Birmingham Pub Massacres

Thursday night was pay night. November 21st 1974 was another pay night in Birmingham city centre with young workers flooding into the city centre to socialise. The pubs closed early back then as a consequence people went out early. The Mulberry Bush  pub was a few hundred years from New Street station and was popular with railway workers and commuters. Many people who travelled into the city centre by train stopped there for the first one before moving on elsewhere. At 8.17pm a bomb exploded in the crowded pub. The large plate glass windows and debris from the interior exploded into the street killing two passers-by instantly. In the pub itself 8 more people were killed and others horrifically injured as tables, chairs and glasses tore into flesh and the heat of the explosion melted skin.

Emergency services arrived and police tried to clear other premises in the area as well as tend to the victims.

At 8.27pm a second explosion took place in another pub on New Street itself a few hundred years and around the corner from the first blast. The Tavern in the Town was a cellar bar popular with teenagers. A Police Constable was running along New Street trying to evacuate peole. “As he reached the entrance to the Tavern, the bomb exploded throwing backwards into a bus shelter “.  Entrance to the pub was down a narrow staircase. The bomb had been placed under the staircase and when it exploded the staircase was destroyed and the basement pub plunged into darkness. The force of the blast embedded people into the walls and again pub fixtures tore into body parts. Nine people were killed in the second explosion and everyone in the pub injured horrifically many buried under rubble as fireman tried to reach them through the narrow blocked entrance. Two of the injured died later, bringing the total death toll to 21. The dead and injured came from a variety of  backgrounds reflecting the diversity of Birmingham. Many, especially those killed and injured in the Tavern in the Town,  were young teenagers.

When I came to live in Birmingham in 1980 both pubs had reopened. The Mulberry Bush was then called the Bar St Martin and had become the haunt of football hooligans especially on match days. The Tavern in the Town was still a basement pub despite its history and was called the Yard of Ale. It attracted a better clientele. I always felt a sense of shame when I passed both pubs. However some morbid fascination or a need to pick up some sort of sense of the terrible act I did go into each of them once and had one drink not feeling very comfortable. As I looked around at the other patrons I knew that the individuals who planted the bombs and it was most likely the same pair who planted both must have observed very closely the people they were going to kill and maim. It has to have been two bombers, a larger number would have attracted attention and a person on their own would also draw notice. How did they feel? A callous indifference ? Hatred ? Nothing at all? Did these individuals think that the barbaric and callous act of planting explosive devices in busy pubs in a city that had provided them with, possibly, employment and a home was going to assist in their fanatical cause of Freedom for Ireland?

19 people died that awful night – the youngest was 16 years old the oldest 56. 12 were men and 7 were women. 2 other men died of their injuries on November 24th and December 9th 1974 bring the dead toll to 21.

The victims of the Birmingham Pub bombing

The Mulberry Bush Victims (10)

Neil “Tommie” Marsh aged 16, the youngest victim and his friend Paul Anthony Davis aged 17, both originally from the West Indies, were killed outside the Mulberry Bush. They had been walking past the pub when they were torn to pieces by glass and debris as the explosion went off.

Inside the pub six friends gathered together  in their usual spot at the end of the bar – just feet from where the bomb was planted were all killed. John Rowlands aged 46 (ex Royal Navy WW 2 , a foreman at Land Rover in Tysley, married with 2 sons), Michael William Beasley aged 30 (stock controller at a motor company, single man),  Stanley James Bodman aged 47 (an electrician, father of three and ex RAF) , James Caddick aged 56 (a market Porter and divorced father of 2), John Clifford Jones aged 51 ( a railway station post office worker, a father of four and a veteran of WW 2, wounded while serving with DLI) and Trevor Thrupp aged 33 (a rail guard married father of 3 children).

Charles Harper Grey aged 44 (a single man, originally from Keith, Scotland a mechanic at British Leyland- not a Mulberry Bush pub regular), Pamela Joan Palmer aged  19 (an office worker in the pub with her boyfriend who lost a leg but survived).

The Tavern in the Town victims  (11)

Maureen Ann Roberts aged 20 (a wages clerk  at Dowding and Mills, and was due to be engaged to her boyfriend, an only child), James Craig aged 34, died December 9th 1974 of injuries (originally from Northern Ireland, motor plant worker and amateur footballer who once had a trial with Birmingham City.) , Maxine Hambleton aged 18 & Jane Davis aged 17 ( 2 friends who worked together in a Birmingham Department store and spent the previous summer grape picking in France),  Lynn Bennett aged 18 (a punch card operator)  & Stephen Whalley – Hunt aged 21 (a quantity surveyor from Bloxwich living  in Moseley) , (they were meeting in the Tavern on a blind date through the NME dating column), Desmond Reilly aged 21 (married with a pregnant wife)  & Eugene Reilly aged 23 (single – 2 brothers from an Irish family), Marilyn Nash aged 22 &  Ann Hayes aged 19 ( 2 friends who worked together in Miss Selfridge section of Lewis’ Department Store),   Thomas Chaytor aged 28 (originally from Iver, Bucks, divorcee father of 2 , a retail tailor’s assistant and a part time barman in the Tavern died of injuries November 27th 1974 ).

