Bobby Sands anniversary: My father was murdered by IRA during hunger strikes - and my mother died of a broken heart

A woman whose father was murdered by the IRA during the 1981 hunger strikes says she has been left “angry” by commemorations to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands.

Wednesday, 5th May 2021, 5:15 pm
Updated Thursday, 6th May 2021, 11:35 am
Bobby Sands, H-Block hunger striker. Today is the 40th anniversary of his death.

Forty years ago today, 27-year-old IRA Bobby Sands died after a prolonged hunger strike. The death of a further nine hunger strikers in the Maze Prison was followed by significant civil unrest across Northern Ireland.

The leader of the IRA in the H-Blocks, Sands was campaigning to restore Special Category status for IRA prisoners, which would mean they could wear non-prison clothes, associate freely on their own wings and avoid prison work.

Before his death Sands was elected MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone, in a landmark move which shocked unionists and marked a new beginning for Sinn Fein’s foray into electoral politics.

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Father-of-six Alfie Woods died in an IRA landmine attack during the hunger strikes. His wife died soon after of 'a broken heart' leaving the children orphans.

He had been arrested in October 1972 for possessing four handguns. He was convicted in April 1973 and released in April 1976.

Upon his return to Belfast, he resumed IRA activities including the bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company on the Shankill Road. The showroom was destroyed but as the IRA men left the scene there was a gun battle with police. Leaving behind two wounded, the remaining four IRA men - including Sands - tried to escape by car, but were arrested and jailed for 14 years for firearms offences.

The anniversary has prompted extensive revisiting of the life and significance of Mr Sands across many strands of media, regarded as he is in near mythical terms by republicans.

But Valerie Hetherington, whose father Alfred was killed by an IRA bomb during the 1981 hunger strikes, said the attention given to Mr Sands today has left her “angry”.

Father-of-six Alfie Woods died in an IRA landmine attack during the hunger strikes. His wife died soon after of 'a broken heart' leaving the children orphans.

Her father Alfie Woods was killed in an IRA landmine explosion later the same summer, the day after the death of another hunger striker, INLA man Kevin Lynch.

An RUC constable, he died along with colleague and father-of-three John Smyth on August 2 when an IRA landmine exploded under their car near Omagh.

“Those men choose to do what they did,” Alfie’s daughter Valerie said of the hunger strikers. “My Daddy and many other innocent victims didn’t have that choice. They were doing a day’s work when they were murdered. They didn’t have the choice to live or die. That choice was taken from them. So it makes me angry.

“Daddy will be dead 40 years this year. He was killed on his 50th birthday. I was only nine at the time.”

Alfred and his wife Mary had six children aged seven to 21, who they were raising just outside Omagh.

“My mother lived only for one year after daddy died. She died of a broken heart. Mummy had no health issues at all apart from losing the love of her life.”

The murder had a particular impact on the four youngest children.

“Because we did not have the influence of Mummy or Daddy - we are only aged from about seven up to 14. It was very difficult.”

Her eldest sister, then aged 21, stepped into the role of mother and father to raise her siblings. 

“It all had a huge impact on us. We were living daily with that every day without it having your mum or dad as a guide. I 100% blame the IRA for killing Mummy as well. She would not have died had it not been for Daddy’s murder.”

Nobody was ever arrested for the murders but she believes the men responsible were killed by the SAS at Drumnakilly in 1988.

“You can’t grow up without the influence of your parents and not be affected by that,” she added.

“Every day you are basically living with it but this year brings up a lot of painful memories.”  

Kenny Donaldson, Director of Services at victims group the South East Fermanagh Foundation, said 57 people were killed outside the walls of the prison over the period from the first day of the 1981 hunger strike on March 1 to when it ended on October 3.

Hours after Mr Sands’ death, a father and son were fatally wounded after being attacked by a crowd in north Belfast.

Eric Guiney, 45, and his son Desmond, 14, had been travelling in Mr Guiney’s milk lorry during riots on the New Lodge Road when they came under attack by a crowd throwing stones at their vehicle, causing it to crash.

Both later died from their injuries.

“There has been no focus upon the family down the years, who had the heart ripped out of them,” Mr Donaldson told Press Association.

“No-one has been brought to justice and the terrorism idolatry which surrounds the hunger strikers is very difficult for the family to have to deal with.

“Forty years later, who speaks of the Guineys, or the circa 55 others who were murdered/killed outside the prison walls over the period of the hunger strike? Who honours their memory outside of the immediate families?

“We will remember, we will honour all innocents murdered over this period, as we will those murdered/killed before the hunger strike and also those following the ending of the hunger strike.”

SEFF has compiled a short film in remembrance of those killed during the period of the 1981 hunger strike on its’ Facebook page.

Sinn Fein’s former director of publicity, Danny Morrison, speaking to BBC Radio Ulster today, said the hunger strikes led to the “primacy of politics”, particularly following the election of Mr Sands in the Fermanagh South Tyrone Westminster by-election.

Also yesterday, former IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre published a handwritten note from Bobby Sands on his blog, The Pensive Quill, in which Sands said he did not wish to be buried in Milltown Cemetery - nor in a shroud. However both came to pass.

“His family were not made aware of his written preferences,” Mr McIntyre said. Sinn Fein responded that in his last note Sands “explicitly states that he has changed his mind”.

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