In recent months the centuries-old Irish struggle against British rule has reached one of its periodic peaks of intensity, spurred by the deaths of hunger-striking Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners. Last summer Daniel Berrigan visited the Long Kesh prisoners, and he recently returned to Ireland to attempt to visit Bobby Sands. The following are Berrigan's reflections written a few days after Sands' death. Since that time the hunger strike has continued, the British government has remained intransigent, and prisoners have continued to die.--The Editors
The bitter life of Bobby Sands came to a halt, as all the world knows, on May 4, 1981. A short life, a long dying; 27 years old, one-third of his life spent in prison; his last prison sentence 14 years for possession of an unloaded gun.
A week before Sands' death, Ramsey Clark and I had gone to northern Ireland at the request of Bobby and his family. We were, as expected, denied access to Long Kesh prison and the prisoner. The explanation: "The visit would serve no useful purpose." Alas for us, we had thought that in accord with the canons of a civilized society, the visit to a dying prisoner by a lawyer and priest of the prisoner's choice would serve a purpose not only useful, but humane and compassionate as well: to wit, the solace of the dying.
Sands is the first prisoner to die on hunger strike since the trouble erupted in the North on Bloody Sunday, when British troops opened fire on peaceful Catholic civil rights demonstrators in 1972. Acquainted with the systemic violence of Ulster against Catholics, his family driven from their home, Sands was inducted with ease into the ranks of the IRA. No job, no possibility of college; Sands was first rounded up by the police at age 18.