Richard Ben Cramer | Philadelphia Inquirer | May 1981
BELFAST, Northern Ireland – In a grimy gray drizzle, under ragged black flags that lifted and waved balefully in the fitful air; to the wail of a single piper, on streets, winding through charred and blasted brick spray-painted with slogans of hate; by silent tens of thousands, past fathers holding sons face-foward that they might remember the day, past mothers rocking and shielding prams that held tomorrow’s fighters, past old men who blew their rheumy red noses and remembered their own days of rage. . . Bobby Sands was carried yesterday to a grave of raw Ulster mud.
It was the largest spectacle Belfast ever saw. There was no way to count the crowd that started as a file 10 abreast and a half-mile long, then grew with every passing block to a surging, spreading flood that washed up and broke, finally, amidst the drizzle-darkened stones of a rundown graveyard.
In some ways it was the scariest. For in the faces that lined the route, amoung the thousands who formed the cortege, there was none of the grief that passes and cleanses with a rush of hot tears, there was not the anger that can suddenly spark fiery riots and just as suddenly vanish. There was instead a grim, lingering rage, a quiet, determined, smoldering spite; these mourners will not be pacified.
* * *
At the head of the long procession, ahead of the coffin, ahead even of the marshals who cleared the way, a quiet man named Liam Rice, 66, walked the three-mile route. Hed had walked a hundred funerals, fought for years with the IRA; he had been wounded by a soldier’s bullet and lived to fight again; he had joined a hunger strike and watched his friend, Sean McCaughey, die from self-inflicted starvation 35 years ago.
“It’s been going on a long time. Yes, a long time,” said Rice as he turned to gaze at the endless mass of mankind behind him. “I could tell you of my time. The ones my age remember. No, but I can tell you, now: There’s never been a feeling like this.”
St. Luke’s, in the housing project of Twinbrook, southwest Belfast, was not meant for crowds. The church is a spare, brick octagon with eight blond wood beams sweeping up from the joints of the walls to a modest dome.
Bobby Sands’ coffin stood at the base of the altar.
* * *
In the pews, people were shoulder to shoulder. In the aisles, they stood with their faces half a foot from the next person’s back. There were thousands who could not get in.
The Rev. Liam Mullan’s voice cut briskly through the heavy air. He wasted no time. He minced no words. “We are here to help Bobby Sands’ soul, and as we help Bobby today, let us pray for all the people who have died in our country since 1969 because of violence.”
Father Mullan made it a Mass of peace. He never asked for prayers for Sands without adding another plea: for the souls of two men who died in Belfast the day before in the spurt of violence that heralded this Mass. “Love one another today by striving for peace, for restraint, for moderation and for an end of violence. . . . ”
Father Mullan, 63, a priest for 38 years, did not try anything fancy. His remarks were short and clear. The Sermon on the Mount provided his theme. He did not glorify Bobby Sands but commended the Sands family for their courage.
He knew where his duty lay. Pope John Paul II, the ” bishop of bishops,” had spelled out the message of peace in Ireland in a visit almost two years ago. “And we can hardly be called Catholic,” Father Mullan said, “if we do not believe in the counsel of our bishops.”
Perhaps he also knew fancy words would not alter anything. Perhaps he knew that the crucifix he had laid on Sands’ coffin would be replaced, just outside the church doors, with the Irish tricolor flag and a commando’s gloves and beret. He knew, perhaps, that he could offer Holy Communion to only a fraction of the 1,200 who had packed the church, while just outside the doors, 5,000 who could not get in were staring, fascinated, at seven hooded IRA men drawn up as an honor guard.
He knew, perhaps, after 22 years in Belfast, that the lesson of peace – respectfully received amid stifled coughing and shushing of babies in church – might not carry far on the glitter-glass-strewn, bitter bomb-blown streets.
“It’s two different things,” said Maire Lyons, a steel-gray woman who stood outside the church in the green tunic and cocked ranger hat of the Clann Na Ngael, the women’s wing of the IRA. “Our funerals are always quiet. We have respect for the dead. But when our dead is buried, then we’ll see how quiet it is, please God!”
* * *
Oh, it was deathly quiet on that long march yesterday while the rain damped the footfalls and the faithful said not a word. Even the disrespectful clatter of army helicopters continuously circling above could not break the grim stillness on the street.
The marshals murmured their commands.
