On this day 5th May 1981 a daring political statement was made when a young man died while adhering to the ancient Irish Brehon law of “Troscad.”
The phenomenon known as ‘troscad’ (translated as ‘hunger strike’) is nothing new in Irish society. It predates Christianity, which swept Ireland in the mid-5th Century and has been recorded as being used by the Druids. As a custom, according to the ancient Brehon Law, it was available to all members of Irish society as a legal way to air grievances. It is believed that it was inspired by the ancient Hindu custom of ‘dbarna’ meaning ‘waiting for death.’ The ‘troscad’ was the means of compelling justice and establishing one’s rights. Under law, the person wishing to compel justice had to notify the person they were complaining against and then would sit on their doorstep and refuse to eat until the perceived wrongdoer accepted the administration or arbitration of Justice by a Brehon (lawgiver).
The ‘troscad’ is referred to in the Irish sagas as well as laws and when Christianity displaced the pagan religion, the ‘troscad’ continued. We find St. Calmin fasting against Guaire the Hospitable, St; Ronan fasting against Diarmuld, even St. Patrick himself fasting against several persons to compel them to Justice. Some people even fasted against the saints themselves to get them to give justice and wives also fasted against their erring husbands. It is fascinating, as well as sad, that in the long centuries of England’s sorry relationship with Ireland, the Irish have continued a tradition of the ‘troscad’ which has become the political hunger strike. One of the most notable Irish political hunger strikes was that of the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, also an elected Member of Parliament, who was arrested by the English administration in Cork City Hall and forcibly removed from Ireland to London’s Brixton Prison. He died in Brixton on 24 October 1920, on the seventy-fourth day of his hunger strike. He was, of course, not the first Irish political prisoner to die on hunger strike during this period.
Thomas Ashe died as a result of forcible feeding on 25 September 1917. MacSwiney’s sacrifice was said to have inspired Mahatma Gandhi to revive the custom of 'dbarna' in India as a moral political weapon. In recent times, and perhaps better known, came the hunger strikes in Long Kesh prison camp, when in 1981, ten Irish political prisoners died on hunger strike in an attempt to force the administration to restore their rights as political prisoners, taken away from them in 1974. Among them was Bobby Sands, elected Member of the British Parliament, and Kieran Doherty, elected Member of the Irish Parliament. But these ten Irish prisoners were not the first to resort to the continuing tradition of the 'troscad' in an attempt to assert their rights during the current struggle in the north of Ireland, nor the first to die on hunger strike. Frank Stagg, for example, died after a sixty day hunger strike in Wakefield Prison on 12 February 1976, trying to compel the reinstatement of recognition of special status withdrawn in 1974. The ‘troscad’ was never entered into lightly and always with full knowledge of the seriousness of the final intent.
This is my personal tribute to a kindred spirit, writer, poet, musician, soldier and far, far braver man than I could ever hope to be. While adhering to the ancient Irish Brehon Law of 'troscad' Bobby Sands took no food or water for sixty-six days in pursuit of his quest for freedom, equality, honor and justice for all. In the final analysis, when this period in Irish history is recounted, I believe that most will agree that despite Bobby's political convictions and the fact that many may have disagreed with them, they must admire the mans' bravery, self-sacrifice and willingness to die for a cause. Bobby Sands took his last breath on May 5th 1981, he was just 27 years old.
The 1981 Irish hunger strike started with Bobby refusing food on March 1st. 1981. Other prisoners would join the strike at staggered intervals to maximize publicity, with prisoners steadily deteriorating successively over several months. The hunger strike centered on five demands:
1. The right to not wear a prison uniform.
2. The right to not do prison work.
3. The right of free association with other prisoners.
4. The right to one visit, one letter, and one parcel per week.
5. Full restoration of remission lost through the protest.
What is Hunger?
Hunger is the physical sensation of desire.
A desire for sustenance to nourish the body.
If this desire is not fulfilled the body will die.
It will die a slow, agonizing death.
The body will become a cannibal.
It will consume itself from within.
Then it will die.
Sands the Writer
The writer, when the compulsion to write gnaws at his very marrow, and invades his senses with that unforgiving, ruthless relentlessness, will write. Nothing or no-one will deter him. He will retreat and seek solitude in the forest shadows or he will climb the summit of the nearest crag or he will huddle, cold and wet, in a stone hut on the bleak moor. No matter what his immediate surroundings be, he will write. He must write. He can’t not write. Even confinement in a prison cell, wrapped in nothing but a blanket, will not stop him. He will write on anything available to him; walls, slate, clay tablets, animal skin, tree bark and the palm of his own hand. Bobby Sands sometimes used cigarette papers as his parchment, then smuggled them out of prison for the world to read.
A cold stone slab bruised hungry bones
as he lay on the floor all alone.
His life ebbed nigh, but his spirit held high
for soon he would feast with his own.
The visions he saw, the hope that he felt
would never be taken by force.
His will was complete, his heart one last beat
now the way He would lead to the source.
Asking, “Why, Oh Why did you have to die
on this accursed foreigner’s floor?”
Saying, “It has to be me, so it will not be you,
now I’ll go and throw open the door.”
A piper’s lament was heard in wide space
as the warrior was laid in his grave.
The lark soared high in a sorrowful sky
when Bobby left us and joined with the brave.
Many thanks to the Ancient Laws of Ireland
Other Selected Brehon Law Tracts by William Mansell Hennessy
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