Bobby Sands: The Life and Death of an Ornithologist
Uaigneach abhi mé ar feadh tamaill ar tráthnóna beag inníu ag éisteacht leis na preácháin ag screadáil agus ag teacht abhaile daobhtha …”
“I was lonely for awhile this evening, listening to the crows cawing as they returned home. If I should hear the beautiful lark, it would break my heart. Now, as I write, the odd curlew calls mournfully as they fly over. I like the birds. Well, I must go, for if I write more about the birds, my tears will be flowing.“
The words were written on a scrap of toilet paper with a pen refill, which the author was able to keep by concealing it internally. He wrote from a tiny, maggot-infested cell, the corners of which were filled with the rotted remains of inedible meals, and his own wastes. It had been a long winter. He had spent it pacing the cell — three steps forward, and three back — to keep from freezing to death, as the snow drifted in through the window slits to settle on his naked body. It was the 14th of March 1981. Bobby Sands was just four days past his twenty-seventh birthday and he would never see the summer.
It wasn’t the life Sands had envisioned. He’d set out to be an ornithologist. He had always made a study of birds. Their habits fascinated him, and nothing touched his heart more than the voice of the skylark. But his dream had to be set aside when he found his country occupied by foreign troops, his family threatened, his people forbidden to display their beloved flag, or to wear so much as a scrap of colored ribbon to remind them of their heritage. Throughout the north of Ireland, young Catholics like Sands were being rounded up and interned without charge in a newly constructed Internment Camp called Long Kesh.
Like so many other young Irishmen, Bobby Sands took up arms. In 1973, at the age of 19, he was captured and sent to Long Kesh Internment Camp as a “Special Category” prisoner — a Prisoner of War. Three years later he was released, but his freedom was short-lived. It was only six months before he was taken again. Things had changed in Long Kesh in those six months. A new law called the Criminalization Act had declared that Special Category status was to be abolished and the POWs were to be treated as common criminals. A brutal regime had been instituted to force their submission to their changed status. Naked, starving, routinely beaten, they were subjected to humiliating internal searches, and “forced washes” which left them scalded, bloodied and often with broken bones.
Bobby Sands wrote constantly, at first on scraps of toilet paper, and later on the cigarette papers he was allowed shortly before his death. The bits of paper smuggled gradually out of the H-Blocks of Long Kesh are an amazing legacy of courage and endurance. Sands wrote openly of conditions of his captivity— conditions so horrifying that most survivors find it difficult to speak of them even now. He also wrote of his loneliness and his desperate longing for sunlight, and green fields, and the simple pleasures which others take for granted. Clothing, warmth, the taste of fresh bread. “Human food can never keep a man alive forever,” he wrote, “and I console myself with the fact that I’ll get a great feed up above (if I’m worthy). But then I’m struck by this awful thought that they don’t eat food up there … “
In the midst of the horror, the birds were his one diversion. In winter, he saved scraps of his meager meals for them. “I lifted a few scraps of bread from the corner,” he writes, “and flung them out the window, remembering my little friends again. Winter was a hard time for the birds, with the snow coating the ground and hiding the land.”
In summer, the filth of his cell spawned hordes of fat white maggots, which crawled into his hair and beard and wriggled over his naked body when he lay down to sleep. At first they frightened him, but he soon discovered a use for them. “Having gathered them together between my palms, I would fling the white, wriggling mass out of the window … The wagtails came fluttering in a frenzy, their quick little legs darting them from one maggot to the next, feasting upon what, to them, must have been a delicacy.
Reading Bobby Sands’ accounts of the avian activity outside his narrow window, one cannot help but be struck by the attention to detail, and the scholarly style of a young man who left school at the age of fifteen to help support his family. The following excerpt from one of his essays might be the work of a modern-day Thoreau contemplating the view from his cottage. That it should have come from a young man in Sands’ position is nothing short of remarkable.
“On a dreary, dull, wet, morale-attacking November afternoon, when one’s stomach is empty, and when the monotony begins to depress and demoralize, it is soothing in many respects to spend a half an hour with one’s head pressed against the concrete slabs, gazing in wonder and taking in the antics of a dozen or so young starlings bickering over a few stale crusts of bread. Circling, swooping, sizing up and daring an extra nibble, continually on their guard, and all their tiny nerves on end, the young starlings feud among themselves, the greedy one continually trying to dominate and always wanting the whole haul to himself, fighting with his comrades whilst the sparrow sneaks in to nibble at the spoils.
“But the ruler of the kingdom of my little twenty-yard arched view of the outside world is the seagull, who dominates, steals, pecks, and denies the smaller birds their share. The seagull takes it all. In fact, his appetite seems insatiable. He goes to any length to gorge himself. Thus I dislike the seagull, and I often wonder why the starlings do not direct their attention to the predator, rather than each other. Perhaps this applies to more than birds.
“During the summer months, finches were abundant, and the music of the lark a constant symphony of sound and a reminder of life. The various crows, the odd magpie, and the little wagtails are still to be seen and heard from dawn to dusk.
“Many a day in the eternal hours, I stand watching the birds and listening to the lark, trying to discover its whereabouts in that stagnant blue ocean above me that represents the outside world, and I long for the liberty of the lark.”
Later, sheets of steel were fitted over the narrow window slits, so that Sands could no longer look out, and thus even these small pleasures were lost to him, but he could still hear the birds, and knew them by their songs. One night his diary records that he heard a lark outside, and he notes with some amusement that prisoners in the other cells were arguing over whether it was a lark or a thrush, an argument they would never settle with conviction, as they had no way to get a look at the singer.
By the spring of 1981, hope was running out for the Long Kesh POWs. Sands recorded in his diary that movement was becoming increasingly painful for him, and that he could no longer manage more than a few minutes of pacing in his cell before he was exhausted. He and the others had battled the brutal conditions of their confinement with everything they had. Now they had nothing left to fight with but their lives and Sands didn’t hesitate. On the first of March, he refused nourishment, beginning the hunger strike that would result in his death on the fifth of May, at the age of 27. Others followed his lead and by the time it was over, ten men between the ages of 23 and thirty had starved to death in Long Kesh. Their sacrifice and the attention it focused on Long Kesh led to a gradual improvement in the treatment of POWs held there, and in time the “basic five demands” established by Bobby Sands and the others were attained.
Sands’ memory is revered by those who value freedom and human life. Many fast on the anniversary of his death to honor him and the nine who followed him, and numerous songs praise his courage and commitment. Sadly, his life and his writings have gone virtually unnoticed among those who share his passion for ornithology, and who would undoubtedly have been his colleagues, had he lived to fulfill his dreams. Among his last writings is this note from his diary:
“It is surprising what even the confined eyes and ears can discover. I am awaiting the lark, for spring is all but upon us. How I listened to that lark when I was in H-5, and watched a pair of chaffinches which arrived in February. Now, lying on what indeed is my deathbed, I still listen even to the black crows.“
All journal excerpts © The Bobby Sands Trust, and used with their kind permission. I encourage readers to visit their website at www.bobbysandstrust.org to learn more about the historic accomplishments of Bobby Sands and his fellow POWs, and to support the Trust’s efforts to preserve their legacy.