Bobby Sands

Bobby Sands

Infobox 1981 Hungerstriker

irish= Roibeard Gearóid Ó Seachnasaigh
name= Bobby Sands
honorific-suffix =MP
paramilitaryorganisation= Provisional IRA
dateofbirth= birth date|1954|3|9|mf=y
placeofbirth= Abbots Cross, Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland
hungerstrikestarted= 1 March, 1981
died= death date and age|1981|5|5|1954|3|9
daysonstrike= 66
Infobox MP
honorific-suffix =MP
constituency_MP = Fermanagh and South Tyrone
parliament = United Kingdom
majority = 30, 493 (51.22%)
predecessor = Frank Maguire
successor = Owen Carron
term_start = 9 April 1981
term_end = 5 May 1981

Robert Gerard Sands ( _ga. Roibeard Gearóid Ó Seachnasaigh [ [ Seisiún an Oireachtais] ] [ [ Legacy of Cage Eleven] ] ), commonly known as Bobby Sands, (9 March 1954 – 5 May 1981), was a Provisional Irish Republican Army volunteer and member of the United Kingdom Parliament who died on hunger strike whilst in HM Prison Maze (also known as Long Kesh) for the possession of firearms.

He was the leader of the 1981 Hunger Strike, in which Irish Republican prisoners were seeking to regain Special Category Status, and had been elected as a member of the United Kingdom Parliament as an Anti H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner [ [ BBC News | Northern Ireland | Understanding Northern Ireland ] ] [ [ CAIN: Politics: Elections: Westminster By-election (NI) Thursday 9 April 1981] ] candidate during his fast. His death resulted in a new surge of IRA recruitment and activity. The international media coverage sparked a wave of support and sympathy around the world for Sands, the other hunger strikers, and the republican movement in general, although it also attracted criticism. [ CAIN archive at the University of Ulster] ]

Family and early life

Sands was born into a Catholic family [Feehan, John. "Bobby Sands and the Tragedy of Northern Ireland." The Permanent Press: New York, 1983 p. 17] [Sands, Bobby. "Writings from Prison." Mercier Press: Dublin] in Abbots Cross, Newtownabbey, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, and lived there until 1960 [pg4, Bobby Sands:Nothing but an Unfinished Song, "O'Hearn, Denis", Pluto Press (2006) ISBN 0-7453-2572-6] and then moved to Rathcoole, Newtownabbey. His first sister, Marcella, was born in April 1955 and second sister, Bernadette, in November 1958. His parents, John and Rosaleen, had another son, John, in 1962. Sands' family had moved due to intimidation by loyalists. On leaving school, he became an apprentice coach-builder until he was forced out at gunpoint by loyalists. [Ibid pg13-14] In June 1972, at the age of 18, he moved with his family to the Twinbrook housing estate in west Belfast.

IRA activity

In 1972, the year of the Troubles with the highest death toll, he joined the IRA. [cite book | last = Geraghty | first = Tony | authorlink = | title = The Irish War | publisher = Harper Collins | date = 2000 | pages = pp. 68-70 | doi = | isbn = 978-0-00-638674-2] [ Biography on Larkspirit] ] In October of that year, Sands was arrested and charged with possession of four handguns which were found in the house in which he was staying. In April 1973 he was sentenced to five years' imprisonment. [ [ Cain Biography - Danny Morrison] ]

On his release in 1976, he returned to his family in Belfast, and resumed his active role in the IRA's campaign. He was charged with involvement in the October 1976 bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry, although he was never convicted of this bombing, and at the trial the judge said there was no evidence to support the assertion that he had taken part in it. After the bombing, Sands and at least five others in the bomb team were allegedly involved in a gun battle with the police, although he was also never convicted of this for lack of evidence. Abandoning two of their wounded friends, Seamus Martin and Gabriel Corbett, Sands with Joe McDonnell, Seamus Finucane and Sean Lavery tried to escape in a car, but were caught. One of the revolvers used in the attack was found in the car in which Sands was travelling. [cite book | last = English | first = Richard | authorlink = Richard English | title = Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA | publisher = Pan Books | date = 2003 | pages = pp. 196-198 | doi = | isbn = 0-330-49388-4]

His trial in September 1977 saw him convicted of possession of firearms (the revolver from which bullets had been fired at the RUC after the bombing), and Sands was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. [ [ Terrorism Knowledge Base Article on Bobby Sands] ]


He served his prison term at HM Prison Maze, also known as Long Kesh. After internment began, a series of buildings known from their floor plans as 'H-Blocks' were built to make the prison suitable for the large number of inmates belonging to paramilitary organisations; each block contained members of the same organisation.

