Bobby Sands (Roibeárd Ó Seachnasaigh)
March 9 1954 – May 5 1981.
Bobby Sands spent his early years in the Rathcoole estate, a largely unionist area situated between north Belfast and Glengormley in the borough of Newtownabbey. As a child, he was sports mad, playing soccer for Star Of The Sea and excelling at long-distance running. Events in 1962 were to change his trajectory in life when at the age of 10 his family were forced to move from their home for the first time due to loyalist intimidation.
Over the following years, as sectarian tensions grew, Bobby, who was two years into an apprenticeship as a coach builder, was forced to leave his employment. These experiences had a profound effect on Bobby and by June 1972 the family had been intimidated out of their Rathcoole home and had resettled in Twinbrook on the fringe of nationalist West Belfast.
Aged 18, Bobby joined the Irish Republican Army. Describing life as a volunteer Bobby later wrote, “My life now centered around sleepless nights and stand-by’s, dodging the Brits and calming nerves to go out on operations. But the people stood by us. The people not only opened the doors of their homes to lend us a hand but they opened their hearts to us. I learned that without the people we could not survive, and I knew that I owed them everything”.
In October 1972, Bobby Sands was arrested and charged with the possession of a weapon. He spent three years in the cages of Long Kesh, where he had political prisoner status. During this time Bobby read widely and learnt Irish, which he was later to teach other Blanketmen in the H-Blocks.
Released in 1976, Bobby reported back to his local IRA unit and active service. He also set about tackling social issues affecting the Twinbrook community where he now had a young family and it was here he came into his own as a community activist.
Six months after his release Bobby was arrested following an IRA operation. Following interrogation in the notorious Castlereagh holding centre, he was held on remand for 11 months until, at his trial he refused to recognise the court. He and five comrades were sentenced to 14 years each for the alleged possession of a single revolver.
When he was moved to the H-Blocks Bobby immediately joined the Blanket and No-Wash protests and quickly became PRO for the republican prisoners. He was also in regular conflict with the prison regime’s screws and governors. After the duplicity of the British government in attempting to defeat the first hunger strike in 1980, the second began on March 1 1981 when Bobby refused food.
From day one of his fast he kept a diary, which covered the initial 17 days, written in both English and Irish. Bobby turned 27 on the second week of his hunger strike and, on March 23, he was moved to the prison hospital.
On March 30, he was nominated as candidate for the Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election when Frank Maguire, an independent MP who supported the prisoners’ cause, suddenly passed away. Standing on an Anti-H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner ticket, he received 30,493 votes and was duly elected a member of the Westminster parliament. In the process, he humiliated the entire range of establishment figures who had claimed the prisoners had no popular support.
But Bobby was under no illusion with regard to his election victory. He knew the British government would let prisoners die. At 1.17 a.m. on Tuesday, May 5, on the 66th day of his hunger strike, Bobby Sands died in the H-Block prison hospital at Long Kesh.
In his own words: “Of course I can be murdered but I remain what I am, a political POW and no-one, not even the British, can change that.”