After the slaughter the Provisional IRA denied they planted the bombs. They continued with this charade for many years after.  Later their supporters tried to excused it by saying that the phone boxes the bombers were going to use to phone the warning had been vandalised so delaying the call. Also the usual rubbish about Emergency services not reacting quickly enough, or the Police knowing about the bombs and allowing them to go off. The men who made the bombs, give instructions to plant the bombs and the those who planted them were the ones directly responsible for deaths and maiming of all those innocent people.

Subsequently West Midlands police arrested 5 men at Heysham docks in Lancashire as they attempted to board a ferry to Belfast.  All 5 had travelled on a train from Birmingham New Street station which had left at 7.55pm 22 minutes before the first explosion. A barmaid in the Taurus Bar  in New Street Station had told police she had served six men drink in the bar prior to the blasts. The Police who arrived in Heysham from Birmingham immediately assumed the five men they arrested were the culprits and after a combination of flawed forensic evidence and interrogations which included severe beatings and threats against their families secured a number of confessions. A sixth man who had accompanied them to the station was later arrested back in Birmingham and these six unfortunate men were later convicted and given maximum sentences. It soon became clear that none of these men, all originally from Northern Ireland had anything to do with the bombings. All had lived in Birmingham for many years and had homes and families in the city. They had been travelling to Belfast with the intention of attending the funeral of James McDaid, a native of Belfast who had died planting a bomb exactly one week before.

THE COVENTRY BOMB NOVEMBER 14 1974

James McDaid was well known on the Irish scene in Birmingham and personally known to some of the men arrested. He had blown himself up while planting a bomb at the new Coventry phone exchange on Thursday November 15th 1974, one week before.  An accomplice, Raymond McLaughlin, who was armed with pistol and acting as lookout was observed throwing his gun away and caught and held by passer-by’s before he was arrested. Both men had travelled from Birmingham, where they lived, with the bomb. There was not much left of McDaid but his remains were to be flown back to Belfast for burial. He was personally known to at least five of the six men arrested in Heysham and when he first came to Birmingham had stayed for a while in the home of one of them and later lodged for a time with another. Just prior to his death he had been linked, by fingerprint,  to a previous incendiary device planted at an office equipment premises in Birmingham 8 days earlier. James McDaid and McLaughlin were active members of an IRA cell based in Birmingham city. It later emerged that the bombs in Birmingham a week later were some form of sick revenge for his death. A reminder that the IRA were still active in the Midlands.

Raymond McLaughlin was from Buncrana, Co Donegal and served 9 and a half years in Prison for his part in the Coventry debacle. He was released in 1984 and died in a drowning accident in Shannon, Co Clare a year later. His son who was one year old at time of his father’s arrest is now reborn as Padriag Mac Lochlainn was elected to the Dáil as a Sinn Fein TD on 25 February 2011 for the constituency of Donegal North-East on his third attempt.  He lost his seat in 2016 but regained it in 2020.

THE AFTERMATH 

The city of Birmingham descended into chaos and panic in the immediate aftermath of the explosions. Tears later everyone I met in Birmingham could recall where they were that awful November night. The city centre, it must be remembered was full of pubs and clubs all of which had to evacuated. As news of the bombs spread parents in the suburbs and outlining towns feared the worst. The city centre was full of mainly young people out socialising. One can only imagine the fear and despair. In the days that followed the anger began to focus on the city’s Irish population. In 1974 there was an estimated 100,000 Irish born people in a city of over a million. One Irish born man had died in the explosion and the two Reilly brothers came from Irish born parents. There was the inevitable back lash. Irish people were ostracised in many workplaces, there were assaults and attacks on Irish pubs and clubs. However many Brummies showed their true colours and stood by, shielded and protected their Irish friends work mates and colleagues.  Most of the city’s population were aware the bombings had been carried out by a ruthless and fanatical organisation that did not represent the vast majority of Irish people. When I lived in Birmingham in the 1980s I heard many stories of Irish people who suffered the brunt of the, to a degree understandable, anger. Some years later a woman recounted to me that he husband, normally a mild mannered man,  was so angry in the days after the bombings he got in his car and drove to Sparkhill, an Irish area of the city.  He waited outside an Irish pub and then jumped out and punched an Irishman, or someone he thought was an Irishman, before running back to his car and driving away.  The incident, though spontaneous and a little pathetic probably went unreported and really was insignificant in the scale of things but a symptom of the feelings of anger and shock that stunned the whole city.

