Why are all the Troubles’ films about republicans?

Debate around the film ‘Hunger’ has sparked a wider debate about the poor portrayal of the unionist cause in the arts generally. Discussions have taken place on BBC’s Good Morning Ulster, Arts Extra, Sunday Sequence and feature writers in various newspapers have explored the subject. The respected journalist David McKittrick has written an interesting piece in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, Thursday, 30 October 2008

Why are all the Troubles’ films about republicans?

By David McKittrick

Why oh why — Ulster Protestants and Unionists lament when a movie such as Hunger appears — why can our cause not be depicted sympathetically up there on the screen? Why is it that the IRA gets all the attention? What about us?

Hunger sets out to show how and why IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands deliberately went to his death to advance his cause. It is the latest in a long line of feature films focusing on aspects of Irish republicanism. In some of the scores of Troubles movies the IRA is presented as freedom fighters; in some it is shown as evil; in some its members are depicted as conflicted individuals, often trying to leave violence behind.

Unionists and Protestants in Northern Ireland have two problems with this. The first is that there is so much concentration on republicanism. The second is that their community is, in movie terms, practically invisible.

One far-fetched loyalist view, voiced this week, was that Hunger was part of “a carefully coordinated revisioning of the Irish republican movement”. Belfast Protestant playwright Gary Mitchell added: “If you judged Northern Ireland purely on the basis of films you would think there are no Protestants here.”

Although many movie-makers are clearly anti-IRA and anti-violence, many of them simultaneously display a fascination with the organisation and the republican cause. Even those who deem it evil, nonetheless find it interesting.

But few writers or producers — inside or outside Northern Ireland — find the Protestant community interesting, few identify with it and few have sought to champion it or even express its concerns. As a result republicans have basically had the big screen pretty much to themselves.

Hunger sets out to provide an examination of the personal and political motivations of Bobby Sands. Yet there is no Protestant equivalent to it: the republican tradition is regarded as a rich source of cinematic material, but not the Protestant perspective.

Proposals for movies told from a Unionist point of view are rare, according to Richard Williams, CEO of Northern Ireland Screen, the Belfast agency which helped finance Hunger.

“There isn’t a pile of projects in our office that we’re somehow rejecting,” he said. “That sort of material is rarely written — we receive more material that has a broad nationalist slant to it.

“Interestingly, writers from a Protestant background have a tendency to just shift away from here and ply their trade elsewhere. But even when they do stay here, they’ve a tendency not to write about this sort of thing.”

One very obvious exception to the trend of Protestant writers either leaving or opting for non-troubles themes, is the talented playwright Gary Mitchell, who comes from a working-class background and has written a number of well-received works. His work has been hailed as an unflinching warts-and-all portrait of ordinary loyalists, including members of paramilitary groups. With the emergence of Mitchell working-class Protestants at last seemed to have found a dramatic voice.

He once described just how distrustful loyalists are about the arts. “I believe that there is a deep-rooted ignorance of the arts within loyalist communities,” he said.

“This is the reality I have always come across within loyalist areas — that they do not trust drama. They will tell you coldly that drama belongs to the Catholics — drama belongs to the nationalists.”

Mitchell was apparently destined to write for the screen, but his career was interrupted when unwanted drama entered his own life. The paramilitaries he wrote about did not like his work, and expressed their displeasure in traditional backstreet fashion. They attacked his home in a loyalist part of north Belfast, forcing him and his family out. He has been living at a secret address ever since. There could hardly be a starker illustration of just how alienated from the arts many on the Protestant side are. And this is only one facet of Protestants’ problematic relations with the outside world.

For example, journalists who visit Northern Ireland often speak admiringly of the presentational skills of Sinn Fein, while saying they find loyalists shockingly poor at the business of winning friends and influencing people. One Unionist writer, Ruth Dudley Edwards, has spoken of “the Ulster Protestant’s fantastic ineptitude in public relations”. Another sympathetic commentator, Bruce Anderson, wrote: “In one competition the Ulster Protestants invariably win — year after year, they always retain the Pulitzer Prize for anti-public relations.”

Unionism’s difficulties with cinema are in other words just part of a deeper problem centring on relations with the outside world.

In movie terms everyone knows the IRA, but many in Hollywood and elsewhere know little or nothing about loyalism. Outsiders who take the trouble to research the Protestant paramilitary undergrowth generally recoil from what they find.

