Thursday, February 11, 2010

Our revenge will be the laughter of our children

I was six years old and I was sitting on the stairway in my home as relatives discussed some dramatic news. I knew it was dramatic by the tone of their voices and the occasional swear word. Bobby Sands had died. I vaguely knew who he was. He was a guy with a beard who was in jail and was refusing to eat. I was instinctively suspicious of his motives and as someone who was brought up to respect law and order, I believed only bad people were in prison. I had no idea of struggle, of state violence or of armed resistance. I was puzzled as my elders seemed to sympathise with the gaunt man with the beard. I still remember the moment very vividly and it had more of a profound effect on me than I realised at the time.

Some years later and being a little older and wiser I learned of another man who was in prison and who people were talking about. It was Nelson Mandela. This time I was able to do some research and form my own opinion as to his circumstances. And as I did so I became enraged. I learned about apartheid and the treatment of black people in South Africa. The whole notion of apartheid angered me. Maybe it was my obsession with the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the story of the drifting journey of Huck and his friend Jim, a runaway slave, down the Mississippi River on their raft. For me this story was one of the most enduring images of escape and freedom of my childhood. I was appalled at the concept of slavery and instantly empathized with the struggle of Mandela.

20 years on and the memories of Bobby Sands and Nelson Mandela still inspire me. On his death bed Bobby Sands wrote ‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children’. There was no hint of bitterness. Today children in the North of Ireland and South Africa live in better places. Things are not perfect but they are better. I celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela and salute the man’s extraordinary courage. He is one of the greats.

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