Carrie Twomey examines what is known about Bobby Sands's burial wishes.
Bobby Sands had very strong views on his death and how he wanted to be buried, which he expressed repeatedly, in comms and in his writing.
His preference was to be buried in his blanket in Ballina alongside hunger strikers Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg. He did not want to be buried in Milltown, and he did not want to be buried in a suit or a shroud. He would have preferred to be buried in Carnmoney Cemetery as that was near his childhood home, but the conflict made that untenable. He also considered being buried in Louth so his sister, who was on the run, could attend his funeral without risk. But his heart was set on being buried in Ballina.
His family, who lived in Belfast, were unaware of his wishes prior to his death, and were not privy to the comms he sent the republican leadership from prison. He was in the process of separating from his wife, who lived in England, and had engaged a solicitor for that reason.
In early February, 1981, in a lengthy comm detailing his background for press purposes, the first known expression of where he wanted buried, and why, is made:
"Because of her (and I’m not trying to be smart or stupid or mimic anyone) I wanted buried down there [the Republic]."
This comm was published in 1987 in David Beresford’s Ten Men Dead. Two weeks later, on February 15 1981, he mentioned in a comm that he had instructed his lawyer, Pat Finucane, of his wish to be buried in Ballina in Co Mayo alongside republican hunger strikers Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg.
"Sent you a message with Signer [his solicitor] the other night, i.e., Ballina. No one else knows about this and it is a genuine, personal wish. I’ll be getting Signer to write it down so as it will be adhered to by my family."
He may have been anticipating his family coming under pressure.
The February 15 comm has never been reproduced in full. The Bobby Sands Trust, through Danny Morrison to the Irish News on the 40th anniversary of Bobby's death, publicly released the portion of the February 15 comm quoted above referring to the signer.
This comm was referred to in Dennis O'Hearn's 2006 biography of Bobby Sands, Nothing but an Unfinished Song:
"Sands had thought a lot about where he would be buried and at one point he asked his lawyer to draw up a legal document backing up his request to be buried in County Mayo, next to Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg, who died on hunger strike in English jails. Sands insisted that he was being neither "naive" nor "morbidly flamboyant" but that he had serious personal reasons for the request. Earlier, he requested to be buried in Carnmoney Cemetery, just a few hundred yards from his boyhood home."
Bobby was obviously then asked by the republican leadership why he had put his burial wishes with his solicitor. On the 25th of February he says,
"I got your wee note the other day in regard to what I was doing with signer [lawyer]. Firstly I wouldn't tell you to mind your own business because to a large extent it is as much your business as anyone else's."
He was concerned about how his family felt. He feared what would happen after he died. He elaborates, again, apparently, on why he wanted buried in Ballina:
"You see comrade we have (all of us) our little human fears and wishes and so on, to be honest I don't like Milltown, what the difference at that stage. We always wanted buried in Carnmoney the Catholic part of which lies under the shade of the west side of Carnmoney hill. I wrote a poem about this once, you should have it there, my reasons are many, as you know I grew up out there, even I realize that this during a war could never for obvious reasons, so there is also the consideration of my sister who I haven't seen for four years and whom I won't see again."
The poem he refers to is called A Place to Rest. The last stanza reads:
I would gladly rest where the whin bush grow,
Beneath the rocks where the linnets sing
In Carnmoney Graveyard ‘neath its hill
Fearing not what the day may bring!
The comm continues,
"That is why I wanted to go to Ballina and there are other reasons none of which pertain to the political hazzle involved. I even considered [Fochuairt], which lies on the Free State side of the South Armagh border.
"I don't like Milltown and that's being honest you're probably wrecked calling me a morbid eccentric, I'm not I'm human and worry on wee things like those and finally I wanted wrapped in a blanket cause I don't want humiliated in a stinkin' suit or shroud and I've said enough."
Bobby wrote a short story called Bury Me In My Blanket, which concludes:
"Spirit of resistance!" he sniggered. "Ideals", he mimicked. "We'll see bloody well all about that if you have to bloody well die here," he said.
"I've thought about that too," I said, "and its hard to say to oneself that one is prepared to go to such an extreme, but then we are special prisoners and we are struggling for a special cause, so if I should die here, tell "Mr Mason" to bury me in my blanket and for God's sake keep your head at peace and you have yours examined like a good lad."
