05 May 2006

Comrade remembers Bobby

Irelandclick

On the 25th anniversary of Bobby Sands’ death his close friend, Séanna Walsh, shares some of the memories of the time he spent with the man who has gone down in history as one of the central icons of Irish republicanism

By Damian McCarney

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usTwenty-five years after his death on hunger strike, Bobby Sands is regarded as an icon of Irish republicanism, often spoken about in the same breath as figures like Ché Guevara. However, for Séanna Walsh, he was simply his friend and comrade.

Photo: Séanna Walsh

In many ways Séanna’s life mirrored Bobby Sands’, having been brought up in a working-class area during the height of the conflict, being a committed republican and sacrificing years of his life in prison.
Both will also be remembered for their roles in landmark events in the North’s history with Bobby’s death on hunger strike, and Séanna’s reading of the announcement of the formal conclusion of the IRA’s armed campaign last July.
The two friends first met when Séanna entered Long Kesh as a 16-year-old Fian in January 1973, facing armed robbery charges.
Bobby had been in prison since the previous October, awaiting trial for possession of weapons, and was two years Séanna’s senior. On first impressions, Séanna could be forgiven for not recognising that Bobby would have such a lasting impact on him, and indeed the history of Ireland.
“I remember the way that he came dandering up to me, a sort of swagger – the classic cocky Belfast walk. He stuck his hand out and introduced himself, and said, ‘What are you in for?’ He was your cocky, ordinary Belfast teenager, with a spikey Rod Stewart-style haircut, and into soccer,” smiled Séanna, who originally hails from the Short Strand.
After a few weeks the teenagers were transferred along with other remand prisoners to Crumlin Road Jail and when their cases were heard in mid-1973 both men received five-year sentences and they ended up back in Long Kesh.
During this period, IRA prisoners enjoyed political status which was begrudgingly conceded by William Whitelaw after the 1972 hunger strike led by, among others, Billy McKee.
Consequently they were not required to wear prison garb, nor carry out prison work, leaving them free to learn the Irish language, and to immerse themselves in political theory.
“Your day was your own. In Cage 17 there was an extensive library and everyone was encouraged to read all the books. We were very keen readers of different political philosophers,” said Séanna.
Before their release in 1976, the two young pals were among the prisoners who watched the H-Blocks being built from a vantage point on the rooftops in the prison camp, and joked about who would be the first one back inside. Although there were lighter moments, the pair remained focused on furthering the republican cause, and prepared to take the conflict to the British on their release.
“We trained our minds and bodies, looking forward to getting back on the streets and to continue where we left off. We were very eager,” said Séanna.
Séanna was released in May 1976, only a matter of weeks after Bobby. During his imprisonment Séanna’s family had moved from their Short Strand home to the new development of Twinbrook, where Bobby’s family had fled having been intimidated from their Rathcoole home by loyalists. Bobby was in charge of the Twinbrook IRA, and he convinced Séanna to transfer to his unit to help transform the Twinbrook unit into an effective machine – on all fronts.
Struggle
“During one yarn we had, he said he didn’t see the struggle as just a military conflict. He organised community political groups in the area, he ensured that there were republicans in the local tenants’ associations, he organised a Sinn Féin cumann, organised the Fianna and an auxiliary defence force. He organised the publishing of a local newsletter for Twinbrook and social events to give a focus for republicans in the area. All the strategising and all the theory that he had read about and studied in prison were quickly being put into practice,” said Séanna.
Bobby believed that by creating such an extensive infrastructure, it would become impossible for the British to remove the republican ideal from the area.
Caught in possession of a rifle, Séanna was arrested in the summer of 1976 and held on remand in Crumlin Road jail. Bobby joined him in October the same year, receiving a 14-year sentence for possession of a revolver.
Protest
The pair eventually ended up in the newly-built H-Blocks, which was by that stage straining under the repressive policy of criminalisation. The blanket protest had been born a matter of months earlier with Kieran Nugent’s brave stance against the removal of political status, and his refusal to accept a prison uniform unless it was nailed to his back.
Those who joined the protest were subjected to the most inhuman physical and psychological torture, and there seemed no end in sight as the British remained intransigent, dismissing their demands.