In prison, Sands became a writer both of journalism and poetry which was published in the Irish republican newspaper "An Phoblacht". In late 1980 Sands was chosen as Officer Commanding of the IRA prisoners in Long Kesh, succeeding Brendan Hughes who was participating in the first hunger strike.

Political status protests

Republican prisoners had organised a series of protests seeking to regain their previous Special Category Status and not be subject to ordinary prison regulations. This started with the "blanket protest" in 1976, when the prisoners refused to wear a prison uniform and wore blankets instead. In 1978, after a number of attacks on prisoners leaving their cells to "slop out" (i.e., empty their chamber pots), this escalated into the dirty protest, where prisoners refused to wash and smeared the walls of their cells with excrement.cite book | last = Taylor | first = Peter | authorlink = Peter Taylor (Journalist) | title = Provos The IRA & Sinn Féin | publisher = Bloomsbury Publishing | date = 1997 | pages = pp. 251–252 | isbn = 0-7475-3818-2 ]

Hunger strike

The 1981 Irish hunger strike started with Sands refusing food on 1 March, 1981. Sands decided that other prisoners should join the strike at staggered intervals in order to maximise publicity with prisoners steadily deteriorating successively over several months.

The hunger strike centred around "Five Demands":

# The right not to wear a prison uniform;
# The right not to do prison work;
# The right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;
# The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
# Full restoration of remission lost through the protest.cite book | last = Taylor | first = Peter | authorlink = Peter Taylor (Journalist) | title = Provos The IRA & Sinn Féin | publisher = Bloomsbury Publishing | date = 1997 | pages = pp. 229-234 | doi = | isbn = 0-7475-3818-2 ]

The significance of the hunger strike was the prisoners' aim of being declared as political prisoners (or prisoners of war) and not to be classed as criminals. However, the primary purpose of the exercise was often regarded as an attempt to gain international publicity rather than political prisoner status. [Washington Post, 3 May 1981, 2-3]


Shortly after the beginning of the strike, Frank Maguire, the Independent Republican MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone died suddenly of a heart attack and precipitated a by-election.

The sudden vacancy in a seat with a small Roman Catholic majority was a valuable opportunity for Sands' supporters to unite the nationalist community behind their campaign. Pressure not to split the vote led other nationalist parties, notably the Social Democratic and Labour Party, to withdraw and Sands was nominated on the label "Anti H-Block / Armagh Political Prisoner". After a highly polarised campaign, Sands narrowly won the seat on 9 April, 1981, with 30,493 votes to 29,046 for the Ulster Unionist Party candidate Harry West, incidentally also becoming the youngest MP at the time. [cite web | title = 1981: Hunger striker elected MP | author = | url = | publisher = BBC | date = | accessdate = 2007-05-25]

Following Sands' success the Government introduced to Parliament the Representation of the People Act 1981 which prevents convicted prisoners serving jail terms of more than one year in either the UK or the Republic of Ireland, or unlawfully at large when they should be serving such a sentence, from being nominated as candidates in UK elections.Julian Haviland, "Bill to stop criminal candidates", "The Times", 13 June 1981, p. 2.] [ [ Disqualification for membership of the House of Commons] , Oonagh Gay, Parliament and Constitution Centre, 13 October 2004] This law was quickly introduced so as to prevent the other hunger strikers from being nominated to his vacant seat after his death. [ [] ]


Three weeks later, Sands died in the prison hospital after 66 days of hunger-striking, aged 27. The announcement of his death prompted several days of riots in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. A milkman and his son, Eric and Desmond Guiney, died as a result of injuries sustained when their milk float crashed after being stoned by rioters in a predominantly nationalist area of north Belfast. [cite web | title = An Index of Deaths from the Conflict in Ireland | author = Malcolm Sutton | url = | publisher = CAIN | date = | accessdate = 2007-09-07] [cite web | title = A Chronology of the Conflict - 1981 | author = | url = | publisher = CAIN | accessdate = 2007-09-07] Over 100,000 people lined the route of Sands' funeral. [ [ University of Ulster CAIN archive] ] Sands was a Member of the Westminster Parliament for twenty-five days, though he never took his seat or oath.

