Thomas Dixie Elliot shares his memories of Bobby Sands.
I was asked what Bobby Sands was like so I'll share my memories of Bobby with everyone.
Bobby was multi-talented. He was a Gaelic teacher, a poet, a song writer, a fantasticc singer and a story teller, all talents he put to great use in keeping up the morale of his comrades. He never forgot that our brave female comrades were also fighting against the criminalisation of Republicanism on the Blanket Protest in Armagh jail and spoke of them often.
In the few months I shared a cell with Bobby I got to see the thinker, someone who rarely sat down but paced the cell constantly while rubbing his beard as he thought, it seemed to help with his concentration.
He thought about the beatings, especially those in other blocks when OC's would shout across for advice. He thought about it and advised in the interests of the men.
He thought about the books he was going to tell on any particular series of nights, during which he told a few chapters at a time. He did add a lot of his own stuff to these books to make them last longer. However, there was one book he told which was a firm favourite, 'Jet', about a conscientious objector who faked his own death in Vietnam and took to the freeways of America on a motor bike. Bobby had us lying back on our sponge mattresses riding the freeways with Jet. That was our escape from the hell of the H Blocks, it was one of our little victories over the screws and the system. Bobby, Jet and the whole wing rode off into the rising sun on many a dark and dismal night and left the bastards to their hatred.
Indeed, long after I left jail behind me I searched for that special book but I could never find it. I spoke to Denis O' Hearn, the author of Bobby's biography, Nothing But An Unfinished Song, about 'Jet' and he told me that he had searched for it as well but to no avail. Other former Blanket Men he had spoken to told him the same. We came to the conclusion that Bobby had made it up himself but never got round to telling anyone.
I was in the cell with Bobby when he wrote some of his famous poetry and songs, not all of them of course but a few. One in particular is very special, 'I wish I was back home in Derry' or as Bobby called it, 'The Voyage.' Christy Moore used 'I wish I was back home in Derry' because he already had a song called, 'The Voyage'. To have been asked by Bobby what this line of a poem or this verse of a song sounded like is something I hold special, when I hear them today. Another one is Bobby's poem 'The Lonesome Boatman'. Bobby was pacing up and down the cell on this day and he asked me, do you see anything in that stain on the wall? No, I said.
Bobby did, he saw a boatman on a lake, much in the way you'd see things in the clouds etc.
The final line goes …
"Oh, friends, why must you be
But a dying shadow on my lonely cell wall."
Bobby's mind escaped from his filthy cell to watch the lark soaring in the skies above and listen to the call of the curlew. How we delighted in joining him on his journey as he took us with him through the power of his imagination.
The last time I saw Bobby was in the wing canteen at mass the week before he left to go to the prison hospital. I was sitting up front with my friend Sa Gallagher who was on another wing on the protest.
Bobby slipped between us and asked me to introduce him which I did. We spoke for just a moment then Bobby got up and went round the other men. Little did we know it then but Bobby was saying his goodbyes as he likely knew we'd never meet again in this world.
Thomas Dixie Elliot is a Derry artist and a former H Block Blanketman.
Follow Dixie Elliot on Twitter @IsMise_Dixie