Almost thirty-five years ago, Robert Gerard Sands, the Officer Commanding of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) inmates inside Long Kesh prison, near Belfast, Northern Ireland, began a hunger strike for political recognition. Sands didn’t want to die. Nor did the nine men who followed after him, but they did. All of them. Each starving himself to death, one after the other. The oldest man to sacrifice himself was Joe McDonnell aged only 30.
Their leader Bobby lasted sixty-six days without food, taking only water and salt for nourishment. He chose to die, rather than live with the label of criminal, which had been bestowed upon him by the British Government, for his activities as an Irish guerrilla fighter. It was his mission to see British-controlled Northern Ireland reunited with the independent Republic of Ireland to the south.
Bobby was a twenty-seven year old Catholic. He was a father, a brother, a son and a husband. At a young age, he and the rest of his family, were evicted from their home by hardline Protestants, who were supporters of the British Imperial presence in Ireland. At age seventeen he was forced out of work by further intimidation from Protestant Loyalists. Many of the other Hunger Strikers, before their incarcerations, had been exposed to similar acts of persecution.
I doubt many Gen-X or Y kids (outside of Northern Ireland) would recognise any of their names, or understand much of their individual stories. Despite the significant Catholic demographic worldwide. So why bother to write about Bobby Sands and his comrades at all? What do they have to offer current and future generations?
Quite simply, their deaths transcend concepts of Irishness or Catholicism. Instead, their sacrifice should be an example to all. Whether you agree with their politics/methods or not, their legacy speaks for itself. What will your legacy say about you?
As for my own legacy, if I were to die tomorrow, the most that could be said is that I am happily married and in the process of writing my PhD. To some these are significant accomplishments. I would argue that my accomplishments pale in comparison to that of Bobby’s, and the nine other men who gave their lives on hunger strike.
I have taken my lead from Bobby, a man I never knew, but have shed many a tear for nonetheless. Bobby’s sacrifice has impressed upon me the need to make this world a better place. As Bobby said himself, “Everyone, Republican or otherwise, has their own particular role to play”. Although, Bobby was referring to the Northern Irish conflict, his simple philosophy can be extended to every aspect of human life, anywhere in the world. We all have a role to play in building a better world, not only for ourselves, but for our children.
The fact that some human beings have to die to impress this upon the rest of us is truly saddening. It should be inherent in us all to strive for a better world, free of injustice. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as all that.
So I say to you, please, don’t let the sacrifice of Bobby Sands, and his nine companions, be in vain. Play your role.