Michael O'Sullivan reviews Nothing But An Unfinished Song by Denis O' Hearn, Pluto Press, ISBN 0 7453 2572 6, £12.99 pbk
DENIS O'HEARN, sociology professor at New York's Binghamton University, has a long involvement in Irish political issues. A journalist in Belfast in the 1970's for, among others, The Guardian, he now gives us the first full biography of republican icon Bobby Sands. Six years in the writing and 434 pages, it is as close to a true 'life and times' as we are ever likely to have.
The story of Sands' childhood and youth is an all too familiar one in Belfast. Brought up in the religiously mixed but bitterly sectarian housing estate of Rathcoole, part of Ian Paisley's power base, the family was forced out by well organised gangs of loyalist 'vigilantes' to the safer Twinbrook complex.
Already politically committed he found himself, still a teenager, a local IRA volunteer organising attacks on British military barracks and RUC stations. Arrests followed, and from the age of nineteen until his death on hunger strike nine years later he was to spend just a few months out of prison.
For Sands and his comrades prison was their university. O'Hearn outlines the importance to the prisoners of self-education and how the Long Kesh men were continuing the tradition of prisoner resistance of Frongoch, Mountjoy and The Curragh.
Revolutionary literature, political lectures and Irish language classes, organised by the prisoners themselves, preserved morale and solidarity and radicalised them intellectually and politically. O'Hearn is here charting a journey of self-discovery.
O'Hearn allows the POWs themselves to tell the gripping and moving story of the bitter six year struggle which culminated in the 1981 hunger strike and Sands' stunning election victory in Fermanagh/South Tyrone.
He skilfully incorporates the prisoners original notes and personal testimonies into his text, as well as Sands' own published and unpublished writings, capturing perfectly the unbelievably tense atmosphere in the prison. The on-going war on the outside, the prisoners' careful preparations for the strike and their dignified and determined resolve to resist the desperate efforts of the British propaganda machine to discredit them are all powerfully portrayed.
O'Hearn's narrative is breathtaking both in scope and in detail. His scholarship is meticulous and draws on primary sources and masses of hitherto unpublished material, public and private. It is history and biography in one and provides a unique insight into the mind, personality and motivations of an extraordinary figure whose heroic struggle continues to inspire political activists worldwide.
One of the great political biographies.
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Copyright © 2006 Michael O'Sullivan