Twenty-five years ago, on May 5, 1981, IRA prisoner Bobby Sands died after sixty-six days on hunger strike. He was protesting to be recognized as a political prisoner, calling the world’s attention to some of the most horrific conditions ever experienced by prisoners. He and a hundred of his comrades–jailed in Britain’s notorious H-Block prison in Northern Ireland–had spent years in total lockup, naked with nothing but blankets to cover themselves, with no reading materials or even the simplest comforts of life.
In the last agonizing days of his life, Bobby Sands saw delicious irony in being elected as a British MP, a member of the "mother of all parliaments," the very heart of the enemy he was dying to defeat. He never complained, even when all manner of politicians and churchmen came into his isolated hospital cell, where his friends were not allowed to visit, and tried to cajole and trick him off of his protest. Margaret Thatcher, who ultimately held his life in her hands, had said, "the lady is not for turning." So Bobby Sands knew that he would die. He knew that others would follow. In the end, ten Irish hunger strikers died that summer of 1981.
News of Bobby Sands’s death spurred protests by thousands in major cities of Europe. Motions of sympathy, minutes of silence and days of mourning were declared in many national parliaments and several US states. The Hindustan Times wrote that Margaret Thatcher "allowed a member of the House of Commons, a colleague in fact, to die of starvation. Never had such an incident occurred in a civilized country." And the New York Times editorialized that Bobby Sands "bested an implacable British prime minister."
The Undertones performed their hit song "It’s Going to Happen" on the BBC’s most popular show, Top of the Pops. Their guitarist had written the song to commemorate the hunger strikers. The Grateful Dead stopped their show at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. A band member said some words about how much Bobby Sands meant to him and to the world. Jerry Garcia sang "He’s Gone," dedicated to Bobby Sands.
Pedram Moallemian and his teenage friends wanted to sneak into the British embassy compound in Tehran and replace the British flag with an Irish one. Then they decided to change the name of the street on which the embassy was situated. Moallemian made signs in Persian—"Bobby Sands St."—out of white construction paper and with blue magic markers and covered the street signs in front of the embassy. The next evening, the teenagers discovered that others had made more signs with the new name. Eventually, the Tehran city government renamed the street permanently and the embassy had to move its door around the corner so that its letterhead would avoid bearing the name of Bobby Sands.
In Cuernavaca, Flora Guerrero Goff and hundreds of supporters, behind a banner that read "Bobby Sands, vivirás para siempre" ("Bobby Sands, you will live forever"), blockaded a major British exhibit that was to be inaugurated by the British ambassador to Mexico, causing its cancellation.
In Havana, Fidel Castro put the Irish hunger strikers in rather high company when he claimed, "Tyrants shake in the presence of men who are able to die for their ideals, after sixty days of hunger strike! Next to this example, what were the three days of Christ on Calvary, as a symbol down the centuries of human sacrifice?"