“They came from all over the city, down by subway from Inwood and the Bronx, over the bridges and through the tunnels from Queens and Brooklyn, or by ferry in from Staten Island. They drove or took buses from Jersey, Connecticut, Upstate, Pennsylvania.
They came from far and wide to make their views known and their voices heard outside the British consulate on Third Avenue.
They were all part of the tribe, come to protest the imminent death through voluntary starvation of a young chieftain. And make no mistake Bobby Sands was a leader to these people with more moral authority than any trumped up Taoiseach back in Dublin…”
Thirty years ago today Bobby Sands was on the sixty-fifth day of his hunger strike. Many of us were changed by those strange, foreboding days. The tribe never changed, never forgot either nor forgave.
“Not a lace curtain to hang between them, they were the faithful who kept the flame of Irish Republicanism alive in the back rooms of smoky pubs at Sunday evening socials throbbing with the music of accordions, fiddles and banjos.
They were the hard core who gladly forked out crumpled twenty-dollar bills in the hope that one day a united Ireland might become a reality, and not just another pipe dream fueled by chasers of cheap beer and shots of Powers Whiskey.”
I called them the tribe because you always saw the same faces at protests, although they held widely varying views on the nature of their mythic united Ireland.
Accordingly, they were the first to show up outside the British Consulate when Sands went on hunger strike. They could have made it there blindfolded for many had been tramping up and down Third Avenue since the Troubles flared once more in1968.
“They were an odd bunch: serious and cerebral by times, chatty and cliquish at others, but I liked them and admired both their integrity and single-minded devotion to Irish unity. I suppose they reminded me of my grandfather. One in particular even looked like him: white haired, squat and muscular with a face set in granite, conviction cased in steel, all his instincts tuned to the force of his own moral compass.”
My grandfather had raised me in an old barracks of a house in Wexford. I had ingested his version of Irish history and, at an early age, could debate all the old arguments, though I disappointed him with my love for the “turncoat” Mick Collins.
He had been dead some years and I was now living on the Lower East Side, frequenting CBGBS and other temples of the cool. Long before his passing I had distanced myself from the old ideologies and the violence that attended them. Still every now and then in the back of my mind I’d hear his echo, “Every generation must do their part to solve the British problem in the North of Ireland.”
Bobby Sands had his own mantra, “No one can do everything, but everyone has their part to play.”
Both voices had begun to reassert themselves sixty-five days previously when Sands had invoked an ancient Irish tribal right, “when wronged by your more powerful neighbor go starve yourself on his doorstep until the shame causes him to relent.”
But now the minutes were ticking down and Bobby was sinking fast. The Iron Lady, Mrs. Thatcher, would prevail but it would be a hollow Pyrrhic victory, for a new generation had been politicized by Sands’ protest and would hand down its own folk memory.
There would be many dark and dangerous days before the ballot box would finally replace the Armalite but, oddly enough, the first seeds were scattered on poisoned soil thirty years ago.
“Still the tribe never faltered or lost faith. Right to the bitter end, they came in by subway from Inwood and the Bronx, over the bridges and through the tunnels from Queens and Brooklyn, or by ferry in from Staten Island. They drove or took buses from Jersey, Connecticut, Upstate, Pennsylvania. And I will never forget them.”
Excerpts from “Green Suede Shoes – An Irish-American Odyssey” published by Thunder’s Mouth Press/Avalon.