The Irish Democrat speaks with Denis O'Hearn, author of a new book on the life of Bobby Sands
"I STARTED thinking of writing Bobby Sands' biography after reading Che Guevara's biography in 1997, on the 30th anniversary of Che's death" says Denis O'Hearn.
"I asked myself who's biography might be most interesting while giving an insight into the conflict in Ireland? Bobby Sands was an obvious choice."
The American academic's biography Bobby Sands - nothing but an unfinished song was launched in February, six years after putting pen to paper.
Denis O'Hearn arrived in Belfast during the late 1970s on a visit to deepen his understanding of the conflict. Denis, a half-native Alaskan, now finds himself lecturing in sociology between sociology departments at Queen's University Belfast and Binghampton University New York.
"The book will obviously be of interest to Irish-American activists but also to a wider audience," he says.
"Bobby Sands was an internationalist. He drew strength and political conviction from people like Che Guevara in Cuba, Camilo Torres in Columbia and George Jackson in Soledad, USA. Bobby was particularly interested in Afro-American history and today, contemporary Black activists show great interest in his life.
"I have met ordinary people in central America, Jamaica, Palestine and South African and they all have spoken of Bobby Sands.
"When Turkish political prisoners went on hunger strike five years ago, their secret codeword for their plans was 'Bobby Sands'. When Bobby died Fidel Castro compared him with Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela led a protest at Robben Island and Mayan militants went on the first hunger strike at Cero Hueco prison in Chiapas. He is an international figure."
The international consequences of the 1981 hungerstrike were significant, not just in giving prominence to the Irish struggle for self-determination, but also in sending out a warning to oppressors that politcal prisoners could do serious damage to the powers that held them captive.
"Hunger-strikes hadn't been unique to Ireland. But the political impact of the 1981 hunger strike elevated the tactic internationally. It had a ripple-effect," Mr O'Hearn says.
"It is no coincidence that the US government went to extreme measures to keep hunger-strikers at Guantanamo Bay alive, by brutally` force-feeding them. They they don't want another Bobby Sands."
Much of Denis' concern in his book is to "get under the skin" of Bobby Sands and find out what made him tick. The book outlines his life before his IRA involvement. It looks at his childhood, growing up with the societal vicissitudes of racist, sectarian hatred and his teenage experiences of living under a repressive police state.
But it also attempts to penetrate into his psyche, to identify a revolutionary characterology which could account for his endurance of a slow and painful death. "I don't like dealing with icons. Nine other men died, while dozens of men and women were involved in the prison struggle.
"But was there something special about Bobby Sands? Yes," Denis says. After being arrested at 17 years of age, Sands spent most of the rest of his life in jail. He died at 27 on 5 May 1981, after 66 days of hunger-strike, during which he wrote poems, kept a prison journal and was elected as Member of Parliament for Fermanagh- South Tyrone.
"He was a leader in jail. Bobby's strength was his ability to reinvent himself. This was particularly the case in prison," says Denis. "He recognised the importance of education, of learning Irish, of politicising the movement.
"In 1976 when Britain took away political status for republican prisoners, he convinced fellow prisoners to reclaim their prison spaces, to fight criminalisation and he led by example," Denis says.
Bobby Sands 'the man' as well as 'the activist' comes across in the book. "Bobby never did anything by half-measures. In fact, Bobby went over the top on occasions," he says.
"In playing football or singing songs, this came through. When singing a song, for example, he would focus on the emotional content to the point where the song sounded out of tune. It may have even looked like he was showboating, but in actual fact, he was simple being genuine and opening himself up in a way other prisoners wouldn't have allowed themselves to do," Denis says
After the aborted first hunger strike in 1980 the hungerstrikers were under no illusions about their fate. But they believed public awareness of their plight would put pressure on Thatcher and force the reintroduction of political status. After the deaths of ten men political status was quietly reintroduced. Today their sacrifice remains for the world to ponder.
"Its been 25 years since the hunger strike. Awareness of it at the time was immense. Hopefully the book will acquaint another generation of people of the significance of those events," Denis says.
Bobby Sands: nothing but an unfinished song by Denis O'Hearn is published in paperback by Pluto Press, ISBN: 0745325726, price £12.99 / €18.95
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2006 Denis O'Hearn