Cast: Rosaleen Sands


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The Mother of Bobby Sands

a short one woman play

by Tom Flannery

copyright 2005

all rights reserved
cannot be reproduced or performed in any way
without the expressed permission of the author
Rosaleen Sands

(Rosaleen Sands walks onstage. She is dressed in a rather drab fashion. Around 70 years of age and looks it. Eyes full of pain….yet she still carries an her reduced strength like an extra blanket. Soft spoken…weary……and determined. Belfast through and through)
It is so dark in here.
But I am used to it.
The light hurts my eyes.
May I?
(she pulls a piece of paper from her pocket and reads)
"I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May God have mercy on my soul. My heart is very sore because I know that I have broken my poor mother's heart.”
(she folds the paper and repeats the last line.)
I have broken my poor mother's heart

I have broken my poor mother's heart

I have broken my poor mother's heart
If I had acted differently……would I have broken his?
(pause….and then quite forcefully…)
And that I could not live with. I can live with my own break….but not with his.
(getting her bearings. looking around.)
God I’m tired. Sometimes I feel like the tiredest woman in the world. All I’ve ever wanted was peace…..because peace brought quiet. I love the silence…..being able to hear the world as God intended….before it got all mucked up by people and guns.

My son kept a diary during the first 17 days of his hunger strike. Those were the first words he wrote. March 1st 1981. He died 66 days later. In an Irish prison….on Irish soil….imprisoned by a foreign power. He was 27 years old and a newly elected member of the British Parliment. 41 days into his strike he won his parliament seat……30,000 votes. Mrs. Thatcher was humiliated but could never allow an elected MP to die…could she? What would the world say?

(pause to let this sink in….and then the reality) She could. And she did. And the world said little. The US….perhaps the least of all.
(bitterly) Reagan. We called him “Mr. Thatcher”.
(laughs to herself some….a short pause)
Mrs. Thatcher…..a mother also. Like me.
That is all we had in common. It should have been enough.
But I am Irish.
(she lets this sink in….)
I am Irish.
He was called a common criminal….but he died for the right to be called a prisoner of war. He was a soldier fighting to free his country.
He is my son.
I remember 28th February 1981. The day before. A statement from the prisoners was read to the crowd in Belfast… a loud ovation. And then somebody pushed me forward…..onto the platform. It was cold….I remember. I looked dreadful….with my bulky coat and head scarf tied under my chin. No time for vanity then.
And what could I say? So I said nothing…..but the people cheered even louder. Why? Because I was allowing my son to die for them? Did I represent Northern Ireland now? Always one more sacrifice… more dead body…..endure endure endure….just a bit more. And then it will be over.
But it is not over.
(spat out) A curse to be born in the wretched place.
(long pause to collect herself)
His name is Bobby Sands. I say “is” quite deliberately. Dying does not take his name away. It simply takes the body. That’s all soldiers or governments can take. I’m his mother. I get the rest. You will never hear the word “was” come out of my mouth when I speak of my son.

It’s interesting what time does. The tears don’t come anymore. They’ve hardened. They’re like the phantom pain of an amputated limb for me. I sometimes feel them falling down my face…but when I reach for them….they’re not there. There is nothing infinite about us. If you open a vein and spill your blood….it will not replenish itself. So it is with me and tears. I opened a vein the day my son decided to starve himself to death…..and now…..some 25 years later… there are none left. We have more tears than blood. But….as I said…nothing is infinite.

I am glad of it….for that means the suffering will one day end.
(quietly…almost to herself) One day. One day
My name is Rosaleen. I had to watch my boy die. When he went into a coma I could have said “enough” and had him taken off the fast…..but I didn’t. I allowed him to die. My love for him…my respect for him….my firm belief in the justice of his cause gave me the strength to watch my boy’s body slowly consume itself. Such is the perverseness of the Northern Ireland system. And such is the strange….unbreakable bond between a mother and her son.
My son is an Irishman….so perhaps I am his second mother in that respect. Tough shoes to fill that….so I never really tried. Well….maybe I tried a little.
He believes the British have no more claim to Belfast in 2005 than they did to Boston in 1776. So…..much like your George Washington…..he took up arms to shoo them back across the channel. And yet….Washington is a hero…..a patriot…..and my son is a terrorist.
Such is the way history is written….for Washington was a terrorist too…..that is until he won his war and became marble. Bobby and his men are still fighting… the British are still holding the pen. To defeat the British you must fight them. Force they apply….and force they understand.
As one of Bobby’s fellow prisoners said of them…..” They're the only people I know who are perfectly correct when they are entirely wrong.”