However theses were outweighed by the stories of friendship, loyalty and solidarity displayed by their non Irish  fellow citizens. Brave people who stood up to the mob in the workplace, covered for their Irish friends and expressed support and sympathy in so many ways. There are the positive gems we have to recall when discussing this awful act of mass murder.

As usual the actions of the IRA had a double purpose. They, more than anyone, would have been very aware that for each outrage there would be a reaction. As an organisation that thrives on anger, division and hatred under the guise of a “fight for freedom” they revel in the chaos they leave in their wake. It feeds their own sense of lack of self worth by drawing on the anger of ordinary people to help to fuel their madness and fanaticism.  The arrest and sentencing of the innocent six men in the aftermath of the bombings was an added bonus. Their own operatives would possibly avoid detection and continue to be useful. The social and political fallout of the jailing of innocent men would publicise so called  “British Injustice” for decades.

The first St Patrick’s Day parade in Digbeth was in 1952 and it was held annually up until 1974. After the atrocity in November 1974  it was, with some justification, cancelled for over two decades before being revived in 1996.  Just one symptom of the fallout from the bombings.  That night also changed the nightlife of Birmingham.  People simply stopped using city centre pubs at night and as a result the once vibrant nightlife of the main streets of Birmingham city centre changed. People began to socialize in their own neighbourhoods and avoided the area at night.  It took a considerable period of time for this to improve and has never , in my opinion, returned fully.

THE BIRMINGHAM SIX

The six men arrested in Heysham all were found guilty by jury trial of the Bombings and 21 murders at Lancaster Crown Court on Friday August 15th 1975. All received sentences of life imprisonment.

However it soon emerged these men were not responsible for the bombings. Within a few years the focus began to change onto them and the awful miscarriage of justice. Paddy Joe Hill, Hugh Callaghan, John Walker, Billy Power , Gerry Hunter and Richard McIlkenny all continued to protest their innocence and slowly bit by bit details emerged of the flawed forensics, the beatings and a miscarriage of Justice. This was manna from Heaven for the IRA and it’s supporters. Not only did  it take the spotlight off their massacre of 21 people but it highlighted the perceived injustices of Britain and their system of Justice. I admit that once I had done my own amateur research into the circumstances of the bombings I became convinced these men were innocent and involved myself to a minor extent in the  campaign to have them released. They were eventually exonerated and released on March 14th 1991 after 16 years in prison.

THE 21 

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During that time in the 1980s how did the relatives of the people killed in that awful night feel? In the clamour for a retrial and release of the Birmingham Six the victims seem to have been forgotten. Their names were never mentioned the focus and spotlight now was on the a miscarriage of Justice that insinuated an massive police error and the jailing of innocent men while the real perpetrators never stood trial for what they actually had done. This was, in my opinion, grossly unfair and a second outrage if you want to call it that. The names of the dead and injured and what happened that night should never have been shoved into the shadows.

THE BOMBERS 

Contrary to possible public belief there were not a large number of IRA men operating in the Midlands in 1973 and 1974 – numbered at less than 30. Nine of them including Frank Stagg , who later died of self starvation in prison, and a Catholic priest Father Fell were arrested in the Coventry area in April 1973.  However another cell operated in the Birmingham city area and the attacks there commenced in August 1973  with the planting of bombs and incidenery devices at various locations throughout the West Midlands in late 1973 and early 1974. On September 17th 1973 Capt Ronald Wilkinson was killed attempting to defuse a bomb at Edgebaston in Birmingham. The bombings continued into the New Year. Spring and summer. All in all the city of Birmingham was subjected to a terrible wave of bombings and evacuations throughout 1974. My own mother had travelled from Ireland to Birmingham with my 10 year old brother in the summer of 1974 to visit friends in the city. I recall her on her return being very impressed with the way the she saw how the citizens of Birmingham were dealing with the bombings. She, to put it mildly, was no fan of the IRA regarding them as dangerous misguided fanatics who brought only shame and destruction in their wake. She admired the way the Birmingham public were not being intimidated and continued with business as usual learning to live with the danger that threatened their city  and that in turn had made her feel safe. She was also presently surprised that she had not experienced any ill feeling or negative comment during her visit despite what people were put through by the reckless, irresponsible, vindictive and dangerous actions of the IRA.

In early August 1974, about the time of my mother’s visit Police in Birmingham made a series of arrests and discovered bomb making equipment at two addresses in the Sparkbrook area of the city. Eight men were arrested and later convicted including the man in command of the IRA units in the city.  The bombings stopped.

However it did not take long for a second unit under a more ruthless leader to emerge from the shadows.

