Marcella, the name of his sister, was the psuedonymn that Bobby Sands adopted for his writings while incarcerated in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. Bobby died on the 5th of May 1981 after 66 days on hunger strike to gain recognition for himself & his comrades as political prisoners. His & the deaths of 9 more Republican P.O.W's sent shockwaves throughout the world & would change the face of Irish & indeed british politics forever. Ten years after his death, his friend & comrade, Brendan "Bik" McFarlane, wrote this song.
Oglaigh Na hÉireann Guard of Honour escorts Oglach Bobby Sands to his final place of rest in Belfast's Milltown Cemetery, May 1981.
A section of the estimated 150,000 mourners who attended the funeral of Bobby Sands M.P.
Aerial view of H-Blocks, Long Kesh where Bobby died after 66 days on hunger strike.
It does'nt seem quite so long ago, the last time that I saw you
But ain't it funny how the memories grow, seems they always fold around you
They tried to break you in a living hell, but they could'nt find a way
So they killed you in an H-Block cell & hoped that all would turn away
They thought your spirit could'nt rise again, but you dared to prove them wrong
And in death you tore away the chains, let the world hear freedom's song
But the heartache & pain linger on,
They're still here though it's so long since you've gone
But we're stronger now, you showed us how
Freedom's fight can be won...
I wish there was an easy road to choose, to bring this heartache to an end
But easy roads are always sure to lose, I've seen it time & time again
If you could stand by me like yesterday, I'd find the strength to carry on
So let your spirit shine along the way & our day will surely come
...If we all stand as one
Bobby Sands Biography
BOBBY SANDS was twenty seven years old when he died on the sixty sixth day of hunger-strike in the H-Block prison hospital, Long Kesh, on the 5th May 1981. The young IRA Volunteer who had spent almost the last nine years of his short life in prison as a result of his Irish republican activities was, by the time of his death, world-famous having been elected to the british parliament and having withstood pressures, political and moral (including an emissary from Pope John Paul II), for him to abandon his fast which was aimed at countering a criminalisation policy by the british government.
That policy attempted to brand Irish resistance to the british occupation of Ireland as a criminal conspiracy without political motivation. In pursuit of that policy the british government attempted to force the prisoners to conform to regulations, wear a british criminal uniform and carry out compulsory, often degrading, prison work.
The Irish Republican prisoners, who had been arrested under special laws, interrogated in special barracks (for example, Castlereagh) and sentenced in special non-jury courts refused to be criminalised and refused to recognise the authority of the prison regime, refused to wear the prison uniform or carry out prison work. In order to keep themselves warm the prisoners wrapped themselves in a blanket — and so the blanket protest began.
For years the prisoners were held in solitary confinement and subjected to beatings, although due to overcrowding they eventually came to share a cell with another blanket man. In Armagh Gaol prison forty Republican women also resisted the criminalisation programme and they too were persecuted by warders.
From March 1978 until March 1981 the prisoners were on a no wash/no slop out protest which began when the prison authorities in a further attempt to break their will refused the prisoners access to toilets and washing facilities and forced the prisoners to live in filthy conditions.
* * *
As a young boy Bobby played in the fields around Carnmoney Hill and Glengormley in the shadow of Cave Hill where the founding father of Irish Republicanism, Wolfe Tone, almost two hundred years ago stood and swore to overthrow english rule in Ireland.
During his formative years Bobby, as he says himself in his prison diary was "a budding ornithologist". As one well-known H-Block ballad goes, "...A happy boy through green fields ran/And kept God’s and man’s laws." He also read and was influenced by the nationalist poet Ethna Carberry (Anna McManus) who coincidentally also grew up in this part of Belfast.
He always had an interest in Irish history and when the civil rights movement burst on to the streets in 1968 the reaction of the RUC to peaceful protest evoked a nationalist response in the hearts of most Catholic youths. He left school in June 1969 and worked as an apprentice coach-builder for the next three years. Bobby never expressed any sectarian attitudes, in fact, he ran for a well-known Protestant club — the Willowfield Temperance Harriers, and lived in a Protestant estate. But at work he came under increasing intimidation and by 1972 the family were forced out of their home by threats and attacks.
