Radical media, politics and culture.

Memory, hackle-raising, Bobby Sands

Bobby Sands died 24 years ago today, just after 1.00 in the morning.

His death sparked riots in numerous cities, not only in ireland where it was literally a matter of minutes after the announcement of his death that the seats were in flames. Whilst the trade unions did nothing, a call was made for a strike which turned into an armed strike in some areas. In Bray, young people visited shopping centres and ordered them to close or they would be burnt. In my school, a bastion of the dublin middle class, there was fighting between students, divided over the hunger strikes, many wearing black armbands. 100,000 people attended the funeral in belfast. In the next months another 9 hunger strikers went to their deaths, fighting the policy of criminalization introduced on March 1st 1976.

It is difficult now to convey the power of these events at the time. The irish republic has officially been in state of emergency since the 1970s (remaining so today notwithstanding the ceasefire, pacification process etc). Today scepticism has the upper hand in my relationship with this unique culture and ideology which nonetheless defined radical secular politcs, a social republican vision and a popular working class base. But there are places where the heart remains after the mind moves on. And the hate for thatcher, whom will cheat millions of people should she die of natural causes, is kept sharp ;-)

The following is a report from the republican weekly AP/RN published the week after the funeral.

The Funeral of Bobby Sands AP/RN 9th May 1981

The body of IRA Volunteer Bobby Sands was bought to his Twinbrook home in Belfast on Tuesday evening when a steady stream of thousands of mourners filed past his open coffin which was alternatively flanked by guards of honour from Oglaigh na hEireann, Na Fianna Eireann and Cumman na mBan.

Bobby’s seven-year-old son, Gerald, was brought to the Sands family for a sad reunion with his grandparents. It had been over two years since they or Bobby had last seen him. On Wednesday night, Bobby’s remains were flanked by six uniformed IRA Volunteers and an officer who marched alongside the coffin on the short journey to St Luke’s chapel. On Thursday, the day of the funeral, over fifty thousands people marched in pouring rain from St Luke’s chapel, after requiem mass, to the republican plot in Milltown cemetery.

St Luke’s was thronged and the congregation were uneasy when the parish priest, Fr Mullan, delivered a sermon on violence despite a consensus that the politic of the Ira had stopped at the church door with the removal of the tricolour from the coffin and the dismissing of the guard of honour, so the politics of the church could, for the sake of harmony, have been foregone. But not so. Every time Fr Mullan spoke about peace an old man in a front pew echoed emphasis on a “just peace.”


Around two o’clock the funeral set out for the four mile journey to the cemetery and most of the time the sea of people resembled Tehran scenes from the Iranian revolution. The Iranian charge d’affaires in London, Abdolrahim Gavhahi, had been assigned by his government to attend the funeral but because of flight difficulties he arrived in Belfast two hours late. A telegram to the Republican press centre from Tehran’s municipality announced that “a street on the western side of the British Embassy building in Tehran was renamed after Bobby Sands” to “honour the heroic death of the IRA freedom fighter.”

Men, women and youths wept as the funeral went by. People blessed themselves with the sign of the cross and some old men gave a military salute to the republican martyr. At Suffolk the procession turned up and round into Lenadoon to avoid the small Protestant enclave opposite Woodburn barracks.

A piper played one of the H-Block songs, the words of which are:

“But I’ll wear no convict’s uniform, Nor meekly serve my time, That Britain might call Ireland’s fight Eight hundred years of crime”

The funeral stopped close to the Busy Bee shopping centre and Bobby’s coffin was removed from the hearse and placed on tressles. Then, from among the people emerged three IRA Volunteers armed with rifles who were called to attention in Gaelic by a fourth uniformed man. They delivered three sharp vollies over the coffin, removed their berets and bowed their heads in silence for a full minute. The impressive trbute captured the hearts of the huge numbers of people on the road and was eagerly filmed by the world media.


At the gates of Milltown cemetery those assembled on the pavement spontaneously burst out into a recitation of the rosary as the hearse, the guard of honour and the funeral cars carrying Mr and Mrs Sands, their daughter Marcella and son John and others of the family, slowly passed through.

Gerry Adams officiated at the graveside ceremony which began with the playing of the Last Post. The tricolour was then removed from the coffin and along with beret and gloves presented to Mrs Sands. The coffin was finally carried to the grave by the uniformed Volunteers who had been the guard of honour. It was lowered into the grave and a number of priests athen led the prayers. Mr Sands and Bobby’s younger brother John spaded some soil on to the coffin and then little Gerald was brought forward and given a hand with the heavy spade so that he too could help bury his murdered father.

Among the hundreds of wreaths were one from the GHQ Staff IRA, Belfast Brigade IRA, Cumman na mBan, Na Fianna Eireann, Sinn Fein, the Republican POWs in the H-Blocks and Armagh, and the families of the remaining three hunger strikers.


The oration was given by Fermanagh republican, Owen Carron, who was Bobby Sands’ election agent. He was given roaring applause when he said that armed struggle was the only way forward.

A chairde, a muintir na hEireann, is mor an bhron ata orainn go lear an la inniu is muid inor seasamh ag an uaigh seo. Maraiodh Bobby sands ag na Sasanagh.

