Forty years on Alan Hill remembers driving a fire engine through a tunnel in Birmingham as a garbled message came through on the radio that a bomb had gone off in the Mulberry Bush pub.
“We were coming back from a hoax call. There were so many of them in those days. We only picked up bits of the message because the reception was bad,” says 68-year-old Hill. He has returned to the city for the 40th anniversary of the bombings that night – the first time he has come.
Traffic immediately snarled up after the first bomb exploded in the pub, which was on the lower floors of the Rotunda building on New Street. Hill was forced to drive the wrong way down a street – a dismissal offence in Birmingham’s fire service in those days. “Moments later, the Tavern in the Town exploded in front of us, basically.”
Following the blast in the basement pub, there was silence. Nearly 150 pedestrians lay flat on the ground “not moving at all”, recalls Hill. “A bus had been blown diagonally across the street.”
Then, the screams erupted, and they did not stop. Firemen rushed downstairs, struggling to enter because the stairs had disappeared in the blast. “It was pitch-black, filled with dust. The lights had gone. People had had limbs amputated, but they weren’t bleeding.
"They weren't bleeding at all," he says, still surprised by the fact four decades on, "the IRA had used something like napalm. It cauterised their wounds. They didn't bleed until they were moved. Then they bled."
Some of those left dead and injured by the 8.27pm explosion in the tavern – which came 10 minutes after the blast in Mulberry Bush – were “impaled” by furniture. “There were people who had the legs of tables and chairs that had gone through them.”
The firemen quickly counted the injured, deciding they needed 40 ambulances just for the tavern alone. But there were no ambulances. Hill, a former taxi driver in the West Midlands city, was approached by a former taxi colleague who had been asked by an injured couple to take them to hospital.They decided to ask other drivers for assistance. Four taxis were on the rank and others were called in from across the city. They were told to make their way to the explosions by whatever means they could. "John Freyne, a colleague, asked for volunteers from the crowd to come down and help with the injured.
“Some bravely did so. A couple of men were pushed forward by their girlfriends and wives,” Hill explains. They hurried to rush the injured to hospitals throughout the city, many of them staffed by Irish nurses.
The amputees were placed in the footwells of the taxis. “Amputees take up less room,” says Hill. He stops, the full horror of the image becoming real in the silence. “The injured who still had all of their limbs were placed on the seats. We shifted nearly 200 people to hospital.”
Last night, a concert was held in Birmingham’s town hall, organised by the Justice4forthe21 Campaign. The campaign is run by Julie and
whose 18-year-old sister, Maxine, was killed after she popped into the tavern, just for a moment, to give tickets to a friend. Tonight, a memorial evensong service will be held at St Philip’s Anglican Cathedral, again organised by the campaign group, where a minute’s silence will be held. “It will be an opportunity to reflect on a deeply difficult time,” says the cathedral’s dean, Very Rev Catherine Ogle.
Forty years on, the Hambletons feel abandoned. West Midlands chief constable Chris Sims was invited to last night’s concert. So too were the lord mayor and the head of the West Midlands fire and ambulance service. None were able to make it. Everything about the investigations in to the bombings smells of conspiracy to the Hambeltons – the first rushed inquiry that led to the wrongful conviction of the Birmingham Six and the second, after their release in 1991, that found nothing more could be done.
The files in the case have been closed for 75 years, rather than the usual 30. The West Midlands police has lost 35 pieces of evidence, including the third bomb that was recovered after its detonator exploded in the doorway of a Barclays Bank branch.
For more than two decades, information has circulated about the identity of five men who are said to have been the IRA unit that carried out the atrocities – one served time later for murder; another served 12 years for lesser offences. The alleged ringleader, the Dublin-born Michael Murray, was jailed for 12 years in the same trial that led to the conviction of the Birmingham Six. He refused to recognise the right of the court to try him. He died in 1999, and is buried in Westmeath.
