It seems significant that the documentary film ‘Bobby Sands: 66 Days’ has come out this year, the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Brendan J Byrne’s impressive account of the H-Block hunger strike of 1981 claims, through its interviewees and in its own narration, that nothing was quite the same in this country after those traumatic 66 days during which Bobby Sands starved himself to death. The same of course is frequently said of the Rising – Ireland before and Ireland after the seven days of the rebellion in Dublin were two very different places.
There are merits to both claims. In one of the many interview contributions by Fintan O’Toole in ‘Bobby Sands: 66 Days’, he suggests that we can view Sands’ hunger strike as marking the beginning of the end of the physical-force tradition in Irish republicanism. The argument goes like this: the enormous propaganda success of the strike demonstrated to everyone, most particularly to the IRA themselves, that you ‘get into people’s minds’ more effectively by demonstrating your readiness to suffer than by demonstrating your capacity to kill and maim; the moment you admit your fascination for Sands, republicanism has won.
When the half-dead Sands won the Fermanagh- South Tyrone by-election, he broke the longstanding boycott of the Westminster parliamentary system that had for decades been a defining feature of republican strategy. Granted, when Gerry Adams was elected MP two years later, he abstained from taking his seat, a policy observed to this day by Sinn Féin’s four (non-)sitting MPs. But the fact remains that from 1981 until the present, mainstream republicanism has demonstrated a readiness to engage with the British political system.
It would be a strange documentary that did not talk up the centrality of the event that is its subject. But the film does succumb to the temptation to position the Sands strike as the event that shaped all that followed, and it even suggests by its shifting back and forth along the timeline of the strike and the Troubles that the hunger strike was the culmination of all that had come before.
1916 is often thought of in the same way. There is no doubt that what happened in Easter Week was crucial, but we say this because of the many events that cascaded in its wake: the surge of support for Sinn Féin in the 1918 election, the mobilisation of the IRA across the country in the years following, the readiness of the British government to withdraw, and so on. If none of these other events had taken place, then 1916 would be as relatively non-pivotal as the also unsuccessful uprisings of 1867, 1848, 1803 and 1798.
This is not to say that these other events were inconsequential, but it is to point out that only one of these rebellions is generally known about and the centenary and bicentenary celebrations for those earlier events are small fry compared to the full-scale, countrywide commemorations of 2016.
The broader point here is: when we hear a historical event described as pivotal, a watershed, a key moment, a revolution, a turning point, a tipping point, we are being exposed to what the social historian Richard Sennett has called “a view of human history based on the life cycle of the moth”. Abrupt transformations simply do not happen. The Ireland that existed before the 1981 hunger strikes did not stop and was not replaced by a different Ireland. The same goes for 1916.
A useful metaphor for an alternative way of viewing historical causes and effects is the rhizome, which is a botanical term for a part of certain plants that send out roots and shoots in a non-symmetrical, apparently higgledy-piggledy way. Rhizomes have been contrasted, most notably by the philosophers Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, with plants that observe a more regular pattern of a central stem or trunk that grows side shoots in a predictable way. A rhizomatic view of history does not search for a before/after logic, or even necessarily a cause/effect logic to historical events, instead viewing them as being connected in a non-linear and networked way, producing feedback effects and disruptive interpretations of past and future events.
1916 and 1981 are indeed important years in the history of this island, but the rebellion of 1916 becomes the canonical Easter Rising only when viewed backwards in time from the vantage of events that followed.
And among the events that have followed 1916 are the commemorations of 2016. The fact that these events are being celebrated so effusively this year casts new, retrospective significance upon them. 1916 had occupied a venerated position in the emotional history of nationalism for many decades, but had slipped into disrepute in the south in particular as the revisionist account of Irish political violence became standard.
But the 1916 that is celebrated now is rather different from how it was remembered in 1966. With the distance of time and the commodification of our own historical experience, the new 1916 has receded sufficiently from our current political dispensation to become a quaint, sepia-toned, costume-wearing, heritage event festooned with interactive, touristic, multimedia, virtual experiences. The 1916 rhizome, in other words, continues to send out new shoots.
‘Bobby Sands: 66 Days’ does a good job of connecting previous events of the Troubles to the day-by-day experience of the Sands hunger strike. As such, it is a decent history of the period. But its major assertion that things changed pivotally with Sands means that it fairly rushes past the events that followed 1981. The over-emphasis on Sands and his strike means that the other nine people who starved themselves to death in prison that year are not all named. The film gives the impression that the conflict was effectively brought to an end by a combination of Sands’ political coup plus the peace-process nous of Adams, aided by the briefly seen Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair.
Fair enough, these are indeed the events that followed, in some shape or form. But this documentary periodises the Troubles, making the events seem distant and archival. The fundamental problems that led to unrest in the north are not addressed, with the result that we are not required when watching this film to consider sectarian inequality, the corruption of successive London administrations, decades of under investment, the inflammatory racism of Paisleyism, electoral isolation within British politics, the legacy of centuries of dispossession and colonialism, and cronyism in all walks of life from police and planning to parliament. Many of these and other problems still remain in various measures, and they contribute to ongoing and possibly future conflict that will come as a surprise to those who fail to acknowledge them.
With the Troubles receding into a period past of grainy film stock, Ford Cortinas and flared trousers, its slogans – ‘Smash H-Block’, ‘Don’t Let them Die!’, ‘Tiocfaidh Ár Lá’, ‘Ulster says No!’ – have also become dated, firmly anchored in their era. Rhizomatically, the big one – ‘Brits Out’ – has undergone a strange revision this year in the form of ‘Brexit’.
This column is not the first one to point out that the consequences of Brexit are unknown and unknowable. Nor is it the first to struggle to work out what the motivations were for many of the Leave voters. But it is hard to ignore the feeling that Northern Ireland, and Scotland, are little more than unwanted encumbrances for the majority English, and that the feeling runs in both directions. For all the blood spilt during the Troubles, for all the politicking and negotiating, it may turn out that the thing that finally releases the hold of London on part of this island is the insouciant indifference of the English for their unloved fellow subjects, the unionists of Ulster.
This outcome sits uncomfortably with the legacy of Bobby Sands. Viewing things this way certainly diminishes the significance and effectiveness of Irish nationalism and republicanism, which may have been little more than an irritant that it took England decades to get round to swatting away with the same swipe of the arm that has demolished its own constitution and ties to Europe.
The total irrelevance and incoherence of unionism in these events, however viewed, is striking. When unionists appear in ‘Bobby Sands: 66 Days’, they are political retards, vengeful, and incapable of empathy (holding placards saying ‘Let him die’ outside the H-Block prison gates; sitting primly in hopelessly dated front rooms, unable to comprehend the sacrifices of the hunger strikers; following a sweating, frenzied marching band leader; demonstrating the arch-villain/child molester look with cola-shaded spectacles, and so on).
It is ironic that the stereotype of inbred, unsophisticated, atavistic Irishness has now become grafted onto the unionist population. While the rest of us in the south are renegotiating our historical narratives through the means of interactive multimedia experiences, etc. etc., the Ulster unionist remains stuck in amber, more despised by the English than ever. Leaderlessly moving into political oblivion, outplayed and outmaneuvered by nationalism and republicanism, unionism as it appears in this film is decidedly on the losing side of the culture wars in the northern political struggle. And perhaps its greatest achievement is in showing how Sands’ strike and the propaganda machine that accompanied it was part of this culture war, transforming his support base from a paltry few thousand marchers early in 1981 to the astonishing figure of 100,000 people who attended his funeral a few short months later.
Cormac Deane lectures in film and media in the Institute of Art, Design and Technology