Some facts about Bobby Sands are given in the foreword to a new publication of images by Yan Morvan taken in Belfast and Derry in 1980-81. They speak for themselves and then the photographs speak.
Booby Sands was first imprisoned in 1972 and after his release was arrested again in possession of a handgun and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. Like other IRA members, he considered himself a prisoner of war and refused to wear prison cloths, making do with a single blanket. In 1978, chamber pots were confiscated and showers were forbidden; they were jet washed.
In 1981, having lived in their excrement for three years, they plan a hunger strike and Bobby Sands volunteers. Others follow and, without the approval of the IRA, they refuse food and water. After sixty six days, Sands dies on 5th May 1981; nine other hunger strikers die over the following months.
“Bobby Sands: Belfast May 1981” has 125 black-and-white photographs, many filling two-page spreads, and their pre-digital graininess complements the grim reality of the economically deprived neighbourhoods of Belfast and Derry that fostered the tragic events of 1981.
The Unionists, due to a rigged political system, had total control over Northern Ireland. Until the British were forced to intervene they were, like the government in the Republic of Ireland, sublimely indifferent to a state of affairs based on economic and social deprivation for non-Unionists.
A ghetto-like environment and systematic discrimination produced young men like Bobby Sands and the photographs show how people were provoked into protest by the British government’s willingness to let political prisoners starve themselves to death.
French Yan Morvan got closer to what was happening on the streets than would probably have been allowed to many a British photojournalist. Nevertheless, he was taking risks by standing alongside the stone-throwing rioters who confronted the armed security forces.
David and Goliath. Protestors also marched and demonstrated, increasingly so as the days of the hunger strike lengthened, carrying poster-sized photographs of the prisoners and the number of days they had endured without food. Humour does not naturally lend itself to the subject matter but Yan Morvan captures the glee of defiant youngsters expressing their rage.
We also see – and this must have been the day-today reality for the vassal citizens of what was an apartheid-like province of the United Kingdom – adults going about their daily lives in the midst of mayhem.
There is one quite surreal image of a hatted gent in a white shirt and bow tie crossing a road in front of children gathered around a burning car. There are poignant close-up images of individual faces shot through with a mixture of grief and grim stoicism.
The photographs are testimony to a community galvanized into righteous anger and, in the process, rendered more politicised than ever before. Membership of the IRA increased dramatically after the deaths of the hunger strikers. Bobby Sands wrote that revenge would come with the laughter of children.
“Bobby Sands: Belfast May 1981”, by Yan Morvan, is published by André Frère Éditions.