“But I’ll wear no convict’s uniform,

Nor meekly serve my time,
That Britain might call Ireland’s fight
Eight hundred years of crime”

(done singing…a bit self conscious now) Ah the songs. We’re a good one for the songs.

Bible sized books have been written year in and year out on our troubles….but none can explain it any better than I just have. Me….a heartbroken mother. That’s all I am. So go read your books. I’ll attend to my son….and we’ll compare notes at the end.

(long pause….then a quick thought)
And so it was that after your war of indendence an American was visiting Britain and his hosts thought it would be a good joke to place a picture of Washington in the outhouse. After the American had visited there a few times, they became perplexed that he did not respond to their joke. They finally said….”didn’t you notice the picture of your Washington in the latrine?” He replied….”oh yes…..but I thought it was there to help you.” They did not understand…and so he continued. “Surely nothing can make an Englishman shit quicker than the sight of General Washington.”
(she laughs and then pauses for a time… if the laughter was itself insulting to the memory of her son.)
My son told me the story of the lark before he died……a story that had been passed onto him from his grandfather. He was reminded of it as he stood in his cell……peering outside trying to locate in the sky where the beautiful music was coming from. But to the British….even this escape was too much. So they boarded up the windows completely.
But he could still hear the bird singing…..and was reminded that his grandfather had told him that to imprison a lark…..a symbol of happiness and freedom….was one of nature’s great crimes. He told of once knowing a man who captured a lark and put the bird in a cage…for his own amusement. And the lark stopped singing. The man tried to force the bird to sing…..but it would not. In a fit of rage the man covered the cage itself with a dark cloth…..depriving the lark of all light until it started to sing. It refused. The man withheld food…..saying that if the bird would sing…..he would eat again. The bird never conformed….and died. It had not uttered one sound since being captured.
There are many such stories like that. “To Kill a Mockingbird” in America is based on one I believe. But why is it always the Irish laying dead on the bottom of the cage?

(lets this hang in the air)

Our family grew up in North Belfast. We lived among Protestants….and with the name Sands many figured we were Protestant as well. But the divisions were growing, and we were forced out of 2 neighborhoods when it became known we were Catholic. Bobby arrived to work one day to find former mates cleaning their guns…..and notes left in his lunch box told him what the guns were for. He was stabbed leaving the house one day….but never told me until years later so as not to worry me. He fixed himself up.
I remember coming out into the hallway at night and finding him sitting on the steps…….awake all night long….protecting the house. “Go back to bed Mamma” he’d say. “Go back to bed. Sleep.” And soon garbage cans were being hurled through our front window….and we’d see the local woman in charge of finding new housing for Protestants standing across the street pointing out our home……quite like there was an invisible for sale sign posted in the yard.
Now tell me what yould you do? If you were terrorized out of your home because of your religion. If you could find no work because of your religion. What would you do? Before you judge my son.…you better be prepared to answer that question.
If you saw British soldiers dropping from helicopters and laying in your fields….where your kids play…..what would you do? If foreign soldiers could walk around your town armed to the teeth…..and your son could get 14 years for posessing a quarter of a handgun. In his own country….in his own town.
Tell me…..what would you do?
But be careful. If you fight back…..they’ll call you a terrorist. Or worse….the mother of one.
(out of steam now……gets quieter)

Bobby was arrested the final time……on suspicion of a bombing. They found him and 3 others near the scene….and arrested the lot. They found a handgun in the car…..and after torturing them for days trying to get them to admit to the bombing…….with no success…..finally charged all 4 with possesion of that single gun.. He wrote a 96 verse poem about the interrogation…relax I won’t read it all you you….just 2……

They came and came their job the same
In relays N'er they stopped.
'Just sign the line!' They shrieked each time
And beat me 'till I dropped.
They tortured me quite viciously
They threw me through the air.
It got so bad it seemed I had
Been beat beyond repair.

The days expired and no one tired,

Except of course the prey,
And knew they well that time would tell
Each dirty trick they laid on thick
For no one heard or saw,
Who dares to say in Castlereagh
The 'police' would break the law!

He was brutally beaten. Had his head smashed off concrete walls. Had his genitals squeezed so hard he passed out. He was choked. Had his arms nearly broken behind him. Was forced to lie naked in a freezing cell. Forced to stand spread eagled for hours at a time. Was punched in the back…the kidneys….the neck. Had his feet and hands stomped on.

