Photographic Ubiquity: Remembering Bobby Sands

By Katherine Side –

When 27-year-old, Robert (“Bobby”) Gerard Sands died on May 5, 1981, after 66 days on hunger strike, he was already recognizable to many. A single colour photograph of Sands circulated widely as a commodity throughout the republican movement and its international coverage. This image still endures. It has been painted successively in murals on Sinn Féin’s Sevastopol Street office; it appears on book covers; it has been reproduced on paraphernalia including a football jersey with the number 81 on the reverse. It is even the logo of a burger bar named after Sands on the street named in his memory in the Iranian city of Tehran. Occasionally, Sands’ image has appeared in effigy on July 12th bonfires.

Why has this single image endured? What political purposes does it serve? How is it used to establish and contest visions of the conflict and frame how they are remembered?

The now ubiquitous image of Sands was cropped from a larger colour photograph taken in 1975 in The Maze/Long Kesh prison.[1] In it, Sands poses for an unknown photographer alongside Thomas (“Tomboy”) Loudon, Gerard Rooney, and Denis Donaldson. Donaldson’s arm rests around Sands’ shoulder. The brick wall behind them is a façade. Painted in Donaldson’s cubicle in Cage 17, it replicates the Short Strand area of Belfast, a “fantasy backdrop” to symbolize the men’s ties to place and community.[2] Clean-shaven with long hair, Sands wears a red V-neck sweater, trimmed in black, over a wide-collared, white shirt. Later, the men’s street clothes would be significant and would visualize republican prisoners’ refusal to wear the prison uniform.[3] Other prison photographs of Sands exist, but none was circulated as extensively or as often as this one.

Two people have claimed credit for this. Artist and former republican prisoner, Danny Devenny, allegedly obtained a negative of the prison photograph from a friend’s mother and used printing presses at An Phoblacht/Republican News to produce posters for public protests.[4] Michael Alison, then Minister of State for Northern Ireland, suggested in October 1980 that “only a handful of protesters” supported the prisoners: a few days later, 17,000 people marched to support them in Belfast. Danny Morrison, then editor of An Phoblacht/Republican News reportedly gave the photograph of Sands to the Belfast-based, photographic agency, Pacemaker Press in 1981.[5] Regardless of who originally disseminated the image, crucially, it proliferated at a time when the world’s gaze was focussed upon Northern Ireland, rendering its violence and protests global spectacles. 

This particular image embedded Sands in the history and mythology of republican struggle. Childhood photographs, family photographs, and those of Sands’ adolescent sporting participation arguably complicate the story of him as republican hero. Family photographs, for instance, would have located Sands’ childhood residence in Belfast’s mixed suburban neighbourhoods, thus rather removed from staunchly republican, poorer areas such as the Falls Road and Ballymurphy. They would have also exposed a lineage that includes mixed marriage and Presbyterian ancestors, among them Sands’ paternal grandmother and his British naval veteran father. Childhood photographs would likewise have captured his socializing and sporting participation in cross-community venues and clubs. Such images could also prove useful, however, in terms of exemplifying key tenets of provisional republican ideology. One image of the Star of the Sea youth football team photograph features Bobby Sands with teammate, Terry Nicholl, later a UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) member.[6] Sands and Nicholl served overlapping prison sentences in The Maze/Long Kesh. That they were pictured together could thus be deployed by republicans in defence of their conviction that Wolfe Tone’s vision of a union of ‘Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter’ could be forged in the absence of the British. Indeed, Sands’ Presbyterian lineage, and the evidence of mixed marriage in his family history, has the potential to be framed in these terms: Tone was himself the product of a mixed marriage (and his grandfather was a naval veteran, like Sands’ father). Yet, the iconic image of Sands, taken among other republican prisoners, helped to establish his place among a close-knit brotherhood of republican struggle.

