Hugh Callaghan: ‘The night terrors have become less frequent’

Man wrongfully convicted of Birmingham bombings sees Belfast film with sharper eye

Every Belfast exile who has left the city and watched Kenneth Branagh's Oscar-winning movie Belfast has done so seeking a reflection of their own experiences in the film-maker's work.

Few, however, have done so with the same story as the Ardoyne-born 92-year-old Hugh Callaghan, who was wrongfully convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974, only to be released in 1991.

Branagh’s evocative black-and-white movie focuses on the Belfast of the late 1960s and the eruption of the Troubles, but Callaghan’s Belfast – the Belfast of the 1930s and 1940s – had yet to give way to such horrors.

While he believes the portrayal of the city is accurate, the film, however, has provoked no sense of homesickness in Callaghan, who left in 1947 for the other city that has defined his life, Birmingham.


He has “no interest” in a return: “I didn’t like it because it wasn’t a safe place to be in. You weren’t safe walking places – that frightened me and I had to get away.

“To tell you the truth, it’s the last place I would go back to. I wouldn’t go near it,” says Callaghan, who still remembers “with horror” a trip in 1972 to Belfast when he was “anxious to see my family and know they were safe”.

Then, he was stuck in the city for a week. Upon arriving, one of the first things he noticed was “all of the houses in the street were boarded up” and “Loyalist youths were milling around street corners.”

After going for a drink at a friend’s house across town, Callaghan was offered a bed for the night, which he declined, risking the journey back to his sister Patsy’s house.

Petrol bombs

The house that had offered to put him up, “and almost every other house on Bombay Street was petrol-bombed” that night, Callaghan wrote in his autobiography, Cruel Fate, leaving “several burnt to the ground”.

Having managed to get back to his sister’s house, “diving and ducking from menacing gangs and the B Specials all the way”, he and the others under her roof had to put out four petrol bombs that were thrown in through windows.

While his family had "in a way got used to this atmosphere", Callaghan "found it shocking and terrifying". Eventually, he was able to hitch a lift, getting to Castlebar to join his wife, Eileen, and daughter, Geraldine.

Throughout Branagh’s film, there are echoes of the lives lived earlier by Callaghan and so many others, especially the singing, the communal nature of life on streets where neighbour had to help neighbour.

But, most especially, the singing. In the film, there is a scene where actor Jamie Dornan, playing the father, serenades a crowd at a party with the poise of a seasoned stage performer.

Only in a community where neighbours were like extended family could one have no inhibitions about belting out songs so casually and freely. It is an image that has remained with Callaghan since he watched the film.

The Callaghan home was brimming with music. “People would pass us by and say, ‘there’s the singing Callaghan’s,’” he said.

Today, Callaghan, who celebrated his 92nd birthday last month, lives in Hackney in east London with his partner, Adeline Masterson, contentedly involved in a number of Irish community organisations.

However, the memories of his arrest, the beatings, the forced confessions; the years in jail for the pub bombings in Birmingham in 1974 that he had nothing to do with still linger, decades on.


Reflecting on the ill-treatment endured after his arrest, Callaghan says: “They put the dogs on me and I was frightened of dogs, and they knew that. They left the dogs in my cell with me, barking.

“I was a nervous wreck. I thought I was going to die.”

Frightened out of his wits and after almost two days of no sleep, he signed a forced confession to the charge of murdering 21 people.

“I think about it nearly all the time – all the things that happened to me,” he says. “Sometimes I have nightmares about it.”

“Oh, don’t talk to me about nightmares,” interjects Adeline.

When she first moved in, she was awoken to the sight of Callaghan “kicking everything, glass all broken, lamp shades all knocked down. He was kicking, thinking the police were beating him up,” she said.

“I’ve been up three times in the one night,” he says, remembering one particularly bad night. Over the years, the night terrors have become less frequent, but when they do occur, he sometimes lies awake until the early hours.

“When I think back about my time in prison, it makes me very, very depressed.

“When I’m doing that, I try to forget about it as quick as I can. But at night it’s still there and I wake up sometimes shaking.”

This month, the bus carrying Callaghan and others in the Irish Pensioners’ Choir was given a police escort as they made their way to sing in the St Patrick’s Day festival in London’s Trafalgar Square.

Noting the irony, he said, “Well, I’ve never had this before!” Later, he said: “It was a strange feeling because seeing that brought it all back to me. Even with all those people all around me shouting on the bus, it still brought that back to me.”

Molly Mulready, who was 11 when Callaghan was released, described him as a "lovely gentle presence throughout our lives. Nothing cows him and he's just got this great energy for life.

Irish community

“He is just up for absolutely anything. I don’t think I’ve heard him say no to anything: Do you want to sing on stage at Trafalgar Square – yep. Go on holiday to Dublin – yep. Meet the president – yep.”

Molly's mother, Sally Mulready, a noted leader in the Irish in Britain community and once a member of President Michael D Higgins's Council of State, said her grandchildren and others "just love Hugh like an uncle".

“He is very popular with the Irish community. People smile when they see Hugh Callaghan, and I don’t say that a lot,” said Sally, a founder of the Irish Women Survivors’ Network.

He has settled into Hackney, and it suits him. “He talks to all the kids,” Adeline said. “He drops his teeth and they say ‘Do it again!’ They just love him. He could spend a whole day with children.”

Despite a failing memory, he has been asked to perform at a charity called Singing for the Brain, for people affected by dementia. “They don’t know what to do when he’s not there,” Adeline said.

He can still sing his favourites with ease, Danny Boy, Sweet Sixteen and Edelweiss: "Adeline will tell you, if I hear a group of people singing, I'll join in, no matter whether I know the song or not."

“Ah he never stops!” Adeline confirms. “Even ads on the TV. [He’ll say] isn’t that a lovely piece of music they’re playing with that ad. He loves music, just loves music.”

His garden faces onto a row of balconies of two-storey terraced houses, the perfect set-up for a singer. Often, clapping is heard for the latest Callaghan rendition.

Sixteen years in prison have left him with a love of the outdoors: “When I get up, I like to have a good walk. I love walking and I’d be lost if I didn’t have that walk. I’d be a little bit depressed.”

Shortly after his release in 1991, a priest noticed Callaghan always stuck within the boundaries while they were strolling in the park. “You can walk on the grass, you know,” the priest said, but old habits die hard.

Though his walks are less frequent, and he is often accompanied by Adeline, he still sticks to the path that circles around the nearby park, a reminder of the circular path in prison: “Exactly, that’s what it was,” he said..

In his autobiography, written 30 years ago, Callaghan said he wished to spend his final years in Ireland – a town like Mullingar, Co Westmeath, perhaps – but he changed his mind. With a large Gaelic transcription declaring "A Hundred Thousand Welcomes" hanging on the front door of his east London home, Callaghan says: "I didn't do that in the end. I am very settled and very happy here."