Historian Robert White started a blog that I find extremely valuable as it explains how he works and puts his books together. This one shows a remarkable level of self-discipline when it comes to figuring out the facts about who came up with the idea of having hunger striker Bobby Sands MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
The answer he finds is very different from the publicly accepted version, meaning that it was the member of Gerry Adams’ kitchen cabinet Jim Gibney who first thought of it:
… While interviewing for a biography of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, I interviewed Cathleen Knowles (later Cathleen Knowles McGuirk), who was Sinn Féin’s 1981 general secretary. According to Knowles, it was Daithí O’Connell who suggested putting sand forward. The competing reports were noted in the biography.[i]
Around the time the biography was published, my approach to “writing the problems” was expanded to include visual sociology because “the world that is visually seen, photographed, drawn, or otherwise represented is different from the world which is represented by words and numbers ”.[ii] I started adding photos and videos of people and events to the oral history. One product of this new approach was an open access documentary entitled “Unfinished Business: The Politics of” Dissident “Irish Republicans.[iii] Another product to document her account was a video interview with Cathleen Knowles. A partial transcription of this interview appears in my oral transmission of the Provisionals.[iv] Since the written word does not do justice to Knowles ’emphatic assertion that Sands’ argument was not Jim Gibney’s idea, the video remained interesting but unused.
In 2018, Líta Ní Chathmhaoil was interviewed for another documentary, Cumann na mBan: The Women’s Army (2019).[v] Ní Chathmhaoil, a member of Cumann na mBan, was also a member of the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle (National Executive Committee). After confirming that she had attended the 1981 meeting that discussed the Sands candidacy, and without commenting on the Knowles interview, I recorded a Zoom interview with her in the spring of 2020. The interviews with Knowles and Ní Chathmhaoil are now publicly available. Short Open Access Documentary, Bobby Sands: Whose Idea Was That?
Well, as Robert notes, Sinn Féin aren’t the only political actors who put a post hoc gloss on previous decisions, although I think he doesn’t overly subtle calls on other historians not to take evidence of uncontested decisions at face value.
But what the revelations in the video interview with two women, taped on separate occasions and unknown to each other and telling a remarkably detailed and consistent story completely contrary to the official line, is illuminating.
From a political perspective, it turns out that Adam’s talent is less of a strategic genius than he is sometimes projected to be, and more an opportunistic tactician. [And someone whose memory of things past is not the most reliable? – Ed]
The short open source documentary is well worth seeing …
“Belfast -” Reason to be an Athiist # 6420 “by Effervescing Elephant is licensed under CC BY-SA
Mick is the founding editor of Slugger. He has written articles on the impact of the internet on politics and the media and is a regular guest and speaker across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty