Two Days in May

This post isn’t about writing, much, except that the two days in May I’m going to talk about shaped or changed my world view. That world view is, of course, reflected in my writing. The technical term is paradigm of self, meaning your writing reflects who you are, and if you don’t write in the way you are, you’re not authentic and neither is your work.

This probably is why my one and only attempt at writing a romance was so abysmal. I’m not the hearts and flowers type, and there was no way I could write a decent romance. In that way, though, it was a learning exercise.

What days in May am I talking about? They are both in May, but they happened 11 years and one day apart.

May 4, 1970

On this date in I was a little more than a month away from my high school graduation and was likely agonizing over projects that needed to be completed. Then, I heard that the National Guard in Ohio had shot and killed four protesting students and injured nine others.

I was outraged, in full adolescent dudgeon. My mother went apesh*t because I was headed to college in the fall and these were college students who’d died. My father was certain the Guard was only protecting itself. Of course, it came out later that the protests were mostly peaceful and that the Guard had overreacted. Some of the dead and injured weren’t even participating in the protest.

My father forbade me to participate in any protests. My mother wanted to cancel my enrollment. I wanted desperately to get away from home so I could…participate in protests.

So, how did this shape my world view? My dad was a soldier. Along with policemen, soldiers were someone you could trust. They fought wars so the rest of us could enjoy our freedoms.

But two years before, I’d watched live on TV the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. All of a sudden, police didn’t seem trustworthy. After Kent State, neither did the National Guard. Between Chicago and Kent State, I was justified in questioning authority and the institutions of authority.

My father indulged this, believing as I “matured” emotionally, I’d realize how ridiculous my opinions were.

They didn’t change. If anything, the opinions I held as a young woman going off to college have only grown stronger. They coalesced after seeing the iconic photos of the Kent State Massacre, and they’re still here.

May 5, 1981

Eleven years and one day later, I was ending a marriage with a cop. (Long and stupid story, the stupidity on my part.) And I was two years into a 30-year career working for the despised “establishment.” Somewhere along the line, I’d decided to work within the system rather than bring it down, but my convictions remained.

For weeks, though, I had paid particular attention to a situation in Northern Ireland. Bobby Sands, imprisoned in the infamous prison called The Maze for planning a bombing and engaging in a gun battle with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was on a hunger strike. He was hunger striking because the British government had removed a special status from IRA prisoners.

Before that, they were treated almost like prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. Afterward, they were subject to the treatment that any common criminal received at the hands of Her Majesty’s prison system. Yes, he and the others in the hunger strike were convicted criminals, but they resented the “common” aspect of their status. They truly believed themselves POWs. The British Army occupied Northern Ireland, was the argument, so it was war to them. During his hunger strike, Sands was elected to the British Parliament, which brought worldwide media attention to his actions.

On the evening of May 5, 1981, I was driving home from Maryland after visiting a friend or doing some flying or both, and I had WETA on the radio, the Washington, DC, area public radio station that almost exclusively played classical music. A breaking news announcement interrupted the program.

Bobby Sands had starved himself to death.

I was so overcome, I had to pull to the side of the road on the Capital Beltway, never a particularly safe thing to do, and I wept as if I’d known him.

That was the day I acknowledged the Irish in me. That was the day my Anglophilia waned. It died when Iron Maggie Thatcher cracked down harder on the Irish prisoners. I had thought a reasonable person would realize one man starving himself to death for what might seem to many a minor principle was enough. Nine more followed Bobby Sands. Nine.


Last year, 2020, was the 50th anniversary of Kent State. I watched some news, but the mentions were brief. We were in the middle of a pandemic. People weren’t all that interested in some hippy protesters who got themselves killed a half century before. But I was. I had never forgotten, I have never lost the principles Kent State had fused in me.

Today, May 5, 2021, is the 40th anniversary of Bobby Sands’ death. I’m sure it was noted in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, but I doubt many here in the U.S. remember. But I did.

While in prison, Bobby Sands wrote a poem entitled “Back Home in Derry,” about 19th century Irish convicts being transported to Australia. Christy Moore set the poem to music (the same music as Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”), and a line from that poem set to music has become the title of a novel I’m working on about The Troubles, The Devil Passed By.

Tonight, I’ll raise a parting glass to Bobby Sands, always in my memory and in my principles.