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Bobby Sands, Hunger and How to Make a Nation Disappear

By Darran Anderson.

Bobby Sands was a multitude of things. To the republican movement, he was, and remains, a freedom-fighting revolutionary and a martyr to the cause, as forever young and unimpeachable in death as any rock star but also “one of us” in that he was a working class self-educated Belfast boy. To the British Government and their unionist counterparts, he was a criminal and a terrorist, who had been arrested when a firearm was discovered in the car he was travelling in with three others, following a shootout with the RUC. To loyalists, a talismanic figure of hatred and ridicule (the punch line to many a Glasgow Rangers football chant and graffiti scrawl). To the constituents of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, he was their Member of Parliament, elected on what was essentially his deathbed.

Growing up in a Republican household in Derry, Sands was to me almost a secular saint but also a ghostly miasmic figure. His name was spoken of with the same reverence and respect as Mandela or Guevara yet there was something in that famous image of the smiling long-hair in the red sweater (that was an ikon to us the way the Queen Mother, JFK or Padre Pio was to other families) that haunted me to the core because I knew, as little as it was I knew, the hell he had ventured into and its aftermath. “I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world,” he wrote on the first day of the secret diary of his hunger strike, “May God have mercy on my soul.”

It was with intrigue and some trepidation that I approached Steve McQueen’s biopic Hunger. Buoyed by universal critical acclaim, standing ovations and awards at Cannes, Toronto and Venice, I knew enough of McQueen’s Turner-winning artwork and the plays of the screenwriter Enda Walsh to realistically hope that it would be a superior project. At the very least, there would be a blessed absence of abominable Northern accents voiced by mildly cretinous Hollywood stars. To virtually anyone of a certain age from the country, the film promised to be too close to the bone, too emotive. It’s like those old brain maps that phrenologists and quacks used to have in which the mind is sectioned up into different sections- fortitude, manners, love of fine art. In an age, perhaps coming to a close, of riotous materialism and mindless entertainment, the slob part of our brains has enlarged and now dominate the mind chart. The idea that a film might be harrowing and enlightening but of secondary entertainment value is an disconcerting one to the worst parts of our being. Orwell was wrong. We needn’t have worried that everyone would become mechanical automatons or a broken compliant Winston Smiths. Instead the very real fear is that we’ll look out upon humanity and see just an endless sea of Ant and Decs.

On both sides of the Troubles conflict, grievances, that have the appearance of being buried since the Good Friday Agreement, are still more raw and deep-rooted than many commentators would admit. Not much has been forgiven, nothing has been forgotten and agendas remain behind every decision, instead the necessity of carrying on has produced, still remarkable in itself, a setting aside. To re-engage with the hunger-strikers and the blanket men is to risk stirring a hornet’s nest but risk it, as every historian knows, we must.

As it goes, Hunger is nothing short of stunning in both senses of the word. The first act, which concerns the blanket (in which republican volunteers, fighting in what they saw as a mutual war, sought to be recognised as political prisoners rather than felons) and dirty protests (initiated due to frequent savage beatings they received whilst slopping out), is remarkable for its near total absence of dialogue. It is this that truly disturbs. Nothing is explained. There are none of the usual conventions of comic relief, fair play or retribution present in much cinema. For resisting wearing the uniform of the convict, the inmates are beaten and tortured without defence or repercussion by British officials and police. All of this takes place in terrifying near silence, a claustrophobic stillness that deepens the feeling that you never know the parameters of the situation, where this all ends or how. Far from the feeling that this is taking place on British soil, it feels like a subterranean Chilean torture camp for the disappeared, the bowels of the Lubyanka or some godforsaken Gestapo prison. For a long time the only sound is the voice in your head that all the time is stating, “This happened.”

