06 May 2006

'Bobby's dead'

Seeing Red

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'Bobby's Dead'
by Jack McKinney

[Our old friend [retired Philadelphia Daily News columnist] Jack McKinney has begun to release all his archival stuff on the 1981 H Block Hunger Strike.... This article from five years back really sets the tone. It has, if I may say so, a certain lyricism that is absent from his powerful reportage in 1981.Well, watching friends and comrades starve to death doesn't exactly evoke lyricism, rather rage and sorrow.....--Roger Collins]

I wrote [this] spontaneously one night in May, '96, after reflecting on the fact that a lot of younger people who didn't actually experience that protracted nightmare would find it difficult, in reading the inadequate existing literature, to get a sense of what it was like emotionally. As you'll see, I was also pissed --as I still am in retrospect-- at the cowardice shown by Yank news photogs generally, and the Phila Daily News cur particularly, when they got the 'action' they'd been clamoring for.
--Black Jack

A Cairde: There's few memories I'd like to share before calling it a night.

The evening of May 4, 1981, my mate Seamus and I were heading back up the road to Andytown when we saw a white-line vigil a short stretch beyond the Kennedy Way roundabout. White-line vigils were a common sight in West Belfast that Spring, just as a common sound was the plaintive tenor voice of Francie Brolly and his H-Block Song, wafting through open windows from record players in at least one house on every street in the district. No one was hoping anymore. Only wondering. When?

An APC overtook us and pulled alongside the single column of young people in the vigil. The Brit up front swung open the door and slung the greasy remains of a fish'n'chips take-out among them, shouting: "'ere! Run this up to yer boy Bobby!" You never got to read about the countless nightly provocations like this.

Sure, at least some of you are probably fantasizing right now about what you would have done. Maybe about how you would have scooped up the garbage and flung it right back in the face of the taunter.

If one of the vigil-keepers had surrendered to such an impulse, a 7.62 round would have thumped into its target, leaving globs of pink-stained grey matter mixed in with the remains of the fish'n'chips.

The lance corporal would have said the Yellow Card gave him the right to fire when confronted with lethal force and his fellow squaddies would have sworn they saw the others in the vigil passing off a weapon, hand by hand, till it disappeared in the angry crowd that seemed to gather from nowhere.

That you would have read about.

* * * * *

Downtown Radio had signed off with its usual, seductive "Chariots of Fire" tape and it was going on 2 a.m. when I heard Seamus's wife rapping softly on my bedroom door, whispering so as not to wake the kids.

"Jack. Bobby's dead."

No matter how long you'd been expecting to hear that, it still felt like a cannon ball tearing through the gut when the news actually came.

* * * * *

Already the bin lids were dinning through the estate. Protesting. Denouncing. Lamenting. Summoning. People were gathering on Andytown Road. Cursing. Crying. There was the harsh sound of glass shattering and the squeal of metal drums being dragged up from the Busy-B for barricades.

A crew of American press photographers had been staying at the little hotel that used to be right down from the Felon's Club. One of them liked to swagger around wearing a cowboy hat, demanding to know when the action was going to start. The others didn't have cowboy hats, but every last one of them had a safari jacket adorned with press tags in several different languages and scripts, which they thought gave them a license to swagger and make the same complaints about the lack of action.

I now banged on one's door and told him to roust his chums because the action they'd been so desperate for was already underway down at the foot of Clonard. He stuttered as he tried to paraphrase the bulletins he'd heard on the radio warning everyone to stay off the streets. Having taken this as sound advice, he and his colleagues had decided to "stay put until the British army has the situation under control."

* * * * *

Down at Sinn Fein Headquarters (the old one, before Connolly House) some staffers were trying to discourage the wee lads from making Kamikaze petrol-bomb-runs at a Brit roadblock on the bottom of the Springfield Rd. The message didn't sink in till one wee lad got hit with a sniper's bullet high on the inside of his thigh, near the groin.

This couldn't have really happened, of course, because none of the American photographers was there to snap a picture of the boy being carried off the road with his blood pumping out in gulping spurts. But a French TV crew wheeled in from Leeson St. and was starting to set up till Seamus and I persuaded them to put the victim in their maroon van and rush him over to Royal instead, because the high velocity bullet had destroyed the major artery in his thigh and even with his belt cinched above it, he'd be dead in a few more minutes.

The Frenchies didn't get a picture, either, but they had something ticking inside that doesn't seem to come with safari jackets and cowboy hats.

* * * * *

About an hour later, a call came in to SFHQ. Bobby Sands had finally been brought home and Jimmy Drumm had to speak to his parents about the Republican funeral arrangements.

But the Brits had Twinbrook sealed off from below. Could Seamus and I find another way to get Jimmy in? We could and did, taking back roads and a couple of fields to loop up and around Lisburn and come back down to Twinbrook from there.

Bobby didn't look anything like the broadfaced, beaming young man the world knew only from that picture taken years earlier in Long Kesh. His hair was neatly trimmed and parted on the left side, and he looked more like the young accountant he might have become. His cheekbones, always prominent, were now the most dominant feature of a face that remained handsome even in its shrunken state.

* * * * *

There was one moment so almost overwhelmingly poignant that I can still close my eyes and summon it in vivid detail. A ringlet of hair lay across Bobby's upper right forehead. His younger brother Sean, who idolized him stepped unobtrusively behind the casket and, reaching in, tenderly brushed back the stray locks.

John Sands, prematurely whitehaired at 57, tightened his arm around wife Rosaleen and sighed.

"We should have a photo of how he looks now. If only we had a photographer." Seamus and I exchanged glances. We had both been thinking the same thing.


Bobby Sands was defiantly elected to the British Parliment by the people of Fermanagh-South Tyrone while on hunger strike. The Speaker's announcement of his death in that body pointedly excluded the traditional condolences to the family on the death of a Member.

According to journalist David Beresford in his book Ten Men Dead: The story of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike, "a news agency photographer [later] offered the Sands family 75,000 for a picture of Bobby in his coffin. During his time in internment a group photograph had been taken of him and fellow prisoners, with a smuggled camera, and the blurred picture had become one of the most famous in the world. His family turned down the offer of a new one."


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