He Prevailed

30 years ago today. It was a long time back, but for those to whom it meant something, an awful lot of something in this case, where we were located when we heard that Bobby Sands had died is indelibly and eternally etched deep in our minds. Things often fade with time, events are juggled and rearranged by the tricks of memory, confusion kicks in, but not on this one. It has been replayed so often from the master copy that was branded white hot into our collective consciousness the moment we learned of his death. I was in H3, a block later immortalised through film by my cell mate of the time, Laurence McKeown. To say we were grief stricken would not capture the awesomeness of the moment and its terrible finality. We had dug deep during the trying years of unrelenting prison protest. Now we had to dig again for a comrade whose days of insufferable heavy lifting had come to the end he had long foreseen.

Death after 66 days on hunger strike may have come as a relief to Bobby Sands. But he mastered it and in doing so bested Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, and the British state policy of criminalising republican resistance to both its rule and application. While relief came Bobby’s way after his feat of endurance, it didn’t come to us who could only feel an overwhelming sense of loss at his passing. The most iconic of all Provisional IRA volunteers, his death cut deep and left a wound that suppurates still and is inflamed each time the term ‘criminal’ is thrown at a republican.

His death and those of the nine men who made the same journey either with him or behind him could so easily have been averted. The British merely had to concede at the start of the hunger strike what they gave at the end of it and everyone would have been spared the misery of the era. It was not to be.

Bobby died leaving behind a seven year old son. I look at my children today playing happily, vying for parental love and affection, and think of how wrenching that alone must have been; how enormous and deep the emotional trauma visited on him by it. Yet courage, determination and selflessness prevailed.

There is so much that could be said about the fall out from the management of the hunger strike led by Bobby Sands. But it has been said before. Maybe now is the time to say it again but it doesn’t seem that way. Or if it does I don’t feel like saying it. Today I prefer to remember him on that Tuesday morning thirty years ago when he stepped into nothingness, eyes fixed as he strode unflinchingly to total obliteration; any further existence for him, to be lived in the minds of those who loved him and valued his endeavours.

Into the British penal valley of death walked one Irish man. And he prevailed.


  1. As ever cara, written with the touch of an artist.

    Thats what I remember most about Bobby, the way he could paint masterpieces with words.

    He used to stroll up and down the cell constantly and him rubbing his beard as he tossed words round in his head as an artist would mix colours.

    Then he would jump to the wall and add to the song, poem or political piece he was writing.

    To think that his best work was created on a filthy wall is incredible and being able for a few short months to watch him do it is something I'll never forget.

    By the way did we ever find out if JET the book ever existed or was it another of Bobby's own creations?

  2. Dixie- I did a search for Jet a few times using a couple of second hand and rare booksellers online and searched for the title "jet" with keywords "vietnam" and there were no fiction titles meeting the criteria. It looks like Bobby conjured it up or possibly got some of the ideas from different sources and put together a story that way.


  3. Thanks for sharing this Anthony - it was deeply moving and beautiful tribute. And yes he prevailed despite how things be now. When I was in VietNam a few years back, young Vietnamese students knew who Bobby Sands was and the other nine and held great respect for them. Spirit - endurance/integrity and truth is stronger than flesh and oppression - stronger than death itself...
    From Ireland to VietNam to Australia to worldwide the many know what he stood for and what he gave... gave his all as did the other nine.
    'There is an inner thing in every man - Do you know this thing my friend?
    It has withstood the blows of a million years and will do so to the end' Prison poems Bobby Sands.

  4. The truly great Bobby Sands.

    He was a young man of immense courage and fortitude. Sitting now in my 50th year I look back and wonder at the age of those ten young men. Irish republicanism faced it's greatest challenge in the form of the dreaded criminalisation policy. Had the British suceeded in criminalising the stuggle back then, Sinn Fein would not be the political success story it is today. Gerry and Martin owe everything to those ten brave young men.

  5. Dixie,

    you flatter me. I think you should write something about your time in the cell with him. Many would find that interesting.


    thanks for that. He made a impact and a difference. It is amazing that more is not being done today to strengthen prisoners' rights against the regime in the country that gave us Bobby Sands. The prison population in the 26 is at an all time high and that disgusting verdict yesterday on strip searches in the 6 - it all demeans the sacrifice Bobby and the boys made.

  6. "Today I prefer to remember him on that Tuesday morning thirty years ago when he stepped into nothingness, eyes fixed as he strode unflinchingly to total obliteration; any further existence for him, to be lived in the minds of those who loved him and valued his endeavours."

    Great article, Anthony. The above lines in particular capture the determination of Bobby Sands and the terrible sacrifice he made. Like Brendan Hughes, he seems to have been one of the few revolutionaries who managed to keep both his principles and his humanity.

  7. Mackers

    Your post was prophetic as there has been a resumption of the protest in the last twenty-four hours. Half of the prisoners wrecked their cells due to the failure of the NIPS to fully implement last year's agreement.

    The court ruling this week left the men wiith few options.

  8. Alec and Dixie,

    always good to hear former blanket men comment on this type of piece.


    it doesn't take much to be prophetic when it comes to what authorities will do in jails when given the latitude. Now it is up to those who were there before to highlight the issue. But only few will. This is one important reason that eirigi candidates need elected. They will highlight the abuses.