They quickly discover that loyalists killed over a thousand people, the majority of them uninvolved Catholic civilians, often in sectarian assassinations. This is, to say the least, unpromising territory for a feature film.

On the Protestant political side meanwhile there are not a lot of figures who strike a positive international chord. There was talk at one stage of a biopic of the Rev Ian Paisley but, unsurprisingly, it has not emerged. The underlying reality is that the world finds much of interest in the republican story. There is violence, intriguing personalities, a sense of the underdog pitted against the might of Britain. Add in some swirling Celtic music by the Chieftains or Enya, and a movie can easily take shape.

The perceived Protestant narrative, however, is one of a reactionary frontier community grimly holding on and opposing change. That may be something of a parody, but it is enough to make film-makers shudder and turn their attentions elsewhere: they find the republicans intriguing but the Protestants problematic.

There are several ironies here. One is that for decades scores of non-Irish movies have featured songs by Van Morrison, who is an east Belfast Protestant, though a non-political one.

Another is that movies are today regularly made in Belfast, many of them in the absolutely huge paint hall which still stands on the spot of the now-defunct shipyard.

The yard was once a great symbol of Ulster Unionism, but the film-makers now use it for themes such as horror movies and science fiction. Rarely if ever do they shoot anything to do with today’s Protestant predicament.

Life and death in Long Kesh

From The Guardian – Wednesday October 22, 2008

Held in the notorious Northern Irish jail in the 70s, Ronan Bennett recalls the gas attacks, the beatings, the smell – and the jokes – and applauds Steve McQueen’s haunting new film about its best-known inmate, IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.

The sky was low and grey and the smoke from last night’s fires hung in the air. I was in the middle of the first football pitch. There was a lot of noise and movement and I didn’t know which way to run or what I was doing or what I was supposed to do. We had been drawn up in companies and squads, ready to fight back. But with the first of the gas communication had broken down completely. The helicopter banked again into position and the next canister was dropped. There was a small explosion in the air, perhaps 20 or 30 metres above us, as the canister splintered and the shower of bomblets announced themselves with an individual billow of white smoke, pushing gracefully out in all directions and hanging in the air for a moment like some vapoury spider before beginning their descent.

The panic gas induces temporarily overthrows everything you think you are, or hope you might be. It’s the violent desperation of a drowning man who will clutch at anything, even a child, even his own child. With gas, courage certainly goes. So does any sense of solidarity, the thing of which Long Kesh’s republican prisoners were so proud. When you are fighting for breath, tears streaming down your face, snot in your nostrils and bile in your mouth, it becomes every man for himself. The two football pitches in the middle of the vast prison complex were separated by a wire fence, in the midpoint of which was a gate the size of your front door. It was on this door that my attention was fixed. I wanted to get through it and into the other, gas-free, pitch. Unfortunately so did the hundreds of gasping, spewing, half-blinded men I was among. Passage was fiercely contested. Once through, respite was brief. The helicopter simply made the short hop and more canisters came down. Most of us had had experience of CS gas before prison, on civil rights marches or in riots. Later there were rumours that the soldiers had used the more potent CR variant, such was the reaction it brought in the men, though perhaps this was merely the result of a new intensity of saturation.

We headed in a wave back the way we came, through the door, shorter of breath, seeing less. The helicopter followed patiently, so did the gas, and we doubled back again. I can’t now recall how many times this happened, but I do remember towards the end stumbling over someone who had fallen in the scrum: he was calling for his mother. Some prisoners fought on, jabbing at the soldiers in their riot gear, batons and shields with broom handles and bits and pieces of whatever debris of the smouldering jail they could lay their hands on and hurl. They were a tough crew, but in the end they too surrendered. We were herded back to our cages and the beatings began.

One thing I’ve learned is that if you’re going to burn down a prison you should do it in the spring. This was October, 1974, and for the next few weeks we lived out in the open, or in crude, post-apocalypse shelters salvaged from the wreckage. Our hair grew and our beards sprouted. We hauled the covers from the manholes and crapped directly into the sewers. We probably didn’t smell very good, but when everyone smells bad you don’t notice so much. We wore grey blankets as ponchos, cutting a slit in the middle for our heads to go through. We huddled together against the cold and sang songs, told jokes and talked endlessly about politics and what the future might hold. Sometimes we just messed. One night a kind of collective and spontaneous silliness overtook our cage and a hundred grown men started playing tag and hide and seek. I was laughing so much I couldn’t run and was one of the first to be caught.

