Irish Republican News · March 8, 2004
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
Happy birthday, Bobby

By Jarlath Kearney

Bobby Sands could have stepped aside.

Nobody made him do it. He could have stopped at any time. He could have succumbed to fear of the unknown, the fear of death. He could have placed the possibilities of a future life before the realities of his present existence. But he didn't.

From his writings it is apparent that he believed every other alternative had been exhausted. He simply had to do it.

If he had simply stopped or walked away or turned his back, then he could well have been celebrating his fiftieth birthday tomorrow, Tuesday, March 9. Instead, after spending most of his adult life either interned in the Cages or on the blanket in the H-Blocks, the twenty-seven year old died following a hunger strike that lasted sixty-six days, on May 5 1981.

Nine comrades followed him to death. Many more also embarked on the hunger strike and some - like Pat McGeown - died prematurely from the after-effects of the protest.

In basic terms, Bobby Sands had been protesting that he and his comrades should receive the same political status while imprisoned in the H-Blocks that they had been accorded while imprisoned in the Cages.

At the stroke of a pen, after March 1, 1976, the British government attempted to label anyone convicted of a conflict-related offence from that date onwards as an 'ordinary criminal'. In real terms, however, the British government turned the issue into a battle of life and death.

And while Bobby Sands and nine others lost their lives, historians now agree that Margaret Thatcher and her government lost the battle. For weeks afterwards, the death of Bobby Sands had an immense international impact.

All British ships were boycotted at US ports for twenty fours hours by the Longshoremen's Union. Members of the Portuguese parliament held a minute's silence in his memory. A street was named after him in Tehran.

Protest demonstrations were held across the world - from Milan to Chicago, from Oslo to Brisbane. His face appeared on the cover of newspapers across every continent of the globe and he became a symbol of power for oppressed people everywhere.

However, despite all the iconography associated with Bobby Sands, it is sometimes forgotten that he was also a son, a brother, a father and a friend. One of those who knew him best as a comrade in the Cages and the H-Blocks is Seanna Walsh.

``I first met Bobby in January 1973 when we were in the same Cage and he had that cocky Belfast dander and a Rod Stewart haircut.

``Back then in jail, birthdays weren't really a big thing - they were more a family thing and the only way you might have known it was someone's birthday was when they got a clatter of cards from their family.

``I know Bobby's family will be feeling it very much tomorrow and it will be hard for them.

``Having said that, it is an opportunity for Bobby's wider family of republican comrades to give thought to it as well,'' said Seanna.

Describing Bobby Sands as a ``mate who enjoyed a bit of craic and slagging'', Seanna joked that he was ``the only person inside to support Aston Villa - God help him''.

Pointing out that many families go through the same experience of remembering the birthdays of deceased loved ones, Seanna said: ``It would have been Joe McDonnell's fiftieth birthday four years ago, but Bobby - probably because he was the first to die - has become this larger than life figure and tends to stick out more.

``There is one thing I can't get into and it is this: in terms of where Bobby would stand in relation to the current political situation, I simply don't know. Nobody does.

``Sometimes comrades who disagree with things ask me what Bobby would think. The answer is, we just don't know and I would never try to misrepresent him.

``All I know is that the role I am playing in the struggle is part and parcel of the same struggle that Bobby died for, and those of us engaged in that freedom struggle are determined to continue,'' said Seanna.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News