Aided by David Holmes and Leo Abrahams’ superlative soundtrack, McQueen’s artistic eye is most evident in this section. His often revelatory even ritualistic shots show the human body in all its grandeur and repulsion. Split knuckles bathed in warm water. An orderly sloshing bleach and urine back into the cells. A snowflake melting on the skin of a prisoner. Another smearing his cell with shit, creating a spiralling maelstrom before which the cleaner, sent in to hose the walls, stands momentarily mesmerised. Like the darkest paintings of Expressionism (Käthe Kollwitz and Ludwig Meidner spring to mind), each close-up is harrowing and oddly beautiful in equal measure. Treat us like animals the prisoners wordlessly say and we will actualise this for you. Degrade us and we will degrade you and all that you stand for, demonstrate to the world the true nature of your occupations. It is almost an artistic statement in itself and the prisoner’s almost artists, holding the cracked mirror up to a rotten society, providing a metaphor for the subjugation of one race by another with the only thing they have left – their bodies and their waste. Piero Manzoni may have done it for satirical effect and the money, the blanketmen paradoxically did it for their dignity.

Yet no political point is explicitly foisted upon the viewer beyond the bare facts. There is no lecturing nor, in its sparse brutality, is there the promotion of any Prada Meinhof-style terrorist chic. In a prison atmosphere, where everything is watched and any individual act brutalised, communication takes place in the form of smuggled notes between prisoner and visitor or in the reassuring beep of the horn to the prison officer’s wife watching her husband drive off to work, breath held for fear that the ignition will ignite more than the engine. Nothing is said yet everything is; a sign of McQueen’s skills when any Hollywood adaptation would be no doubt filled with stock characters and ham-fisted explanations. When speech does occur, it is comes as the sign of imminent terror, whether the debased cavalry roar of the riot police, psyching themselves up, to set upon their naked adversaries or the ominous snatch of Gaelic from one prisoner to another, telling him to get ready for something is coming.

The third section, depicting a rapidly deteriorating Sands, is equally harrowing and silent. Michael Fassbinder’s unbelievable weight-loss (when he removed his top to reveal a skeletal frame covered in bedsores and suppurating ulcers, there was a palpable intake of breath amongst the audience) may, like Christian Bale’s method-acting in The Machinist, distract from what is in itself a truly incredible performance. Whether it is the scene full of poignant defiance where the emaciated Sands lifts himself out of a bath rather than be hoisted by a doctor bearing a UDA tattoo across his knuckles or the distressing deathbed scenes, where the militant allows, in wilful and stubborn pride, his mother to watch her son starve himself to death. It is not a case of applauding an actor for his authenticity in dramatically reducing his calorie intact but applauding an actor for a pitch perfect, hypnotically brilliant infinitely complex portrayal that manages to be both enigmatic and charismatic and all the more heart-rending for its finality.


In contrast to the silence it is bookended by, the second act, set between the bolshy Sands and a visiting priest Father Moran (played with masterful realism and restraint by Liam Cunningham), is all speech. Whereas the beginning and endings demonstrated the depths to which the prison authorities and Thatcher’s government went in not communicating with so-called terrorists, the meeting at the centre of the film automatically lifts the film and provides some (temporary) breathing space. On one side Sands, the twenty-something radicalised by having his family been burned out of his home by racist mobs, jousts with a priest, sympathetic to his plight but, like most clergy of the time, urging acquiescence and debate. Initially good humoured and filled with the familiar banter of the working class of the north (in Ulster the practise of “slagging” has been honed to a fine art), it soon turns into a sparring match. When Sands reveals his intentions to start essentially a death-sentence for himself and his comrades, you feel the temperature drop. You could cite reminiscent works like Camus’ The Rebel, Conrad’s The Secret Agent even De Sade’s Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man but what follows is a tour de force with a unique power all of its own. Expertly scripted by Enda Walsh, the argument becomes not just one between radicalism and moderacy, the will and the conscience, urban and rural, Sinn Fein and SDLP or indeed any thesis versus antithesis. It’s not an either/or situation but instead a hall of shifting mirrors. Emboldened by youth, a sense of rage and injustice, even the intoxications of ego, Sands is utterly determined to see it out and every attempt made by the priest to convince him otherwise – invoking guilt over his family, criticism of the IRA leadership, his vanity in taking his place amongst those hallowed dead men of Irish folklore, the theological implications of suicide – simply ricochets. They end heartbreakingly where they began. In acting, script and direction terms, it is the kind of astounding episode for which film was created.

