ABSTRACT

In 1981 Bobby Sands, a member of the Irish Republican Army, died of a hunger strike in the Maze Prison near Belfast, and the streets exploded in violence. Sands’s hunger strike and death wove together a number of the most heroic and tragic strands of Irish history and contemporary Northern Ireland. The tactic of the hunger strike evoked memories of the death of Terence MacSwiney in 1920 from a hunger strike in a British prison. Shortly before his death Sands had been elected to the British Parliament, whose rule over Northern Ireland he rejected; Sinn Fein had used the same tactics in 1918 to create the first Dail Eireann. Sands was jailed for possession of firearms and involvement in the blowing up of a warehouse; the IRA had taken the path of the gun against British rule from 1918 to 1921. During Sands’s hunger strike violent confrontations had occurred in the streets of Belfast, and on Easter Sunday in 1981 they resulted in the death of two youths who were crushed by a British Army truck. Their funerals were two more in a long string of funerals in Belfast and Derry, not only from the violence since 1968 but from trouble in the 1920s and 1930s. The British were adamant in refusing to make concessions to Sands’s demands for better treatment in prison, reflecting the “not-an-inch” position that the Ulster unionists had adopted toward Catholic demands for half a century. International opinion favored a concession, 332but the British prime minister felt that such a move would cause a backlash from the Protestant community, a pressure not unfamiliar to Lloyd George in 1921.