Today marks the anniversary of the death of my friend and comrade Bobby Sands on the sixty sixth day of hunger strike.
I don’t remember the first time I met Bobby. I had been interned in Long Kesh and was sentenced for trying to escape and found myself in Cage 11, in another part of the camp which held sentenced political prisoners. Bobby was already one of those in the Cage.
The cages were literally that - a large space surrounded by a high wire fence in which there were four Nissan huts, a study hut and a toilet shower hut.
In the sentenced end of Long Kesh these each held around 80 prisoners. In Cage 11 one of the Nissan huts was also a Gaeltacht for those wanting to learn the Irish language and that’s were Bobby was.
I remember him as a keen sportsman who played soccer or gaelic football whenever he got the chance. He had long hair, a good sense of humour and liked music. He was very good on the guitar. I remember sitting in the study hut writing while he would be practicing on his guitar. His party piece was the classic by Kris Kristofferson, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ and later when he went to the H Blocks Bobby wrote songs including ‘McIlhatton’ and ‘Back home in Derry’.
I got to know him better as we started to hold political debates and lectures. Bobby was a very intelligent, committed republican. He was well read and enjoyed political discussions and made up his own mind on the political situation. That is evident both from his return to the IRA on his release but also his engagement with local community politics when he went to live in Twinbrook.
The 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes were a measure of last resort by the prisoners. It was a selfless act by ordinary men and women seeking to improve the conditions of their comrades. It was also a political act in defiance of a British government that was seeking to criminalise the prisoners and the struggle for Irish freedom and independence.
The account of that period has often been told.
Of Kieran Nugent refusing to wearing the prison uniform and saying they would have to nail it to his back.
Of the hundreds of prisoners in the H Blocks – naked, beaten, starved, denied proper medical care or toilet facilities, forced frequently to run the gauntlet of riot clad screws or subjected to the brutality of the mirror search.
Of the women in Armagh – isolated and beaten and strip searched who were also denied adequate medical and toilet facilities.
Of the families who organised and campaigned through the Relatives Action Committees and then through the National Smash H-Block Campaign.
And of the tens of thousands who marched and protested in support of the prisoners.
The hunger strike changed the political landscape in Ireland.
The political gains that have been made by Sinn Féin since then owe much to the men and women political prisoners and to the sacrifice, resolve and perseverance of the hunger strikers and their families.
For his part Bobby was also a writer. His stories and poems reflect his politics and the terrible conditions in which he lived. They also provide an insight into a spirit that refused to be broken and could soar above the H Blocks.
For me one of his best and most important works is the Rhythm of Time. I include it below in memory of Bobby and his nine comrades who died with him on the 1981 hunger strike.
We remember them all: Bobby Sands; Francis Hughes; Raymond McCreesh; Patsy O Hara; Joe McDonnell; Martin Hurson; Kevin Lynch; Kieran Doherty; Thomas McElwee and Mickey Devine. And neither do we forget Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg.
The Rhythm Of Time
There’s an inner thing in every man,
Do you know this thing my friend?
It has withstood the blows of a million years,
And will do so to the end.
It was born when time did not exist,
And it grew up out of life,
It cut down evil’s strangling vines,
Like a slashing searing knife.
It lit fires when fires were not,
And burnt the mind of man,
Tempering leadened hearts to steel,
From the time that time began.
It wept by the waters of Babylon,
And when all men were a loss,
It screeched in writhing agony,
And it hung bleeding from the Cross.
It died in Rome by lion and sword,
And in defiant cruel array,
When the deathly word was ‘Spartacus’
Along the Appian Way.
It marched with Wat the Tyler’s poor,
And frightened lord and king,
And it was emblazoned in their deathly stare,
As e’er a living thing.
It smiled in holy innocence,
Before conquistadors of old,
So meek and tame and unaware,
Of the deathly power of gold.
It burst forth through pitiful Paris streets,
And stormed the old Bastille,
And marched upon the serpent’s head,
And crushed it ‘neath its heel.
It died in blood on Buffalo Plains,
And starved by moons of rain,
Its heart was buried in Wounded Knee,
But it will come to rise again.
It screamed aloud by Kerry lakes,
As it was knelt upon the ground,
And it died in great defiance,
As they coldly shot it down.
It is found in every light of hope,
It knows no bounds nor space
It has risen in red and black and white,
It is there in every race.
It lies in the hearts of heroes dead,
It screams in tyrants’ eyes,
It has reached the peak of mountains high,
It comes searing ‘cross the skies.
It lights the dark of this prison cell,
It thunders forth its might,
It is ‘the undauntable thought’, my friend,
That thought that says ‘I’m right!’