The Birth of a Republican
From a nationalist ghetto to the battlefield of H-Block
by Bobby Sands, MP
With my wife being four months pregnant, the shock of capture, the seven days of hell in Castlereagh, a quick court appearance and remand, and the return to a cold damp cell, nearly destroyed me. It took every ounce of the revolutionary spirit left in me to stand up to it. Jail, although not new to me, was really bad, worse than the first time. Things had changed enormously since the withdrawal of political status. Both republicans and loyalist prisoners were mixed in the same wing.
The greater part of each day was spent locked up in a cell. The screws, many of whom I knew to be cowering cowards, now went in gangs into the cells of republican prisoners to dish out unmerciful beatings. This was to be the pattern all the way along the road to criminalisation: torture, and more torture, to break our spirit of resistance. I was meant to change from being a revolutionary freedom fighter to a criminal at the stroke of a political pen, reinforced by the inhumanities of the most brutal nature. Already Kieran Nugent and several more republican POWs had begun the blanket protest for the restoration of political status. They refused to wear prison garb or to do prison work.
After many weekly remand court appearances the time finally arrived, eleven months after my arrested, and I was in a Diplock court. In two hours I was swiftly found guilty, and my comrades and I were sentenced to fifteen years. Once again I had refused to recognise the farcical judicial system. As they led us from the courthouse, my mother, defiant as ever, stood up in the gallery and shook the air with a cry of "they'll never break you, boys!" and my wife tear-filled eyes, braved a smile of encouragement towards me.
At least, I thought, she has our child. Now that I was in jail, our daughter would provide her with company and maybe help to ease the loneliness which she knew only too well. The next day I became a blanket man, and there I was, sitting on the cold floor, naked, with only a blanket around me, in an empty room.
The days were long and lonely. The sudden and total deprivation of such basic human necessities as exercise and fresh air, association with other people, my own clothes, and things like newspapers, radio, cigarettes, books and a host of other things, made life very hard. At first, as always, I adapted. But, as time wore on, I came face to face with an old friend, depression, which on many an occasion consumed me and swallowed me into its darkest depths.
From home, only the occasional letter got past the prison censor. Gradually my appearance and physical health began to change drastically. My eyes, glassy, piercing, sunken, and surrounded by pale, yellowish skin, were frightening. I had grown a beard, and like my comrades, I resembled a living corpse. The blinding migraine headaches, which started off slowly, became a daily occurrence, and owing to no exercise I became seized with muscular pains.
In the H-Blocks, beatings, long periods in the punishment cells, starvation diets, and torture, were commonplace. March 20th, 1978, and we completed the full circle of deprivation and suffering. As an attempt to highlight our intolerable plight, we embarked upon a dirt strike, refusing to wash, shower, clean out our cells or empty the filthy chamber pots in our cells.