At the time of his death on May 5, 1981, these were the vital statistics for British prisoner Bobby Sands:
Height: 5 feet, 9 1/2 inches.
Weight: 95 pounds.
The Irish Republican Army leader/member of the British Parliament died after a 66-day hunger strike that drew international attention while boosting his call for an independent, united Ireland.
Undated photo shows , former Sinn Fein party member, with Bobby Sands (r.) in an iconic image used around the world, after Sands died on the IRA hunger strike in the Maze prison in 1981.
Nine of Sands’ IRA comrades followed his lead, refusing to eat until they too made the final trek from their cells in the notorious Maze prison to their plots in a cemetery.
The long-haired Sands began his fatal fast on March 1, 1981, launching his protest over the British government’s refusal to treat the IRA fighters as political prisoners.
The Brits ended the designation in 1976 in an effort to criminalize paramilitary groups like the IRA, which was fighting for the centuries-old cause of Irish independence.
“Crime is crime is crime,” said British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, England’s Iron Lady. “It is not political.”
Pair of Irish protesters in West Belfast.
And yet it was.
Thatcher’s hard-line approach, rather than crushing the IRA, seemed to reinvigorate the republican cause.
One month before his death, Sands was was elected to Parliament in a rebuke for the British government from the Catholics of Northern Ireland.
The hunger striker, in his final days, ignored an appeal from Pope John Paul II to end his fast. The emaciated Sands, after losing 60 pounds in nine weeks, finally died on May 5, 1981.
Thatcher’s inflexible stance was widely condemned around the world. “THEY HAVE MURDERED BOBBY SANDS” read a page one headline in France.
More than 100,000 people attended his funeral in Belfast, and his “martyrdom” for the cause inspired increased support for the provisional IRA.
Wake for INLA member who died trying to plant a bomb as civil disobedience at the time of the death of Bobby Sands.
The deaths in the non-violent protest, an Irish anomaly, led to widespread rioting in Belfast that claimed another 68 lives — 15 soldiers, 15 police officers, 35 civilians and three paramilitary members.
On the 20th anniversary, a commemorative Mass for Sands was held in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Among those in attendance was his widow.
The deaths of the 10 hunger strikers are often credited with forcing the two sides to work together in resolving “The Troubles” — including the 1998 “Good Friday Agreement.”
But one thing didn’t change:
There remain 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland, and a half-dozen in Northern Ireland.