Bobby Sands (1954-1981) was a Provisional IRA volunteer and British Member of Parliament. He is best known for the prison hunger strike that eventually claimed his life. Sands was born in Newtonabbey, a predominately Protestant suburb north of Belfast. His family was Catholic but avoided trouble by concealing their religion and views. This changed in 1960 after locals discovered the Sands’ background and conducted a campaign of harassment and intimidation against them. The family left Newtonabbey and was eventually given accommodation in Rathcoole, another Protestant area. The Sands children suffered further harassment from local youths. Bobby left school in 1969 and obtained an apprenticeship at a local coaching building factory. In January 1971 he was forced to leave his job after being kidnapped by an armed Loyalist gang.
Frustrated by his own experiences and angered by the events of Bloody Sunday, Bobby Sands joined the Provisional IRA in 1972. The following year Sands married Geraldine Noade; they had one son but the married was short lived. In 1973 Sands was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison, after the police discovered arms stored in his house. Sands’ was granted Special Category Status (SCS) in prison, where he associated with other influential IRA leaders, including Gerry Adams. Sands used his prison time to study socialist literature and Irish culture, becoming fluent in Gaelic. He was also a prolific writer of essays, poetry and songs. After his release Sands returned to Belfast. He worked as a social activist in Twinbrook, while participating in Provisional IRA attacks on the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and Protestant targets. Sands was arrested again in late 1976, suspected of bombing a Loyalist-owed furniture factory and engaging in a gunfight with police. Along with three others, Sands was sentenced to 14 years in prison for the possession of a single pistol.
With SCS now unavailable, Sands joined his fellow Republican prisoners in the Blanket Protest. He also wrote Republican propaganda, some of which was written on toilet paper and smuggled out of the prison. On March 1st 1981 Sands started a hunger strike, demanding the restoration of SCS and better conditions for Irish Republican prisoners. Later that month he nominated for the vacant British parliamentary seat of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Sands’ supporters outside the prison campaigned on his behalf and he won the seat narrowly, becoming the youngest member of the House of Commons. Sands would not survive to take up his seat, dying on May 5th 1981 after 66 days without food. His death received media coverage around the world and his funeral was attended by around 100,000 people.
This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole & J. Llewellyn, “Bobby Sands”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/northernireland/bobby-sands/.