The Daimlers carrying the coffin and two carloads of family – Sands’ mother and sister, his 5-year-old son, Gerard, his cousin, a nun, Sister Bernadette, who read the Gospels at the funeral Mass – purred in a silent idle at the head of the file.
Alongside the lead car, the IRA honor guard marched in two noiseless rows.
Here was muteness intensified; their hoods hid all expression and lent with round, unblinking eyeholes a horrifying android stare.
Then, rank of gray silent men, the Republican Burial Society, who tend the IRA cemetery and add to events of this sort a careful competence with death.
Then, hundreds of women, carrying before them hundreds of wreaths, the front row with four identitical arrangements contrived in the shape of an H. These conjured the H-block configurations at the Maze, where Bobby Sands died and where his friends and fellows still are refusing food.
Then, the mourners, stretched in a solid file so massive and, when seen from a distance, so still it might have been paint on the street. The pace was slow and halting. Each block had to be cleared ahead. Each block yielded new marchers who lengthened the line.
And yet it was silent.
* * *
Near the midpoint of the route, an IRA squad bearing rifles materialized near the hearse. Without haste, without apparent fear, they fired three volleys in salute. Then they and their illegal guns melted back into the crowd.
When the column squeezed into a curve around a Protestant neighborhood that the police and army blocked off with huge, portable metal and canvas screens, there was no jostling, just tens of thousands waiting patiently in the rain. When spray-paint on the walls of that neighborhood screamed ” F- the IRA hoods,” there were no screams in reply.
To be sure, the detour and the insults were noticed. “That’s the one little bit of Loyalist territory the route goes through – a couple of hundred yards,” muttered Willie John McCurry, one of the burial society men. “And they’re diverting the whole funeral. That shows you who’s the first class and who’s the second class.”
But he, too, had caught the mood of the march. There would be no unruly display. “Aye, it’s determination we’re showing – to finish the job this time.”
The Andersonstown and Falls Roads took the march into the IRA’s breeding ground. Here, the scarred walls were spray-painted “F- the Brits.” And “Smash the H-blocks.” Here, the mesh-clad windows displayed pictures of Bobby Sands – chubby and scruffy and smiling at the camera, not the wasted little frame in the coffin ahead. Still, there was no loosening of control. Still the marshals murmured the procession along.
Still the crowds watched, grim and quiet.
* * *
At the gates of the Milltown cemetery, the column paused while the marshals linked arms to hold the crowds away from the narrow passage. The mourners closest to the gates knelt and, as if on command, recited the rosary as the Daimlers and the faceless honor guard squeezed onto the cemetery grounds.
At the window of one of the limousines, Rosaleen Sands, Bobby’s mother, gripped her haggard face with one hand, as if, physically, to hold in the pain, to keep control, just a bit longer.
Slowly, the cortege moved up the graveyard’s main path. On either side mourners flooded in toward the grave site, picking their way among tombstones in high, untended grass. From the main path, with the thousands moving along on either side, it seemed as if the mourners stood still while the graves of Ulster’s Catholic dead floated by in a supernatural review.
At the grave site, the service was brief, invisible and incomprehensible to the crowd that pressed vainly to see and hear.
Father Mullan conducted the burial rite in Latin. Gerry Adams, vice president of the IRA’s political wing, made a short oration in Gaelic, the ancient Irish tongue.
A few of the mourners who got to the grave site grabbed handfuls of the red Ulster mud as keepsakes of the day. Most of the crowd, unable to get near, started to drift away.
Police and army vehicles were drawn up in force on sidestreets near the cemetery gates. The troops, the neighbors and the mourners themselves knew that the Bobby Sands affair would not end with the burial rite.
Liam Rice, the IRA veteran, stood near the old monument to Republican volunteers and watched the crowd moving through the tall grass in the late afternoon mist.
“It will have its reaction, you know. It has its reaction in Ireland.” His friend, Patrick O’Neill, who served time in jail with Rice, said solemnly, “How soon?”
“Here, England will have to give up and pull out,” Rice said. “That’s the only thing that faces them now.”
He added, without emotion: “It could be that they’ll let the other ones hunger-strikers die, too. ”
O’Neill wiped his damp nose. “If they die,” he said, “there’ll be many to fill their places. There’s 70 volunteers at the moment.”
Rice nodded and said: ” Aye, plenty.”
Writer bio: Richard Ben Cramer, who died in January 2013, won the Pulitzer Prize for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1979 for his coverage of the Middle East. He is the author of the American classic, “What it Takes.”