Another of the five has since died, it is understood. One of the gang is suspected of having been involved in the Hyde Park and Regent’s Park bombings in 1982 that killed 11 people; the bombing of Harrods in Knightsbridge a year later that killed six; and the Grand Hotel bombing in 1984.
A fresh inquiry into the bombings has been repeatedly ruled out. Following a meeting with Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, prime minister David Cameron told a local newspaper some years ago that the focus had to be on the peace process. "They walk into your office and not so long ago these people were trying to kill – and did kill – your friends and people you work with," he said. "When you lose someone like that, the hurt and the pain never goes away," he added.
The shadow left
Meanwhile, the shadow left by the bombings on the Irish community in the West Midlands city remains, leaving the majority of people unwilling to talk about their own experiences. Many are even unwilling to remember today’s anniversary. Efforts were made earlier in the year to start a discussion within the community about the anniversary, but they fell away. “The community is very divided over discussing the issue and they go to ground at the merest hint of it,” says one source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Sitting in his office next to St Anne's Parish Church on Alester Street in Digbeth, the traditional first landing-spot for immigrant Irish arriving from the Holyhead ferries, Canon Pat Browne is one of the few willing to relive the memories.
The Co Offaly-born cleric arrived in June 1974, but had gone home for a few days to visit his parents when the bombings happened. “I arrived at Dublin Airport to find that the flights had been cancelled because staff at Birmingham Airport refused to handle Irish flights.
“Birmingham was becoming ‘home’ for the Irish before the bombings. They had come through the discrimination of the 1950s. We were being accepted in the city, contributing greatly to its life,” he explains.
Then, the bombings occurred.
Today, the Birmingham Irish Society, which operates from premises in the St Anne’s church grounds, declined to be interviewed, sharing instead some oral histories they had collected for a project in 2012.
In one, a man who was nine-years-old in 1974 recalled: “I remember my mum saying when she went into the shops in Northfield people were horrible to her, or wouldn’t serve and insulted her . . . That’s kind of when you realised that you kind of were Irish.”
The histories illustrate the gap in memory that has taken place within today’s Birmingham Irish, where the generation who were children then, or those who came afterwards, were brought up in homes “that didn’t speak about the bombing”.
“As a child, you perhaps just know when adults are like huddling and whispering and they stop talking when you come into the room, so you just kind of get a sense that there is something going on that you’re not supposed to know,” the witness continued.
One woman, who was 11 at the time, remembered her parents never spoke about it, “not really, no, they didn’t really”. Trying to understand the wave of anger that faced the Irish in the city, she said: “Really, it was ignorance, but you can’t blame people for reacting in that way.”
For Canon Browne, the anger towards the Irish remained acute for 18 months, though people still rang the Birmingham Mail newsroom and the local BBC offices to rant about the Irish well into the 1990s, if not later. "It was devastating for the Irish here," says Canon Browne. "It is something that has been put away. The anniversary does bring it up again, but people feel that we have left that behind. "There were lots of hoax calls; the wound was opened again and again. Now people feel that the wounds have healed, that we dealt with it at the time and that people just can't go back there again," he says. Not everyone agrees, however. Pauline Ryan, and her husband, Ted, were involved in bringing back the St Patrick's Day parade to the city in 1996. It had been cancelled for one year in 1975 and then fell away.
It was brought back largely by the efforts of Fr Joe Taaffe, now deceased, whose work to improve the welfare of the Irish in the city is still legendary – he is remembered through a 27-bed home on Alester Street for elderly Irish in the city.
“The bombing hasn’t faded, but it hasn’t been addressed. Imagine the effect that has on people to suppress that emotion about being blamed for something that you didn’t do because you were Irish,” says Pauline, a former board member of the Irish in Britain – the successor to the Federation of Irish Societies.
“London and Manchester and Warrington dealt with IRA bombs differently. London is just so big that it took them in its stride, or something like that. Manchester turned it into a regeneration programme. Warrington, as we know, saw it as a peace opportunity.
