Today / Yesterday, May 5 th was the 40 th of the death of Bobby Sands during the 1981 Hunger Strike at Long Kesh Prison.
Nine other men followed him on hunger strike and to the grave.
I met Bobby soon after he began his hunger strike and was in the prison hospital wing.
I was saying Mass in Long Kesh every Sunday in different wings.
After one such Mass a prison officer told me that a prisoner in the hospital wing had requested Holy Communion and asked me to bring it to him. Of course, I immediately agreed.
The prisoner turned out to be Bobby Sands.
After giving him Holy Communion, I asked him if we could chat.
He replied: “Only if you are not going to preach at me”.
There was no question of that at all.
We had a long talk and at the end, I asked him how he felt about dying. His answer was awesome:
“When I close my eyes in this world I will in an instant be looking into the eyes and face of the only one who could ever understand me, Jesus Christ”.
Bobby Sands had an amazing faith.
On the following Sundays, at Bobby’s suggestion, I celebrated Mass for all the hunger strikers in the hospital wing common room.
The prisoners were not allowed to associate with each other normally.
I kept them in the common room for a couple of hours, celebrated Mass for them in about twenty minutes and allowed them to chat away for the rest of the time. They appreciated this precious opportunity to be with each other.
I visited all ten hunger strikers in their own room, heard Confessions when asked and generally offered nonjudgemental support.
When they died I went to all their funerals despite fierce opposition from fellow clergy.
The Sands hunger strike was the second hunger strike.
The first one was led by a parishioner of mine, Brendan “The Dark” Hughes.
I visited him regularly too.
We have to view the hunger strikers in the context of the Northern Ireland Troubles – and indeed of the 800 year British / Irish conflict.
Great wrongs and evils were perpetrated on all sides by all sides.
Thousands dead and tens of thousands maimed.
The Hunger Strike is a chapter in a massive book.
But for those of us who lived that chapter, it has left a deep mark on our souls.