Gradually conditions improved and the rhythms of Long Kesh life re-established themselves: exercise and visits; court appearances and football; Irish classes and letters; reading and sexual frustration. Prisoners came and went, the repeating pattern of releases and arrests providing a constant turnover. Among those who walked through the gate to our cage was a softly spoken and quietly determined Derry man called Patsy O’Hara. Patsy had been shot by the British on a barricade in Derry, and it was not his first time in prison. He died five years later, on May 21 1981 after 61 days on hunger strike, at the age of 23. There was a scattering of ancient men in their 30s and 40s; veterans of previous campaigns, decrepit by our youthful harsh lights, but the men in Long Kesh and Crumlin Road and the women in Armagh jail were terribly, terribly young.

At some point – I don’t remember when – we noticed something ominous was happening. The prison was being rebuilt but differently. Workmen began blasting concrete from thick hoses on to cross-work spindles of steel. Instead of the wire cages and Nissen huts we lived in, walls were going up in a new phase of the jail’s expansion. Progress was very rapid. Simultaneously, the British government announced that the political status we enjoyed – tacit government recognition that what was happening in the north of Ireland was not some inexplicable outbreak of mass criminality but the result of a political crisis – was to be ended. Prisoners convicted after March 1 1976 would not join us in the cages. These prisoners would have cells. They would have uniforms. They would have walls. They would be locked up in the H-blocks and they would be criminals.

It says a lot about how little the British understood their republican enemy and how little they had absorbed of the lessons of Irish history that the government of the day – Harold Wilson’s – thought that all it would take to break the prisoners was to isolate them and force them into prison uniforms. A dozen or so cages, a hundred men to a cage, cannot be controlled, as the burning down of Long Kesh in October 1974 demonstrated. A single man in a cell can be intimidated and made biddable. This was the official thinking. But the state invariably underestimates the resolve and resourcefulness of politically motivated prisoners. A young republican called Kieran Nugent, the first to be convicted after the cut-off date for political status, was to show exactly how hopelessly naive British reasoning was. Nugent refused to wear the prison garb and became the first “blanketman”. He was soon joined by Jackie McMullan (Jackie and I had been in the same class at school). Over the coming months and years hundreds of prisoners went on the blanket. The blanketmen endured beatings and abuse and squalor. They escalated their protest by refusing to slop out: they tipped their urine under the cell doors into the corridor and smeared their walls with their own waste. The beatings continued. In 1981 they took their demands for the right not to wear prison clothing and the right to free association to the ultimate level: hunger strike.

I do not know that I have ever seen a film as powerful, beautiful, haunting and individual as Hunger, Steve McQueen’s movie about the dirty protest and the hunger strike. Obviously, having been in Long Kesh, some of the movie’s impact on me is particular, though I was never in the H-blocks (I was released, suddenly, before the blanket protest began). But as a writer I was, frankly, awed by McQueen’s art and vision, by writer Enda Walsh’s superb and unusual framing of the story, by Tom McCullagh’s stunning production design, and by the authenticity and breathtaking dedication that actor Michael Fassbender brought to the role of Bobby Sands, the leader of the hunger strike and the first to die, on May 5 1981, by which time, as well as being a convicted IRA prisoner, he was also MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

With Hunger, McQueen and Walsh have thrown away the film-making rulebook. Eschewing explication, they have allowed what is implicit in each scene to emerge unforced and unstressed. The film’s producers and backers – Blast Films and the UK Film Council – must get credit here. Many, even most, producers would have insisted on the need for backstory. Who are these prisoners? What have they done? What do they want? Why are they smearing their own shit on the walls? What do they believe in? Are they good guys? Are they bad? What is their story?

McQueen and Walsh throw us as viewers in at the deep end, trusting that what we see will eventually make us understand. Instead they rely on McQueen’s powerful visual lyricism. One example: we cut to a man in the prison corridor. The character is unknown to us and does not appear again. He is in rubber boots and protective clothing. He wears a face mask. He sprays the urine-drenched floor with disinfectant then takes a squeegee and starts to push the piss-disinfectant mix in front of him, cleaning the corridor as he goes. There is no dialogue, we can see no expression on his face. After perhaps 10 or 20 seconds – in movie time that’s long – you think the director and editor will cut the scene. But they don’t. The man continues the whole length of the corridor, the light playing on the foul liquid running at his feet. In conventional movie wisdom if you can take a scene out and the movie still makes sense, it probably means that the scene isn’t necessary. In Hunger this long, wordless and unsettlingly beautiful moment is anything but redundant: you are made to think of how ordinary tasks – something as regular, methodical and quotidian as cleaning a floor – are contiguous with the most unimaginable horror: behind the doors the man with the squeegee passes are human beings living literally in shit.

