the last couple of weeks, I've read a lot about
hunger striker, Bobby Sands. Most of it was old
news-that some people revere Bobby for his commitment
to the Republican cause, while others dismiss him
as a criminal who deserved to spend his life in
In the early 'Seventies, I walked through burned
out blocks in Belfast. Boys from Liverpool sped
by, swiveling their machine guns as if to say, "Make
my day, dumb yank." At one point, my wife and
I stumbled into a bivouac of drunken British soldiers,
one of whom stuck his rifle against our chins and
demanded that we drop our back backs. We stood with
our hands in the air while this man chanted, "I
want to kill the little people. I want to kill the
ing little people." Belfast was a war
zone in which, it appeared to us, British soldiers
might well shoot first, ask questions later.
My encounter with the British army was highly educational.
After that, I never questioned the veracity of Irish
men and women who spoke about internment, trumped
up charges, corrupt courts, torture, and assassinations
in N. Ireland. At the height of the Troubles, the
American people were inundated with pro-British,
anti-Republican, "the IRA are all thugs"
propaganda. We were told that the British government
was merely trying to maintain order in one of its
own provinces. We were assured that our British
allies stood for law and order, democracy and justice,
peace and stability. Those who dared rise up against
our English friends were little more than gangsters
who blew up women and children for sport.
Then, in 1981, young Irishmen jailed in the North
announced that, in order to secure their status
as prisoners of war, they were willing to fast to
death. The first POW to commence hunger strike was
Bobby Sands, a young man who, with his long hair
and beard, looked a lot like a Sixties hippy. Looking
at photographs of Bobby, it was a stretch to conclude
that he was a psychopathic killer. So, many people
began to ask why Sands was in prison, why he had
been confined, naked, in a maggot-infested prison
cell. Slowly, the news leaked out that Bobby Sands
was a writer, a poet, a man who loved birds, loved
to sing, loved story telling, loved Ireland, loved
his family, loved life.
Slowly, Americans and people in other parts of the
world began to discover that Bobby was an intelligent,
creative, compassionate human being, not some fanatical
Now, twenty-five years later, the debate over the
hunger strikers' legacy continues. In one of my
classes, I assign a chapter from Bobby's book, One
Day In My Life. I ask students to try to imagine
a cause for which they would be willing to die.
Students respond that while they admire the hunger
strikers' courage, they cannot fathom why anyone
would willingly starve to death. Moreover, they
add, there must have been other, more reasonable,
ways to secure the protestors' goals. Fortunately
for these students, they have not seen their friends
dragged off to torture chambers. They haven't watched
family members bleed to death after being shot by
a sniper who will never be tried for murder. They
did not spend years in a filthy prison cell for
resisting a brutal occupation of their own country.
I do not know whether Bobby Sands and the nine men
who died on hunger strike in 1981 were hoping to
counter the negative image, so carefully crafted
through misinformation, of brave men and women who
fought and died to free Ireland from British imperialism.
I do know that the hunger strikers demonstrated
to the world that a few determined people can change
the course of history. Skeptics might say that Bobby's
dream of a reunited Ireland, free from British influence,
remains a utopian fantasy. They will say that the
hunger strikers were naïve, and that their
sacrifices were in vain. For my part, I place Bobby
Sands and the hunger strikers not on a pedestal,
but in a place of honor among men like Mahatma Gandhi,
Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Philip Berrigan.
I place them among great freedom fighters like Sojourner
Truth, Rosa Park, Fanny Lou Hammer, and Angela Davis.
Let the armchair warriors, revisionist historians,
and hate-filled commentators rail as much as they
wish. Long after their rants have been forgotten,
the hunger strikers will continue to inspire people
in Ireland, Africa, South America, Palestine, China,
Tibet, the United States, and many other places
to fight, and if need be die, in order to create
a better world.