Bobby Sands - Writings from Prison

( 1 Review )

As well as being the leader of the blanket men and of the second hunger strike, Bobby Sands was also the most prolific writer among the H-Block prisoners. He not only wrote press statements, but he also wrote short stories and poems under the pen name “Marcella”, his sister’s name, which were published in Republican News and then in the newly merged An Phoblacht/Republican News after February 1979.
Bobby’s writings span the last four years of his life in H-Block 3, 4, 5, or 6. They were written on pieces of government issue toilet roll or on the rice paper of contraband cigarette roll-ups with the refill of a biro pen which he kept hidden inside his body. He also wrote as “a young West Belfast republican” and as PRO of the blanket men in the H-Blocks 3, 4, and 6. This collection contains creative pieces – writing of an extremely high standard – as Bobby describes penal life in a compelling and graphic manner. When one recalls that all of his writing was accomplished in almost impossible conditions, one cannot but admire his achievement, an example of the ingenuity and determination of the republican prisoners about whom he writes.
There is a premonition of personal tragedy running through his writings: that his H-Block cell will, literally, become a tomb. His admiration for his comrades and his feelings for supporters and for oppressed people outside of prison emerge in the words which he expertly uses as a weapon against a regime which tries vainly to break and dehumanise him. Bobby’s diary is a unique piece of literature, his last written words.
During his formative years Bobby, as he says himself, was “a budding ornithologist.” As one well-known H-Block ballad goes, “…A happy boy through green fields ran/And kept God’s and man’s laws.” He also read and was influenced by the nationalist poet Ethna Carrberry (Anna McManus) who coincidentally also grew up in Belfast.
So Bobby put many of his own thoughts into verse. My favourite is “The Rhythm of Time” but his H-Block Trilogy must surely rank with Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol and has recently and very brilliantly been staged as a drama by H-Block prisoners.Two of bobby’s songs, “Back Home in Derry” and “McIlhattan” were also recorded by Christy Moore.
In his own poetry Bobby asserts that the spirit of freedom and injustice has been innate to humankind from the beginning. In tracing this spirit he demonstrates an exceptional grasp of history and memory recall. (He was denied books, newspapers, radio or TV, and mental stimulation for the last four years of his life.) Wat the Tyler, for example, was an English peasant who in 1381 challenged and led an uprising against the English monarchy. The persecuted early Christians, slaves, peasants, native American Indians and Irish republican freedom fighters share the stage of history against tyranny. And the driving force against oppression, as Bobby concludes, is the moral superiority of the oppressed.

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1 Review

Vicki 22nd May 2013

What will you put up with?

Even now - over 30 years later and as a wave of neo-Thatcherism threatens a new generation - too often do I feel that the massive human rights failure at the H block continues to be diminished or, more frustratingly, rationalised with mechanical and repetitive comments about the war on so-called "terrorism".

This account gets right to the bones of the human experience of torture at the Maze: the long, tense hours in squalid cells, with no stimulation whatsoever, interrupted periodically by invasive, demeaning cavity searches, brutal beatings, spirit crushing insults and mockery, all exacerbated by the pernicious consequences of malnourishment. It's not always an easy book to read, but it is a powerful and inspiring one.

Prompted by the relationships between key figures in the diary sections, I have reflected on how I carry out my own responsibilities, both as a citizen of the state (who happens to be a civil servant) and also, as self-determining human being (who happens to be Scottish).

On the one hand, we have the perpetrators of abuse: the guards and orderlies. They display an unforgiveable lack of self-awareness, a sycophantic willingness to conform and, within the security of that conformity, abdication of responsibility for their callous treatment of other human beings. As an educator by profession, I draw a parallel with those who chose to manage children with corporal punishment before it was abolished from state education in 1987. Is that this practice fell within the confines of the law a substantial enough reason to enforce it? It is eerie to think that this sufficiently incomprehensible insight into the abuse of power at Long Kesh may be but a fraction of the wider corruption, brainwashing and tragedy that haunts the recent history of this country.

On the other hand, we have Bobby Sands, who, despite the torture he endures, actively and persistently refuses to conform to the role the state bestows upon him, i.e. criminal. The physical effects of his ordeal are evident in his battered, malnourished and exposed body. His poems and stories attest the psychological pains of a caged and ceaselessly persecuted man; his obsession with the free moving, long-legged curlew, distant dreamy memories of days when he 'once had a life' and was free to roam and enjoy his country, visions of his wife's smile and regret for the hardships that had to be endured by his parents and, more generally, by his people.

If we wish to live in a country that practises political freedom can we overlook - or continue to deride - the suffering endured by the freedom-fighters as a result of their campaign to be recognised as political prisoners? I would suggest we have no right to disregard the plight of any woman or man who, for the benefit of all, has attempted to throw off the shackles of their oppressors rather than submit to their weaker moral requirements. We must also ask ourselves if we have properly and publicly addressed the wider issues pertaining to neglect and the disintegration of basic human rights that took place in British prisons as recently as the 1980s? And, have we properly and publicly held those responsible accountable?

It seems we have lost focus of our human responsibilities in the smoke and mirrors of manufactured jingoism. Torturous practices erode the moral fabric of society and are traumatic to both those who receive and perpetrate them. We cannot gloss over bigotry. This certainly wasn't good enough for Bobby, and if his story has taught us anything, it's that we get what we put up with. And so, it begs the question: just what will we put up with?

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