If the squeegee scene is quiet and reflective, others are disturbing in the sheer verisimilitude of their violence (the only inauthentic aspect of the film is the block’s quietness and the absence of camaraderie). Rarely has a movie been more explicit in what it means to be punched and kicked and stamped on. The beatings meted out to the protesting prisoners are not highly stylised James Bond-like affairs. Each blow registers, its impact is felt, you shudder as contact is made. When I’ve talked to men who were on the blanket, one of the things they agree caused most stress was waiting for the moment the cell door would open and they would be dragged out, naked and defenceless, and then pounded into semi-consciousness before being thrown back in again.

Fuelling the prison officers’ anger was a mix of sectarianism – they were almost exclusively protestant and many had loyalist sympathies and connections – and a desire for revenge. They were also venting their rage at having to work in such conditions. In Hunger Stuart Graham plays the fictional guard Ray Lohan, angst-ridden, taut and violent. At the start of the movie we see him rising for breakfast. He eats well, in ironic prefiguration of the starvation to come. He is sleek and groomed, but his knuckles are scarred and scabbed from the blows he has landed. Every morning he performs the ritual that he and his colleagues have come to regard as second nature: he checks his car for booby-trap devices (over the course of the protests and hunger strikes the IRA killed some 18 prison officers). Lohan may have power in the prison, but his own life hangs precariously.

Hunger’s central figure is Bobby Sands. Sands probably did more to turn the tide of the republican struggle than any other individual. His death garnered worldwide attention and sympathy, and it marked the beginning of the long run of electoral successes that eventually propelled Sinn Fein into government. Michael Fassbender’s dedication to his craft in losing so much weight to make his body look like that of a man who has been without food for two months has already received a great deal of praise. But the actor’s real achievement is in his reproduction of Sands’ unsentimental idealism, resilience and determination. “A big engine” is how he is described by Liam Cunningham playing Father Moran (based on Father Denis Faul, the worldly, canny country priest who was first admired by republican prisoners but fell into disfavour after he condemned the movement for, as he saw it, manipulating the hunger strikers). The scene between Sands and Moran comes more or less in the middle of the film, when Sands has announced his intention to go on hunger strike and die if necessary. It’s as unexpected as the squeegee scene. A two-shot lasting 20 minutes or more, two intelligent men with wary mutual respect, but with opposing moral and political standpoints, squaring up, jabbing, neither able to land the knockout blow, the sadness of what will shortly unfold hanging over them (Walsh’s dialogue here is pitch perfect). Everyone who knew Sands understood that when he went on hunger strike he would go all the way. Moran is talking to a dead man.

Hunger marks a significant break in cinema’s treatment of the Troubles. For all their considerable craft and individual artistic merits, movies such as Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Nothing Personal (1995) and Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer (1997) were more conventional fare. Focusing on the violence inflicted by republican and loyalist organisations, treating both as essentially apolitical and gangsterish, individual members were depicted as bullying cowards, inadequates, psychopaths, terminally moronic or as wanting out. Questions of political as opposed to personal motivation go unexplored. (You do not have to have republican or loyalist sympathies to understand the artistic limitations of such an approach.) With Hunger, the film-makers make no explicit judgment of Sands. But in allowing him to emerge undiminished in body or spirit from the repeated rounds of assault by his guards and from his confrontation with Moran, and by giving his death such poignant resonance, Sands is allowed to achieve what few IRA movie characters have been permitted: the simple recognition of his full, complex humanity. Here the critical difference is that the emphasis is on the state as the perpetrator of violence and on republicans as the victims, something the 100,000 people who lined Sands’ funeral route would have had no trouble in recognising.

By the time of the events depicted in Hunger I had been released from a second spell of imprisonment, but my life was starting to run on new and different lines. I was at university, studying history, and I had not been home to Belfast for some time. I returned in 1982 and found a friend from the cages. Over a drink he told me that he’d recently talked to people who’d been in with Patsy O’Hara, the young but ferociously determined Derry lad I’d briefly known after the fire. According to their account, they helped Patsy into a shower stall and set him down on a chair because he was too weak to stand. Underneath the flowing water they thought they saw tears in his eyes. Nobody said anything. They dried him off, got him into his clothes and back to bed. My friend and I didn’t know if the story was true, and there may even be some who in their cups might object to the idea of a hunger striker crying because death is imminent and real. Sands sheds no tears in Hunger but the audience I saw the film with was profoundly moved. You will certainly see movies that you may enjoy more, but you will not see one as important or original as Hunger.

