Like many who seem destined to die for freedom, Bobby Sands, born March 9, 1954, grew up in Belfast largely unaware of what was referred to as "The Troubles" -- the internal conflict in Northern Ireland between the primarily Protestant unionists who wished to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the primarily Catholic republicans who sought to unite with Southern Ireland as a sovereign country.
By the time he was 18, however, the conflict between loyalist paramilitaries, the security forces of the United Kingdom and what had become known as the Republic of Ireland had intensified, with increasingly brutal tactics. Bobby lost his job; and then his family lost their home.
No longer a passive observer of the events that were happening within his community and even his own family -- cousins were arrested and "interned" -- Bobby joined the Provisional Irish Republic Army in 1972. He felt it was time to act; the boot of the loyalist paramilitaries whom he used to count among his friends, joined by British security, was weighing heavily on the neck of Belfast.
His path to revolutionary status involved surmounting the usual boulders and diversionary tactics seeded by his opponents in government. While still only 18 years old, Bobby was arrested and imprisoned when a house in which he had been living was raided, and four hand guns were found. He served a three-year sentence with Special Category Status -- a de facto prisoner of war category as defined by the Geneva Conventions -- a concession the Republic had negotiated with the British government that year.
Upon his release from prison in 1976, he rejoined his unit of the IRA, and became a community activist. According to his younger sister, Bernadette, who remains a prominent Irish Republican:
But Bobby was troubled by the change in tenor in Northern Ireland's quest for independence. The British government had been systematically removing non-Ulster associated members from the British army -- who tended to be more sympathetic with the republicans -- and therefore from security duties in Northern Ireland. They were steadily being replaced with members of the locally recruited Royal Ulster Constabulary and Ulster Defence Regiment. The objective of this policy was to confine the conflict to Northern Ireland.
Six months later a furniture company was bombed in Belfast, and a fierce gun battle between members of the IRA and the British RUC left two men wounded. Bobby and three other young men were arrested nearby in a car, and a subsequent search turned up a revolver in the vehicle. During six days of brutal interrogation, Bobby refused to answer any questions except his name, age, and address. He later penned a 96-verse poem about the ordeal, some of which demonstrated that his defiance and commitment had only been solidified:
He waited 11 months to be brought to trial. In September 1977, he was acquitted of the bombing due to lack of evidence, but was convicted of possession of the revolver. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison, but to weaken his resolve, British authorities forced him to spend the first 22 days of sentence in solitary confinement at Crumlin Road Prison, 15 days of which he was naked constantly. He was also relegated to a "No. 1 Starvation Diet": bread and water, once every three days. But when finally transferred to "H-Blocks" at Long Kesh Prison, Bobby joined fellow Provisional IRA detainees who were continuing their war against the British government within the prison walls. Bobby wrote prolifically under a pen name for An Phoblacht , (The Republic ), the official newspaper of the republic political party Sinn Féin, his articles and poetry smuggled out on bits of toilet paper:
Bobby was chosen Officer Commander of the Provisional IRA detainees in Long Kesh. The Special Category Status afforded to political detainee members of the Provisional IRA had been "phased out" by the British government in 1976, and they were now relegated to the status of ordinary convicted criminals. They protested having to wear prison uniforms instead of their own clothing; when many were beaten by there jailers while performing work required of ordinary convicted criminals, the detainees doubled down, smearing excrement on the walls of their cells instead of emptying chamber pots ("The Dirty Protest.")
Bobby helped organize the ultimate battle of wills with the British government. He and other detainees volunteered for the 1981 Hunger Strike, a tactic the provisional IRA had used previously. It was agreed that, for optimum exposure, the volunteers would stagger the onset of each volunteer's participation, with Bobby agreeing to go first. He began to refuse food on March 1, 1981, and although the war within Long Kesh had been well documented for the outside world as a result of Bobby's smuggled writings, the hunger strike was not receiving as much attention as others had in the past. But an unexpected vacancy in the British House of Commons provided an opportunity. Bobby was nominated, and on April 9, 1981, more than one month after he started refusing food, became the youngest member ever elected to the British Parliament. His ballot label? "Anti-H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner."
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was unyielding:
The stand-off continued. Bobby was transferred to a hospital and the global media descended. As the days and weeks dragged on, several prominent intermediaries visited Bobby and attempted to appeal to the British government to negotiate a deal. But the official response was -- no response. If Bobby chose to commit suicide, it was "his choice." There would be no force feeding.
On May 5, 1981, Day 66 of his hunger strike, Bobby finally succumbed. He was 27 years old when he died; more than 100,000 people attended his funeral. Although he had been a member of the Westminster Parliament for 25 days, he never took his seat, nor was he administered his oath. In response to a question in the House of Commons on the day of Bobby's death, Prime Minister Thatcher's demeanor was as coldly detached as she maintained during his more than two months of agonizingly slow suicide: "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." The official announcement of Bobby's death in the House of Commons omitted the customary expression of a sense of loss and sympathy extended to the family of a deceased member.
In addition to Bobby, nine other volunteers died of starvation during the Hunger Strike of 1981.
On the night following Bobby's death, the Grateful Dead performed at the Nassau Coliseum. As the strumming began for the song, He's Gone, Guitarist Bob Weir said: "This one's for Bobby Sands."