The following is an unpublished poem written by republican hunger striker Bobby Sands,while imprisoned in the Maze prison (also known as the H-Blocks or Long Kesh) in the late 1970s or early 1980s.
It is among hundreds of pieces of writing from republican prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh women's prison being donated by former Sinn Féin activist Richard Behal, to Dr Ruan O'Donnell, senior lecturer in the department of history at the University of Limerick, later this month.
Sands was the first of 10 republican prisoners to die on hunger strike in the Maze, forty years ago, on May 5th, 1981.
The Greatest Hell
There’s a gaol – and there’s a gaol where wretched souls have been took and locked away,
There’s eight by eight tombs (concrete graves) where you barley see the light of day.
Where in the winter, the long dark winter, the body knows the piercing bite of cold,
And the wind (not draught) chills the heartiest man and tames both brave and bold.
Where a man is forced to lie upon a mattress damp and dirty upon the freezing concrete floor,
Naked ‘cept for some filthy rags (the heart cries out) the body asks, ‘Dearest God! How much more?’
But – there’s more in abundance for I’ve seen sleet and snow come through the window bars and water turn to ice,
And men in their dozens collapse with chills and let me tell you when they fell the cock crowed more than thrice!
For I’ve given more than passing thought to those who sit upon opportunity (like vultures watching, watching me).
And I know if it were politically expedient, before the cock could crow again, they’d scream, set those poor men free!
Sleepless nights precede sleepless nights and dreamless sleep precedes endless, endless nightmare
For day and night are perpetual wrought with hell and there’s torture, pain and torment everywhere.
And time comes and time goes; But it really hasn’t went at all, It’s trapped in here with me.
And if there were comfort to be found in these dirty, mutilated, scarred and filthy walls I’d find lots of sympathy.
But all there is, are contrasts, all evil and cowards cringing cowards beat men to pulp,
While prison doctors say ‘self-inflicted’ (‘lick your wounds my men’) well dare you call upon them to consult.
They sheer our heads and beards and with disinfectant and the heavy brush they wash out every crack,
They try to scrub the P.O.W [prisoner of war] from your mind and imprint the tag of criminal upon your back.
Doctors, governors, chiefs and screws, there’s no God’s amount of hypocrites to be found,
They who go to Church on Sundays, saying ‘Lord I love thee, Lord’ as they kneel upon the ground,
And they celebrate the consecration of wine into his precious blood, within that sacred cup
Then they throw it right back into his face (when only doing their job) they beat the naked up.
Summer, two have gone and three more may well be born and come to be,
But the sun will never bronze the ghostly skins of the ghosts in this eternity.
But the tombs will turn to ovens and a stifling stench will cut the air
From the decaying waste and urine, from the putrefying rubbish that lies strewn everywhere.
Then they’ll come, the pests and germs and crawling things to squat amongst the stinkin [SIC]mess
Creeping into your beard and hair and into the very filthy rags that you possess.
And fleas, lice and maggots breed like flies, from flies that have already bred.
(Stand up those who have woken up in the morning with a hundred maggots in their bed)
The grave, I have heard men say, ‘Would be more preferable’ (And perhaps that may be true)
For in this hell you’re buried alive and there’s nothing you can do.
Will these legs ever run again? And will these eyes again ever feast upon delight?
Do lovers still walk hand in hand? Or do the stars still sparkle high up in the sky each night?
Is the foliage green or brown? Does the texture of a leaf still feel the same?
Are there children in the morning? Will I see these things again?
Perhaps! Yes perhaps my eyes, my mind and my heart may live again to see,
But only when I leave this panoramic view of darkness for the golden dream of liberty.
But do not misconstrue this, when I say, ‘Sometimes’ I care not what may be’
For torture is the devil I have faced and faced and I care no more just what they do to me.
And yes there is a gaol; there’s a gaol and there’s an eternity and a hell that burns the very soul and flesh,
But stand up those men who live in the greatest hell
The H-Blocks and Long Kesh!