“But all of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights associations demands were nearly met by 1969.” “He was a terrorist.” “He was an P.I.R.A scumbag, who joined to get in on the murder campaign.” These are just some of the things said about Bobby Sands. As per usual regarding republicanism, none of them have any merit behind them. Verily, most are not really concerned about Sands’ childhood, teenage years and on from there. Merely being in the I.R.A was enough for the great and the good in the Free State and the humble unionists in the North as being reason to discard Bobby Sands as a “terrorist.”
But why did Bobby Sands join the I.R.A.? “I don’t care” has been said a few times on this site. I suspect that the same sentiments will be said in this thread. I will, however, try and demonstrate that Bobby Sands was driven into the I.R.A, rather than the simple notion of he joined to just kill people or because all P.I.R.A recruits were unemployable. Sands was unemployable, but not politics.ie stereotype unemployable, as well shall see. It is also important to contrast Sands’ struggle with the struggle of the great and the good in the Free State. Those warriors who now cherish and thank the country that had slaughtered this island’s people for centuries. What were the people in the Free State at during the “murder campaign” in the North? What great threats did they have to face?
‘A Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People.’ The words of James Craig summed up the occupied six counties very nicely. In comparison to the South when the Rising happened and the Tan War, the justifications for waging war were really slim and none to the P.I.R.A campaign of defence and National Liberation. I have already went through my reasons for this, but they will again, come up as we look at Bobby Sands childhood and teenage years. Growing up in the North of Ireland was not easy, particularly if you were Catholic and lived in a Protestant dominated area as Sands did
Bobby’s Mother, Rosaleen, was a quiet and rather tedious woman, who kept to herself, but was amiable to her neighbor’s in Abbot’s Cross, a Protestant dominated housing estate, where the Sands family had settled. This was a decent enough area and the house the Sands family lived in, more than adequate. Many of the neighbor’s were, in fact, quite gregarious of Rosaleen as she not a problem to anyone. There was one tiny problem with Rosaleen. A dark secret lay behind this mundane woman, a secret so earth shattering, it is surprising she wasn’t burned when it was discovered: Rosaleen was Catholic.
For Years, the Sands family lived a quiet and ordinary life, but when Rosaleen’s most wicked secret was out in the open, Rosaleen suffered a gargantuan amount of verbal abuse from her neighbor’s when her husband John went to work. The led to Rosaleen becoming very ill as the sectarianism took it’s toll. For these reasons, the family moved from the area: ‘So,’ “recalled Bernadette years later,” ‘my parents being so quiet and not wanting to bother anybody, they gave up the house.’ (Bobby Sands Nothing But an Unfinished Song, page 4) This example was felt, I am sure, by many. To be objective, there is no doubt that Protestants suffered similar abuse in other parts of the 6 county state from Catholics, but given the dominance of Protestants and the state being a state for Protestants, as Craig said, the balance was unequal.
Despite this form of sectarianism and other abuse, Rosaleen and John hoped that their son Robert would never get caught up in the I.R.A and the violence that engulfed the North of Ireland. Unfortunately for them, their son was driven into the arms of Óglaigh na hÉireann, the I.R.A.
The 6 County state was a sectarian and criminal entity. The injustices felt by Catholics in the North of Ireland could not penetrate to the South were the Free Staters read the Sun and their British newspapers and contemplated the best starting 11 for Manchester United over a few pints. Reasons for getting a bit angry, weren’t enough for the Free Staters. People getting attacked for sticking up Tricolors wasn’t enough in 1964. 40+ years of life as second class citizens. When, according to the Professor of the London School of Economics, Brendan O’Leary, that the RUC and B specials were 'responsible for seven of the first 8 deaths.'( Irish Republicanism - Good Friday & After, page 11) When the Scarman Tribunal found that of the near 2,000 people who fled their homes during the riots of 69, 80.2% were Catholic. When internment without trial was reintroduced and mainly Catholics were targeted. When Bloody Sunday happened and much more, none of these were enough to even contemplate armed struggle. Instead, they should have went along and gotten the heads knocked off of them by the B specials in the Civil Rights Marches, who were, often disrupted by the homophobic, anus obsessed Ian Paisley, who ‘said that it was God who put Evangelical Protestants in Ulster to secure the “last bastion of Evangelical Protestantism in Western Europe” noting that this was a struggle between “truth and evil.’” (The Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Morality of Terrorism)
So, what of Bobby? Well, it is amazing that a boy from Belfast who went on to lead a famous hunger strike couldn’t have been more apathetic to politics than anyone else. Sands’ childhood involved a love of sports, were he played soccer with Protestants - I know it’s against politics.ie policy to show how the 'Ra were not sectarian, but there ya go - as well as running cross country with them. As tensions rised in the North, however, Sands soon realised that a normal life, were he hoped for a job to earn money to go for a few drinks and pull a few girls and in particular, play football, was never going to exist in the occupied 6 counties.
