Birmingham cannot forget carnage of 1974 bombings

Hundreds gather to remember those killed and injured in pub blasts 40 years ago

Shoppers jostled for space last night on New Street in Birmingham, bags in hand, while street-stalls sold mulled wine and Christmas trinkets and friends greeted each other with warm embraces.

Nearby in the town hall, hundreds of people gathered to remember others who walked up New Street 40 years ago - some to the Mulberry Bush; others to the Tavern in Town. Twenty-one of them never came home: 180 returned, badly-injured, or with mental scars that have haunted them until today.

Birmingham is a city that cannot forget the night’s carnage, but yet struggles to remember.

A memorial stands at St Philip’s Cathedral, one long fought for by the families of the dead.

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No plaque

New Street itself bears no plaque. The Mulberry Bush in the Rotunda Building is long gone. So, too, is the Tavern. No plaque marks what happened.

Last night, the Justice4the21 campaign group - led largely by Julie and Brian Hambleton, whose sister, Maxine was one of the dead - paid tribute to the firemen and other emergency staff involved in the bombings' aftermath.

Extraordinarily, it was the first time anyone had ever done so. Despite the carnage, the city's authorities have failed to stand by the families in the way that Liverpool did with its Hillsborough dead.

"The people who were sitting in the corner were cut in half," remembered fireman John Freyne last night, "simply cut in two by the blast. One man was blown through a wall and impaled into an electricity transformer."

The pressure blast from the explosion at 8.17pm on December 21st came milli-seconds later: “That did most of the damage. Tables and chairs were turned into missiles, impaling many of the rest,” he told The Irish Times.

Musician Dave Scott Morgan led last night's audience in the town hall in a rendition of a specially composed song, 21 Today - proceeds from the sale of which will go to Birmingham Children's Hospital and a local children's charity.

In the song, Scott Morgan sang of ‘Living in that night of fear again, of living in that night of pain again’, while a back-drop showed footage of the night of the bombings and the efforts made to rescue the injured.

The official files on the bombings have been closed for 75 years with no explanation given, leading the families to suspect a cover-up by the British authorities over what steps they took to stop the IRA bombers. Some conspiracy theories are even worse.

"We have been abandoned by West Midlands Police, they treat us with contempt," said Julie Hambleton, who will be one of the many to attend Evensong in St Philip's Cathedral tonight.

A roll-call of the 21 people murdered in the Birmingham bombings will take place at half-time during Birmingham City FC’s next home match, with the names being shown on the stadium’s big screen.

Before he received his presentation, John Freyne met up with Alan Hill, the fireman he served with that night and someone he had not met for 39 years until they shook hands before the concert.

Windows broken

Hill, he said, had broken the windows of a nearby shop to grab blankets and sheets to treat the injured from the Tavern in the Town, while volunteers were drafted in to help move the injured: “We left the dead, for then,” Freyne remembered.

Today, the local Birmingham Mail - which has long supported calls for a fresh inquiry, unlike others - details the life of Dublin-born Mick Murray, the man blamed as the mastermind of the atrocity.

Sentenced to 12 years for conspiracy to cause explosions, Murray, who was never charged with murder, served most of his time in solitary confinement and took part in the infamous IRA blanket protest.

When finally freed he was barred from England.

He returned to Dublin and worked for An Phoblacht, Sinn Féin’s newspaper, and it is also believed he resumed his past role in the IRA.