Honouring Bobby Sands and James Connolly: A Reflection

Editor Shunpiking

HALIFAX (5 May 2006) -- The 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin and 25th anniversary of the H-Block hunger strikes in Belfast have become times of great celebration for the Irish people and are being commemorated throughout the world, including Canada. Activities include marches, seminars, workshops, public meetings, plays, films and exhibitions. The actions of those who stood up and fought for independence in 1916 and the courageous sacrifice of the ten hunger strikers who gave their lives in 1981 represent the best of Ireland. They typify a valiant spirit that has endured much suffering over eight centuries of armed British colonial occupation.

The parallel between the two events is very real. The actions of those who fought in 1916 charted the path that led to independence for 22 of the 29 Irish counties in 1921, while Bobby Sands and the Irish patriots who gave their lives for their rights as political prisoners began the move toward a democratic renewal of the political process. The soldiers of the Easter Rising and the hunger strikers also shared the vision of an independent and united Ireland, free of foreign rule. Huge crowds attended the 90th anniversary events on 15 April throughout Ireland. Over 100,000 Irish demonstrated in Dublin alone. Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern approved a military parade, the largest ever, to mark the 90th anniversary of the armed insurrection, the first time in more than 30 years that the Irish Republic, actually created at Easter, 1916, has commemorated the Rising. Four hundred relatives of those executed or killed in 1916 were the state's guests of honour outside Dublin's General Post Office, centre of the Rising in 1916.

Many cities and countryside towns saw the largest political demonstrations in recent years.

Speaking at the plot in Milltown Cemetary in West Belfast where Hunger Strikers Bobby Sands, Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty are buried, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said the British government had "cruelly and cynically" allowed ten men to die while the Irish government "stood back". Adams called on republicans to tell a new generation of Irish republicans and especially the youth the story of 1981 alongside the history of 1916.

Quoting Padraig Pearse, Adams said the 1916 leader had got it "exactly right" when during his court martial he described the republican desire for freedom as unstoppable. "To us it is more desirable than anything in the world. If you strike us down now, we shall rise again to renew the fight. You cannot conquer Ireland. You cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom," Pearse had said.

25/90 & An Ghaeilge

James Connolly of the Easter Rising and the H-Block Hunger Strikers shared another vision; the renewal of Ghaeilge, the ancestral Irish language as the right of an oppressed nation and the vessel of Irish thought and outlook, and the philosophy of Irish freedom. "It is well to remember," declared James Connolly, "that nations which submit to conquest or races which abandon their language in favour of that of an oppressor do so, not because of the altruistic motives, or because of a love of brotherhood of man, but from a slavish and cringing spirit." One of Bobby Sands' important and most positive features was his stand on Irish language and the fine, patriotic traditions, culture and heritage of the Irish people. He was a talented and prolific author of prose, songs, and poetry (compiled in 'Skylark Sing your Lonely Song: An Anthology of the Writings of Bobby Sands'), a magnificent oral storyteller (as in the H-Block, the "telling" of books from memory through the cell door after the screws left the wing), and tradition bearer. During his imprisonment, he wrote poetry, short stories, a poignant account of what the prisoners suffered (One Day in My Life), and kept a diary for the first seventeen days of his hunger strike. He had a deep interest in the natural world and was a passionate birder, and many of his poems invoke metaphors of birds, a lyrical theme characteristic of the poetry of the Gaels.

For Bobby Sands, language, culture and heritage was not something iconically detached from the Irish people - all the people of Ireland - nor as something nativistic, nor a matter of encouraging "cultural discourse" and "diversity", and its renewal was linked with freedom and empowerment. Throughout the course of his political development, this young man opposed the cosmopolitan, nihilist culture of British imperialism which, with related edicts as the Statutes of Kilkenny [1649] and the consequent dispersion of the Irish clans and the dismantling of the Irish system of communal land ownership, aimed to destroy the Irish nation, denationalize, assimilate and Anglicise the Irish people, disinform their world outlook, foster sectarianism and fratricide, and make Ireland "loyal" once and for all time. Bobby Sands saw language renewal as a prominent component in the project of nation building of a united Ireland based on equality, justice and peace, and to
empower and inspire the Irish people to reclaim their national identity regardless of age, class, creed or political outlook on the path of ending man's exploitation by man.

