College of Arts and Sciences

"I Wish I Was Back Home in Derry": Songwriting in an Irish Political Prison and the Paradox of Exile

Faculty in Focus Series

Lachlan Whalen, director of international studies

Lachlan Whalen
November 5, 2014
Noon – 1:15 p.m.
Science Building 185

While Bobby Sands is perhaps best known as the IRA hunger striker who was elected to the British Parliament in the middle of his fast, less well known is his songwriting. Sands learned to play guitar during his first incarceration in the Cages of Long Kesh and quickly began composing his own songs: compositions such as “Back Home in Derry” became staples of the Republican prisoners’ sing-songs in the H Blocks throughout the worst years of prison protest and beyond. And, just like the prison writings that were smuggled out of the cells and published in local newspapers, there were, in the words of Irish balladeer Christy Moore, “repeated attempts to liberate the music from the H Blocks” by the prisoners and their supporters outside.

This presentation will focus on the peculiarities and difficulties of composing and transmitting song in the specific environment of the H Blocks. In particular, I will explore the manner in which an oral tradition was reborn in H Blocks, due to the fact that writing materials were forbidden to the prisoners. Additionally, I will argue that H Blocks songs may be productively analyzed by using models more common in diaspora studies, for prison is a form of exile. The diasporic model manifests itself particularly in terms of the manner in which the songs were altered in transmission, as well as in their initial reception, especially in the Republic of Ireland. The talk will be accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation of photographs and recordings smuggled out of the H Blocks.