In response to a question in the House of Commons on 5 May, 1981, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, "Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims". [cite web | title = 1981 May 5 Tu Margaret Thatcher House of Commons PQs | author = | url = | publisher = Margaret Thatcher Foundation | date = | accessdate = 2007-05-26]

He was survived by his parents, siblings, and a young son (Gerard) from his marriage to Geraldine Noade.

Political impact

Nine other IRA and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) members who were involved in the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike also died after Sands. Many people regard Sands and the other nine men as martyrs who stood firm against the intransigence of the British Government, and many Irish nationalists who abhorred the IRA were outraged at the British government's stance. On the other hand, there was concern that there could be a backlash from the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland. On the day of Sands' funeral, Unionist leader Ian Paisley held a memorial service outside of Belfast city hall to commemorate the victims of the IRA.cite news |first= George |last= Russell |title= Shadow Of a Gunman |url=,9171,951677-3,00.html |publisher= Time |date= 1981-05-18 |accessdate=2007-08-14 ]

The media coverage that surrounded the death of Sands resulted in a new surge of IRA activity and an immediate escalation in the Troubles, with the group obtaining many more members and increasing its fund-raising capability. Both nationalists and unionists began to harden their attitudes and move towards political extremes.W.D. Flackes and Sydney Elliott, "Northern Ireland: A Political Directory" (Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1999), at p. 550, notes that at the 1981 District Council elections on 20 May 1981, "the results showed a decline in support for centre parties".] Sands' Westminster seat was taken by his election agent, Owen Carron standing as 'Anti H-Block Proxy Political Prisoner' with an increased majority. [ [ Ark Election website] ]


United Kingdom

At Old Firm football matches in Glasgow, Scotland, some Rangers F.C. fans have been known to sing songs mocking Bobby Sands to taunt fans of Celtic F.C, such as "Will Ye Go A Chicken Supper, Bobby Sands?". Rangers fans are traditionally more likely to be sympathetic to the Unionist community; Celtic fans are traditionally more likely to support the Republican community. [cite web | title = Pitch Battles; What can an English public school-type tell us about | author = Tom Shields | url = | publisher = "The Sunday Herald" | date = 23 February, 2003 | accessdate = 2007-05-25] These taunts have since been adopted by the travelling support of other UK clubs, particularly those with Protestant ties, as a form of anti-Irish sentiment. [Lash, Scott & Lury, Celia. "Global Culture Industry: The Mediation of Things", Polity, 2007, p49. ISBN 0745624820] The 1981 British Home Championship football tournament was cancelled following the refusal of teams from England and Wales to travel to Northern Ireland in the aftermath of his death due to security concerns.


*In Milan, 5,000 students burned the Union Flag and shouted "Freedom for Ulster" during a march.
*In Ghent, students invaded the British Consulate.
*In Paris, thousands marched behind huge portraits of Sands, to chants of 'The IRA will conquer'.
*In Oslo, demonstrators threw a balloon filled with tomato sauce at Elizabeth II, the Queen of the United Kingdom.
*In the Soviet Union, "Pravda" described it as 'another tragic page in the grim chronicle of oppression, discrimination, terror and violence' in Ireland.
*In France, many towns and cities have streets named after Sands. Examples include Nantes, St Etienne, Le Mans Vierzon and St Denis. [cite web | title = French intelligentsia ponders what should be done with killer | author = Colin Randall | url = | publisher = "The Daily Telegraph" | date = 13 August, 2004 | accessdate = 2007-05-25]
* In the Republic of Ireland, IRA members allegedly unsuccessfully attempted to coerce shopkeepers into closing for a national day of mourning. On 14 May the Dáil debated some local riots and bus burnings in Dublin that followed his death, with no expression of support. [ [ Dail debate 14 May 1981] ]
* Some publications such as the Soviet "Pravda" took a positive view of Sands, whilst others, such as the West German newspaper Die Welt, took a negative view.
* In Liverpool, England a demonstration took place in support of Sands from Upper Parliament Street to the Pier Head chanting "Bobby Sands MP". It was besieged by enraged Liverpool Orange Lodge members along the whole route. The marchers were trapped between the Mersey and the Lodge members for over an hour before being bussed out by the police. A bus window was smashed by a stone thrown by the Lodge.Fact|date=July 2008


