Bobby Sands’ bed and Long Kesh/Maze’s afterlife

Archives and memories don’t tell the full story. That is why material things, the ‘stuff’ of imprisonment, are an important but often unconsidered source

An IRA cell in  the Maze/Long Kesh prison site. Bobby Sands’ deathbed there has become a place of pilgrimage for republicans and a source of souvenirs. Photograph : Niall Carson/PA Wire

An IRA cell in the Maze/Long Kesh prison site. Bobby Sands’ deathbed there has become a place of pilgrimage for republicans and a source of souvenirs. Photograph : Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Taking an archaeological perspective on a place – Long Kesh / Maze prison – and a time – 35 years ago – that are neither buried in the depths of prehistory nor exotically located may seem an unusual proposition. However, I argue that in attempting to understand somewhere as contentious and misrepresented as Long Kesh/Maze during the hunger strikes one needs to move beyond the usual suspects, so to speak.

Generally, our understandings of how prisons work are guided and constrained by government records and official documents created by the regimes who police and administer them. While they contain a wide variety of information there are obvious limitations as to whose perspectives and viewpoints they represent and there are clear gaps in knowledge that limit their effectiveness at really uncovering what Long Kesh/Maze was then and is now.

The oral testimonies, or shared memories, of those who were held and/or worked at the site are an important counterbalance to official archive in that they allow a personal if evolving perspective. Of course, they also suffer from their own partialities, biases and blindspots and there is a general acceptance that memories are continually impacted, and reconstructed, by the moving moment of “present day” rather than being grounded in an unchanging “truth” of the past. This is why material things, the “stuff” of imprisonment, are an important but often unconsidered source. There are numerous material remnants from Long Kesh/Maze, dating throughout its functional life, which provide insights into how it was understood and experienced by both prisoners and prison officers (see McAtackney 2014) but for this article I want to concentrate on the hunger strikes, the afterlife of the site and its enduring meaning.

On closure in 2001 Long Kesh/Maze became a graveyard of artefacts: significant, worthless, facilitating, debilitating, used, abused, utilized, subverted, negotiated, hidden, discovered, forgotten, remembered, public, private, treasured, despised, loved, hated, but all ultimately discarded. Pre-demolition they scattered the site, lying randomly, deposited haphazardly. Perched conspicuously on a table, abandoned to a sideboard, on top of a cabinet, scattered on the floors, some appeared to lie where they were last used, others moved since closure. Though they were dulled though age and abandonment, they illuminated the gloom; humanising their surroundings whilst acting as vital clues to how the prison had previously functioned, been experienced and once understood. One of the more telling material things I encountered was “Bobby Sands’ Bed”.

Bobby Sands’ Bed

The purported last bed of Bobby Sands resides in one of the few remaining structures of Long Kesh/Maze: the H-Block prison hospital. Due to its associations with the 10 dead hunger strikers, the hospital is undoubtedly the focus of any tour of the prison site (for those allowed access by OFMDFM, the site has been mainly demolished and remains closed to the general public). For republican prisoners, in particular, their link with those who died on hunger strikes was not just political but also painfully personal and the cell where Sands died has become a form of pilgrimage site for those who have returned to visit. This connection is clear in the ongoing interactions with the bed that resides there.

Over the course of the many years I have accessed Long Kesh/Maze, on strictly controlled and guided tours, I have noticed how the Sands’ hospital cell has remained unadorned and unchanged, except for the bed. The bed displays the extent of numerous swift and anonymous interactions. The wire mesh of the bedsprings is no longer intact, a substantial number of individual springs having been extracted and secreted from the room. Clearly these bedsprings are no longer simply constituent parts of a piece of institutional furniture. They have heightened significance for those who remove them, having transitioned in meaning from functional to cultural if not spiritual, and are simultaneously a piece of heritage to some whilst remaining the source of deep discomfort to others (especially the custodians).

This bed is important not just for its link to Bobby Sands – in all probability it is not the actual bed where Sands died. The hospital functioned for nearly 20 years after his death and the bed has probably been moved or replaced a number of times – but for its ordinariness, mundanity and relatability. A bed is institutional and practical yet simultaneously domestic, homely and intimately connected to the man who died in this room. It symbolises the closest physical link to a long-dead man whose self-sacrifice to some – suicide to others – continues to have wide-reaching impacts. Although any connection to Bobby Sands is precious to hold and retain for many, the pattern of the remaining wire suggests that the springs have been removed sparingly, one by one. In doing so the material integrity of the bed remains; the performance can be repeated by the next visitor; traces of the original bed remain relatively intact in the place of death; the ghosts of this place are retained.

The enduring meaning of Long Kesh/Maze

In trying to understand Long Kesh/Maze and the hunger strikes 35 year on one must include the complexities of the meanings of the things from it. Material things are slippery and illusive, their meanings can appear straightforward in following their form but their meaning can be transformed by event, time and/or threat to survival. The springs of a bed are materially unexceptional but they can represent an intimate connection to a long dead man whose memory endures. It is clear that the continued connection between republican public memory and the hunger strikes, which is still explicitly articulated through wall murals and memorials, is also maintained on many levels throughout society for various reasons.

Things are important in maintaining and directing meaning into the future. They allow us a better understanding of what Long Kesh/Maze was but also how it continues to be meaningful today. They provide a material connection to previous times; while they exist they retain the latent ability to provide new “material memory” (Olivier 2015) into the yet unknown future. They also humanise, personalise and inject emotion into our understandings of the past. Standing over Bobby Sands’ bed makes it harder to dismiss emotional connections as irrational and the result of propaganda or manipulation. As Patrick Cooke has mused on the impact of another Irish historical prison, Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin: “If you stand there, you are confronted less by an idea, than by the meaning of an individual life and its extinction. The situation is more palpably tragic, less glibly amenable to deconstructive analysis” (Undated: 7).

Dr Laura McAtackney is Associate Professor in Sustainable Heritage Management, Aarhus University, Denmark laura.mcatackney@cas.au.dk

References

Cooke, Patrick (undated). Kilmainham Gaol: Interpreting Irish nationalism and Republicanism. Open Museum Journal 2. Pp. 1-11.

McAtackney, Laura. 2014. An Archaeology of the Troubles: the dark heritage of Long Kesh/Maze. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Olivier, Laurent 2015. The Dark Abyss of Time: Archaeology and Memory. London: Rowland & Littlefield.

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