.”)
It was the end of debate. They all knew it.

Bobby had the last word. We can only begin to imagine the despair he felt when he told them: “I’m gonna wake up tomorrow morning and I’m not gonna like the first thought that hits my head.”

From that moment, says Richard O’Rawe, Bobby Sands became less effervescent and more solemn… slightly more distant. Outside, he maintained his bubbly disposition, still optimistic, as was his character. But they could see through the surface to a difference on the inside.

“You just knew that there was a sadness in Bob.”

Tomorrow’s excerpt describes how Bobby Sands educated other prisoners while entertaining them with stories to keep up morale.

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.

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