AS I WRITE THIS, a man lies dying. His name is Bobby Sands and he is a jailed member of the Irish Republican Army, serving 14 years for a firearms violation. He is blind now, very near death. The Pope has sent an envoy. The IRA threatens revenge. The British hold firm. Soon, Bobby Sands will die.
It has been sometime since Bobby Sands last ate. The first of March, to be exact. He is jailed in the Maze prison in Belfast where outside daily, domonstrators fight in his name and across Northern Ireland people die as they always have. Soon, Bobby Sands will be one of them. He is 27 years old.
In a world of unsolvable problems, Ireland stands as the most unsolvable. Talk of Lebanon and someone will offer a solution. They will tell you that Christians and Moslems and Druse and clans of the most clannish people alive can live together. It has happened before and so it can happen again. There is hope for Lebanon.
Talk of Israel and the Palestinians, and again someone will offer solutions. They will find a place in their plans for Arabs and Jews and even decide who will control the holy places -- holy to the three major faiths. This, too, has happened before. It could happen again. There is hope for the Middle East.
Only for Ireland is there no hope. When it comes to Ireland, people throw up their hands. They shrug and take pity on that poor island, so green and soft, and talk of the centuries of hate and the oppression of religion and the sectarian strife. They will talk of the problems of alcoholism and the Irish mystique -- the poverty of the people and also of poetry and literature and a bit more of poetry.
There is something special about Ireland. There is certainly something worth dying for -- a concept of freedom. People on both sides of the struggle do it all the time. People in this country can't figure a reason to get out of the bed and the president appoints commissions to study the national purpose, but in Ireland, people die for their beliefs and have a sense of purpose.
Is it silly or stupid or insulting to envy a dying man? Is it awful to somehow envy a blind, wretched man his belief, his conviction? Is it not fair to say that if you have something worth dying for, then you have something worth living for and that, after all, is one of the great gifts? If you have this, you have no need for est or some similar therapy. If you have this, your life has sharpness.
It's no use to romanticize the thing. A man's death is not a poem. It's good, too, to recall the lives wasted in war, spent on causes that history can hardly recall, that made no sense at the time and makes no sense now. I feel no envy for the Japanese pilots who died in World War II by crashing their planes into American ships and I do not feel jealous of the convictions of terrorists, even Irish ones, who will sacrifice the lives of others, and only accidentally their own. I am entitled to my prejudices.
I take no sides in this Irish dispute. I lean to the Catholics, but that is because of the neighborhood in which I was raised and because of a man named Drumm. He used to take me across the street from where I worked and buy me drinks in a tavern and then, when he was good and drunk, sing Irish songs into my ear and stamp his foot on the ground. Soon others would join. They would sing and they would stamp their feet and Drumm would cry. Drumm was Catholic and Ireland always made him cry.
Tell me, what would you die for? Would you die for an entity called "your country?" I might, but then again I might not. It would depend. Would you die for your religion, for the concept of freedom, for the rights of others? Would you die for your child? Of course. Imagine feeling about a cause the way you feel about your child.
Bobby Sands has been elected to Parliament. That makes him a politician. Bobby Sands is in the IRA. That makes him either a butcher or a hero. Bobby Sands wants IRA prisoners to be recognized as political prisoners. Margaret Thatcher will not do that. That would give the IRA a certain standing, their cause legitimacy. This is why Bobby Sands lived. This is why he is willing to die.