The US media expressed a range of opinions on Sands' death. The "Boston Globe" commented that " [t] he slow suicide attempt of Bobby Sands has cast his land and his cause into another downward spiral of death and despair. There are no heroes in the saga of Bobby Sands." ["The Saga of Bobby Sands", Boston Globe, 3 May 1981] The "Chicago Tribune" wrote that "Mahatma Gandhi used the hunger strike to move his countrymen to abstain from fratricide. Bobby Sands' deliberate slow suicide is intended to precipitate civil war. The former deserved veneration and influence. The latter would be viewed, in a reasonable world, not as a charismatic martyr but as a fanatical suicide, whose regrettable death provides no sufficient occasion for killing others." ["Bobby Sands and Mahatma Gandhi", Chicago Tribune, 28 April 1981]

The "New York Times" wrote that "Britain's prime minister Thatcher is right in refusing to yield political status to Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army hunger striker," but that by appearing "unfeeling and unresponsive" the British Government was giving Sands "the crown of martyrdom." ["Britain's Gift to Bobby Sands", New York Times, 29 April 1981] The "San Francisco Chronicle" argued that political belief should not exempt activists from criminal law: "Terrorism goes far beyond the expression of political belief. And dealing with it does not allow for compromise as many countries of Western Europe and United States have learned. The bombing of bars, hotels, restaurants, robbing of banks, abductions and killings of prominent figures are all criminal acts and must be dealt with by criminal law." [ "The Death of Bobby Sands", San Francisco Chronicle, 6 May 1981]

Some American critics and journalists suggested that American press coverage was a "melodrama" ["Sands' hunger strike and the fate of Ulster" Boston Globe, 1 May 1981, 9] which had "given nearly exclusive coverage to pro-I.R.A. spokesmen." [Peter Samuel, Letter to the Editor New York Times, 7 May 1981, 34] One journalist in particular criticised the large pro-IRA Irish-American contingent which "swallow IRA propaganda as if it were taffy," and concluded that IRA "terrorist propaganda triumphs." [ "IRA brutalities, Terrorist propaganda triumphs" by Edward Langley Chicago Tribune, 9 May 1981, W1-8-4]

Some political, religious, union and fund-raising institutions chose to honour Sands. The International Longshoremen's Association in New York announced a twenty-four-hour boycott of British ships. [ [ NYU] ] Over 1,000 people gathered in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral to hear Cardinal Terence Cooke offer a Mass of reconciliation for Northern Ireland. Irish bars in the city were closed for two hours in mourning. In Hartford, Connecticut a memorial was dedicated to Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers in 1997, the only one of its kind in the United States. Set up by the Irish Northern Aid Committee and local Irish-Americans, it stands in a traffic circle known as "Bobby Sands Circle," at the bottom of Maple Avenue near Goodwin Park. [ [ Details of the Hartford memorial] ]

The New Jersey General Assembly, the lower house of the New Jersey Legislature, voted 34-29 for a resolution honouring his "courage and commitment."


In 2001, a memorial to Sands and the other hunger strikers was unveiled in Havana, Cuba. [cite web | title = Adams unveils Cuba memorial to Bobby Sands | author = | url = | publisher = | date = 18 December, 2001 | accessdate = 2007-05-25]


*In Tehran, Iran revolutionaries sympathising with Sands renamed the street on which the British embassy was located from Winston Churchill Street to Bobby Sands Street. [ [ The naming of Bobby Sands Street is detailed here] , 'Naming Bobby Sands Street', "The Blanket", 24 February 2004] There have recently been claims that the British foreign secretary has pressured Iranian authorities to change the name, but this is denied. [ [ British government pressure Iran to change the name of Bobby Sands street] from] [ [ British government pressure Irani Government to change name of Bobby Sands street] from Larkspirit] [ [ "Bobby Sands" still hassles the Brits] From Iran News]
*The "Hindustan Times" said Margaret Thatcher had allowed a fellow Member of Parliament to die of starvation, an incident which had never before occurred "in a civilised country."
*In the Indian Parliament, opposition members in the upper house Rajya Sabha stood for a minute's silence in tribute. The ruling Congress Party refused to join in.
*The Hong Kong "Standard" said it was 'sad that successive British governments have failed to end the last of Europe's religious wars.'
*A large monument dedicated to Irish protagonists for independence from Britain, including Bobby Sands, stands in the Waverly Cemetry in Sydney, Australia.