Here is the real spirit of the Irish, for whom education under the Conquest was an offence against the law, where a price was put upon the head of a schoolmaster who was hunted as eagerly as a wolf and the priest.[1] Still, in the depths of the H-Block and Armagh prisons the hunger for learning persisted, and overcame the most brutalized and dehumanizing repression of the British occupiers and the Loyalist screw. In their solitary cells, deep in these militarized fortresses, young Irish men and women, garbed only in a blanket, deprived of clothes and later even of washing and toilet facilities, strove to snatch illegally the education and language denied them by the British occupier.

The devastation and annihilation of British cultural imperialism was such that by the 1960s you could count the number of Irish speakers in northern Ireland with the fingers of one hand. Bobby Sands himself learned Irish from southern republican prisoners in his first term interned as a "special category prisoner" (i.e., with political status, as a prisoner-of-war) in Long Kesh beginning in 1972.

In turn, he indefatigably taught his mates their national language in prison hellholes without the benefit of any writing material or tapes. It was not only a means of communication impenetrable by prison screws but to reclaim a stolen heritage. This too formed a source of great spiritual strength. Recalls Gerry Adams, cell-mate and friend, and a leader of the H-Block campaign in 1980-81: "the Irish language was one of the few aspects of prison life that helped the prisoners lift their spirits above the horror that was all around them and helped them resist the brutal oppression that was being inflicted upon them." They made the Irish language a living language as they brought history and politics to life, and, regardless of their "patois" dialect, modernized it.

It is widely acknowledged that the transformation of the jails into Gaeltachts (Gaelic-speaking areas) greatly raised the profile of and created new space for the Irish language and its revival, as had the stands of James Connolly and other leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916 for An Ghaeilge. It was said: "Every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom." Scores of youth joined Irish language classes as a measure of solidarity. Said one: "Maybe your best friend went to jail and came out as an Irish speaker and that would influence you, you know what I mean?"

At that time, as today, the British, the wealthy lords of Ireland and the media, including that of Canada, did their utmost to pretend that the cause of Bobby Sands and the Irish patriots had "no support" and mercilessly crucified them with unparalleled virulence as "common criminals", "thugs" and "terrorists". Political prisoner Bobby Sands was elected to the British House of Commons by the Irish people in the Fermanagh-Douth Tyrone by-election on 10 April 1981 with 30,492 votes.

He died in Long Kesh prison on 5 May 1981 at the age of 27 on the 66th day of his historic Hunger Strike. One hundred thousand people attended his funeral. They came from Belfast, and Northern Ireland, and from over the border, and across the sea. "It was the silence of the numbers which made the deepest impression - not frightening, but awe-inspiring," writes Peter Beresford in Ten Dead Men. The procession was led by a piper playing the H-Block song: "I'll wear no convict's uniform / Nor meekly serve my time / That Britain might brand Ireland's fight / 800 years of crime." Another 100,000 attended the funeral of Francis Hughes who died on 12 May on the 59th day of his hunger strike, the 65th anniversary of the martyrdom of James Connolly, executed by the British in 1916 for leading the Easter Rising.

In May 250,000 people in the Irish Republic signed a petition demanding that the five demands of the political prisoners be met, which was handed in to the Taoiseach, Haughey, a telling rebuff of the Irish government's complicity. On 11 June the Irish people reaffirmed their support by electing two of nine prisoners who stood for the Irish Dail (Parliament) - Paddy Agnew and Kieran Doherty - but the response of Margaret Thatcher and company was to issue a statement declaring their determination to condemn to death the MPs of a foreign state.

Twenty five years later it is the name, memory and noble ideals of the 1916 and 1981 heroes who are commemorated the world over while that of Lord Balfour, Margaret Thatcher and their ilk have ignominiously passed into the dustbin of history.

Wrote Bobby Sands: "We the risen people, shall turn tragedy into triumph. We shall bear forth a nation!"

"Tiocfaidh ar la! Our Day Will Come!"


[1] English soldiers received a bounty of £5 for the head of a "rebel" or priest (£1 less than they received for the head of a wolf). During this period, known as the Cromwellian settlement, the population was reduced by about half. Over a third were killed, while another 100,000 were sold into slavery in the West Indies and the American colonies. The remaining third (Catholics not involved in the revolt against English domination) were to be driven to the marginal lands of the extreme west of the country.

*Revised and expanded by the author from an article published in Mac-talla, annual Gaelic supplement of Shunpiking Magazine, Spring, 2006

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