A contemporaneous account of the last-ditch efforts to save the life of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who died this week 38 years ago.
On 5 May 1981 IRA Volunteer, Hunger Striker and Fermanagh South/Tyrone MP Bobby Sands died in the H-Block prison hospital at Long Kesh. He had endured 65 days without food, and had spent his last two days in a coma. Sands’ emaciated body, lying in state at his home in Belfast’s Twinbrook estate, told the story of the torment and suffering which he had endured.
Sands’ condition had deteriorated steadily until he finally fell into a coma the previous Sunday morning from which he never regained consciousness. Lying in another cell in the prison hospital, South Derry Hunger Striker, Francis Hughes was reported to be periodically slipping into unconsciousness also. And there was increasing fear that he too was close to death.
In the weeks and days before Bobby Sands died there were two major attempts to unconditionally end the Hunger Strike. The first was an intervention by the European Commission on Human Rights. This was supported by the Dublin Government and the SDLP as a way to alleviate nationalist pressure on them to take Britain to task by supporting the prisoners demands. The second was the visit to Sands from the Pope’s Private Secretary Fr John Magee. Both interventions ended in failure following re-affirmations to their relatives by Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCressh and Patsy O’Hara that they would not settle for less than the Five Demands.
For over a week before his death Bobby Sands had been in a critical condition with death a possibility at any moment. Several times he had reported that he had felt himself slipping into unconsciousness but managed to pull himslef back.
His skin had become so thin that he was placed on a water bed to prevent his bones breaking through and a week before he died, he was so weak that his conversation with the Pope’s envoy, left him totally exhausted.
By Thursday he had lost all feeling in his mouth and gums and was having great difficulty talking. He was also suffering great pain and medical staff indicated that he was on the point of death.
Of all the interventions in the Hunger Strike, possibly the most despicable came from British Labour Party opposition spokesperson on the North Don Concannon who, on Friday, 1 May arrived in Ireland and went to the H-Block prison hospital where he told a dying Bobby Sands that he and his party did not support the huinger strikers’ demands.
Concannon’s ghoulish visit- to tell a dying man that he did not support him- caused consternation among elements of the British Labour party, 28 of whose MPs had signed a parliamentary motion calling on the British Government to negotiate with the prisoners.
By Saturday, Sands had lost his eyesight completely and had no feeling in one side of his face, and then in the early hours of Sunday morning even his powerful determination could no longer keep him conscious and he slipped into a coma.
From this point on Sands’ death could have come at any moment and his family remained constantly at his bedside. His breathing became more laboured as his body struggled to stay alive but finally at 1.17am on Tuesday, 5 May, Bobby Sands died.
However prepared people may have thought they were for Sands’s death, the news came as a profound shock to the Irish nation, outraging people North and South. It also caused a huge international reaction.
On the streets of the Six Counties crowds gathered and prayed while others built barricades or fought fierce running battles with the British army and RUC.
Thousands of people in the 26 counties reacted immediately to the news with widespread marches and vigils. Dublin’s O’Connell Street was brought to a standstill as hundreds gathered in silent vigil throughout the morning.
The body of Bobby Sands was brought to his Twinbrook home in Belfast on Tuesday evening where a steady stream of thousands of mourners filed past his open coffin which was alternatively flanked by guards of honour from Óglaigh na hÉireann, Na Fianna Éireann and Cumann na mBan.
On Wednesday Sands’ remains, flanked by an IRA Guard of Honour, made the short journey to St Luke’s chapel.
At around 2pm the following day, Thursday, the funeral set out for the four-mile journey to the cemetery. Men, women and youths wept as the cortege passed by. A piper played the tune of the H-Block song the words of which are:
“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 Sands’ coffin was removed from the hearse and placed on tressels.
Then, from among the crowd of people emerged three IRA Volunteers who fired three volleys from rifles over the coffin.
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams officiated at the graveside ceremony which began with the playing of the Last Post. The Tricolour was removed from the coffin, and along with a beret and gloves was presented to Sands’ mother.
The coffin was finally carried to the grave by the IRA Guard of Honour.
In poignant scenes Bobby Sands’ seven-year-old son Gerald helped to spade the soil that buried his father.
The funeral oration was delivered by Fermanagh republican Owen carron, who had been Bobby Sands’ election agent. During the course of the oration he said: “They tried to compromise 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 own destruction.”
It was later estimated that over 100,000 people attended what was the biggest IRA funeral since that of hunger-striker Terence McSwiney in 1920.