“Birmingham just went shtum . . . and didn’t address it,” says her second-generation Irish husband. “It has impact on the Irish [cultural impact] in the city. In Leeds and Coventry they are [more prominent]. The community suffered a mortal wound and retreated into itself.” Neither of the Ryans are comfortable speaking about the events, doing so only after much thought, conscious that almost anything they say will provoke anger among a community that has largely learned to live with silence.
Today, the St Patrick’s Day parade is the third-biggest in the world, attracting 135,000 people in its best year. “There was a sense though of people hanging back on the pavement, waiting to see how it would be received,” says Ted.
Efforts to bring it back accelerated after Birmingham City Council set up a number of ethnic forums in the early 1990s, which involved members of the Irish community who had not been involved before.
However, the announcement of the parade’s return occurred on the day the IRA bombed Canary Wharf in February 1996. “We had hoped that the media would come to cover the launch, but instead we got calls from people asking whether it would be cancelled,” Pauline recalls.
Now, 40 years on, some people in the city have begun to speak about long-silent memories. Retired hospital matron Ann Hirons spoke publicly this week to the Birmingham Mail, which has offered long-standing support for a new inquiry, about "that dreadful night".
On the day after the bombing she took a mother to see her critically injured son in Birmingham General Hospital. "He had really terrible burns. It seemed like napalm had been used in the bomb.
“And he was also heavily bandaged. I had to take his poor mother to his bedside where I told her that this was her son. And she wouldn’t accept it. She got terribly upset. She insisted, ‘That’s not my son’.”
Coaxing the injured man awake, she encouraged him to look at his mother. They looked into each other’s eyes and only then could the mother see her son who had left her home less than 24 hours before. “It was absolutely heartbreaking,” she told the newspaper.
Today, Birmingham is a changed city. More than half of all children in the city’s schools are from ethnic minorities – and that does not include Irish, because the city council does not count the Irish as such. “For so many people in Birmingham, the ‘Irish Question’ is not a question for them, and never has been. Certainly not since Ireland is no longer seen as a place where the bombs go off,” says Canon Browne.
In the 1970s, members of the Legion of Mary met the newly arrived Irish immigrants at St Anne’s Church, offering a bed “for a couple of nights for those who did not have one, or names of contacts”.
Today, the parish has changed. Most of the Irish have moved out, replaced by immigrants from other lands. But older Irish come back every Sunday for Mass “because it is still their church”, says Canon Browne.
The bombers, too, are old men. “I wonder how they can live with themselves, if they are still alive, live with the consequences of what they did, the devastation that that brought to Birmingham,” he says.
However, the events of November 1974 have left a chasm in the city’s past. “It was something we weren’t able to talk about. We didn’t talk about it. People didn’t talk about it to their children; there is a gap in memory.”
Now living on the Isle of Wight, ex-fireman Hill was one of those in the audience at Birmingham’s town hall last night. He will attend evensong tonight in St Philips.
“I have always kept away, not wanting to be reminded, but this year it seems right,” he says. “It seems right. My problem was anger, it hasn’t left me for 40 years.”
Returning exhausted 40 years ago to the fire station, the crew’s breakfast was cooked by one of their number, Dubliner Mick Daly. “None of us spoke to him. We did the following day, but not then. I regret that.”
Birmingham bombs: The facts
Two bombs exploded: the first in the Mulberry Bush at 8.17pm; and the second in the Tavern in the Town 10 minutes later. Twenty-one people died, 182 were injured. It was the biggest terrorist death-toll until the 2005 London bombings.
The bomb warning to the Birmingham Mail came at 8.11pm, using the recognised IRA codeword of the time, “Double X”.
The caller, who had an Irish accent, said that a bomb had been planted “at the tax office’ on New Street – offices that were above the Mulberry Bush.
The Birmingham Six were Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker. The Birmingham Six were found guilty of the bombings in 1975. Each received 21 life sentences. The judge said they had been convicted on the “clearest and most overwhelming evidence that I have heard”.
The court of appeal rejected this in March 1991, quashing the convictions as “unsafe and satisfactory”.
One of the Birmingham Six families had to move 17 times because of death threats made to them.