What Bobby Sands means to me: ‘The hunger strikers chose to die. Daddy didn’t’

Forty years after Sands’s election as an MP and death by hunger strike, what is his legacy?

On a gable wall on Belfast's Falls Road, Bobby Sands is smiling down. In Ireland and around the world his has become an iconic image, the young man with long hair who is forever fixed in time as a symbol of resistance, endurance and hope.

Yet for others he deserves no accolades, no admiration. They point out that he was a convicted member of the IRA who at the time of his death was serving a 14-year prison sentence for possession of a revolver after a gun and bomb attack. He chose to sacrifice his own life; the IRA’s victims were not given that choice.

Next week marks the 40th anniversary of Bobby Sands’s election as the MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone. He had been refusing food since March 1st, 1981 – the beginning of a hunger strike during which 10 men would die in protest at the withdrawal of special category status for political prisoners, and which would become both a turning point in the development of modern Sinn Féin and a watershed moment in the Troubles themselves.

Forty years on, The Irish Times poses the question, what does Bobby Sands mean to me?


'This was a young man who loved life'  – Danny Devenney, painter of the Falls Road mural

Danny Devenney was Bobby Sands’s friend and the artist who painted the Sands mural on Belfast’s Falls Road. He met Sands in jail in 1973, when his artistic skills were put to work illustrating handkerchiefs for other prisoners which could be smuggled out of the jail to family and friends at home.

“This day this young lad bounces into the cell, he had short cropped hair ... he had the style of the tartan, the Bay City Rollers, with the skinner jeans, the big wide, short jeans. He didn’t look unlike Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, when he has the hair cut short.

“He bounces in and he says, ‘can you do me a wee hanky?’ That’s how we hit it off and we shared the same interests ... we were all kids of the ‘70s, all into T-Rex and the Beatles and soccer and Georgie Best, so we all became mates.

“When we went to the cages of Long Kesh we formed a Gaeltacht ... all those who wanted to learn Gaelic moved into one of the huts, and those who weren’t interested could share the other.

“That was the type of guy Bobby was; if he set his mind to something he went ahead and did it.”

When he heard Sands was to go on hunger strike, “I knew, knowing Bobby, he’s going to take this through to the end. He’s going to die.”

Says Devenney: “We should also remember the good times that Bobby gave us ... this was a young man who loved life, loved his music. Bobby Sands didn’t want to die. Bobby Sands had a lot to live for.”

‘The hunger strikers chose to die. Daddy didn’t’ – Valerie Hetherington, daughter of an IRA victim

Alfie Woods was an RUC officer, farmer and the father of six children. He and his colleague John Smyth were killed instantly when an IRA landmine exploded under their police car in Loughmacrory, Co Tyrone, in August 1981. Constable Woods’s daughter Valerie Hetherington was eight years old.

“It was his 50th birthday that day, and he was called out to investigate a so-called fire ... they went over a landmine, Daddy and John Smyth, and they were killed instantly.

“Daddy left six children behind ranging from eight to 21. Mummy died exactly a year later – even the doctor said she died of a broken heart, she’d lost the love of her life.

“What makes me mad is the fact that Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers, they all had the choice to live, they all chose to die. Daddy didn’t, Daddy was going out to do a day’s work to provide for his family, and that choice was taken away from him.

“Daddy’s 40 years dead this August. August 2nd will be his 40th anniversary. Bobby Sands stated that the revenge will be the laughter of our children. The laughter stopped in our house. The laughter was taken away from us, our childhood was robbed, to grow up without your parents.”

‘He influences me to this day’ – Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Sinn Féin

McDonald had just turned 12 when Sands died on hunger strike on May 5th, 1981.

“I remember the day Bobby Sands died. I can still see my brother running out to tell me, shouting the news ... I was still a child and didn’t fully understand the politics of what was happening, but felt viscerally the fact that something was extraordinarily wrong in our country.

“As a figure of political significance I don’t think his influence can be overstated. On the one hand he stands forever as an enduring symbol of resistance to British imperialism, to British rule.