Trust Responds to Church of Ireland Report

hblockmarchdublin.jpgThe Church of Ireland report, which was covered in the main newspapers in Ireland, interviewed Protestants living in the Clogher Diocese about the Troubles. It has recommended more be done to deal with the legacy of pain in the area’s Protestant community. The study was funded by the Irish government and the International Fund for Ireland to help develop Protestant communities in cross-border areas. Among its findings it said:

“Many Protestants and unionists saw it [the election], both then and now, as a clear and unambiguous vote of support for the retention of the ‘armed struggle’ and the purging of Protestants from the land. They couldn’t understand it then and they still can’t. The collective ‘nailing of the colours to the mast’ was stark and shocking, but made things very clear – whatever about our previous neighbourliness, whatever about our friendly and co-operative arrangements, all of that is now over.”
The response from the Secretary of the Trust, Danny Morrison, was published in the ‘Irish News’ on 7th October, 2008, both as a news item and in the Letters to the Editor. It said:
I do not wish to diminish their [the Protestants’] or their community’s real suffering during the conflict or how those in border areas perceived their isolation and vulnerability against a backdrop of IRA activity.
However, I do believe that with the passage of time all sides and those caught up in the conflict should be capable of reflecting and reasoning more dispassionately and more honestly about events and how their counterparts, the ‘other side’, might have felt.
The report, in particular, refers to the election of Bobby Sands in 1981:
“Many Protestants and unionists saw it, both then and now, as a clear and unambiguous vote of support for the retention of the ‘armed struggle’ and the purging of Protestants from the land. They couldn’t understand it then and they still can’t. The collective ‘nailing of the colours to the mast’ was stark and shocking, but made things very clear – whatever about our previous neighbourliness, whatever about our friendly and co-operative arrangements, all of that is now over.”
It is a complete distortion to say that the nationalist people in Fermanagh and South Tyrone by voting for Bobby Sands voted for armed struggle. That charge was made at the time in a crude effort by unionist and British politicians to intimidate the nationalist electorate into voting for a candidate acceptable to unionists or face being demonised. At no time after that election did republicans interpret the vote for Bobby Sands as a vote for the IRA.
People choose to vote for particular candidates for a variety of reasons. But in this bye-election one of the candidates was on hunger strike whose life might be saved if a solution was found. He was on hunger strike as a last resort because the authorities refused to engage or talk.
So, by peaceful expression, through the ballot box, people voted for Bobby Sands to encourage the British government to compromise and negotiate with the prisoners. Surely, from a unionist perspective, this was preferable to people – out of frustration – opting for armed struggle?
Under the legislation that convicted Bobby Sands and his comrades scheduled offences were defined as “the use of violence for political ends”. After ten prisoners had died the British government gave back to the prisoners the political status it had taken away in 1976 and which was the cause of five years of conflict in the jails. That the prisoners were political was again conceded by the British government when they were given early release [‘amnestied’] under the Belfast Agreement.
The lesson surely to be learned from 1981, and from the wider conflict, is that the sooner people engage in dialogue and attempt to understand the position of their opponents then the sooner is the prospect of peace and mutual accommodation.
The election of Bobby Sands in 1981 was a pivotal moment in our history and a positive development, thanks to the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Had Mrs Thatcher accepted Bobby Sands’ mandate things would have turned out quite differently.

Danny Morrison, Secretary Bobby Sands Trust.

Enquiries, Messages, Copyright

The Trust regularly receives a large volume of letters, emails and supportive messages of solidarity, etc. In recent years there has been a big increase in enquiries from young students writing essays or theses which cover such themes as prison literature, the legacy of the Fermanagh/South Tyrone bye-elections and the electoral rise of Sinn Féin.

All queries are answered and most requests we facilitate as best we can.

We also receive requests from writers and publishers for permission to use extracts from the writings of Bobby Sands. All Bobby’s writings are copyrighted but the Trust encourages fair use, though permission is required to reproduce or use any of Bobby’s writings in a commercial context [for example, anthologies or professional drama productions]. Please contact the Secretary of the Trust for permissions: info@bobbysandstrust.com.