It can be argued that the photograph of a smiling, youthful and healthy Sands was a useful political tool, moreover, for the republican leadership, providing a sharp and intentional contrast with Sands’ emaciated body and deteriorating physical condition. Demands for a political response reverberated loudly after the republican hunger strike began on March 1, 1981. Public attention was further focused upon Sands when he contested the Westminster elections for the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone under the National Anti-H Blocks/Armagh Committee. Forty days into his hunger strike, he was elected. Sands, the first republican prisoner to join the hunger strike, was also the first to die and so he died an elected MP to Westminster. An estimated 100,000 people attended his funeral, at which Sands’ image was also shared.

The visual dominance of this photograph generated folklore that no other photographs existed.[7] Yet never-before-seen images of Sands continue to surface. One photograph appeared in 2019. It was taken at a republican rally on August 8, 1976 to mark the fifth anniversary of the introduction of internment and its appearance rekindled the vision of Sands as a model republican activist.[8] Five years to the day that the photograph was taken, Tomas McElwee died. The ninth of the ten hunger strikers to die, McElwee’s image would be recognizable to only a very few.

Owing to the iconicity of this single image of Bobby Sands, the history of earlier hunger strikers has tended to fade somewhat in public memory, including the memory of Terence MacSwiney’s strike in 1920, strikes during the 1930s and 40s, and the 1972 strike by republican prisoners. One might also point to the strike in 1980 by republican men (the resolution of which remains controversial), and that launched by women in the Armagh Gaol. A hunger strike was also pursued by UDA (Ulster Defence Association) prisoners in The Maze/Long Kesh. It is worth highlighting, moreover, how other conflict-related deaths attracted less international attention than the death of the ten 1981 hunger strikers; one thinks of the shooting of ten Protestant men in Kingsmills, Co. Armagh, four of them younger than Sands, and which was claimed by a republican group. This is not the only striking example of the way in which the historical record is visualized selectively: in the Sevastopol Street mural, Denis Donaldson’s hand is removed from Sands’ shoulder. Donaldson was, of course, murdered after being outed as a long-serving, British informer. It is also worth flagging how the trust established in Sands’ memory, and which controls the copyright for Sands’ writing, fell out with his relatives over the use of his legacy. None of Sands’ family members are involved with the trust.[9]  

On the fortieth anniversary of Sands’ death, this single photograph is still likely to be used to remember him. Yet, it remains only a select part of the visual record of his life and of a much longer and more complicated history.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

[1] Bobby Sands Trust, https://www.bobbysandstrust.com

[2] Nicole Fleetwood, “Posing in Prison: Family Photographs, Emotional Labour, and Carceral Intimacy”, Public Culture, 27, no. 3 (2015): 490.

[3] The change in sentenced prisoners’ attire was required by the British government’s change in their designation, from Special Category Status as prisoners of war (negotiated in 1974), to ordinary prisoners. Changes to prisoner attire were to be phased in by March 1976. Brian Graham and Sara MacDowell, “Meaning in the Maze: The Heritage of Long Kesh”, Cultural Geographies, 14, no. 3 (2007): 348.

[4] Jack Conway, “Unbowed and Unbroken: A Conversation with Irish Republican Artist Danny Devenny”, Radical History, 106 (2010): 170.

[5] Roger Savage, “The BBC and the Hunger Strikes.” The Irish Times, 06 July, 2016.

[6] Olenka Frenkiel, Old Scores: A Documentary. (Belfast: BBC Northern Ireland, 1983).

[7] Roger Savage, The BBC’s ‘Irish Troubles’: Television, Conflict, and Northern Ireland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 241. 

[8] Allison Morris, “New Bobby Sands picture revealed in book”, Irish News. 22 October, 2019.

[9] Stephen Hopkins, “The Chronicles of Long Kesh: Provisional Irish Republican Memoirs and the Contested Memory of the Hunger Strikes”, Memory Studies, 7, no. 4 (2014): 426.    

Katherine Side is Professor, Department of Gender Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. She is the author of Patching Peace: Women’s Civil Society Organizing in Northern Ireland (2015) and has published about photographs of the conflict, specifically about photographs of Mairead Farrell and Bloody Sunday. 

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