Forever Young

Tuesday the 5th of May.

From the moment wakefulness brought us to there was something palpably different abut the day. Tuesday the 5th of May began for us with an eerie silence much different from nationalist streets throughout the North which were swarming with people consumed with grief and anger from shortly after one in the morning.

The screws, normally loud as they banged grills and chatted among themselves, were unusually quiet. The place was subdued. In our wing in H3, to which we had just been moved shortly after the election of Bobby Sands as MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone, we had a fairly flexible team of screws running the place. They were pretty relaxed and normally let more men out of the cells for washing and cleaning than the regulations of the time allowed for. Although the showers were officially one per prisoner per week we only had to ask and the screws would let us have one a day. They weren’t in our faces and we weren’t in theirs. The blanket protest was still going on but the no wash protest had ended and relations between protesting prisoners and screws had improved considerably. We weren’t buddies but there was a working relationship which had not existed before.

That morning the first cell opened to the sound of ‘slop out.’ It was stated rather than barked. It was the only door to open when normally there would be three or even four. When it closed the next door opened to the same call ‘slop out.’ We knew the terrible truth but I don’t recall saying it. Bobby was gone. We did not ask the screws and they did not tell us. By not hearing it we could hold on to some tenuous wisp of a delusion that perhaps the quietude of the place was down to some other reason; that we could live life for a few minutes longer without the sure knowledge that our indefatigable comrade and leader had left it.

There was a smuggled radio on our wing but for some reason news of Bobby’s death did not reach us via ‘Mrs Dale’ as our crystal sets were called throughout the blocks. Pat McGeown had Mrs Dale with him 24/7 but obviously did not listen to it during the night. Now with the screws on the wing it was a bad time for Mrs Dale to come out from the safety of a body cavity. It was a creature that would venture out during the hours of ‘lock-up’ only. We were locked up all day everyday but official ‘lock up’ was when the screws were on lunch or night guard. Sticking to that routine meant Mrs Dale would have time to scurry back to safety if anything untoward happened. Lock up meant Dale down.

A priest visited the cell of Brendan Hughes and John Nixon. Once the door clanged shut as he made his journey elsewhere Brendan got up to the door and shouted ‘Fuair Roibeard bas’ – ‘Bobby is dead.’ We had known it as surely as we had known the sun would set that evening. At mass two days earlier Denis Faul had told us of Bobby having lapsed into a coma. Perhaps being prepared for it made things easier rather than it coming as a bolt from the blue. It just didn’t seem any easier at the time. We were devastated and engulfed with a molten hatred which fired our collective determination to make the British pay dearly.

Looking back we could have called the hunger strike off the day Bobby was elected to Westminster. The public had conferred political status on us against all expectations and no amount of British machinations and doublespeak would alter that. But neither I nor anybody close to me was thinking that at the time. There were some who wisely felt the hunger strike should never have started but they were pushed into the margins by the collective will to force the issue.

I was in the cell with Laurence McKeown. We must have spoken but I have no recollection of what we said. Laurence later almost died on the same hunger strike. He would have only for the intervention of his mother. He could not stop her and she would not allow him. It was as simple as that. One of the real victories of the hunger strike is a human one. It is to occasionally see Laurence McKeown power-walk the streets looking as fit as a fiddle and to know that he has fathered children after his near death experience. Life springs from the most inauspicious of circumstances.

Others died that day too in the violent maelstrom that engulfed nationalist areas throughout the North. A father and son on a milk run in North Belfast, a member of the RUC in the same area. Our thoughts for the most part lay elsewhere.

In recent years a debate has flourished about the republican decision making processes during the hunger strike. There is a view, as vigorously made as it is disputed, that elements in the republican leadership for whatever reason prevented a conclusion that may have saved lives. Whatever the truth status of that, on the 5th of May 1981 there was one malign culprit and only one – the British state under the hawkish leadership of Margaret Thatcher. With the minimum of flexibility had that government granted in April what it did in October much suffering, both inside the prison and beyond, could have been averted and a prolonged armed conflict considerably shortened.