This site is pre-moderated and we cannot guarantee that all postings will be published online.

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The Night We Named Bobby Sands Street

by Pedram Moallemian, former Iranian student

Shortly after the revolution of 1979, Iranians were busy changing names. Names of thousands of streets, buildings and even cities that had been named after the Shah, his family or others close to the former regime needed to be changed and replaced by new idols and symbols of the revolution. Perhaps the most prominent was Tehran’s major thoroughfare going from Pahlavi Street to be named after the regime’s renowned adversary, Dr Mohammad Mossadegh.
As teenagers, we didn’t limit the move to names related to the former regime though. My family lived in a new development where streets were numbered but that didn’t stop us from changing ‘19th Street’ to ‘Mehdi Rezaei Street’. Mehdi was one of the youngest victims of the former regime, having been arrested, tried and executed, all before his 21st birthday. He was someone we could relate to.
The process was just too easy. We would make cardboard signs in the shape and size of actual street signs, replace the old ones or better yet glue new ones on top and wait until people started using the new name. In many cases, they were eager to do it, particularly when it was a name of a despised character they were replacing.
Other times, it never actually ‘took’. Shahreza Avenue, named after the patriarch of Pahlavi dynasty, was quickly changed to ‘Enghelab (Revolulion) Street’ but our old street is still called 19th, to this day.
Imagine the chaos all of this had caused everyone, from cab drivers and mailmen to just ordinary people who were not sure what street their own houses were on anymore. But chaos is just part of any revolution and this was another ingredient of ours.
So, by that faithful day in May of 1981, when the news of Bobby Sands’ death was received in Iran, we had plenty of experience and there was no way the memory of someone we considered a great revolutionary who had stood up to the British for his people and at the highest cost could be forgotten.
It happened more on a fluke. I was part of a small circle of friends, all under 15 years-of-age that was always attending speeches together, covering the local streets with political graffiti, distributing flyers and occasionally getting beat up by those we pissed off. One of us lived on a street that backed onto the British Embassy in the heart of Tehran and because of this central location and his parents’ more liberal approach, we’d often gather at their flat.
Our original plan to honour Sands was far more risky. From their windows, you could see the Union Jack flying prominently in the embassy’s yard. We wanted to sneak in at night and replace it with an Irish flag! That plan ran into a few problems. If there was a place to buy an Irish flag in Tehran, the 13- and 14-year-olds in our gang had no luck finding it. We made one, but it looked horrible and because the colours we had used were closer to the Iranian flag, we were worried it would be taken as the wrong flag and maybe the wrong message.
We finally decided on a big white sheet and wrote ‘I.R.A.’ across it. Even that was problematic, as we tried it once on the roof and it was so heavy, it would not wave and be seen fully and we were worried that if it just sits hanging from that pole, it’ll only be a white sheet and nothing more. There was also a concern about guard dogs we had never seen, but could occasionally hear on the other side of the wall.
With all that, the flag plans were abandoned late one evening with all of us frustrated and exhausted.
Then somebody within the group brought up an old practice: let’s rename the street. I honestly wish I’d remember who said it first to give him full credit, but I just don’t after so many years.
The plan wasn’t as exciting and adventurous, but we were desperate at this point. We all agreed and had soon bought large white construction paper and navy magic markers to make signs. I was the most graphically gifted of the bunch, so I’d draw the shape of the actual signs, copying the real ones made by the city and the rest of the gang would colour and cut them. We made about twenty of them and got out when it got dark to cover the old signs.
Next evening we returned to see if any of them were left and to our surprise there were a few new ones made by others too and, thanks to the glue we had used, even the ones very close to the embassy compound had remained in place. However, the occasional missing corner was proof someone had tried to remove them. Soon the entire street had new signs and the city officially changed the name also.
To me, the first big victory came a few months later when at another Tehran street corner, where passengers holler their destinations to passing cabs in hope of being picked up by someone feeling the route is profitable enough, I heard a woman yell, ‘Bobby Sands!’ The name had stuck and it was now certified and far more official than the city putting up actual metal signs.
The larger victory, however, was when we discovered the embassy had been forced to change their mailing address and all their printed material to reflect a side door address in order to avoid using Bobby’s name anywhere.
What we had no idea about, was how the news of our little ‘prank’ that had turned much more significant now, had reached across the great distance to get to Ireland, its people, the activists and even some of the remaining prisoners.
Years later I was told of how that little gesture had showed them they are not alone and even in far away places, people respect and honour their struggle.
Maybe one day I’ll be walking down an Irish street and be pleasantly surprised when I get to Mossadegh Square. Maybe.

