Cumann na Saoirse Náisiúnta

National Irish Freedom Committee

Bobby Sands biopic, Hunger

On Sunday, September 28th, three other NIFC members and I attended a screening of the acclaimed Bobby Sands biopic, Hunger, at the New York Film Festival.  Hunger, British director Steve McQueen’s first film, won the Best First Feature Film award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.  It is a powerful and gut wrenching account of the 1981 hunger strike during wh2009 Bobby Sands film report.htmich Sands and nine other men died.

Prior to the film, the four of us distributed approximately 150 flyers to film goers.  Very few refused to take a flyer and I received no negative comments from anyone.  We were approached by an Argentinian woman by the name of Alicia, who told us she was seeing the film for the second time (it was also screened the day before).  She told us how she became involved in the Irish struggle during the British/Argentine conflict over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands.  While protesting outside the British Consulate in New York, she got to know many Irish activists and became interested in Irish republican politics.  Alicia said she wrote to Bobby Sands in prison although by that time he was already on hunger strike.  She struck me as a bright and passionate woman and I now wish that I had asked for her phone number.  I bet she would be an interesting friend.  Alicia consented to repeat her story on tape which will be added to the NIFC website (  “Everyone should see this film” she said.

Hunger dramatizes life inside Long Kesh prison and the events surrounding the 1981 IRA/INLA hunger strike. This drama focuses primarily on the prison experience of Bobby Sands, a 27 year old Belfast resident and IRA Volunteer, convicted of possession of firearms and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. 

Bobby Sands died on May 5th at the age of 27 after 66 days on hunger strike in Long Kesh prison outside Belfast.  Sands was the first of 10 Irish political prisoners to die on hunger strike in 1981, which was undertaken to regain political status (“Special Category Status”) for IRA and INLA prisoners in British prisons.  Political status was eventually restored to Irish Republican political prisoners on October 3, 1981 but only after Sands and nine other men had died on agonizing hunger strike.

 The British government, under Margaret Thatcher, attempted to vilify these men by revoking the Special Category Status previously given to Irishmen and women convicted of political offenses. They were  reclassified as common criminals.  After numerous failed attempts at negotiation, these men volunteered to undertake a hunger strike. 

 This film is a graphic account of the last few months of Sands’ life.  Although I have read many accounts of the 1981 hunger strike, this film gripped me at a deeper emotional level. These were young men after all. Men willing to die for their cause.  Men with their whole adult lives ahead of them. 

 In its short 90 minutes, this brilliant and powerful film – not one minute wasted, by the way – managed to portray the brutality these men endured in Long Kesh and the events that forced them to go on hunger strike.  Daily life on the blanket, the reality of the dirty protest, the forced washings by prison guards, the cruelty of the ‘gauntlet,’ the barbarity of the beatings, the loneliness and isolation, the factors that lead to the decision to go on hunger strike, and the horrendous physical and psychological ordeal they underwent every day while their bodies broke down until they finally went blind, deaf and ultimately died, were vividly depicted. 

Surprisingly, given the subject matter, Hunger was objectively filmed.  The film opens with the beginning of a work day for a prison guard who is seen checking underneath his car for explosives and watching for snipers outside his home as he prepares to leave for work. There is another scene in which a prison guard breaks down in tears, unable to continue his duties beating prisoners as they are forced through ‘the gauntlet.’  Early on is a voice over of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous “there is no political crime...” speech.  In the middle of the film is a scene between Sands (brilliantly portrayed by Michael Fassbender) and a priest (played by Liam Cunningham) discussing the morality of hunger strikes.  It is in this scene that Sands commitment and singlemindness to the struggle is driven home.  

The screening was followed by a Question and Answer session with the director of this movie.  An NIFC member questioned why there are still nearly 100 Irish political prisoners in British jails today.  He also pointed out that although Gerry Adams was imprisoned in Long Kesh at the same time as Bobby Sands, he questioned why he was never subjected to the type of treatment endured by Sands and the other prisoners depicted in this movie.  The directed responded with a comment that this was a question for Gerry Adams. 

Watching this film was excruciatingly painful.  There were several scenes that I could not watch.  The sounds and sights of beatings these young men endured was heart breaking.  This movie filled me with painful empathy and deep respect for these brave young men.  It also made me angry.  Life in Long Kesh was gruesome.  That said, I am so very glad I saw this film.  It made the hunger strike more real to me.  More visceral.  If you see this film – and you should – you will know what I mean.   

Ten men died in 1981 to regain political status for Irish freedom fighters.  We should not forget that today there are close to 100 Irish political prisoners in British prisons without Special Category Status because Provisional Sinn Fein gave away these rights when they signed the Belfast Agreement (‘Good Friday Agreement’) in 1998.

 Jane Enright



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