Through it all the only information he gave them was his name, age, and address.
I could have saved them the time. A stubborn boy he was.
He was sentenced to 14 years…..for possessing ¼ of a handgun. Presumably he would have gotten 28 years if there were only 2 people in the car. Or perhaps 56 if he had been alone? Northern Irish logic weaves it’s own path….much like the shape of the border.
And all of this in trying to repel a foreign invader from his home. My home. Our home.

Some react to this type of thing differently. Some walk with their heads down….trying not to be noticed. And some walk with their chin out…..daring others not to notice. Some can be cowed. Some can’t. But when I looked down at my boy… blind….with skin the color of a canary…laying across a water bed because any other kind was too painful…with a sort of makeshift cage covering his legs and feet….so a blanket could be placed over it to keep him warm….but not touch his skin….lest it rip it away. When I saw this….

I thought how easy it is….how easy it always is… be a coward. To spend your life always looking at the ground…but still being forced to be aware of what was coming towards you. You know why? Because you still had to get out of the way.
How simple would things be to clean up the broken glass and move on…… you could beat yourself up for your cowardice when the lights went out…..but you’d still have your son……and not somebody that looked like a victim of Belsen.
(she pulls out a piece of paper and reads the following poem….striving hard to keep her composure throughout)
Dear Mum, I know you're always there
To help and guide me with all your care,
You nursed and fed me and made me strong
To face the world and all its wrong.
What can I write to you this day
For a line or two would never pay
For care and time you gave to me
Through long hard years unceasingly.
How you found strength I do not know
How you managed I'll never know,
Struggling and striving without a break
Always there and never late.
You prayed for me and loved me more
How could I ask for anymore
And reared me up to be like you
But I haven't a heart as kind as you.
A guide to me in times of plight
A princess like a star so bright
For life would never have been the same
If I hadn't of learned what small things came.
So forgive me Mum just a little more
For not loving you so much before,
I give my thanks for eternity.
(puts if away)
Of course he’d never show me his poems while he was alive. But that one is my favorite….as I’m sure you can understand.

I showed it to a priest who I’d met outside one of our rallies…..and he read it with a pained look….actually he was reading and trying to come up with some way of telling me that he thought what Bobby was doing was sinful. A mortal sin. He said it was suicide….and called the hunger strike itself an “act of violence”. Strangely, he never considered my boy having his genitals being squeezed until he passed out from the pain to be an “act of violence”…or if he did he chose to keep it to himself.

Well actually it was the British archbishop who used the words “act of violence” in the newspapers….but if an archbishop walked around with a polka doted stuffed baby giraffe on his head some of these young bucks would do the same. It’s like they say about the your White House. When the president has a fire in the fireplace…..everybody has a fire in their fireplace. The church works much the same way from the top down…..and as for the Irish church….the easiest way to terrorize them is by using 3 simple words.
British violence cows them……retaliation by the Irish scares their souls.
But I am a well read Catholic and as the archbishop had already forced me to ponder the morality aspects of the hunger strike…..I was ready and asked the young priest….I said “Father…..what about Father Maximillian Kolbe?”
He said “who?”….the perfect answer.
I told him that Fr. Kolbe had volunteered to replace a father of 4 at Auschwitz who was selected to die of slow starvation. He is now a canonized saint of the Catholic Church. I asked him how such an “act of violence” could place one on the path to sainthood and the other on the road to eternal damnation. He staggered and said he’d get back to me.
I’m still waiting….although his answer means little since I know where Bobby is.
And all of this before I had the chance to bring up the salient fact that Jesus may have committed suicide…if indeed we stick with the British definition of the word. I would have liked to speak to the cardinal about it…..but alas…being Irish I was not deemed important enough to warrant an audience.

Bobby was a student of Irish history, and it was from him that I learned of private Billy McFadzean, who on the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916 threw himself on top of a spilled box of live grenades, blowing himself to pieces but saving his fellow soldiers. A suicide…..right? He died to save the lives of his brothers. Bobby Sands did the same thing. McFadzean won the Victoria Cross. My son is called a sinner by his own church.