“Obviously his election as an MP was a watershed moment ... I certainly would regard it as a turning point in the republican movement, in the republican struggle, the development of electoral politics, and I think you could fairly say that the election of Bobby Sands laid the groundwork for not just the development of Sinn Féin as a political and electoral force but certainly planted the seeds for what would become the peace initiative and the peace process and everything that flowed from that.

“He absolutely influenced me and I would say, furthermore, that he influences me to this day,” says McDonald, not simply because of “his capacity to endure” but also through “the beautiful way in which he described what our revenge would be, that it would be the laughter of our children.

“In other words, it’s not about revenge at all, but it is actually about a society which, to quote the Proclamation, cherishes all of the children equally.”

‘They had more courage than me’ – Colonel Bob Stewart, MP and former British soldier

Colonel Bob Stewart is the Conservative MP for Beckenham. He is a former British army officer who was United Nations commander of British forces in Bosnia. In 1981 he was stationed in Derry as a captain in the Cheshire Regiment.

“What I think of Sands and all those hunger strikers that died, my first reaction is incredibly brave, incredibly courageous.

“They actually gave their lives, literally, for their cause. Because it is incredibly difficult to starve yourself to death, it is just awful.

“So I have deep respect for them. I don’t agree with their cause, I don’t think the cause was worth their lives, but that doesn’t stop me having respect for the way they acted.

“At the time I remember thinking, mindful of the fact that these were the people who were trying to kill my men, I remember thinking they were nuts, and it was really sad that they were so nuts, but even then I had respect for them.

“I didn’t think that taking life, even if it’s self-inflicted, was worth it.

But they had more, dare I say, they had more courage than me. I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I don’t think I would have had the bottle to do that.”

‘A friend and great comrade’ – Danny Morrison, former spokesman for Bobby Sands

Danny Morrison is a former Sinn Féin’s director of publicity who in 1981 was Bobby Sands’s spokesperson during the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election. At the party’s ardfheis later that year he advocated the dual strategy of political as well as military action, coining the phrase often quoted as “with an Armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other” .

“I’d met Bobby in 1976, after he got out of prison, when he came to the Republican News office, seeking advice on setting up a community paper in Twinbrook [in west Belfast]. He was exuberant, enthusiastic.

“Then he disappeared into prison again from where he sent me short stories and poems under the penname Marcella [his sister], which I published.

“There was an aura to him – a sense of a man of absolute conviction and commitment. He was one of the most decisive people I have ever met.

“And for such a young person, who’d spent a third of his life in jail, he was remarkably well ahead politically of many of our generation.

“I visited Bobby for the last time (I was subsequently banned from the H-Blocks) on the morning after the 1980 hunger strike ended, in circumstances that, had they so chosen, the British government could have easily resolved the entire prison protest.

“I next saw him in his coffin, his gaunt face, the beard gone, his hair cropped, and I just broke down and uncontrollably wept. Wept for a friend and great comrade whose presence and influence is still palpable to this day.”

‘Many see him as a hero, many as a terrorist’ – Peter Sheridan, former RUC officer

In 1981, Peter Sheridan was an acting sergeant in the RUC in Derry. He went on to become an assistant chief constable and was at one time the North’s most senior Catholic police officer.

At the time Sheridan’s first thought was of Sands “the human being ... what it was like for somebody in those dark hours with the cell door closed to be on their own with their maker having made that decision?

“I remember thinking at the time, are there any circumstances that I would be prepared to make what in many ways was a courageous self-sacrifice – and that’s irrespective of whether you agree or disagree with Bobby Sands joining the IRA.

“I know many will see him as a hero and I know many others will see him as a terrorist. He and I took very different paths – at 18 years of age he was in prison, at 18 I had joined the police and was one of the 5 per cent of the Catholic community who were in the police at the time, and I suppose I reflected that maybe that was the limit of my self-sacrifice.

“There were something in the region of 50 other people who died during that period but who didn’t make the choice, their lives were taken by others.

“I often wondered what would Bobby Sands’s life have been, what would he have become, if it were not for the conflict?”

‘His election changed Irish history’ – Kaliyah Smith, student

Kaliyah Smith from Belfast is a student in international politics and policy at the University of Liverpool.

