Film Review: Bobby Sands: 66 Days

This documentary about IRA martyr Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike is both tragic aria and political-history essay.
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The “Troubles,” as the decades of Catholic-Protestant strife in Northern Ireland have been termed, are probably the most studied and dramatized flashpoint of close-quarter religious strife of the 20th century. But, as Brendan J. Byrne’s precisely constructed and dramatic documentary about the struggle’s most famous casualty ably shows, there is good reason for that.

Bobby Sands was a 27-year-old veteran of the Irish Republican Army when he began his hunger strike on March 9, 1981. The stated cause was protesting the British government’s refusal to grant him and his fellow IRA convicts special status as political prisoners. But as the film’s blue-chip panel of historians, fellow travelers and journalists explicate, Sands’ gesture served as a white-hot distillation of the Republican cause and its decades-long demand that the British leave Ireland completely. In between daily updates on Sands’ strike that highlight his steadily dropping weight, the film toggles back to illustrate a basic timeline of and context for the Troubles and what drove Sands to this desperate gambit.

At this point, Northern Ireland was still convulsing after years of strife. As Byrne’s dense weave of televisual archive footage shows, the form of battle ranged from peaceful marches to assassinations and running street skirmishes pitting gangs of rock- and Molotov cocktail-armed Catholic youth against British soldiers and a primarily Protestant police force. But for a few details, the footage of a city in free-fall could have been shot anywhere from Berlin circa 1945 to Aleppo today: children playing in burnt-out cars and rubble-strewn fields, the few standing walls covered in political graffiti. When the voice of Sands (Martin McCann), reading from his hunger-strike journal, says that he feels pushed into his actions by an “alien, oppressive, unwanted regime,” it seems an understandable reaction to the violent chaos we’re seeing.

Sands had joined up in 1971, just as the struggle was reaching a fever pitch. Groups like the IRA “Provos” were viewed as a necessary militia to defend against depredations from the Protestant majority. Sands spent several years at the Long Kesh Internment Camp, where the IRA prisoners were afforded political status that even allowed them their own clothes and military formations inside the wire. There, he studied up on politics, revolutionary theory and Irish history. He was released in 1976, only to be slammed back into prison on weapons charges. This time, however, there was no special status. There was also little likelihood that Sands’ crusade would be successful.

The excerpts from Sands’ journal reveal a man fully content with and possibly even eager for a martyr’s death. “If I die, God will understand,” he writes, adding that he consoles himself “with the fact that I’ll get a good feed above... if I’m worthy.” Several interviewees draw a bright line from Sands’ eagerness to deprive and annihilate himself to the history of the struggle (the hunger strike was a tactic used by the IRA decades earlier, inspired by British suffragettes) and the Republican propensity to focus less on how much pain they could inflict on the enemy but how much pain they could endure. Set against that backdrop, it becomes hardly surprising that the willing and public sacrifice of a photogenic young rebel placing his thin and wasting body against the intransigence of a bullheaded Margaret Thatcher would fire the Irish imagination.

The film is awash in the iconography of Sands, his youthful visage beaming from a thousand banners and wall murals. But it doesn’t approach either the IRA in general or Sands’ eager martyrdom in an uncritical fashion. While clearly sympathetic to the Republican cause, Byrne highlights the IRA’s gruesome track record as a terrorist organization and also unpacks the potent propagandistic symbology inherent in the strike. In the film’s view, Sands became something of a tabula rasa, a Che Guevara-like symbol of generic resistance to the international audience that was following each day of his increasingly dramatic protest.

Curiously, one thing Bobby Sands: 66 Days doesn’t have quite enough of is Sands himself. While able to expertly weave together social, religious, political, military and historical analyses into a cogent and highly dramatic narrative, Byrne skimps somewhat on the simultaneously sanctified and self-erasing figure at the center of it all. Given the martyrdom that Sands so defiantly pushed towards, that is likely how he might have wanted it.

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