Irish Prisoners of War - NORAID Online

Irish Hunger Strikes 1980 & '81

Chapter 19

The First Weeks:
Bobby’s Final Birthday Party
Francis Hughes Joins the Hunger Strike

On February 28, 1981, Bobby Sands ate a small, bitter orange in a cold H-Block cell. It was the last morsel of food he would ever taste. That night he began writing a diary of his experience on hunger strike. "I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May God have mercy on my soul," he wrote on a piece of toilet paper.

He also wrote on a cigarette paper the lyrics of a song he had written years ago while on remand and sent it on to a friend, Ricky O’Rawe, who had taken over as public relations officer for the republican prisoners. He called it "A Sad Song for Susan."

It ended like this: "And I wish I had you back again to when you were here/ Remember the Winter nights when you warmed me from the cold/ And the Spring when we walked through green fields and skies of gold/ You’re gone, you’re gone, but you live on in my memory."

It might very well have been written about himself and now he is only a memory. Perhaps he was saddened by his own loss of loved ones, a son and wife he hardly had the time to have anything like a normal life with, his sisters and brother, and his parents, as he faced an unknown eternity.

Support on the Falls

It was a cold Sunday on the Falls Road as well. Sinn Fein organized a march down the Falls to demonstrate support for the hunger strike. Four months earlier there had been 10,000 people showing their support for the first day of the first hunger strike. On this Sunday, there were perhaps thirty-five hundred demonstrators. The Movement would have to start all over again to publicize the plight of the men and gather support for the new hunger strike. But now it was ground minus zero. The people were distressed by the failure of the first hunger strike to move the Brits an inch towards the five demands and off of their criminalization policy. They were wearying from months of rallying around the H-Block/Armagh Committees and being harassed, beaten, arrested, shot, and even murdered for their activism. And they knew they had to get geared up to do it all again. On a cold, late winter Sunday in the north of Ireland, this wasn’t an easy thing.

That’s why Bobby knew for a fact he was going to die. He knew the mechanisms of popular support couldn’t be turned on without a blood sacrifice, much like the sacrifice of the men of 1916 was needed to open the eyes of the people of Ireland. He also knew the Brits needed a message that even they could not misunderstand.

In a little over two months, there would be 100,000 mourners following his coffin down the same Falls Road in West Belfast to Milltown cemetery.

The First Weeks

On Bobby’s 5th day on hunger strike a comm was sent out to the Movement: "Bobby’s weight today is 62 kg. His heart beat is 88 and blood pressure 112/70. He requested blankets. Said he felt the draft coming in the windows."

He was experiencing no side effects from the fast, except an unnatural craving for brown bread, butter, honey, and cheese. And naturally the screws came with heaps of steaming food three times a day to torture him. His cell mate, Malachy Carey, had a regular feast.

But by Friday of the first week he was feeling occasional bouts of energy loss. By Saturday, he had lost three kilograms.

On Monday, the 9th of March, he turned 27 years of age. He weighed 60 kgs.

"Comrade, how are ya? I’m still in the wing with the lads and how long that will last is uncertain. I’m feeling physically all right, I’ve no headaches or even minor medical complaints. There are I believe several tactics being deployed at present, foremost is I believe a deliberate policy of false disinterest that is ‘we couldn’t care less’ type of thing to make me feel small or insignificant and to try to create the impression in my mind that the hunger strike is merely confined to my cell," he put in a comm on his birthday.

"Let me or anyone else die..."

He sent out another comm on March 9th that showed how worried he was that an unacceptable deal would be struck to save his life, which had happened through deception and bad faith four months previously:

"As you know, I don’t care much to entering into any discussion on the topic of ‘negotiations’ of for that matter ‘settlements’ but what is worrying me is this: I’m afraid there is a possibility that at a crucial stage [which could be death] that Brits would move with a settlement and demand Index [prison chaplain Fr. Toner] as guarantor. Now this is feasible, if a man is dying, that they would try to force Bik to accept a settlement to save life which of course would be subject to [Fr. Toner’s] interpretation. And we know how far that would get us. It wouldn’t make any difference if it were he and Silvertop [ass’t chaplain Fr. Murphy], the same would occur. I’ve told Bik to let me or anyone else die before submitting to a play like that..."

Bik Faces An Unenviable Job

Bik McFarlane, the new OC, in essence commanding all the logistics and strategy for the hunger strike inside the prison, knew exactly what he had to do, although he wasn’t happy about it. In a panel discussion in Derry City in January, 2001, almost 20 years after the events of the hunger strike, he told a stilled audience how he went to Bobby asking him to select someone else to be prison OC. He told him how there were others more capable and closer to him on a personal level. Why not pick one of your friends? Bik wanted to know.

Bobby told him, "Because they won’t let me die." And Bik would have to.

A Final Birthday Party

That night, after the news from the various prison blocks was shouted across the wings and courtyard, including Bobby’s present weight and general health, D wing roared in unison and in Irish, "Happy birthday, Bobby!"

The celebration consisted mostly of a concert or "singsong" in Bobby’s honor, which featured several of Bobby’s own songs, "Back Home in Derry", sung my himself, and "McIlhatton" sung by Bik accompanied on the bodhran drum [rather, the steel cell door]. There was a whole evening of songs, requests, poems and whistled music.

On the 14th of March, Bobby weighed 58.25 kgs and his vital signs were normal. "The screws turned his cell lights on 3 times last night waking him on every occasion: 10 pm, 2 am, 6 am...," a smuggled out comm said.

He tried to write poetry, had plenty of ideas and thought it would help him face each day and ward off negative thoughts of the crisis days ahead, but he couldn’t. He was just too tired and he needed to conserve energy. He stopped his hunger strike diary after the 15th day.

The Man From Tamlaghtduff

On Sunday, the 15th of March, 1981, Bobby was joined on hunger strike by one of the greatest heroes of the conflict, Francis Hughes, of South Derry. He was captured after a intense fire fight with the SAS almost two years previously to the day. Francis lead the British army on a wild and bloody ride for years in his home land of South Derry that usually ended with Brit casualties and with Francis slipping through, around or behind hostile lines of soldiers. He was one with the hills. Taking in the odds never seemed to be part of his calculations when engaging the Brits. Sometimes he simply attacked whole squads arrayed to capture or kill him, turning an aggressive British operation into a full retreat. Francis Hughes was a legend. He was 23 years of age when he was captured; he was 25 when he died. Chisty Moore wrote a popular song about Francis, "The Boy From Tamlaghtduff":

Moving round the countryside he often made the news

But they could never lay their hands on my brave Francis Hughes.

Finally they wounded him and captured him at last.

From the countryside he loved, they took him to Belfast.

On from Musgrave Park to Crumlin Road and then to an H-Block cell,

He went straight on the blanket then, on hunger strike as well.

His will to win they could never break, no matter what they tried.

He fought them every day he lived and he fought them as he died...

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