“As a young Irish republican, Bobby Sands represents much of the aspirations of young republicans today, sharing the same motivation and passion for Irish unity. For me personally he always reinforced the importance of education, he understood that education was central to the development of people and the flow of opportunities.

“As a young female republican, the opportunities I’m afforded today which were not afforded to him inspire me to carry on the work that he paid the ultimate sacrifice for.

“The issues that drove Bobby Sands over 40 years ago still resonate with me today in terms of my identity and the need for a fairer society. And his election while on hunger strike changed the course of Irish history, so of course his political and historical legacy is still relevant today.

“When I think of Bobby Sands, I always think – as he said himself – that our revenge will be the laughter of our children, and I think that I am one of those children.”

‘Sands would probably be the most courageous man I’ve ever met’ – Pat Sheehan, former IRA prisoner and hunger striker

When the hunger strike was called off in October 1981 Sheehan had been without food for 55 days. He is now a Sinn Féin Assembly member (MLA) representing west Belfast.

“Bobby Sands would probably be the most courageous man that I’ve ever met. Given the way the first hunger strike ended [in 1980] it was felt it was inevitable that somebody was going to die on the second hunger strike, and Bobby understood that himself and yet he decided he would be the one that would lead it off. If anyone was going to die it would be him.

“That is just the measure of the man that Bobby Sands was.

“One of the things I’ll always associate with Bobby was that by-election in Fermanagh/South Tyrone … one of the happiest days of my life was spent in prison in a cell with nothing in it but a blanket, and that was the day that Bobby’s election [victory] was announced.

“It vindicated and validated what we had been through on the blanket protest – all the beatings and the torture for five years – for that demand to be treated as political prisoners.

“If you think of the rationale behind [the British government’s policy of] criminalisation, it was to isolate and marginalise, and yet that result in April … Thatcher’s war cry that the prisoners had no support, that the IRA had no support, was just completely blown away.

“What that did was it accelerated the whole electoral strategy of Sinn Féin … I believe, and I think historians in years to come will identify that period in 1981 as the beginning of the end of the conflict.”

‘For your body to be the front line ... that was very powerful’ – Steve McQueen, film-maker

Steve McQueen is an award-winning artist and director. As a child he was struck by the images of Sands he saw on the news during the hunger strikes, and later directed and co-wrote the 2008 film Hunger.

“I saw it first from a child’s perspective ... as a child I kind of related to that in a way because that was the only way of resisting your parents, and everyone has that story where you refused to eat and you got sent up to bed.

“So I think it was that power that was the connection, and it stayed with me for a long, long time.

“The power to refrain, the power to use what you’re left with, your will and your body, for your body to be the front line, to use your body as a tool, that was really interesting to me, and that was very powerful.

“What Bobby Sands means to me is an interesting question because there are a lot of complexities to it. It’s not an easy question to answer, and making a film about it ... didn’t make it any clearer.

“From different perspective it looks different ... the thing about it is, we’re still talking about it 40 years on because of the complexities of the situation – it’s not cut and dried.”

Hunger showed him that “art can advance a conversation, because at that time no one knew how the movie would be accepted, and then we won Cannes and then the movie was premiered in Belfast ... and nothing happened. That’s what happened.

“Art can be a thermometer to measure the temperature and the climate at a certain time, and debate started to happen, people started talking about things which haven’t [been] talked about forever.

“I was just very grateful that we were able to make it and for the people we worked with. It was just a wonderful experience and it kind of defined me as an artist, really.”

‘It was like grieving a family member’ – Michelle Gildernew, Sinn Féin MP

Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew is the MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, the constituency Sands was elected to in April 1981.

“My parents canvassed for Bobby in the by-election ... As a child I’d have been on the hunger strike marches.

“It changed my life, and that’s not too overdramatic. It changed my perception of things, it changed ... seeing this young man in Bobby Sands, but all of them, so young, and Bobby Sands was a poet, an author, a songwriter, he was so gifted, so talented, and so wedded to his beliefs and had such a belief in what he was doing and why he needed to do it.

“It is humbling and it is such a privilege to be the MP for the people of Fermanagh/South Tyrone who took Bobby Sands to their hearts and who worked tirelessly to get him elected in the belief that it would save his life.