  9. Mackers,
    a very emotive and fitting tribute.
    I was in Town Hall Street awaiting a court appearance when I heard Bobby Sands had died.
    Dan Mc Cann my co accused had sent a newspaper to my cell via the cops.
    It was surreal to read of his death, although there had been an air of inevitability for weeks there had also been an air of anticipation that something might give.
    When I think of Bobby Sands, I always recall Sile De Valera's graphic description of how he looked as he neared death.
    Now when I think about him, I will think of the final lines dedicated to him in this beautiful piece.

  10. Apparently,
    Bobby's direct descendants disgraced themselves on election day.
    Outside one polling station a senior Sinn Fein member jumped in front of a women and told her a vote for eirigi was a vote for the 'dissidents'
    The were also reports of thuggish behaviour and derogatory remarks being shouted outside polling stations and from cars.
    The individuals who engaged in and orchestrated this behaviour belong to the higher echeleons of Sinn Fein.
    One of the them who recently wrote in the ATN, that all dissidents are now rallying around eirigi has become quite infamous for tormenting people with alternative views.
    Where do people turn to in relation to these thugs?
    The PSNI, Restorative Justice, Community bodies or political representatives?
    Just one problem, they have their strings pulled by the first and run the rest so realistically where do people go?

  11. AM
    Extremely touching tribute. Last week I chose to re-watch the movies ‘Some Mother's Son’, and ‘Hunger’. They were as difficult to watch the 2nd time around as the first. The reality that Bobby Sands and the other 9 young hunger strikers suffered such excruciating deaths brought back all those same feelings of intense sadness, loss, frustration and anger as the first viewings. I can't even imagine how you and others, who personally knew him and was incarcerated with him, must have felt.

    As an American of Irish decent, I have such admiration and respect for all 10 hunger strikers and have never forgotten the sacrifices they made for their principles and fellow political prisoners. May they rest in peace.

  12. AM,
    Excellent piece Anthony. I had the privilege of meeting Brendan Hughes when he was in the USA and he came across as an extremely down to earth man with impressive IRA credentials. I’m glad he had the courage to see his convictions through. He was an ecouragement to others.

    Section 408,
    I have two schools of thought on the 'Boston College' issue. 1) McGeough's case/incarceration was a test run for the Brits and if they got away with shafting McGeough, it set the precedent for them to go after anyone they wanted after that.

    2) Supposedly the British gov't is using the United States federal prosecutors to subpoena Boston College to hand over the tapes/material in question to be used in a possible criminal investigation. However, supposedly Boston College may consider burning the tapes rather than hand them over? What better way for SF to have any alleged evidence against them destroyed or actually placed in the hands of the British government for safe keeping?

    Gerry McGeough tried to warn everyone that if the Brits got away with his persecution/incarceration it could open Pandora’s Box and then no one would be safe going forward.

    Hard to tell what's REALLY going on here, but whatever it is – I'm sure none of it will be good.

  13. Alfie,


    ‘Like Brendan Hughes, he seems to have been one of the few revolutionaries who managed to keep both his principles and his humanity.’

    Agreed. I don’t trust revolutionaries. Many are well meaning but at the end of the day I come back to Orwell who saw 9 out of every 10 as being social climbers with bombs. And the power that revolution can give them to oppress their own constituency is used to the point where they are standing on their hind legs with the farmers!

  14. Nuala,

    'Apparently, Bobby's direct descendants disgraced themselves on election day.'

    Over the course of evolution a point comes when a new species emerges. I think this has happened here. This lot are a different species from what Bobby was part of.

    Nuala, when Cameron humiliated them in Stormont we can sort of understand why they are so eager to suppress an alternative viewpoint. They know the extent of the defeat and by the same token the degree to which they have become that which they hated.

    I am not in the slightest surprised at the thuggish behaviour. A personal disappointment for me has been the number of bullies produced by the republican struggle - and they are not exclusive to SF.

    Many now in eirigi were behind the hate campaign against us when they were with SF. That would not stop me voting them but I can't pretend it did not happen. Eirigi have as much right to express their opinion as we did our own and they should be defended against abuse and intimidation.

    'Where do people turn to in relation to these thugs?'

    Get it out there - always and everywhere. I was at a conference in Oxford a few years back and took a call from Belfast from a republican who the Shinners had threatened. I immediately went in and put it to the Brit Secretary of State during his after dinner speech in front of everybody. Within minutes of it ending US officials, Dublin Government officials, NIO and press were onto me asking for the details. The SOS had been saying the Provos had stopped all activity and the loyalists should do the same. I asked him would he assure the threatened republican that SF were only pretending an hour or two earlier when they told him he would be disappeared. Getting it out there is the best way. Somebody from the Dublin Government said to me 'I think your friend is safe now.'!

    I recall you telling us about being in Townhall Street when Bobby died. That must have been a lonely experience.

  15. Helen

    Thanks for this.

    I watched the same films. I think H3 is actually the best of the genre. Have you watched that? Brendan was a deeply genuine guy. He could see through what was going on in the world of the peace process.