Sands' sister Bernadette Sands McKevitt is also a prominent Irish Republican. Along with her husband Michael McKevitt she helped to form the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and the Real Irish Republican Army. [cite web | title = McKevitt's inglorious career | author = Kevin Toolis | url =,,1015883,00.html | publisher = "The Observer" | date = 10 August, 2003 | accessdate = 2007-05-25] Sands McKevitt is opposed to the Belfast Agreement, stating that "Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern Ireland state." [cite book | last = English | first = Richard | authorlink = Richard English | title = Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA | publisher = Pan Books | date = 2003 | pages = pp. 316-317 | doi = | isbn = 0-330-49388-4]


The Grateful Dead played the Nassau Coliseum on the night Sands died and guitarist Bob Weir dedicated the song "He's Gone" to Sands. [ A Long Strange Trip by Dennis McNally, P. 542] The concert was later released as Dick's Picks Volume 13, part of the Grateful Dead's programme of live concert releases.

Songs written in response to the hunger strikes and Sands' death include examples by: Black 47, Nicky Wire, The Undertones [ [ | The Undertones: A Look Back - May 1, 2001 - Ralph Heibutzki | Unofficial website of The Undertones | | ] ] , Bik McFarlane and Eric Bogle. Christy Moore's song, "The People's Own MP", has been described as an example of a rebel song of the "hero-martyr" genre in which Sands' "intellectual, artistic and moral qualities" are eulogised. Boyle, Mark. Edifying the Rebellious Gael, in "Celtic Geographies: Old Culture, New Times" (David Harvey, ed). Routledge, 2002. p 190. ISBN 0415223962] American rock band Rage Against the Machine have listed Sands as an inspiration in the sleeve notes of their self titled debut album [] [ [ - notes » 2004 » March ] ] and as a "political hero" in media interviews [ [ Rage Against the Machine: Articles ] ] .


*Bobby Sands was played by John Lynch in the 1996 film "Some Mother's Son". [ [ IMDB: Some Mother's Son] ]
*Bobby Sands was played by Mark O'Halloran in the 2001 film "H3". [ [ IMDB: H3] ]
*A film called "Hunger", by artist Steve McQueen, about the last six weeks of Bobby Sands' life in the context of the 1981 Irish hunger strike, premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival [cite web | title = Anger as new film of IRA hero Bobby Sands screens at Cannes | author = | url =,,2279375,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=16 | publisher = The Observer | date = 11 May, 2008 | accessdate = 2008-05-14] . It starred Michael Fassbender and won for McQueen the prestigious Caméra d'Or award for first-time filmmakers. [Bobby Sands film wins Cannes award. Available: Accessed: 26th May, 2008.] It will be broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK in 2008. [cite web | title = Bobby Sands story to become movie | author = | url = | publisher = BBC | date = 16 May, 2007 | accessdate = 2007-05-25]

Published works

While in prison Sands had several letters and articles published in the Republican paper "An Phoblact/Republican News" under the pseudonym "Marcella".

Other writings attributed to him include:
*"Skylark Sing Your Lonely Song", 1989, Mercier Press, ISBN 0-85342-726-7
*"One Day in My Life", 2001, Mercier Press, ISBN 1-85635-349-4

Sands also wrote the words of the songs "Back Home in Derry" and "McIllhatton" which were both later recorded by Christy Moore. He also wrote "Sad Song For Susan" which was later recorded.

ee also

*List of United Kingdom MPs with the shortest service
*Terence MacSwiney - Lord Mayor of Cork in 1920 who died in Brixton Prison after a hunger strike lasting 74 days.
*Hunger (2008 film)

External links

* [ Biography from Irish Republican website]
* [ Bobby Sands Trust] : established to publish and promote Sands' poetry and writing
* [ Bobby Sands diary entries & biographies of the ten hunger strikers]
* [] "Timewatch:Hunger Strike - a Hidden History"(Otmoor Productions/BBC 1993.)


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