The hunger strike at the HM Prison Maze in 1981, captured the attention of the British Government and earned the IRA sympathy around the world. On May 5, news broke that IRA member Bobby Sands (1954-1981) had died after 66 days of refusing to eat. Sands and his fellow strikers were determined to be recognized as political prisoners and earn several other concessions from Margaret Thatcher’s (1925-2013) government. London had refused to give in and Thatcher had earned the nickname of “The Iron Lady”. Today, the “Troubles” as they are known, continue in Northern Ireland. The IRA remains committed to its goal of a unified Ireland and the removal of the British Crown from Ulster County. Sands had risen among the ranks in the IRA and during his incarceration, his reputation as a leader and intellectual grew every day. This book is a collection of his writings which were smuggled out in parts (The IRA prisoners at HM Prison Maze were engaged in a long running standoff with guards and were being kept in bare minimum cells with mainly a mattress and bucket to be used as waste disposal).
Gerry Adams, the former leader of Sinn Féin, provides a foreword in which he fondly remembers his friend and former fellow inmate Sands. As the book moves on to Bobby’s words, we already know a bit of information about him. However, for a more complete biography, I strongly recommend Dennis O’Hearn’s ‘Nothing But an Unfinished Song: The Life and Times of Bobby Sands‘. It is by far a thorough and highly engaging biography of Sands. The writings here begin after Sands has been incarcerated for quite some time. He is already well into the hunger strike, has stopped bathing and living in a cell that could only be described as hell on earth. The day begins like most others with he and the guards having their daily battles. Sands is frank and does not mince words when he describes what is happening. It is graphic and it is gritty but he clearly intended for readers to truly understand the treatment he and other IRA members were receiving at the prison. Other former prisoners and priests also sounded the alarms about the inhumane treatment at the prison, but officials within the Northern Ireland and British governments steadfastly denied the accusations. What is clear from Sands’ writings is that there was no love lost between to the opposing groups with the IRA members routinely using the term “screws” to describe the guards.
It is hard to imagine just how extreme living conditions were at the prison. Sands describes the lack of heat and sanitary conditions. Some readers will be disgusted and repulsed by what he says. Putting the hunger strike aside, living conditions at the jail were more than enough to induce psychosis in even the most rational individual. In fact, at several points in the book, Sands questions his own sanity and realizes that his mind will never be the same again. Yet, he never wavers from his cause and stays committed to the IRA beliefs. And whether you agree with the IRA or support the Crown, Sands’ stand is more than many of us would be willing to endure.
About mid-way through the book, we are able to read a series of poems that he wrote about his time inside and the IRA cause. He was highly talented but as one would expect, the poems are all political and focused on the Troubles. Regardless, they are good and showcase the many skills he developed that he was never able to use outside of prison. And while I do believe he would have remained an IRA member, perhaps his time in prison and maturity would have resulted in a different approach to resolve the Troubles.
Later in the book, we shift back to Sands’ journal that was kept mostly on toilet paper due to the lack of any type of writing materials. As we move on to the spring of 1981, Sands reports frequently and makes sure to note his weight which by that time had dropped to a shocking 127 lbs. After several entries they stop, presumably as Sands entered the final stages of his fight. Had he lived, I am sure he would have put together a book that would have contained far more than what we have here. However, what he did leave us is a trove of insightful notes that show the progression of his mind and why he believed in the Republican cause.
The book is a bit short but it is focused on the strike and is not an autobiography. Readers who have been following the Troubles and are familiar with Sands’ life will appreciate this collection of his writings from the final months of his life.