Leaving the cinema shaken but with a thousand thoughts and emotions stirred, I started reconsidering Sands, weighing up this figure who we’d known of from as early as memories go and revered as soon as we were old enough to understand what he and his comrades had done. The postscript to the film had provided a brief summary of what transpired: following 10 prisoners starving themselves to death (and the “revenge” killings of 16 prison officers – a astonishing total of 50 prison officers serving in The Maze would also commit suicide), the British government gave the prisoners special status, allowing them to freely associate, wear their own clothes, receive visits and letters. In strengthening its support amongst working class Catholics and highlighting the struggle internationally (riots, demonstrations and shows of solidarity had occurred from Paris to New Jersey to Iran), the IRA called off the protest. Many of those who’d joined the hunger strikes and been pulled back from the brink found their health (eyesight, hearing, liver function, muscle and bone density) forever ruined and their lifespans invariably shortened. In the following years, Sinn Fein went onto follow the “Armalite and ballot-box” strategy. Within twenty years, the Good Friday Agreement would see Sinn Fein eventually, and logically given their electoral mandate, rising to government or having sold out depending on the extremity of your political persuasion.


Which is where the Sands legacy gets particularly interesting. An intelligent and well-read poet, song-writer and savvy thinker, Sands knew the implications of what he was doing in a social and even cultural context. The Republican movement, in the modern age, had emerged as a defensive force, protecting Catholic neighbourhoods from intruding mobs and initially enjoyed little support as a political entity (it’d previously burnt itself out as a viable force for change in an ineffectual border campaign in the 50’s). The denial of votes, housing, education and employment to Catholics, institutionalised racism and constant harassment and brutality by a loyalist-dominated police force had sparked the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, spurred on by the surge for African American civil rights in America, May ’68 in Paris and the wave of dissent that span the globe in the late Sixties. Though civil disobedience in nationalist ghettos had been continuing for half a decade (see the Battle of the Bogside and Free Derry) but it would be the murder of 13 demonstrators by British troops on Bloody Sunday that would prove to be the major recruitment drive for the IRA. When the moderate demands for change met only repression, there were seemingly no paths left but the militant one as in JFK’s words, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” The parallels with the radicalisation of black Americans between the murder of Dr King and the rise of the Black Panthers or in Germany between the police killing of the student Benno Ohnesorg and the emergence of the Baader-Meinhof gang (a member of which incidentally, Holger Meins, killed himself via hunger strike whilst imprisoned) are self-evident.

By the time of the hunger strikes, thousands of deaths and a brutal sectarian war of attrition between the army, police and loyalists on one side and the IRA and related splinter groups had exhausted all sides. Recognising this, Sands went back to the roots. The Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney had died on hunger strike against British rule in 1920, causing a worldwide wave of protest and sympathy (ultimately influencing Mahatma Gandhi in his resistance to British occupation of India). Similarly during the Easter Rising of 1916, the event central to the formation of the Irish Republic, the chief rebel strategist schoolteacher Padraig Pearse was convinced (rightly as it proved) that by undertaking a suicidal mission they could not win, in terms of numbers or firepower, they would provide a stirring example that would cause an entire people to rise up and overthrow the colonialists. He called it “a blood sacrifice.”

Beyond a mutual love of sentimental balladeering, the similarities between Sands and Pearse are striking. Though Sands (and his Provisional allies) had more in common politically with, Pearse’s erstwhile ally, his hero the socialist James Connolly, the two shared an unyielding urge that Nietzsche defined as “the will to power.” It was not simply the cause that informed their actions but the heady belief in their cause. It was the very act of believing itself and the extraordinary discipline to see it through that they were enamoured with. In 1916, Connolly thought the insurrection might actually succeed, Pearse knew it didn’t stand a chance in hell, which was precisely what he’d planned. A form of bravery indistinguishable from madness to us, this urge, however naïve, to raise mankind up to a new level through your own funeral pyre links Pearse and Sands with each other but also others. As explored in Camus’ Les Justes, Russian revolutionaries (the SR’s and Narodnaya Volya) of the late Victorian age wrestled with the same dilemmas, some working out an apparent compromise in which their assassinations would be somehow cancelled out by their own surrender and execution. An eye for an eye. Thus whilst they committed murder (most spectacularly the autocratic Tsar Alexander II), they were fully aware of the act as a moral aberration and would pay a penance with their lives. The Bolsheviks who would follow in their footsteps would have no such petty qualms.

