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Seamus Connolly
Date Published: 
September 01, 2006

Bobby Sands died 25 years ago on May 5th in the Maze Prison in Belfast, North of Ireland. He died blinded by the 66-day hunger strike he had undertaken as a final protest against the British policy of criminalizing Irish Republican prisoners.

When he passed, thousands around the world took to the streets to protest the British government’s continued oppression of Irish political prisoners and the parliaments of several countries passed motions of sympathy and declared days of mourning and minutes of silence. Fidel Castro even referred to Bobby and the men following in his footsteps (nine others died on the hunger strike protest) in a speech: “Tyrants shake in the presence of men who are able to die for the ideals, after sixty days of hunger strike! Next to this example, what were the three days of Christ on Calvary…?”

In Nothing But an Unfinished Song, Sands’ journey from a working class sports fanatic to a dedicated IRA volunteer, revolutionary, poet and song writer is meticulously covered. O’Hearn attempts to explain how Bobby evolved from a person violently and systematically oppressed by the state and sections of civil society to a dedicated ideological and practical revolutionary. It is this eye towards analysis that makes the book more than just a historical summation of a Leftist hero.

O’Hearn follows Sands from his first entry into the IRA as a response of self and community defense. Bobby was living with his family in Rathcoole where the Protestant gang KAI (Kill All Irish), supported by the police, was intimidating Irish Catholics to force them from the area. Bobby was one of hundreds of young Irish flocking to the IRA as Loyalist and state reaction to the blooming civil rights movement took on more violent forms.

After being arrested for doing stick up jobs as a “fundraiser” for the IRA, he was placed in the Cages at Long Kesh where IRA prisoners were housed. The cages functioned as POW camps where IRA command structures were respected by the prison authorities. There were military parades, organized Gaelic (Irish language) instruction, history lessons and craft times. It is here that Bobby began to change from a young volunteer interested in music and fighting the RUC (police force in the North of Ireland) to the dedicated revolutionary that embarked on one of the most well known hunger strikes of our time.

Successful movement

O’Hearn credits contemporary Ireland’s most well known political figure, Gerry Adams, with putting Bobby on a solid path to Leftist revolution. Adams was a young commander in the IRA who, at the time he met Bobby, was entering into an internal struggle with the entrenched old-guard leadership of the IRA. Adams had problems with the severe hierarchy and military type discipline used by the IRA leadership. He also found arguments with the leadership’s fairly right wing cultural ideologies that were heavily wedded to Catholic Church doctrine and anti-communism.

Bobby was imprisoned with Adams, who formally educated the men in his cage using books, lectures and debates. Sands discovered alternatives to the severe top down military structure that aped the British army and learned about building consensus, camaraderie, and communal struggle. Along with these lessons that sharpened his critiques of IRA leadership, Bobby also began to understand how to build and win a successful movement to defeat British imperialism and create a Socialist Ireland.

When Bobby left the Cages he set to work building his alternative structures. He started a Republican neighborhood newspaper and organized popular cultural nights and sports. He even ran a slate that won a controlling majority on the local tenants association.

However, Sands did not stay away from military action when he was released from Long Kesh as he told his wife he would. O’Hearn briefly acknowledges Bobby’s broken promise to his wife. He even mentions how women often suffered along with their imprisoned husbands because they were left alone with the children and had to make up for loss of income. But he is not critical enough of the culture that entitled Bobby to ignore the needs of his family.

O’Hearn asserts that Bobby’s contribution to not only Irish politics but global Left politics was the example he set and the actions he inspired. This contribution is hard to measure when compared to concrete wins, but important nonetheless. The question of what winning means in the face of hegemonic power such as imperialism, racism and patriarchy still haunts defeated activists everywhere. If we follow Sands’ example, we have to fight with what ever we have at hand and we can’t give up, even in the face of death (how romantic) or apathy (how unromantic). Sometimes winning is exerting whatever control you have and defining the debate, even if it means that today you get a good asswhipping from the shock troopers of capitalism.
Unfinished Song is a good book to be read and discussed among dedicated radical economic and racial justice activists and organizers. You wont find any sympathy for the British here (it’s clear where O’Hearn stands), but you will find yourself a new hero.

Nation Books, 2006