BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- In fasting to the verge of death, IRA convict Bobby Sands has adopted a traditional Irish form of protest.
Sands, 27-year-old newly elected MP who was in the 52nd day of his hunger strike Tuesday, was following in the footsteps of Terence McSwiney, the lord mayor of Cork, who died in a British jail in 1920 after 74 days of fasting.
'It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can suffer the most who will endure,' McSwiney proclaimed in a slogan adopted by Irish hunger strikers ever since.
Authorities at the Maze Prison outside Belfast deliver meals four times a day to the bedsides of Sands and three other hunger strikers and collect them uneaten.
Force feeding of hunger strikers was abandoned in 1974 after the Price sisters, Dolores and Marian, had been kept alive for 206 days with tubes and drips.
The sisters, sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiring to bomb London's central criminal court, later were granted their request to be transferred to a jail in Northern Ireland. But authorities insisted the transfer was unconnected with their hunger strike.
Marian, 26, was released last May for health reasons. Dolores has been transferred to a Belfast hospital and also is likely to go free soon.
Both women now suffer from anorexia nervosa, a nervous disease that makes its victims unable to eat.
Two Irishmen, Michael Guagham and Frank Stagg, died in British prisons in 1974 and l976, demanding to be sent to Northern Ireland.
Irish Republican Army prisoners staged a 47-day strike in Portlaoighise jail in the Irish Republic in 1977 in a vain attempt to win special status.
Sands began his hunger strike March 1, claiming the British government had failed to meet 'concessions' it supposedly made to end an earlier 53-day fast by seven convicts on Dec. 18.
The government said it made no concessions beyond those granted to all prisoners who behave well.
The IRA prisoners are demanding a special status under which they would be recognized as political prisoners rather than criminals, be allowed to conduct their own affairs in jail and wear their own clothes and be excused from prison work.
Over the past few years, hundreds of prisoners in the H-shaped cell blocks at the Maze have fouled their cells with excrement and refused to wear prison clothing as part of the protest.
On April 9, Sands was elected by Catholic voters to the British House of Commons, creating unprecedented constitutional problems and setting the stage for last weekend's riots on the 65th anniversary of the 1916 Easter uprising in Dublin.