“I asked mummy one day, ‘why are you doing all this’, because we had a big family and mummy was never there, she was working on the campaign all the time, and she said, ‘because we could save his life’.

“Genuinely, people in Fermanagh/South Tyrone believed that if Bobby Sands was the MP Margaret Thatcher couldn’t let him die, and we know she did, and nine subsequent deaths after that.

“This young man from Twinbrook, who we’d never met, we took to our hearts, and when he died it was like grieving a family member. We still talk about Bobby Sands like he belonged to us.”

‘I just think ... what was the point?’ – Billy Hutchinson, former UVF leader

Billy Hutchinson is a former UVF leader and loyalist prisoner who in 1981 was serving a life sentence. He is now a Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) councillor representing the Shankill area of west Belfast.

“At the time I was concerned it was a political stunt, but unfortunately for those people who ended up dying on hunger strike it was more than that. People lost their lives.

“It just seemed to me that it was very political rather than actually being a rights issue within the prison, and it seemed to me that Sinn Féin and others were actually pushing this.

“You could see there was a tension between those who were on hunger strike and the families and the churches, who obviously didn’t want people to die.

“They didn’t get anything more than they were offered before they died on hunger strike [because they did not get special category status].

“Not having known Bobby Sands in any capacity, it just seemed to me that he was the one that they chose to drive this forward and create publicity around it. And I just think about whenever you think about why they died ... what was the point?”

‘The deaths united Irish-American opinion’ – Richard Neal , US politician

Democratic Congressman Richard Neal has represented Massachusetts 1st District since 1989. Of Irish descent, with a grandmother from Co Down, he is chair of the Congressional Friends of Ireland, which was founded in 1981 to support initiatives for peace and reconciliation in the North.

“It was a seismic moment in history as American media paid enormous attention to the hunger strikers and it galvanised opinion with Irish-Americans.

“I was stunned that in that day and age Margaret Thatcher would have taken the hard position that she took.”

The televised funerals, and the images of their coffins not being allowed into the churches while bearing the Tricolour “only further inflamed American opinion. It was a decisive moment in, I think, the run-up to what eventually brought about the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement.

“I don’t think you can overstate the significance of how the hunger strikers’ deaths united Irish-American opinion ... it was game-changer.

“We’re now celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Friends of Ireland, and people forget why it was born. The idea was to try to offset the gun-running that was taking place in America in an effort to bring about a peaceful reconciliation between the two traditions.

‘I suppose the word would be terrorist’ – Gregory Campbell, DUP politician

Gregory Campbell won his first election in 1981 when he became a councillor on what was then Londonderry City Council. He has been the MP for East Derry since 2001.

“In word association terms I suppose the word would be terrorist. That’s how he was viewed by me and many others then, and that’s how he would still be viewed now.

“One of the things that has changed is that Sinn Féin and others continually attempt to rewrite the history of that time to try and present him in a different light.

“You would quite regularly see quotations from Sands on murals and in publications to try and represent him as a sort of an Irish poet. I can’t remember the exact quote but something about ‘the laughter of our children’.

“The fact that that is used so frequently, rather than reeling off the series of criminal acts that he was involved in, the possession of arms, the possession of a revolver after a bomb and gun attack ... that’s what he should be remembered for rather than this benign use of attempted poetry or prose to try and make him into some sort of latter-day Seamus Heaney or something.”

‘The Cuban people remember Bobby Sands’ – Hugo Ramos, Cuban ambassador to Ireland

The death of Sands was reported all over the world, and in the aftermath of his death streets were renamed and monuments erected in his memory.

Hugo Ramos, Cuban ambassador to Ireland, said: “The Cuban people remember the death of Bobby Sands and his fellow hunger strikers, 40 years ago, with a monument in Park Victor Hugo in the centre of Havana.

“Following their tragic deaths, I recall Fidel Castro Ruz paying generous tribute to the courage of Bobby Sands and his comrades. Fidel said, ‘The stubbornness, intransigence, cruelty, insensitivity shown by the British government to the international community in addressing the problem of Irish patriots on hunger strike until death, are reminiscent of Torquemada and the barbarity of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages.