McFadzean was from Belfast too. But he was a true Ulster unionist. Perhaps the difference is there?
Do the philosophical differences of our religions mean that one must die?
(suddenly knees and blesses herself)
Lord….grant me strength.
“It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can endure the most who will ultimately triumph.”
“It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can endure the most who will ultimately triumph.”
“It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can endure the most who will ultimately triumph.”
(rises now……very bitter)
If I repeat it often enough I may start believing it. It’s been 25 years and I still think it’s a bunch of shite.
What is triumph for me? What else am I willing to endure?
I can endure no more….and triumph is having my boy back.
But I could have saved him. Couldn’t I? If I just said….”ok…it’s over….” he might still be alive. But I didn’t. I let him die.
I buried my own son…..which is not the way the world is supposed to work. It’s like being born full sized and shrinking as the years go by….which I guess is a good way to put it since that’s what happens to someone who starves to death.
Many times I sat with him…..times when we could be alone. And I’d plead with him…always in a near whisper….plead with him to let me take him off. And he’d smile and clutch my hand, tell me that he loved me……tease me…..tossle my hair… in that peculiar way….mothers will know what I’m talking about. There’s always one child who can get you to smile no matter what…simply by smiling themselves. And if you can induce a smile while laying in a bed dying, aren’t you the possessor of a soul worth saving?
Then why didn’t I?
Did I love him that much?

At the funeral I heard a woman whispering a few rows behind me. She was straining her neck to see me….and when somebody asked what she was doing she said she wanted to see what a mother looked like who could stand by and watch her son die.

(long pause to let this sink in)
I talk every night about this.
I lay my head down…..and when I wake….or when I think I wake…..there you are (meaning the audience). Sitting there. Not accusingly. But just curious maybe. Wanting to know……why…how.
And it may seem like a one way conversation…..but it’s not. Even with these lights I can still see your eyes. Some are soft….and some are hard. Mothers can speak with their eyes. And sons too. Bobby and I spoke that way…..when he was too weak to see. He could still open his eyes…..and speak. And they would say….”Mammy…..let the fight go on.” That’s what they said. The eyes don’t lie.
Just once I’d like to lay my head down at night and open my eyes in the morning and see….light. Hear the lark. With nothing in between. No questions. No guilt. Just nighttime….sleep….and the morning.
(gets on her knees… if she’s back beside the bed of her son)
Bobby? Bobby? Are you awake? It’s your Mammy.
Your sisters wanted to come but I wanted you to meself. Can you hear me? Open your eyes if you can hear me.
Aye….that’s my boy.
Bobby…..are you doing this on your own? Can you tell me that. Is there somebody pulling the strings on the outside? (now very angry) I want you to come off. I want you to come off. If they want martyrs let them become martyrs. They’ve no right to make you one and paste your picture on their wall!
(calm now…knows the truth)
But it’s what’s in here (pointing to an imaginary head of chest) doing this isn’ it? You’ll not be controlled. Good God I ought to know…..the whippings I gave you that did no good. Your backside as tough as shoe leather it is.
(smiles to herself….then back into arguing with herself)

Aren’t there enough dead boys already? Aren’t there enough songs and poems and wild eyed old men waving pints and flags? Are not the old songs and poems good enough? Do we always need new ones? It’s boys like you that write them anyway. Your poems… can I go on without new ones? I have the one you wrote to me right here. I read it to meself all the time. You ask me for forgiveness? My darling boy. What kind of Mother am I that allowed you to get this far? Can you ever forgive me?

If you die….the others will die too. Frances and Patsy are in a terrible state now. A terrible state. If you die…..they’ll follow. Bobby? Do you hear me?
The church doesn’t support you Bobby. Do you hear me? They’ve come out against. Those who starved rather than renounce their Catholicism to obtain food during the great hunger……they receive blessings from Rome. But they consider your faith more imortant than your freedom. But still….
Where does this leave your soul? Must it too waste away like the body? Will I ever see you again?
Do you remember what you wrote? “Never in eight centuries have they succeeded in breaking the spirit of one man who refused to be broken.” Do you remember that then? They never broke you or Francis or Patsy….or any of the other boys. Doesn’t that make you free already? They can lock you in here but if you refuse to recognize them…..does it not mean that they are not here at all?
You won Bobby. You and the boys. You won. They can’t take that away from you.
Must ye die? Must ye?
(yelling now…)
Bobby. It’s your mother. Answer me!
(she bends down towards him… if he’s whispering in her ear. she “listens”….and then breaks down. After a moment….she stands up to address the audience one last time)
He said….”Mammy…..please let the fight go on.” That’s what he says.
And so I did……by doing nothing but watch my son die.
I’ll wake soon…..and deal with the day.
And when I lay my head back down…..I’ll be back here. Asking him why he had to die….but knowing the answer just the same.
And the fight still goes on. I’ll be dead and buried and the boys will still be fighting. And other mothers will be at that bedside.
But I’ll be with my boy. My darling boy.
We’ll have won.
(she walks off…..lights)

End of play

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