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Bobby Sands biography for bunscoil — abridged too far?

(Maeve Connolly, Irish News)

A 'childrens' version of a book about republican icon Bobby Sands is to be distributed to primary schools, despite concerns that it is inappropriate material for young pupils. Maeve Connolly reports

The authors of a children's version of a biography of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands plan to distribute the book to every Irish language primary school and want it to become part of the syllabus.

Bobby Sands died on May 5 1981 after refusing food for 66 days.

He was the first of 10 IRA and INLA prisoners who died on hunger strike in the Maze.

The 27-year-old had served four years of a 14-year sentence for possessing a gun and had been elected Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh/West Tyrone during his imprisonment.

The plan will inevitably bring protests from those who believe that young children should not be learning about the life of a man who advocated violence and was a member of a paramilitary organisation.

A biography entitled Nothing But An Unfinished Song was published earlier this year and now author Denis O'Hearn and former hunger striker Laurence McKeown have written a children's version – I Arose This Morning – aimed at children in the nine to 12 age group.

The adaptation is also available in Irish entitled D'eirigh me ar Maidin.

Illustrations in the biography are by Thomas 'Dixie' Elliot who shared a cell with Sands and was one of those involved in the blanket protest.

Co-author of I Arose This Morning, Mr McKeown, said that the writers hoped the book would be made available to every bunscoil in the north.

"We like the idea of it going on the syllabus. The curriculum has things like citizenship and modern history on it so we think there is a place for the book," he said.

Mr McKeown said the children's edition was 100 pages long and aimed at nine to 12-year-olds "but is accessible to adults and would be an ideal tool for adults learning Irish".

He said events in the H Block in the Maze prison had "contributed significantly to the revival of the [Irish] language".

"Many former prisoners are today Irish language teachers and indeed principals of Irish language schools which is testament to the role they have played upon release."

A spokesman for a teaching union said schools often studied modern local history and in particular local figures and while teachers always tried to provide a "balanced view" they also had a responsibility to tackle "difficult" issues.

"If a document or material was directly biased a teacher wouldn't deliver that information, they would prepare their own material," the spokesman from the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers said.

"If a school was going to use something like that [the book] there should be a counter to it.

"We are not in the age of burning books," he added.

The spokesman said that as the 25th anniversary of the hunger strikes was being marked this year it was likely many schools had already looked at the event and the people involved.

However, questions have been asked about the appropriateness of primary school children reading about someone who espoused violence in the face of what he perceived was injustice.

Co-author Mr O'Hearn said the book was relevant to younger people who faced challenges and the consequences of their actions.

"The original biography asked how people like Bobby Sands become activists and then strengthen their beliefs to the degree that they willingly make tremendous sacrifices and do extraordinary things," Mr O'Hearn said.

"Writing for young people adds a new dimension to this question because we directly addressed the ethical dilemma that Bobby and others faced in joining the IRA and then doing things that were quite controversial.

"Young people face hard choices nearly every day and we hope this book will encourage them to think about the consequences of the choices they make, even if they are less dramatic than those that Bobby Sands faced."

September 16, 2006

This article appeared first in the September 15, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News