They moved to Twinbrook — a new housing estate in nationalist west Belfast. Eighteen-year-old Bobby was the eldest in a family of four children, the others being, Marcella, Bernadette and John. Bobby had joined the IRA and in October 1972 he was arrested and charged with possession of four shortarms which were found in a house.
In April 1973 he was sentenced to five years imprisonment which he served in the Cages of Long Kesh as a political prisoner. (Political status was wrung from the british government in June 1972 after a hunger-strike in Belfast jail.)
During his time in prison Bobby was a voracious reader not just of Irish, but of world history, and he emerged from the prison in March 1976 as a radical republican dedicated to an Irish Socialist Republic. In Twinbrook he helped form a tenants association and a youth club whilst still working as a full-time IRA Volunteer.
However, six months later he was arrested on active-service following a bomb attack on a furniture warehouse. There was a gun battle between the IRA unit and the RUC and two of Bobby’s comrades were wounded. One shortarm was caught in the car and the four occupants were all charged with ‘illegal’ possession. Bobby was taken to Castlereagh where he was interrogated for seven days. He refused to talk to the Special Branch detectives and refused to recognise the court when charged. One of those also arrested with Bobby was Belfast man Joe McDonnell who replaced Bobby on the hunger-strike after his death and who himself eventually died after sixty-one days on the 8th July 1981.
In September 1977 Bobby was sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment for having a shortarm and when he was brought to the H-Blocks he went on the blanket and resisted britain’s criminalisation programme which was aimed at sapping the prisoners’ self-respect and maligning the integrity of the Irish People’s struggle for self-determination
This british policy had been employed against past generations of republican prisoners — against the Fenians in English prisons and against IRA Volunteers following the 1916 Rising. In resisting criminalisation IRA Volunteers had resorted to the hunger-strike protest, the most famous case being Terence MacSwiney MP, Lord Mayor of Cork who died on the seventy fifth day of hunger-strike in Brixton prison in 1920.
In the H-Blocks Bobby began writing short stories and poems under the pen-name ‘Marcella’, his sister’s name, which were published in ‘Republican News’ and then in the newly merged ‘An Phoblacht/Republican News’ after February 1979. He was P.R.O. of the protesting republican prisoners and succeeded Brendan Hughes as Commanding Officer of the blanket men when he took part in the first hunger-strike from October to December 1980.
It was the failure of the british government to live up to the settlement of the first hunger-strike and to implement a promised enlightened prison regime which directly forced Bobby and his comrades on to a second hunger-strike. He led off the hunger-strike on 1st March 1981, two weeks in front of Francis Hughes, hoping that the sacrifice of his life and the political repercussions which it would unleash would perhaps force the british government into a settlement before any more of his comrades would have to die. However, by August 1981, nine other blanket men — Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee and Micky Devine — had also died on hunger-strike, due to british intransigence, itself secure by the inactivity of Irish politicians and Church leaders who did not raise their voices (or consciences) against britain.
On Saturday 3rd October 1981 the prisoners reluctantly abandoned their hunger-strike after a series of incidents in which families, encouraged by a campaign waged by the Catholic Church, sanctioned medical intervention when their sons or husbands lapsed into unconsciousness. The prisoners were effectively robbed of the weapon of the hunger-strike and so decided to end the historic fast which had lasted a marathon two hundred and seventeen days.
* * *
Shortly after Bobby went on hunger-strike the independent MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Frank Maguire, who was a champion of the prisoners’ cause, died of a heart attack. In the ensuing by-election Bobby stood on a ‘political prisoner’ ticket and was elected to the british parliament in a blaze of publicity.
The result of that historic election showed the extent of support for the prisoners among the nationalist people (british propaganda had described the prisoners as having no support!) and should have been the occasion for the british Prime Minister, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, settling the hunger-strike crisis. Instead the british not only refused to negotiate but enacted legislation to change the electoral law and prevent a Republican prisoner candidate from standing for election. So much for british democracy!
On the 5th May IRA Volunteer Bobby Sands MP died on the sixty-sixth day of hunger-strike. His name became a household word in Ireland, and his sacrifice (as did that of those who followed him) overturned british propaganda on Ireland and had a real effect in advancing the cause of Irish freedom.
Some of his writings have already been published in pamphlet form and over 40,000 copies of his ‘prison diary’ have been sold.
— Danny Morrison, October 1981.