Bobby Sands and the Tragedy of Northern Ireland
Bobby Sands and the Tragedy of Northern Ireland is a 152-page piece of propaganda on behalf of the Provisional IRA. It consists in about equal parts of hagiography and bad history. The hagiographical part, of which I shall have more to say, concerns the story of Bobby Sands—the young IRA man, and elected MP for Fermanagh, whose death on hunger strike, in Long Kesh Prison, in May 1981, attracted worldwide media attention. Mr. Feehan’s treatment of the story contains little information about Sands, and almost nothing about the activities which led to his arrest and sentence. The “historical” part of the book applies the usual techniques of propagandist historiography: highlighting of enemy atrocities; failing to mention those of one’s own side; converting a far-fetched interpretation of a given event into the narrated event itself, and so on.
In itself, Bobby Sands and the Tragedy of Northern Ireland would not merit extensive attention here. But the phenomenon—Irish Republicanism—of which this book is a product does, I believe, deserve such attention. I propose, therefore, in this essay, to consider Irish Republicanism, both historically and in relation to the present condition of Northern Ireland and the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985, which in March 1986 led to a general strike and violent protest in Northern Ireland and will almost certainly be the cause of more such protest in the months to come. I shall take account of Mr. Feehan’s book insofar as it sheds light on the Irish Republican mystique, the source of the initial drive leading to the present troubles.
The father of Irish Republicanism was Theobald Wolfe Tone, in the French Revolutionary period. Wolfe Tone was one of a number of European patriotes who during the 1790s—in Belgium, Holland, the Rhineland, and various parts of Italy as well as in Ireland—sought to shake off monarchical, aristocratic, clerical, and/or alien rule and turn their countries into sister republics, républiques soeurs of la Grande Nation, Revolutionary France.
Wolfe Tone died, by his own hand, in 1798, as a prisoner of the British. His life and death remained, and remain, an inspiration to Irish physical-force separatists. His aim “to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils,” was also the political aim of the hero of the 1916 Rising, Patrick Pearse, who called Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown “the holiest place in Ireland,” thus deliberately putting Tone above Saint Patrick.
Today the members of the Provisional IRA (“Provos”) claim, not without some warrant, to be following in the footsteps of Tone and Pearse. The considerable element of truth in this claim is a source of constant embarrassment, dull rather than acute, to the principal established democratic political parties in today’s Republic of Ireland. These parties—Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, especially Fianna Fail—profess a commitment to the ideals of Tone and Pearse. Yet it is obvious that today’s Republic of Ireland is not the republic for …