Loosely titled propaganda of the deed), it was an strategy that spawned what is now seen as the first age of modern terrorism, an anti-authoritarian wave that spanned the globe and resulted in countless political killings (including US President McKinley, King Alexander of Yugoslavia, George I of Greece and Empress Elisabeth of Austria) and subsequent repressions. Most famous of these propagandists of the deed, and completing the circle back to Sands, was Gavrilo Princip, a member of the secretive Serbian Nationalist group the Black Hand. Dying of tuberculosis, the 19-year old Princip and his similarly doomed group of friends conspired to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a member of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy who ruled over their homeland. After an earlier failed attempt with a grenade, due to a wrong turning made by the chauffeur, Princip found himself eating a sandwich unexpectedly before the cavalcade and struck accordingly, shooting the Archduke through the throat and his wife in the stomach. In the parlance of innumerable GCSE history essays, those gunshots were the sparks that lit the powder keg of the First World War (though the history books have largely sidestepped the image of the Archduke, blood spurting from his jugular, begging over his wife’s corpse for her to live for their children). In terms of philosophy, Nietzsche was the father of both Princip and Sands. To reduce his work to a platitude is to desecrate the German philosopher’s complex system of beliefs but one facet – conquer yourself and you conquer the world is nowhere more apparent than here. It all comes back to a central Nietzsche line which Princip had memorised and wished to be his epitaph that sums up this calling, “Insatiable as a flame I consume myself.”

It may well be trenchant egotism by another name (as Yeat’s warned “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart”), it may be a tendency in the Irish character, if such a thing exists, to romanticise destruction (it’s no accident Belfast’s proudest products are a footballer who drank himself to death and a ship that sank to the bottom of the ocean with over a thousand souls) or a retreat to childhood as the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard had theorised. Whatever the diagnosis, the actions yielded massive influence. In a way, Pearse had it easy: take over the General Post Office, some administrative centres, a biscuit factory, blow up half the city and wait for the opposing generals to dumbly sign your death sentences to ensure martyrdom and mass outrage. To refuse food, to slowly go deaf and blind as your body tries to redirect precious nutrients to vital organs, to suffer spasms and hallucinations as the body begins to consume itself fat and muscle-first (bleakly and accurately recreated in Hunger) is a different ordeal altogether.

Watching the film and seeing stock footage of the time, it’s difficult not to notice certain religious antecedents at play. Whilst fiercely leftist by their admission, the volunteers nevertheless came from a Catholic background that few ever manage to fully shake off. It’s difficult to see the blanketmen with their sheets, long bedraggled hair and beards and not recall (intentionally perhaps) the description of John the Baptist in the wilderness, living off locusts, wild honey and dressed in rags made from camel hair. This idea of a corrupted form of the Holy Orders extends to the Jesuit-esque cells (a la St John of the Cross) and the echoes of the penitential self-ruin of the likes of the philosopher Simone Weil and St Rose of Lima. Whether subconscious or deliberate, there is the suggestion of some strange translation of the Catholicism of Sand’s (and his colleague’s) birth – all those messianic portraits of crowns of thrones, stigmata, crucifixions and self-harming flagellants bringing on religious ecstasy through suffering. Given the crimes they were arrested for, it’s doubtful the volunteers could ever join the ranks of Christian mystics but the parallels are there. Given Al Qaeda’s use of suicide bombers (and the hallowed prize of 72 virgins in paradise), the idea of killing yourself and yourself alone for a cause seems grotesquely quaint in hindsight.