The Sands family eventually moved to Rathcoole after living with relatives for a while. During this time, Sands experienced a reality check when sectarian gangs of animals began a campaign of intimidation and barbarity. But it was in 1970 when the real sectarian nature of the 6 county state began. KAI, meaning Kill All Irish, were a gang of local youths who went around Rathcoole intimidating Catholics. They often drove Catholics out of the area and shouted sectarian songs. They would eventually have their own flute band, but some of their songs had verses such as the following:
We come from the ‘coole and we hate the micks,
We beat their bollix in with our sticks,
We’ll fight the Fenians ‘till we die
We are Rathcoole Kai-ai
These thugs acted like vigilantes, vigilantes making sure Catholics didn’t get a bit full of themselves. The Vigilante Defense Association was formed to ‘guard [our] homes against the Roman Catholics’ (The Red Hand: Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireand, page 48). I know Bobby should have stayed in his house and never left it unless it was necessary as the I.R.A were the I.R.A, but still, a very bad situation to find yourself in if you came across this gang. Which Sands did, a myriad of times, in which he was once stabbed. Sands also use to plan different routes home with friends to avoid coming into contact with the KAI. You see, in Rathcoole, Catholics were very far and few between, and even when Bobby joined the I.R.A, they warned him that they couldn’t protect a volunteer in such a hostile area with no other members. Things developed in such an insidious way, that the KAI began targeting anything Catholic. One night, for example, they defended the Protestant community by torching a chapel and when the fire died down, they got all of the statues and smashed the heads off the pavement ( Lads, Citizens, and Ordinary Kids: Working-Class Youth Life Styles in Belfast page 82)
Then came Sands the unemployable. Yes, he was unemployable. Very unemployable. Sands found work after leaving school as a teenage apprentice coach builder. During this period, he hoped for a very paddy lifestyle: ‘Dances and girls, clothes, and a few shillings to spend opened up a whole new world to me. I suppose at that time I would have worked all week as money seemed to matter more than anything else.’ (“From a Nationalist Ghetto to the Battlefield of H-Block” An Phoblacht, April 4, 1981, pp6-7
Sands suffered terrible abuse in the workplace. Shaken by his treatment, Sands often refused to fight back, which led to a former worker, Bernard Fox, saying that he was amazed that Sands would go on to do what he did, as he never stood up for himself. Although, in the context, we must remember that Sands was only 16 at this time and was in a very hostile environment were he had hardly any, in fact, no one to back him up.
He did stick it out though for two grueling years, but he was eventually forced out of his job. When he arrived to work one day, he found fellow workers cleaning their guns. One apparently said: ‘Do you see these here? Well, if you don’t go, you’ll get this.’ Yes, a very bad time indeed. Not quite like the work place in the Free State. I wonder what the Christmas parties were like in Alexander’s and if Bobby went to them?
After Bobby left, he eventually found work as part time barman(which he soon left) but the damage was done. It was during this job that he joined Óglaigh na hÉireann, as an uneducated, unemployed and angry young man. Sands himself even admitted that he wasn’t really sure what he was fighting for at the time.. All he knew was that at during this time, he was standing up for himself and taking on the gangs who were threatening him and his community. He had little knowledge of politics or the world. It was only in prison that he used his intellect.
There is no real need to go into Sands’ time in prison as it is well know. However, the reason why he joined the I.R.A is not well known. Sands did not join because he was sectarian, a murderer, a scumbag or a lazy bum on the dole. He was forced to join the I.R.A after the failure that is the 6 county state in the North. Their failure to protect the vulnerable and innocent. A taxi driver in Rathcoole commented later on that the sectarian gangs in Rathcoole ‘drove Bobby into the hands of the I.R.A.’ (Northern Protestants: An unsettled people, page 107)
Let us compare Sands’ life to the life of the arcthypael man in the Free State. No doubt, times were tough, but they were not even close to what people in the North had to face. In fact, the comparison would be like comparing the Holocaust to the supposed “pogrom’s” in 1969. Many in the Free State were too busy worrying about women in skirts, contraception, how many pints they could down, English football teams and of course, singing Dickie Rock and saying “spit on me Dickie.”
Bobby’s magnanimous and inspirational ways have, indirectly, overshadowed the other 9 brave men who gave their lives for Irish Freedom. Francis Hughes, Ray McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee and Michael Devine.
Although their names are still anathema now, just as most Irish patriots are often hated at first, then adorned decades later, I do hope that eventually, they will be remembered for what they were: The greatest patriots this country have had since the men of 1916.
Apostles of freedom are ever idolised when dead; but crucified whilst alive. James Connolly
Tioclaidh ár lá - Our Time Will Come. Frain Aiken