Born in 1954, Bobby Sands grew up in Belfast under the cloud of nationalist and loyalist divisions. He joined the Republican Movement when he was 18 and was soon arrested and imprisoned for possessing a firearm. A second arrest in 1976 led to a 14-year-sentence. In prison, Sands embarked on a long hunger strike that led to his death. During the strike he was elected a Member of Parliament.
A hero among Irish nationalists, Robert Gerard "Bobby" Sands was born in Belfast, Ireland on March 9, 1954. Bobby Sands was the oldest of four children born to John and Rosaleen Sands, and the couple's first son. At an early age, Sands's life was affected by the sharp divisions that shaped Northern Ireland. At the age of 10, he was forced to move with his family out of their neighborhood due to repeated intimidation by loyalists.
"I was only a working-class boy from a Nationalist ghetto," Sands later wrote about his childhood. "But it is repression that creates the revolutionary spirit of freedom."
Loyalist intimidation proved to be a theme in Sands' life. At the age of 18, he was forced out of his job as an apprentice car builder. (He had joined the National Union of Vehicle Builders just two years before.) Not long after, he and his family had to move again, as a result of political trouble.
The steady number of conflicts pushed Sands to join the Republican Movement in 1972. His ties to the movement soon captured the attention of the authorities, and later that year, he was arrested and charged with possessing firearms in his house. He spent the next three years of his life in prison. Upon his release, Sands immediately returned to the Republican Movement. He signed on as a community activist in Belfast's rough Twinbrook area, quickly becoming a popular go-to person for a range of issues affecting the neighborhood.
In late 1976, authorities arrested Sands again, this time in connection with a bombing that had taken place at a large furniture company and an ensuing gun battle. After weathering a brutal interrogation and then a court proceeding that offered up questionable evidence connecting Sands and three others to the attack, a judge sentenced Sands to 14 years in prison at Her Majesty's Prison's Maze, a facility used to house Republican prisoners from 1971 until 2000, located just outside of Belfast.
As a prisoner, Sands's stature only grew. He pushed hard for prison reforms, confronting authorities, and for his outspoken ways he was frequently given solitary confinement sentences. Sands's contention was that he and others like him, who were serving prison sentences, were actually prisoners of war, not criminals as the British government insisted.
Beginning on March 1, 1981, Sands led nine other Republican prisoners into the H Block section of the Maze prison, on a hunger strike that would last until death. Their demands ranged from allowing prisoners to wear their own clothes to permitting visits and mail, all of which were central in improving the inmates' way of life.
Unable to move authorities to give in to his requests, and unwilling himself to end his hunger strike, Sands's health began to deteriorate. During the first 17 days of the strike alone, he lost 16 pounds.
A hero among his fellow nationalists, Sands was elected as a Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Death and Legacy
Only days after slipping into a coma, on the morning of May 5, 1981, Sands died from malnutrition due to starvation. He was 27 years old, and had refused to eat for 66 days. He'd become so fragile over his final weeks, he spent his final days on a water bed to protect his deteriorating and fragile body. At time of his death, Sands was married to Geraldine Noade, with whom he had one son, Gerard.
While loyalists dismissed Sands's death, others were quick to recognize its significance. Over the next seven months, nine other IRA supporters died on a hunger strike. Eventually, the British government gave proper political recognition to the prisoners, many of them earning their release under the 1998 Good Friday agreement.
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