seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Bobby Sands Dies on Hunger Strike

Robert Gerard Sands, commonly known as Bobby Sands, Irish nationalist and member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, dies on hunger strike while imprisoned at Long Kesh Prison on May 5, 1981.

Born in Belfast on March 9, 1954, Sands is the oldest of four children born to John and Rosaleen Sands, and the couple’s first son. Sands grows up in Belfast under the cloud of nationalist and loyalist divisions. At an early age, Sands’s life is affected by the sharp divisions that shape Northern Ireland. At the age of ten, he is forced to move with his family out of their neighborhood due to repeated intimidation by loyalists.

“I was only a working-class boy from a Nationalist ghetto,” Sands later writes about his childhood. “But it is repression that creates the revolutionary spirit of freedom.” Loyalist intimidation proves to be a theme throughout Sands’ life. At the age of 18, he is forced out of his job as an apprentice car builder. Not long afterwards, he and his family have to move again, as a result of political trouble.

The steady number of conflicts pushes Sands to join the Republican Movement in 1972. His ties to the movement soon capture the attention of the authorities, and later that year, he is arrested and charged with possessing firearms in his house. He spends the next three years of his life in prison. Upon his release, Sands immediately returns to the Republican Movement. He signs on as a community activist in Belfast’s rough Twinbrook area, quickly becoming a popular go-to person for a range of issues affecting the neighborhood.

In late 1976, authorities arrest Sands again, this time in connection with the bombing of a large furniture company and an ensuing gun battle. After weathering a brutal interrogation and then a court proceeding that offers up questionable evidence connecting Sands and three others to the attack, a judge sentences Sands to 14 years in prison at Long Kesh Prison, a facility used to house Republican prisoners from 1971 until 2000, located just outside of Belfast.

As a prisoner, Sands’s stature only grows. He pushes hard for prison reforms, confronting authorities, and for his outspoken ways he is frequently given solitary confinement sentences. Sands contention is that he and others like him, who are serving prison sentences, are actually prisoners of war, not criminals as the British government insists.

Beginning on March 1, 1981, Sands leads nine other Republican prisoners in the H Block section of the Maze prison on a hunger strike that lasts until death. Their demands range from allowing prisoners to wear their own clothes to permitting visits and mail, all of which are central in improving the inmates’ way of life.

Unable to move authorities to give in to his requests, and unwilling himself to end his hunger strike, Sands’s health begins to deteriorate. During the first seventeen days of the strike alone, he loses 16 pounds. A hero among his fellow nationalists, Sands is elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Fermanagh and South Tyrone while in prison. Sands becomes the youngest MP at the time. However he dies less than one month later without ever having taken his seat in the House of Commons.

Only days after slipping into a coma, on the morning of May 5, 1981, Sands dies from malnutrition due to starvation. He is 27 years old and has refused to eat for 66 days. He becomes so fragile over his final weeks that he spends his final days on a water bed to protect his deteriorating and fragile body. At time of his death, Sands is married to Geraldine Noade, with whom he has one son, Gerard.

The announcement of Sands’s death prompts several days of rioting in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. Over 100,000 people line the route of Sands’s funeral. He is buried in the ‘New Republican Plot’ alongside 76 others. Their graves are maintained by the National Graves Association, Belfast.

While loyalists dismiss Sands’s death, others are quick to recognize its significance. Over the next seven months, nine other IRA supporters die on hunger strike. Eventually, the British government gives proper political recognition to the prisoners, many of them earning their release under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Bobby Sands’ final days are depicted in the 2008 Steve McQueen film Hunger, with actor Michael Fassbender portraying Sands.


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Birth of Snooker Champion Alex “Hurricane” Higgins

Alexander Gordon “Alex” Higgins, Northern Irish professional snooker player, who is remembered as one of the most iconic figures in the game, is born in Belfast on March 18, 1949. He is nicknamed “Hurricane Higgins” because of his fast play.

Higgins starts playing snooker at the age of eleven, often in the Jampot club in his native Sandy Row area of south Belfast and later in the YMCA in the nearby city centre. At age fourteen and weighing seven and a half stone (47.6 kg), he leaves for England and a career as a jockey. However, he never makes the grade because, in his youth, he drinks a lot of Guinness and eats a lot of chocolate, making him too heavy to ride competitively. He returns to Belfast and by 1965, at the age of sixteen, he has compiled his first maximum break. In 1968 he wins the All-Ireland and Northern Ireland Amateur Snooker Championships.

Higgins turns professional at the age of 22, winning the World Snooker Championship at his first attempt in 1972, against John Spencer winning 37–32. Higgins is then the youngest ever winner of the title, a record retained until Stephen Hendry‘s 1990 victory at the age of 21. In April 1976, Higgins reaches the final again and faces Ray Reardon. Higgins leads 11–9, but Reardon makes four centuries and seven breaks over 60 to pull away and win the title for the fifth time with the score of 27–16. Higgins is also the runner-up to Cliff Thorburn in 1980, losing 18–16, after being 9–5 up. Higgins wins the world title for a second time in 1982 after beating Reardon 18–15 (with a 135 total clearance in the final frame). It was an emotional as well as professional victory for him. Higgins would have been ranked No. 1 in the world rankings for the 1982-1983 season had he not forfeited ranking points following disciplinary action.

Throughout his career, Higgins wins 20 other titles, one of the most notable being the 1983 UK Championship. In the final he trails Steve Davis 0–7 before producing a famous comeback to win 16–15. He also wins the Masters twice, in 1978 and in 1981, beating Cliff Thorburn and Terry Griffiths in the finals respectively. Another notable victory is his final professional triumph in the 1989 Irish Masters at the age of 40 when he defeats a young Stephen Hendry, which becomes known as “The Hurricane’s Last Hurrah.”

Higgins comes to be known as the “People’s Champion” because of his popularity, and is often credited with having brought the game of snooker to a wider audience, contributing to its peak in popularity in the 1980s. He has a reputation as an unpredictable and difficult character. He is a heavy smoker, struggles with drinking and gambling, and admits to using cocaine and marijuana.

First diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, Higgins is found dead in bed in his flat on July 24, 2010. The cause of death is a combination of malnutrition, pneumonia, and a bronchial condition. Higgins’ funeral service is held in Belfast on August 2, 2010. He is cremated and his ashes are interred in Carnmoney Cemetery in Newtownabbey, County Antrim.