Footnote: In 1981 the Iranian government was officially represented at Bobby Sands’ funeral and presented to Mrs Sands ‘a plaque from the people of Iran’.

British Pressure Iran for Name Change

Bobby Sands once wrote: “Of course I can be murdered. But I remain what I am, a political POW, and no one, not even the British, can change that.”
In 1981 the Iranian government officially changed the name of Winston Churchill Street where the British Embassy is based to Bobby Sands Street. According to one press agency at the time, “the British nationals employed at the embassy don’t want to be located in a street named after a man whose organisation brought terror to the UK.”
The response of the British was to seal the entrance to their embassy on Bobby Sands Street and knock through the wall into Ferdowsi Avenue, which is now their new address.
In January 2004 it was discovered that during the third of five trips to Iran by Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw over the course of the previous two years, Iran’s Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi had been lobbied by Straw to change the name of Bobby Sands Street.
This was rich given that in Ireland the British administration renamed many streets, towns and cities after her overseas conquests, her colonial battles, her royal personages and her soldiers, and did the same in every native land she conquered through imperial terrorism.
The nationalist community in the North of Ireland was delighted and proud when the people of Iran honoured an Irish revolutionary and reminded the world of British oppression and its black history, of Britain a country which brought suffering to the four corners of the earth in contrast to the courage and sacrifice exemplified by the name Sands.
It was that reminder which continues to stick in the craw of the British and which is why they want two words, Bobby Sands, erased from view, as if it were that easy to erase the spirit of freedom he continues to inspire.
In response to Straw’s lobbying the Iranian government the Bobby Sands Trust launched a petition to Iran which received thousands of signatures. The petition was presented to the Iranian Embassy in London in 2005.
The street remains Bobby Sands Street.

Bobby Sands Street Petition

To:  His Excellency Hojjatoleslam Sayed Mohammad Khatami, President of Iran

THE name Bobby Sands is known throughout the world, symbolising the heroism of an Irish prisoner and his comrades who died on hunger strike in their unequal fight against their British jailors. Over the course of the past two years British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has been lobbying Iran’s Foreign Minister to change the name of Bobby Sands Street, where the British Embassy is situated, in the capital Tehran. (It was formerly known as Winston Churchill Street.)

Bobby Sands was an Irish patriot and martyr, who died on 5 May 1981, after 66 days on hunger strike. Whilst in prison he was elected as a Member of Parliament [MP]. One hundred thousand people attended his funeral, including the Iranian ambassador to Sweden.

The British government has no right to be in Ireland, just as it has no right to be interfering in the affairs of any other nation.

We appeal to the Iranian government and its people not to bow to requests from the British government to rename Bobby Sands Street.

Here is a PDF of the Iranian petition of all those that signed the petition and their comments.

“Ireland – Bobby Sands!”

By Danny Morrison
(From the Andersonstown News, 12 May 2003)

IF you type “This Day in History, May 5th” into the search engines of the History Channel or most newspapers it will show up something along the lines of, “In 1981, Irish Republican Army hunger-striker Bobby Sands died at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland in his 66th day without food” (‘Boston Globe’). In other words, Bobby Sands’ name has been immortalised by his and his comrades’ hunger strikes twenty-two years ago.
A news reporter on Fox News in the USA last week soon found out how much a legend is Bobby Sands when he attempted a crude joke on television. At the end of the news, Steve Shepherd, said: “On this date Bobby Sands died after sixty-six days on a hunger strike in prison in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The moral of the story: eat more often.”
Irish-Americans were outraged and an online petition was soon organised which forced Fox News and Shepherd to apologise. Fox TV Network is, of course, owned by media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, an old friend of Mrs Thatcher and it was Murdoch’s HarperCollins which advanced Mrs Thatcher $5.4million for her almost unreadable memoirs.
Shortly after Bobby died in 1981 some idiot, in an attempt at irony, wrote on a gable wall in loyalist East Belfast, “We’ll never forget you, Jimmy Sands.”
Travel almost anywhere in the world, mention that you are from Ireland, and the response you are likely to get is, “Ireland – Bobby Sands!” No one answers, “England – Mrs Thatcher!” though nowadays they might answer, “England – George Bush!” Bobby Sands’ name lives on and the legacy of the hunger strikers continues to inspire not just Irish republicans but many nationalities that associate it with nobility, sacrifice and courage in the face of a bullying power.

