I Remember Bobby Sands

I Remember Bobby Sands

by Nicholas Mirzoeff

I remember Bobby Sands. I remember that he began his hunger strike in the notorious Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland on March 1, 1981, the day of my nineteenth birthday. Sands struck in support of the claim of Irish Republicans to be considered political prisoners. I remember that he died sixty-six days later on May 5, 1981, aged 27. He was elected Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone while on strike but never took up his seat. Now prisoners may not run for parliament.

I remember growing up in West London, where many Irish and Black British people then lived. The boarding houses where people rented rooms had signs that read “No Irish. No Coloured. No Dogs.” People say it didn’t happen now, but it did. I remember his photograph, wearing only a blanket in a cell whose walls were smeared with excrement. The IRA refused to wear prison uniform so they clothed themselves in blankets. They were at risk of attack when they “slopped out” the buckets that had to be used to relieve themselves at night. So they stopped doing it. I remember how thin he was in the picture and when he grew in his beard, you could not help but be reminded of Christ. To which anyone from the North would have asked: a Protestant Christ or a Catholic Christ? I remember seeing the Orangemen Parade in Oxford, while Sands was on strike, Protestant Loyalists in bowler hats marching past the Martyrs Memorial. Someone shouted in support of Sands and they chased us, meaning to hurt. The Martyrs? Protestants burned by Queen Mary in the sixteenth century. Four hundred years later, their adherents still want to inflict violence on non-believers. I remember singing the ballad “Back Home in Derry” during late night lock-ins in South London Irish pubs. The song was written by Bobby Sands in jail and recorded by Irish folk legend Christy Moore in 1984.

It’s about the deportation of Irish rebels to Australia in 1805. The song’s mourning and militancy is both ancient and entirely modern, deeply evocative of the dreadful 1980s Britain. Thatcher revived colonial violence from Ireland to the Falklands to support what we now call neoliberalism. I remember football crowds at the not-yet-famous Chelsea chanting “No Surrender to the IRA” and then singing their “Ten German Bombers” song about World War II. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the English were told they were better than the Irish no matter what else happened. And so, Marx noticed, they called them “n*****s.” I remember watching the police horses attack the miners and break the white working class movement, a shade over three years after Bobby Sands died. Their racism had done them no good. They still sing the songs when they watch England lose away. I don’t remember them telling me about how the Suffragettes were force-fed in British prisons when they went on hunger strike, a violation that was both rape and torture. I don’t remember hearing about the Price sisters, force-fed in English prison in 1972 or about Michael Gaughan, who died in 1974 after force-feeding. I don’t see memorials to the World Medical Association’s declaration in 1975 that the practice was against medical ethics. It was for these reasons, though, that the British army and its police did not intervene when Sands and other hunger strikers died. I’m twice as old now as Bobby Sands was when he died. I remember.