“Drama at the absolute rawest edge.”
That’s how Irish writer Fintan O’Toole characterises the 1981 IRA hunger strikes in director Brendan J. Byrne’s powerful new documentary 66 Days.
The film tells the story of Bobby Sands, the first of ten republican hunger strikers to die that year in a bid to secure political status as inmates at Long Kesh prison.
After his death, Sands became an icon of provisional Irish republicanism – and a lasting symbol of division in Northern Irish politics.
However, for Byrne, the reality of the man has been lost behind the myth.
“I felt there was an element of Sands’ story that hadn’t been told,” Byrne says.
“People know his name and his image, but in many ways he is a largely unknown figure.
“Who knew that he wrote a diary? Who knew that he called the hunger strike against the wishes of the IRA leadership? Who knew he was a poet?”
The film sympathises with Sands, but it doesn’t romanticise him. Excerpts from his prison diary are narrated by Belfast actor Martin McCann. They build a portrait of an activist ready to die for his beliefs.
“There’s no film that you could make about Bobby Sands that unionism would be happy with,” Byrne says.
“But we make very clear that he’s in the IRA and very proud to be in the IRA [and] that the IRA killed a lot of people.
“Sands knew that he was going to [go on hunger strike] and he knew he was going to carry it through to the end.”
Sands drew on the example of Terence MacSwiney, the nationalist Lord Mayor of Cork who died in Brixton Prison in 1920 following a 74 day fast. MacSwiney’s death brought international attention to the campaign for Irish independence, and Sands hoped to provoke a similar global backlash against Margaret Thatcher, who refused to make any concessions to the prisoners.
“Sands understood that the power of hunger strike is its ability to force political change,” Byrne says.
“He was aware of the world-wide publicity that MacSwiney had generated in favour of his cause against the British cause.
“1981 really placed the whole story [of the Troubles] in the international landscape.”
But Sands’ actions had unexpected consequences, too. During the strike, he was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in a snap Westminster by-election. This triggered a shift in republican politics, setting Sinn Fein on a new, more peaceful course that ultimately led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
“Nothing happens in Irish politics too quickly, but the tanker slowly started to turn at that point,” Byrne says.
“Sands’ act of public suffering and hunger strike captured the imagination and led to the democratisation of Sinn Fein … and to the electoralisation of Sinn Fein.”
66 Days has opened to widespread critical acclaim and broken box office records in the Republic of Ireland.
Byrne attributes part of its success to the fact that 2016 is the centenary year of another pivotal moment in Irish history: the Easter Rising.
“For Ireland, 1916 was the biggest event of the first half of the 20th century and 1981 was the biggest event of the second half.
“So there are all these resonances that mean the audience is looking for a story like this.”
He believes the film has encouraged Irish viewers to confront an aspect of their past they have traditionally tried to avoid.
“There was an amnesia in southern Ireland about what was happening in the north during the [Troubles], and there’s still a lot of ambivalence today.
“It’s easier to go to the cinema and buy a ticket than it is be a politician and decide whether you want closer links with Northern Ireland.
“I wouldn’t say [the film] is cathartic, but it’s a safe place to go and find out about a story you might not really know at first hand.”
Now a prolific producer and director, Byrne himself grew-up in the Ardoyne, a staunchly nationalist area of north Belfast. Some of his neighbours were active in the IRA.
“I could never have joined the IRA, I could never have killed someone, but I knew guys who were in the IRA and they didn’t fit the stereotype that I was hearing on the news.
“Many of them were bright, intelligent young men who, if there hadn’t been a failed state, would’ve gone to university.
“So my background is obviously influential in terms of my film-making mission, and in terms of me trying to tell a more nuanced story.”
One thing missing from Byrne’s story is the input of Sands’ family, who declined to be interviewed for 66 Days.
According to Byrne, that decision reflects the political fissures that run through contemporary Irish republicanism, as well as the deeply-held personal feelings of a still-grieving family.
“The Sands family hasn’t participated in anything since [the 1980s] and I respect that,” he says.
“It’s not unconnected to the fact that they don’t believe Bobby died for a power-sharing government in Stormont.
“They believe he died for a united Ireland, so they’re unhappy with the current republican movement, which they think has sold Bobby’s ideals short.
“But it’s also because there’s part of his life before he goes into the IRA which they want to keep private for their memory.
Byrne adds: “Ironically, that fuels the sense of interest, of wanting to know this guy and trying to find out who he is.
“He’s someone we want to know because of what he did, but can’t fully know because of the events surrounding his life.”