Irishmen and women, it is hard to describe the sadness and sorrow in our hearts today as we stand at the grave of Volunteer Bobby Sands, cruelly murdered by the British government in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. Four weeks ago to this very day, the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, on behalf of the whole Irish nation, elected Bobby Sands as their MP, and I was very happy to accept victory on his behalf. Many people had high hops of saving Bobby's life and little did I think that in one short month we would all be standing at his graveside.

Bobby has gone to join the ranks of Ireland's patriotic dead. I have no doubt that the name of Bobby sands will mark a watershed in Irish history and will be a turning point in the struggle for Irish freedom. Bobby Sands as the bravest man I ever met. He faced death calmly and with confidence. Indeed, Bobby Sands is a hero and I would like first of all to express on behalf of the Republican Movement our sincere sympathy to his family and to pay tribute to them for standing by him courageously to the end. Someone once said it is hard to be a hero's mother and nobody knows that better than Mrs. Sands who watched her son being daily crucified and tortured for sixty-six long days and eventually killed. Mrs. Sands epitomises the Irish mothers who in every generation watched their children go out to fight and die for freedom.

Despite the vilifications and slanders of some guttersniper media and despite the hypocrisy of scribes and pharisees of high churchmen and establishment politicians who condemned him, Bobby Sands will be remembered by freedom loving people throughout the world as freedom fighter out the world as a freedom fighter and a political prisoner hungering for justice. As he wrote himself: "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."


I never knew Bobby Sands until March 31st, 1981, which was also the thirty first day of his hunger strike. Added together all my visits were but a few short hours, but still I believe that I got to know his heart and mind. Bobby was just my own age with many hopes and ambitions to fulfill.

Although he left school and an early age, it was obvious that he was an intelligent person, who through a process of self-education had advanced his learning. He became fluent in the Gaelic language and was enthusiastic about his native culture. His determination and resolve were remarkable and his commitment and dedication total and without compromise. Always evident was his sincerity and compassion despite his own situation. Even his enemies would agree there was no hatred in him.

Bobby Sands was a very ordinary young man from this city, who through a process of events, became politically educated and at eighteen decided he no longer would accept the injustice of a partitioned Ireland with all its inherent evils. No longer could he accept second class citizenship in his own country. So he joined the IRA and embarked on a life of hardship and suffering and in the end made the supreme sacrifice of his life for the cause he believed in.


Bobby Sands, as representative of the blanket men and women in Armagh, died rather than be branded a criminal. The hungerstrike was embarked on for five just and reasonable demands, (to give testimony to the world that Irish republican prisoners will never wear British prison uniforms or do prison work and must have right to associate with each other and communicate with their families and have remission restored). The callous intransigence of the British government has made the hungerstrike a symbol of the struggle for freedom and Bobby Sands and his comrades are symbols of Irish resistance to British rule in Ireland.

Bobby Sands is a symbol of hope for the unemployed, for the poor and oppressed, for the homeless, for those divided by partition, for those trying to unite our people. He symbolises a new beginning and I recall the words of his manifesto to the Protestant people: "The Protestant people have nothing to fear from me." They too have their part to play in building a new future, a new Ireland.

We have the moral right to struggle for freedom and self-determination. Britain has no right in our country and has no faith in her pretence because the moral right she pretends to have has to be backed up by a monstrous war machine of guns and tanks and the torture chambers of Castlereagh and the H-Blocks and by creation of division within the Irish people.


Bobby Sands has not died in vain. his hungerstrike and the sacrifice of his life is a cameo of the entire resistance movement. He symbolises the true Irish nation which never has surrendered and never will. Let us picture him lying all alone in his cell, hisbody tortured and twisted in pain, surrounded by his enemies and isolated from his comrades and nothing to fight with but his will and determination.

The big British murder machine assisted by those in high places in church and state tried to break his spirit. There was those in power in Dublin who could have saved him but as Liam Mellows said in 1922: "Men will get into positions and hold power and will desire to remain undisturbed."

"They tried to compromised Bobby Sands, they tried to compromise his supporters, but they failed. Around the world Bobby Sands has humiliated the British government. In Bobby Sands' death they have sown the seeds of their of destruction. Bobby once wrote about Britain that "her actions will eventually seal the fate of her rule in Ireland for they may hold our bodies, but while our minds are free victory is assured."

They people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone stood by the prisoners and gave them a mandate for political status. This has been rejected by the arrogant British government. We, the people who supported Bobby Sands and the blanket men and women of Armagh and who have tried everything to get the British to give the five demands, that though we have not got the tanks and guns (and please God this will no always be so) we can only conclude, along with PH Pearse that we must take what they will not give and that there is no way in which freedom can be obtained, and when obtained, maintained, except by armed men.


Finally, I salute you, Bobby Sands. Yours has been a tough and lonely battle but you have been victorious. Your courage and bravery has been an inspiration to us all and today we take strength from your example. The courage of your family has been an inspiration to us. You have the consolation of knowing that your son died, with all of you assembled at his death bed, free in conscience and now free from the hardships of the H-Blocks.

Bobby Sands, your sacrifice will not be in vain. We re-dedicate ourselves and our struggle and pledge ourselves not only to win the five demands but to drive England out of our country once and for all Bua do Shaighduiri Arm Phoblacht na hEireann!_________________A revolutionist who surrenders the initiative to the enemy is already defeated before a blow is struck. -James Connolly, Workers Republic, 4 Dec 1914