Recently, I have become fascinated with the troubles in Northern Ireland, a culmination of long-simmering tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster Province. The conflict is among the longest running in the world and has claimed the lives of thousands. In each of the books that I have read, I kept coming across the name Bobby Sands (1954-1981). I knew he was one of several prisoners at the Long Kesh correctional facility who died following a hunger strike in protest of the conditions at the jail and the policies of London. However, I did not know much about his life. I became focused on him and eagerly searched online for whatever I could find. Amazon delivered yet again with this definitive biography of Sands’ life by author Dennis O’Hearn that is nothing short of riveting.
Here in the United States, Sands’ name is largely unknown but across Ireland and other parts of the world, he is remembered as a champion of resistance and an inspiration to others who have waged their own battles for freedom including the late Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). Mandel used Sands’ hunger strike as an example for strike of his own which proved to be highly successful. However, Sands also had his detractors and many of them still view him with disgust, particularly in the six Protestant dominated counties in Ulster Province. And similar to other famous figures, there are endless stories about his life, some true and others most likely fiction. Hearns sets the record straight here giving the best account of the life of one of the IRA’s most legendary leaders.
From the start, the book earned my undivided attention and at times I could not put it down. Curiously, the Sands’ story begins like many other kids in Northern Ireland. He was born several miles from Belfast and his childhood was a happy one by all accounts. He lived in a modest house with his parents and three siblings. His friends were a mix of Catholic and Protestant. But that would soon change as the battle between Republicans and Loyalists escalated and the induction of the British military further fueled tensions. As Hearns shows, these events began to shape the mindset of the growing Sands and the events of Bloody Sunday, were the spark that fully ignited the raging conflict.
The author’s writing style flows very easily and the pace of the book moves just right. Hearns follows Sands’ early life, showing his slow progression from the average young kid, to a young man learning about religion and complexities of life for Irish Catholics and finally to the wise and seasoned IRA member that launched the most famous and moving hunger strike in Irish history. I think Hearns showcases clearly, how and why many young men and women joined the IRA, knowing full well that jail and death were the most likely outcomes. To Americans, Sands might seem out of his mind. But that is far from the case and Hearns gives him a platform to spread his ideas. Sands’ writing samples are included in the book, giving him a voice in this incredible biography. Even if you do not agree with what Sands did, it will hard not to admire his dedication to his beliefs, his charisma, intelligence and willingness to sacrifice himself.
His incarceration at Long Kesh is without a doubt the crux of the book. As Hearns tells this part of Sands’ life, we step inside the walls of the prison and the different sections in which Sands and other IRA members were confined. The ugly and vindictive atmosphere that developed at Long Kesh is on full display and some readers will be repulsed at the actions of some guards and conditions in which Sands and the others lived. But the struggle inside the prison by no means was one sided. Sands and the others do their share of antagonizing the guards whom they affectionately refer to as “screws”. A daily war of attrition developed as each side sought to find out just how far they could push the other. And to say that some aspects were barbaric would be an understatement.
Prison time was an accepted part of life for the men and women of the IRA. Death came as well to those who were either unlucky or extraordinarily brave. The men at Long Kesh believed their fight was political and they decided they would not be confined within its walls without being appropriately labeled as political prisoners. London vehemently refused to agree to any such notion and thus, the stage was set for the battle between the IRA and the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). As this point in the book, the suspense heightens as the IRA becomes more defiant and the guards become more determined to break them into submission. It was an environment that would have driven most to insanity. But for Bobby Sands, this was the proving ground in which he could show his commitment to his cause. His studies of the works of Che Guevara, Franz Fanon and others became the backbone of his resistance and carried him through to the final moments of the second of two hunger strikes carried out by IRA prisoners. Hearns covers both in solid detail to give the reader an inside look into the battle behind-the-scenes battles within the IRA with regards to the impending doom by the hunger strikers.
As a sub-story to the events at Long Kesh, the author focuses on the turmoil in Sand’s personal life outside of the IRA. Marriage and fatherhood enter the story and the effect the movement had on his personal life will cause many to wonder if it was truly worth it. Sands would surely say yes but I am sure that if he could have gone back and done things differently, there is a good chance that he might have changed course. But by the time he had reached this point in his life, his fate was sealed and destiny was waiting. At the time of his death, he was only 27 years of age and joined a long list of other famous figures who died at age 27. In death, he became a martyr and his image can still be found on murals in Northern Ireland. To Republicans, he is a hero who fought against British Rule and to Loyalists, a criminal who caused his own demise. But to some of his enemies, as Hearns shows, he was still worthy of respect and the interactions with guards in various parts of the book are confirmation of this. I think that all can agree that he was one of a kind and remains a legend of the IRA. His hunger strike changed public opinion of the IRA and their cause for a united Irish Republic. Future generations of IRA members and Republicans will surely look to him as one of their greatest figures whose memory shall continue to live on. This is the life and death of Robert Gerard Sands.