The self-conscious repetition of his concern at being thought "morbidly flamboyant" or "a morbid eccentric", "naive" in the two February comms is striking. The comms he was responding to would be illuminating.
Both Beresford’s and O'Hearn's books contain a comm from Bobby dated March 9. This comm is relevant for what is not included in its published form. The two versions of the comm are the same, and contain an ellipsis in the same place:
Comrade, Just some worrying thoughts that are in my mind. As you should know, I don't care much to entering any discussion on the topic of 'negotiations' or for that matter 'settlements' but what is worrying me is this: I'm afraid that there is a possibility that at a crucial stage (which could be after death) the Brits would move with a settlement and demand Index [Prison Chaplin, Fr Toner) as guarantor. Now this is feasible, if a man is dying, that they would try to force Bik to accept a settlement to save life which of course would be subject to Index's interpretation. And we know how far that would get us. It wouldn't make any difference if it were he and Silvertop [Assistant Prison Chaplain, Fr Murphy), the same would occur. I've told Bik to let me or anyone else die before submitting to a play like that. Well that's what was bugging me - silly old fool aren't I!! . . . I was wondering (here it comes says you) that out of the goodness of all yer hearts you could get me one miserly book and try to leave it in: the Poems of Ethna Carberry - cissy. 'That's really all I want, last request as they say. Some ask for cigarettes, others for blindfolds, yer man asks for Poetry.
In response to the revelations of Bobby's burial wishes with the publication of the February 25th comm, Sinn Féin claimed Bobby Sands had changed his mind in a subsequent comm. The Bobby Sands Trust released an heretofore unseen excerpt of the previously published March 9 comm:
"If I don’t get seeing the Signer you should tell him of my change of heart on the Ballina thing, or should I say, change of mind . . . "
This new excerpt manifestly slots into where the ellipsis was misused in the previous publications. Because an ellipsis had been duplicitously deployed in the original publication of this comm, the appearance of one in this new excerpt begs the question what else has been held back? Is there more to this comm that has not been released? Why was that section of the comm held back for 40 years?
Rather than settling the issue, this limited release raises further questions. Danny Morrison, who provided the selected excerpts of Bobby Sands' comms held by the Bobby Sands Trust, says there are no further references to being buried in Ballina in subsequent comms. But we know from his diary that his heart was still with his comrades in Mayo, for on the 12th of March he wrote:
I have come to understand, and with each passing day I understand increasingly more and in the most sad way, that awful fate and torture endured to the very bitter end by Frank Stagg and Michael Gaughan. Perhaps, -- indeed yes! -- I am more fortunate because those poor comrades were without comrades or a friendly face. They had not even the final consolation of dying in their own land. Irishmen alone and at the unmerciful ugly hands of a vindictive heartless enemy. Dear God, but I am so lucky in comparison.
Bobby Sands may have changed his mind about his wish to be buried in Ballina. But did he want to be buried in Milltown?
"The assumption would be that Belfast republicans were buried in Milltown cemetery," Danny Morrison told the Irish News by way of explanation for how Bobby Sands ended up buried in a shroud in Milltown Cemetery.
Whose assumption? Why assume anything at all? Bobby was clear he didn't like Milltown. Was there a subsequent communication that he changed his mind about that? He was adamant he didn't want humiliated in a shroud or suit. Yet he was not buried in his blanket as he desired.
It is unsettling that 40 years after the hunger strikes, despite the iconography of Bobby Sands being all pervasive and the Sinn Féin operated Bobby Sands Trust churning out publication after publication, the full, unredacted, uncensored comms of this massively important part of our history have not been released, and are being doled out piecemeal in order to shore up a crumbling narrative.
That this is being done against a backdrop of calls for a Truth and Reconciliation commission to deal with legacy issues only adds insult to injury.
The Bobby Sands Trust should release all of Bobby's comms in full to the public, including comms written to him. The release can only add to society's understanding of its history. What are they waiting on? Why continue to suppress his words?
"All the other republicans who died on hunger strike were buried in republican plots. Kevin Lynch was in the family plot but it is a republican grave. They were all buried with republican ceremonies, military funerals, and they went to republican plots," Danny Morrison told the Irish News.
The assumption. Against the expressed wishes. Is Ballina not a republican plot? Milltown definitely appears to be, albeit of a different sort.