The Funeral of Bobby Sands
9th May 1981
The body of IRA Volunteer Bobby Sands was bought to his Twinbrook home in Belfast on Tuesday evening when a steady stream of thousands of mourners filed past his open coffin which was alternatively flanked by guards of honour from Oglaigh na hEireann, Na Fianna Eireann
and Cumman na mBan.
Bobby’s seven-year-old son, Gerald, was brought to the Sands family for a sad reunion with his grandparents. It had been over two years since they or Bobby had last seen him. On Wednesday night, Bobby’s remains were flanked by six uniformed IRA Volunteers and an officer who marched alongside the coffin on the short journey to St Luke’s chapel. On Thursday, the day of the funeral, over fifty thousands people marched in pouring rain from St Luke’s chapel, after requiem mass, to the republican plot in Milltown cemetery.
St Luke’s was thronged and the congregation were uneasy when the parish priest, Fr Mullan, delivered a sermon on violence despite a consensus that the politic of the Ira had stopped at the church door with the removal of the tricolour from the coffin and the dismissing of the guard of honour, so the politics of the church could, for the sake of harmony, have been foregone. But not so. Every time Fr Mullan spoke about peace an old man in a front pew echoed emphasis on a “just peace.”
Around two o’clock the funeral set out for the four mile journey to the cemetery and most of the time the sea of people resembled Tehran scenes from the Iranian revolution. The Iranian charge d’affaires in London, Abdolrahim Gavhahi, had been assigned by his government to attend the funeral but because of flight difficulties he arrived in Belfast two hours late. A telegram to the Republican press centre from Tehran’s municipality announced that “a street on the western side of the British Embassy building in Tehran was renamed after Bobby Sands” to “honour the heroic death of the IRA freedom fighter.”
Men, women and youths wept as the funeral went by. People blessed themselves with the sign of the cross and some old men gave a military salute to the republican martyr. At Suffolk the procession turned up and round into Lenadoon to avoid the small Protestant enclave opposite Woodburn barracks.
A piper played one of the H-Block songs, the words of which are:
“But I’ll wear no convict’s uniform,
Nor meekly serve my time,
That Britain might call Ireland’s fight
Eight hundred years of crime”
The funeral stopped close to the Busy Bee shopping centre and Bobby’s coffin was removed from the hearse and placed on tressles. Then, from among the people emerged three IRA Volunteers armed with rifles who were called to attention in Gaelic by a fourth uniformed man. They delivered three sharp vollies over the coffin, removed their berets and bowed their heads in silence for a full minute. The impressive trbute captured the hearts of the huge numbers of people on the road and was eagerly filmed by the world media.
At the gates of Milltown cemetery those assembled on the pavement spontaneously burst out into a recitation of the rosary as the hearse, the guard of honour and the funeral cars carrying Mr and Mrs Sands, their daughter Marcella and son John and others of the family, slowly passed through.
Gerry Adams officiated at the graveside ceremony which began with the playing of the Last Post. The tricolour was then removed from the coffin and along with beret and gloves presented to Mrs Sands. The coffin was finally carried to the grave by the uniformed Volunteers who had been the guard of honour. It was lowered into the grave and a number of priests athen led the prayers. Mr Sands and Bobby’s younger brother John spaded some soil on to the coffin and then little Gerald was brought forward and given a hand with the heavy spade so that he too could help bury his murdered father.
Among the hundreds of wreaths were one from the GHQ Staff IRA, Belfast Brigade IRA, Cumman na mBan, Na Fianna Eireann, Sinn Fein, the Republican POWs in the H-Blocks and Armagh, and the families of the remaining three hunger strikers.
The oration was given by Fermanagh republican, Owen Carron, who was Bobby Sands’ election agent. He was given roaring applause when he said that armed struggle was the only way forward.
(Full text of the graveside oration tomorrow …)