One consequence of Hunger’s release and acclaim, particularly with an “arthouse” crowd, is that the previously taboo or at least neglected topic of the Troubles had been brought to light particularly in the UK. One of the biggest, and most despondent, revelations in moving to the so-called mainland was the lack of knowledge of many in Scotland or England about the reasons behind, or just simply, the events of Northern Ireland’s recent history. Given that conversations about the complexities of culture and politics in the Middle East, the US or South East Asia are plentiful, there’s a blindspot regarding this fellow province of the UK. Many schooled in the horrors of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay barely know The Maze (whether it be the cages of Long Kesh or the H-Blocks) ever existed. It’s as if the Irish Sea had been replaced by some surrogate Iron Curtain through which only slivers of information emerged (exceptional if select poetry and plays being the exception – Heaney’s North , Longley’s Wounds and Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal for example) or violence leaked (Guildford, Canary Wharf, Warrington, Brighton). With the absence of real information, the perception of the Troubles fell into a simplistic clichés and patronising assumptions. Due south and east, the North was seen largely as a place where savages indiscriminately killed each other over the theological status of the Virgin Mary, where on one side there was marauding barbarian rioters and bombers and on the other Christian fundamentalist demagogues like Paisley. Burntollet bridge, La Mon, Claudy, internment, Warrenpoint, the Shankill Butchers, Loughall, Enniskillen, Sean Graham’s, the Shankill bomb, The Rising Sun are seen, if they ever are, as veiled and without any attempt at how or why. There was always the assumption that both sides were engaged in some depraved love of terror for terror’s sake like Fantomas (one of the best examples of such bathos came from Bono and Gavin Friday’s video for In The Name Of The Father in which two blindfolded hunks, stripped to the waist, beat each other with giant polystyrene crosses). War is many terrible things but one thing it never is, is motiveless. So what caused this silence?

Due primarily to pressure from Thatcher’s government, the NI office and the BBC’s referral upwards policy (by which any Northern Irish content was screened and censored by the top brass), the only information that was readily accessible on TV or radio was that sanctioned by official channels, whether that be in-depth interviews or simply shots of Belfast housing estates. The Broadcasting Act of 1981, designed to starve terrorists of the “oxygen of publicity,” was invoked to censor everyone from American authors to Labour councillors and even The Pogues when their opinions didn’t concur with the government’s. This created an atmosphere of fear, apathy and apprehensiveness in which journalists by and large voluntarily played a passive timid role. Countered by the pioneering work of British and Irish journalists dedicated with varying degrees of success to objective integrity (Eamonn McCann, David Beresford, Jack Holland, Martin Dillon and Peter Taylor for example), this system was gradually fazed out though some ludicrous vestiges of the broadcast ban remained for some time. Effectively the damage was done and at least one generation grew up with little real knowledge of what was taking place in their backyard and little could be learned historically to avoid a repeat. With today’s omnipresent blogging, multiple channels and 24 news, short of the blanket restricting of internet access as in China or Cuba, such a media blackout would thankfully be impossible. The truth will prevail, as Hunger attests, only through risks being taken.

Inevitably, some will say the film glorifies terrorists though following the initial walkouts reported at Cannes, the picture has received, by and large, critical acclaim. The sternest critics needn’t bother for Sand’s ghost is a troublesome one. Sure enough, he is sanctified as an, maybe the, untouchable hero amidst republicans and Irish nationalists, as are the nine who died with him. Yet Sands is a disconcerting memory, the conscience of the movement, the nagging voice in the back of republican minds (maybe even some loyalist ones) that looks upon Stormont and says, “Was it all for this?” “Was it for this that (add any of over three and a half thousand names) died?” It’s the perpetual doubt in the rebel whose swapped permanent revolution for civil service, (Tiocfaidh ár lá for Tiocfaidh Armani). And that voice in the back of the mind will always be in Bobby Sand’s accent. Hunger does not sit easily in many minds. It was never meant to.

Darran Anderson lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. He co-edits 3:AM and Dogmatika. His writing is due to feature in the forthcoming Offbeat Generation and his poetry collection St John of the Railway Tracks is due for publication by Blackheath Books in 2009.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 12th, 2008.