“They have nothing in their whole imperial arsenal that can break the spirit of one Irishman who doesn’t want to be broken. ”
– Bobby Sands
“It took seven of them to break my jaw but the whole American empire could not break my spirit.”
– Rafael Cancel Miranda
On the surface, at first glance, Ireland and Puerto Rico don’t seem to have much in common except maybe that they are both islands. Scratch at that surface and take a deeper look and you will see two island nations locked in a struggle to extricate themselves from the grips of imperial adventurism that has lasted for hundreds of years. In the case of Ireland it has struggled to have a united autonomous nation against British imperialism. In the case of Puerto Rico it has had to struggle for it’s sovereignty with Spain for 400 years and continues to do so now with the US. Look even further into their histories and you’ll find a commonality and solidarity between these struggles.
Pedro Albizu Campos, the founder of the Nationalist Party in Puerto Rico, was an ardent supporter of Irish independence when he attended Harvard. It was there that he met Eamon De Valera the Irish independence freedom fighter. When Eamon negotiated the Irish Free State Constitution in 1922 he called upon Albizu to be one of his advisors. The Irish struggle for independence was a great influence on Albizu who patterned many of his strategies for Puerto Rican independence after the Irish struggle.
Albizu spent many years in prison for his beliefs. In 1950 Albizu and 3,000 other independence advocates were arrested after an armed insurrection in the mountain town of Jayuya on October 30th and an attempted assassination of President Truman on November 1st. Albizu was sentenced to 80 years in prison but in 1953 the first Puerto Rican governor to administer the colonial affairs of the US on the island, Luis Muñoz Marin, pardoned him.
On March 1st of 1954 four Puerto Rican Nationalists, Irving Flores Rodriguez, Andres Figueroa Cordero, Raphael Cancel Miranda and Lolita Lebron bought one way train tickets from New York City to Washington DC. When they arrived in Washington DC they went to the visitor’s balcony of the House of Congress brandishing revolvers and firing shots into the House of Congress. Lolita Lebron yelled out “Free Puerto Rico” as she fired. Five Congressmen were wounded in the shooting and the four were captured and convicted of the attack.
As the leader of the Nationalist Party, Albizu’s pardon was revoked after the attack and he served another twenty years in prison before radiation experiments conducted on him in prison deteriorated his health to certain death. He was released in 1964 only to die a few months later in 1965. The four Nationalists who attacked the House Of Congress served 25 years before being pardoned by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. At the time Lolita Lebron was the longest held female political prisoner in the world.
Bobby Sands a member of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) was in prison serving a 14 year sentence for firearms possession. It was not his first time in prison but it would be his last. In July of 1972 the Provisional IRA negotiated Special Category Status for those prisoners who were serving sentences in the British prison system for fighting for Irish independence. The Special Category Status essentially allowed those prisoners to have Prisoners Of War status as laid out in the Geneva Convention. Prisoner Of War status meant not having to wear prison uniforms, not having to do prison work, and being held in separate areas of from the general population of the prison. On March 1st of 1976 the British announced that they would took away Special Category Status to the Irish POW’s. In response to the announcement the Irish POW’s refused to wear prison uniforms and took to covering themselves with blankets in what became known as the “Blanket Protests”.
The Blanket Protests it seemed were not enough and so in 1981, Bobby Sands organized a hunger strike to reinstate Prisoner Of War status. He suggested that the other prisoners who would take part in the hunger strike stagger their start times so that their physical deterioration would last months and more attention would be raised on their plight. They had five demands.
- The right not to wear a prison uniform
- The right not to do prison work
- The right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits
- The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week
- Full restoration of remission lost through the protest
On March 1st of 1981, twenty-six years to the day, of the attack on the House Of Congress, Bobby Sands began his hunger strike. The hunger strike of Bobby Sands catapulted the cause of Irish independence on to the world stage. On May 5th after 66 days of going without food, Bobby Sands died. He was 27.
On April 4th of 1980, 11 members of a clandestine Puerto Rican separatist group fighting for the independence of Puerto Rico, the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional – Armed Forces Of National Liberation) were arrested in Evanston, Illinois. Among the charges they were charged with was the charge of seditious conspiracy to overthrow the United States government. Like the Irish Republicans the FALN took the position that they were Prisoners Of War. The FALN refused to participate in any way in their trials refusing to recognize the US government as having any jurisidiction over them.
The hunger strike of Bobby Sands was closely followed by the FALN and other supporters of the Puerto Rican independence movement. Bobby Sands hunger strike began while the FALN were in the midst of their trials. Among those arrested FALN members were Dylcia Pagan and Carmen Valentine who were serving sentences in state prison. When word reached them that Bobby Sands had died for his freedom on that May 5th of 1981 Dylcia Pagan and Carmen Valentine immediately organized a gathering in the prison to honor him. In keeping with the defiance and autonomy that both the Irish and Puerto Rican people have demonstrated in their struggles for freedom the gathering was organized without permission from prison authorities. Dylcia and Carmen gathered with other prisoners in a circle and they remembered the life of Bobby Sands.
Nine other Irish prisoners also died in the hunger strike that Bobby Sands organized. Their names were Francis Hughes 59 days, Raymond Mc Creesh 61 days, Patsy O’Hara 61 days, Joe McDonnell 61 days, Martin Hurson 46 days, Kevin Lynch 71 days, Kieran Doherty 73 days, Thomas McElwell 62 days, Michael Devine 60 days. Officially it was said that they died of bodily starvation but unofficially many will tell you that it was a spiritual starvation for freedom that killed them…
¡Que Viva Puerto Rico Libre!
Erin Go Bragh!