LAST year two small events showed how ordinary people if motivated and mobilised can make a political point and their voices heard. In November the BBC World Service, as part of its 70th anniversary celebrations, announced that it was holding a poll for the world’s top tune.
The poll attracted submissions from all around the world. Nearly 150,000
votes were received from 153 countries, nominating over 6,500 songs. Even The Beatles failed to make the top ten. One of the strongest contenders was a patriotic Hindu song, ‘Vande Mataram’, which is considered by many as India’s national song.
Someone, somewhere, came up with the bright idea of nominating ‘A Nation Once Again’ by The Wolfe Tones, and encouraging like-minded people to concentrate on that one song. Using the internet and the Irish Diaspora, e-mails poured into the BBC. As a result, ‘A Nation Once Again’, written in the 1840s by Thomas Davis and first recorded in 1964, was voted the world’s top song!
Of course, the reaction of the BBC World Service to this shock result was to announce that it was going to hold yet another poll to see if its listeners agreed with the result! Whether it went ahead I am not sure – but the psyche at play was quite revealing and not too far removed, for example, from that colonial practice of postponing native elections until one gets the results one likes.
Around the same time, BBC Radio Ulster carried out a poll for Ulsterman of the Century. I hadn’t even heard it was taking place and saw no reference to it in any internet bulletin boards, which suggests that there was little or no canvassing, yet, once again, Bobby Sands was up there in the Top Five (along with Ian Paisley, and the late Joey Dunlop who topped the poll).

THE intransigence of the British government at the time of the hunger strikes was made possible because its behaviour was never checked by concerned, domestic pressure. The British public was left ignorant by the great British media who moulded the public’s opinions of Ireland and of people like Bobby Sands. The conflict was presented as inexplicable or tribal or atavistic but never in an intelligent or, for that matter, in an honest or impartial way. We saw again in the recent Iraqi war how journalists identify and bond with their own troops.
Last year the veteran BBC correspondent, Kate Adie, published her autobiography, ‘The Kindness of Strangers’. Adie would be most familiar as that figure riding atop a British army tank, in her flak jacket and helmet, reporting from the Balkans or Afghanistan. But before that her job was often to explain the North to British viewers. And to her the hunger strike was “Bog-trotting stuff.”
I have written before, how on the morning that Bobby Sands died she interviewed me on the Falls Road. It remains the most hostile interview I ever did in twenty-five years. Still, I thought I acquitted myself well and got the better of her, but it was never broadcast. The BBC claimed that the film “didn’t come out.”
In her book she makes no mention of this interview but writes about sneaking into Bobby’s wake “in a headscarf and scruffy anorak”. She says: “In his coffin, Mr Sands did not present a pale face of suffered humanity. He looked like a banana. Luminous yellow. I sniffled and coughed and looked hard. This was not the time and place to comment on the effects of hepatitis A and liver failure – nor the fact that the local embalmer had apparently used furniture varnish by the look of it. Thank God no one put a friendly arm round my shoulder at my supposed overcome state. I’d just learned what actors meant by corpsing.”
Earlier she compares the British army to the locals. “The army was full of pink-cheeked lads, squat and muscly…”
Anti-H-Block marchers, on the other hand, were, “pasty-faced, lank-haired young women, with pushchairs of mewling children. Skinny lads, with hunched bony shoulders and pipe-cleaner legs; middle-aged – or perhaps not, but older – women, in groups, all smoking during the six miles up the Falls, skin shiny with anti-depressants, and voices raucous…”
These weren’t the people, the community I saw and was with during those dark, sad days: dignified people who were shot and pulverised on their own streets for daring to oppose British policy. Kate Adie claims that what came out of Belfast was, “Efficient and carefully judged journalism”, but in her own words she reveals something of the deep-seated prejudices which informed a style of reporting that kept the British public in ignorance and which did a disservice to the living and the dead.

1981 Hunger Strikes – America Reacts

1981 Hunger Strikes – America Reacts
Traces the evolution of public opinion in the United States from before the strikes – when few outside the Irish American community knew what the issues were in the north Ireland – to their conclusion when public awareness was at its height. It also examines the degree to which the American media and the Irish American public gave the hunger strikers the legitimacy they needed to press their cause in Washington and London. The purpose of the exhibit is twofold. First, to present a body of new primary resources and, second, to inspire reflection on the very nature of public opinion making.

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