The other Bobby Sands

Words: Chas Newkey-Burden

Bobby Sands was known for many things. Today, he’s famous for his membership of the IRA and his 1981 hunger strike, which he embarked on during a 14-year sentence for firearms possession in Northern Ireland’s notorious Maze prison. The strike was a bid to win political status for IRA prisoners. 

It was during this time that he was elected as the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone – the youngest MP at the time, at just 27. When he died less than a month later, after 66 days of refusing food, he became a global icon. 

Lawmakers in six continents passed resolutions in his honour. In New York, dockers boycotted British ships. Streets and buildings were named after him in countries throughout the world, including in Tehran, Iran, where Winston Churchill Street was renamed Bobby Sands Street. Nelson Mandela led his fellow inmates on Robben Island on a hunger strike inspired by the Irishman. 

Fidel Castro said of Sands: ‘Tyrants shake in the presence of men who have such strength as to die for their ideals through sixty days of hunger strike. Next to this example, what were the three days of Christ on Calvary as a symbol of human sacrifice down the centuries?’ Even Margaret Thatcher, the bitter enemy of Bobby and his community, admitted that it was ‘possible to admire’ his courage. 

Less widely discussed is Bobby’s artistic temperament, but during his years in jail he wrote many marvellous poems, songs and stories. We can trace his artistic development to his childhood: in his diaries, he wrote that he had loved to watch birds play and listen to them sing. His grandfather had told him that the lark represented freedom, and in his essay ‘The Lark and the Freedom Fighter’, Bobby wrote about the power of that symbol.

In jail, he would watch birds from his cell, delighting when the little birds united to fend off the bigger ones that stole their food.

The birds’ freedom taunted him; it also inspired him to find a form of liberation through creativity. Most of his songs and writings were written on toilet paper with a biro refill and smuggled out surreptitiously during visits to H-Block. Prisoners weren’t allowed writing materials.

One song started life as a poem about a man named McIlhatton, who was famed in Antrim for his illicit poteen. 

In Glenravel’s Glen there lives a man whom some would call a god,

For he could cure your shakes with a bottle of his stuff, it would cost you thirty bob

Come winter, summer, frost all over, a jiggin’ Spring on the breeze

In the dead of night a man steps by – McIlhatton, if you please. 

It’s an irreverent, impish song, but Bobby also wrote wrenching lyrics like ‘Back Home In Derry’, which tells the story of the voyage of the Irish rebels who were condemned to exile in Australia during the rebellion of 1803.

In the rusty iron chains we cried for our weans

Our good women we left in sorrow

As the main sails unfurled, our curses we hurled

At the English and thoughts of tomorrow

Oh… I wish I was back home in Derry. 

Both tracks were eventually recorded by Christy Moore, but the famous singer admitted that he couldn’t handle all of Sands’ songs. Speaking of ‘Sad Song For Susan’, Moore admitted: ‘I learned it and I tried to sing it but I couldn’t fuckin’ sing it because it was so emotional. Oh, there’s lots of sad songs, you can get through them, but this was one was too much for me.’

Bobby’s most famous poem is called ‘The Rhythm of Time’; it sweeps through history, referencing the waters of Babylon, the crucifixion, the uprisings of Paris and Spartacus, the struggles of Native Americans and the crimes of British imperialism. The running theme is the innate strength of the radical, which ‘screams in tyrants’ eyes’.

He concludes:

It lights the dark of this prison cell,

It thunders forth its might,

It is ‘the undauntable thought’, my friend,

That thought that says ‘I’m right!’

Sands was generous to other creatives, too. When a cell-mate praised him, saying: ‘I wish I could write as well as you,’ Bobby told him: ‘Well, I wish I could paint as well as you.’ 

His final words, written in his prison diary, spoke of his yearning for the freedom of all the Irish people – the day that they would see the ‘rising of the moon’. One might say his hunger strike itself could be seen as a work of art, his body evidence of the injustice and pain that the British inflicted on his people. He certainly showed that radicalism and art are the same: each involves imagining and attempting to create a different and better world.

Like all great artists, Sands has inspired more art than he conjured, including a movie, documentaries, plays, songs and paintings. Denis O’Hearn’s book, Nothing But An Unfinished Song: The Life and Times of Bobby Sands, is a magnificent tribute and the finest biography I have ever read. 

But the most iconic work of art inspired by Sands is the mural of him on the Falls Road in Belfast, which was painted in 1998 by Danny Devenny, who served time in jail alongside Sands. The mural includes one of Bobby’s most famous sayings, his declaration that ‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.’ Conjuring a vivid picture of courage, these nine words are those of a true visionary poet.

The mural has now become a Northern Ireland landmark, visited by thousands and thousands of people each year. When I told a tour guide that I’d been stunned by the defiant energy that crackles from it, he smiled, and said: ‘So many people say that.’ 

learn more

  • BOOK: Nothing but an Unfinished Song: The Life and Times of Bobby Sands – Denis O’Hearn
  • PODCAST: Rebel Matters, ep. 66: ‘Easter Sunday Special – One Day in My Life by Bobby Sands’
  • DOCUMENTARY: Bobby Sands: 66 Days

Chas Newkey-Burden is a nada yogi, animal liberationist and author (roughly in that order).