Bobby Sands was 27 years old when he died. It is a strange thought to ponder that he is now dead longer than he was ever alive. Yet the vibrancy of his life and the sense of purpose he brought to the prison struggle pulsate beyond the grave. His short life’s work will undoubtedly extend far beyond any natural life span he could have expected in normal circumstances.

Forever Young.


  1. what was it all for i keep asking myself

  2. Oglach. Bobby Sands M.P. will forever remembered as will his nine comrades. Who gave everything including their lives to prove to the world that the struggle for a 32 County Socialist Democratic Republic was just!

    Beir Bua Bobby!

  3. Anthony: A great post, I have to say, it really is, and much better (even from my alternative perspective) than any of the other partisan pieces I have read on the subject.

    Ardoyne Republican: I am not sure how dying for a cause makes it just, less so some mythical (and misguided) 'Socialist Democratic Republic'.

  4. Stray Taoist: Every hunger-striker from Tomas Ashe in 1917 to Micky Devine in 1981. Knew their deaths would shame the authorities about their comrades treatment. As well as,proving they were indeed Political Prisoners!

    Seeking,promoting and struggling for an Irish Socialist Democratic Republic is far from 'mythical or misguided'. It is the only logical and most progressive of political idealogies on this island.

    What is your own theory for a new type of Ireland? More of the same?

  5. Ardoyne Republican:

    Shaming the authorities is all well and good, and reform was (and still is, in the wider sense) needed. However, someone dying for whatever cause does not make it just. Many have died throughout history for many different causes, some just, some not. That was my point.

    More of the same? God no, having lived through it, seen more than I should have, I wouldn't want that. When did I imply more of the same? That is the standard response.

    My issues with a 'Socialist Democratic Republic' (note I never used the word 'Irish' in there, this is a wider point) is that socialism is the farthest thing from democratic, and is lowest-common-denominator politics. Progressive? Not a bit of it. Logical? Only in the most twisted, perverse way. And it certainly isn't just. The politics of envy and destruction.

    Meet me in the pub sometime and we can argue this out more :)

  6. Very well written piece Anthony...nearly 4000 people dead and god knows how many families ripped apart due to OTRs and jailed parents..including my own family and I wonder really to myself was this all so we could get a "Super SDLP". We no longer have reds under the beds or for that matter pinks.. a large portion of republicans as outlined by some of the posts here are more like a light shade of Lilac..

  7. "Fuair Roibeard bás"-- the Irish that Brendan announced, captures better than stolid Béarla the way he died, and perhaps that "the Dark" would also depart. "Death found" one, "death took" you away.

    Bobby did not want to leave. His choice was confirmed beyond his power, as his control slipped away into inner resolution. Go dtuga suaimhneas dóibh anamachaí. May peace rest on their souls.

  8. Very sad but very well presented, as I read this post one is thinking on two fronts firstly all the hurt the deaths caused to everyone involved and secondly and more important would all those whom were at the heart of the Hunger Strikes be as fully supportive if our current day "freedom fighters" were to embark on a similar road. Here's hoping we never see the like again

  9. i ask again for wat bobby might as well as watched his granchiler playing in the dunville park then again he might not the counsil usally closes it a sf led councill the laughter of our children my childers not seeing any benifits wish somebody would lend us a home in donegall

  10. Anonymous

    When you ask 'For what?' I think you are missing the point somewhat of Anthony's piece. In 1981, it seemed like 'for everything' and the prisoners themselves took the fight to the British - the war had moved into the H Blocks for a number of years and the Hunger Strike was the culmination of that phase of war. The price was very high, too high many would argue, but taking a position on it's merits and the legacy it left for Irish Republicans as well as the Brits is easier to do almost thirty years after the event than it was in 1981 and the immediate years thereafter.

    Your comments about the Dunville Park and Donegal (note it has one 'L' as opposed to Lord Donegall) are typical of those who like to criticise others but do very little themselves for their community or their country.



  11. A very moving tribute. You've never forgotten him, I'll give you that.

  12. Stray Taoist - much appreciated coming from you. Thanks.

    Kate I don't think any of us who were there at the time have ever forgotten him or the others who died.

    Westie, good to see you are still about. You will always find that type of attitude in all walks of life.