“For Cubans the struggle against colonialism by the Irish people over the centuries is a mirror image of our 30-year war against the Spanish in the 19th century and the US aggression that followed.”

‘The hunger strikes were a deeply damaging period’ – Kenny Donaldson, Innocent Victims United

Kenny Donaldson is a spokesman for Innocent Victims United, an umbrella body for 24 groups representing 12,500 “innocent victims and survivors of terrorism and other Troubles-related violence” on the island of Ireland, Great Britain and mainland Europe.

“I certainly take no glee in the death of Bobby Sands and the nine other men who completed suicide whilst on hunger strike. Anyone who revels in the death of others has debased their own humanity, and I also acknowledge that the families of those hunger strikers will continue to mourn their loved ones.

“Bobby Sands joined the Provisional IRA in 1972 after he moved to Twinbrook in [west] Belfast. In October 1972 he was arrested for possessing four handguns, convicted in April 1973 and released in 1976.”

Six months later was arrested with three other IRA members following the bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry. “There was a gun battle with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Leaving behind the two wounded, the remaining four tried to escape by car, but were arrested.

“One of the revolvers used in the attack was found in the car. In 1977 the four [including Sands] were sentenced to 14 years for possession of the revolver. They were not charged with explosive offences.”

“People need to be clear that the hunger strikes were a deeply damaging period of our history, where further lives were traded and sacrificed by those who were the puppet masters for an isolationist and exclusivist ideology which has never brought Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter together in unity of life. Sadly it has achieved this in death through its murderous actions.”

‘A defining moment in the Northern Irish struggle ’ – Peter King, former Republican Congressman

In the 1980s King was a supporter of the IRA and became friends with Gerry Adams, acting as go-between for Adams and former US president Bill Clinton during the peace process.

“Bobby Sands’s 66-day hunger strike and death were a defining moment in the Northern Irish struggle and the world’s perception of the republican movement.

“A young man in the prime of life who wrote poetry and verse suffering the agony of starvation solely to have the dignity of not having to wear prison clothes provided a dimension so different from the British depiction of IRA men as uncaring, murdering terrorists.

“The international interest only grew as world leaders, including the pope, sought a resolution to the hunger strike, and his election to the British parliament from his Long Kesh prison cell focused only more attention on his plight and the republican cause.

“It also undercut the British story line that the republican movement lacked popular support. The extent of that support was further demonstrated by the tens of thousands who flocked to his funeral.

“I came to know members of the Sands family and was struck by their strength and dignity.

“Bobby Sands’s sacrifice and death inspired the republican movement and led to the continued rise of Sinn Féin as an electoral force, bringing Sinn Féin to the bargaining table and ultimately resulting in the Good Friday Agreement.”

‘That fella Bobby Sands was a nice fella’ – Prof Peter Shirlow, director of Irish studies at the University of Liverpool

“Bobby Sands used to come to our house, which was a unionist house, and buy car parts off my Dad. He used to come in and sit in the house and talk. I was a young boy and he was this guy coming in with long hair, tank top, flares, and he would be chatting away.

“Then what happened was that somebody came to the house and said to my Dad, ‘if that fella comes back to this house he’ll be shot’, so that was the end of Bobby coming to the house.

“The day Bobby Sands died was one of the few times in my life I ever saw my Dad cry. A tear ran down his cheek, and I said, ‘what’s wrong with you’, and he says, ‘how did a decent wee lad like that ever end up in that? That fella Bobby Sands was a nice fella, he used to be very respectful to me and your mother, he’d manners, that fella, he was a nice lad.’

“I remember that on the anniversary [of his death], my father would say, ‘decent fella that, why did he end up in that?’”

The hunger strikes, says Shirlow, “was probably one of the transformation points, and I suppose for those in Sinn Féin who were looking for an out from violence, those electoral successes showed them that they could take on the SDLP and they could win, and they could mobilise opinion,

“People who were uncomfortable with IRA violence, it showed them – now of course it declined after 1981 – but I think it did set the parameters of constitutional politics.

“All of a sudden they have these elections where they get Bobby Sands, Owen Carron in, it gives them a different organisational capacity, and I suppose for the peaceniks in the party it showed them, ‘this can work’.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times