In a bid to highlight their plight to the public, the first hunger strikes commenced in 1980, and during this period Bobby became OC with Séanna acting as his deputy. Bad faith on the part of the British government led to a brokered deal falling through soon after the prisoners came off the strike.
In calling the second hunger strike in 1981, Bobby went over the heads of the IRA leadership outside the prison who vehemently opposed the idea. When he made it clear that he was going ahead, and that he would lead by example, the leadership then instructed that Séanna should become the OC. However, Bobby again overruled their decision.
“He asked Brendan McFarlane [to become OC] as our relationship was too close. He was concerned that I would allow it to damage my judgement. He was probably right, I would have let that emotional bond influence me at that stage of Bobby’s life,” admitted Séanna.
“After 14 or 15 days he wrote a wee note to me saying that he had prepared his family to have faith and confidence, that it [his hunger strike] would break the British. But he also wrote ‘at the end of the day, I don’t think that the British will move until they get their pound of flesh’,” said Séanna.
When the Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Frank Maguire, died in March 1981 the door was open for an audacious bid to have Bobby Sands elected as MP to put further pressure on the British. With the SDLP, Bernadette Devlin and Frank Maguire’s brother standing aside, it became a straight fight against the Ulster Unionist candidate, Harry West.
By the time of the election, prisoners had smuggled a small radio into the H-Blocks, enabling them to hear news on the outside and also find out the election results.
Being held in cells separately or in twos, the breaking news was passed to each prisoner by whispering through holes where pipes came into the cells.
“We had wired people off not to give any indication that they knew as it would mean that we had access to a radio to find out the news. So we had said not to make any big deal of it.
“The knock [to let neighbouring cells know there was a message to be passed that Bobby had been elected] went all the way down through the cells and the next thing, someone went up to the door and let out a big yell.
“After that the whole wing exploded with cheers, and people began banging the doors with their piss pots,” smiling at the memory of the momentous event.
“At that time there was an orderly out mopping the floors and the warders came in and hit him a slap saying, ‘You, were speaking to the prisoners!’
“He was innocent and they beat the crap out of him,” continued Séanna.
The sense of elation shared by the prisoners after the electoral success was short-lived for Séanna, however.
“It was a very, very heavy time. Once he was elected we were all on a high, and thought maybe, just maybe, it would bring an end to this.
“Surely the British can’t allow an MP to die. It would be crazy in terms of propaganda.
“Over the following days, though, I came back to what Bobby had said in his note.
Torturous
“He believed he would be the pound of flesh paid before the British gave anything. They would allow him to die, and maybe others.”
After 66 agonising days on hunger strike, Bobby Sands died on May 5 1981.
“Even before his death there was a blanket of sadness and an atmosphere of despair had settled on the wings.
“There was no slagging, joking or any craic. We all retreated into our own thoughts and our concerns, not only for Bobby but for the other three lads who were on hunger strike.
“Whenever I got the news that he had died I didn’t cry. I didn’t allow myself to cry. It wasn’t until 1984, when I went to visit Bobby’s grave, that I allowed myself to cry there.
“My thoughts were for his family and his son who would never get to grow up with him.”
Twenty-five years after his death Bobby Sands has become an iconic figure. Countries across the world have streets named in his honour and using the modern barometer of fame, a Google search of ‘Bobby Sands’ brings up a vast ocean of hits. Séanna believes that his friend would have found this attention overwhelming.
“He was a self-effacing guy who would take reddeners very easily. The idea that he would be a republican icon would be mind-blowing to him. That he is recognised as an icon along the lines of Ché Guevara would have tickled him no end, I’m sure.”
For Séanna the memory of the events of 1981 are still very painful, but he believes that the selfless acts of the hunger strikers have not been in vain. In addition to giving republicans confidence to pursue electoral politics, Séanna believes that Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers’ legacy lies in their success in defeating the policy of criminalisation.
“Their strategy was based on a lie that the freedom fighters were simply common criminals and deserved no other status. In prisons they treated us as criminals as if we were part of some criminal conspiracy in Ireland, but they ended up criminalising themselves in the eyes of people throughout the world.”

Journalist:: Damien McCarney

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