It is now public knowledge that a five man IRA cell were behind the bombings in Birmingham in November 1974. Their leader was a Belfast man named James McLoughlin “Belfast Jimmy” from the Ardoyne area of Belfast and possibly a first cousin of James McDaid, the dead Coventry bomber. At the time of the massacre he was flying across the Irish sea on an Aer Lingus plane accompanying McDaid’s remains back to Belfast from Birmingham airport.  McLoughlin was an IRA fanatic and had begun organising and ordered a number of bombings in and around Birmingham from late October 1974. Therefore it can be without doubt he had ordered the operation in which McDaid had been killed and felt very sore about it. Obviously the British tabloids and members of the public had been gloating about McDaid’s “own goal” and McLoughlin took this very personally and plotted a savage retribution. It was he who ordered the bombs to be constructed and picked the targets.

He would also have been aware that a large amount of police would be deployed for the removal of what remained  of McDaid from Coventry to Birmingham airport on the evening of November 21st 1974 leaving the city under policed and vulnerable. Bombers and bomb makers could now move about and carry out their trade of death and destruction with less chance of random discovery.

The probable principal bombmaker was Michael Murray, originally from Donnycarney in Dublin but at the time was living in Watt Road, Erdington. He would have made up the bombs and prepared the timers, along with another man. He would have delivered the bombs to the planters. On the night of the bombings he was in the Lamp Tavern pub in Aston where it is likely, as he knew the time both bombs had been set for, he made the useless warning calls from a nearby phone box. He was arrested in the days after the bombings and admitted he was a member of the IRA but no more. After receiving a 12 year sentence for conspiracy to cause explosions he, stood trial for a second time alongside the  ‘Birmingham Six’ in Lancaster was convicted of further charges of  conspiracy to cause explosions and sentenced to a concurrent nine years. He was released at the end of his sentence, returned to Ireland and died in Ireland in 1999.

The two bombers have been named as John Francis Gavin then aged 34, originally from St Patrick’s Park, Carrick on Shannon, Co Leitrim who lived in the Bordesley Green area of Birmingham and his accomplice as a teenager named Michael Patrick O’Reilly.

Gavin fled to Ireland. However he was convicted of the murder of another IRA man who he shot dead in Timmons Bar, Liffey Quays, Dublin on September 7th 1977. The man he killed was John Lawlor who was under suspicion as an alleged informer. Gavin was linked to the murder by fingerprints left on a pint glass in the bar. He served a life sentence for that murder, was released and died in 2002.

Michael James Reilly was arrested in 1975. He admitted bombing some local businesses in Birmingham and that he knew about the bombings in advance, but he did not admit to being involved. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiracy and causing explosions.

A fifth man named Michael Hayes has been also admitted to have been involved  but his role seems more ambiguous but it seems likely he was the second bombmaker. He recently reappeared in Dublin and made a hypocritical  statement apologising for what happened.

McLoughlin, Murray and Gavin were all fanatical Republicans and never at any time expressed  remorse or apology for the pain and suffering they inflicted. The only thing that bothered them was a lack of congratulation or recognition of their actions from the IRA ruling council.  Their actions had brought negative attention to the IRA and lost them a lot of popular support at the time. They could not have cared less for the victims. At least one of them, Gavin, went onto to kill again.

Contrary to popular belief the West Midlands Serious Crimes Unit had gathered a good amount of intelligence on the Birmingham IRA and did make a number of other arrests in the days and months after the bombings including Michael Murray and Michael James Reilly, two of those principally involved in the Pub bombings.  In total other than the six men convicted on the bombings, 17 IRA men were imprisoned related to bombings in the  Birmingham area during the 1973/74 period.   Michael Murray was one completely ruthless individual. He stood trial along with two others in the dock at Lancaster Castle in August 1975 on lesser charges, conspiracy to cause explosions and watched six innocent men found guilty for what he did while impassively maintaining his code of silence. So the police had caught at least two of the men behind the bombings, including the bomb maker and one of the planters.

THOUGHTS

Whatever the outcome of the flawed investigation the case of the Birmingham pub bombings has never been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction and continues to be a unhealed wound for the families of the victims and indeed all of Birmingham city.  When I came to live in Birmingham in January 1980, only 5 years after that awful night I arrived in a city still traumatised and trying to come to terms what what had happened.  Though I was Irish I was never subjected to any serious abuse or bad feeling because of my nationality or accent. People both Irish and English still talked about that awful night but only, I found, in certain company or situations. Everyone, who was there, remembered where they were that night. The Irish I met were still filled with shame and many had been subjected to abuse and workplace ostracisation in the days after. Others had not but all had been careful not to make themselves prominent or express any opinion or view on what happened. It was truly a dreadful time for them and had left scars. However the scars, in my opinion, were more to do about the stigma of being Irish and such a horrific act being carried out by fellow Irish individuals in the name of Ireland than the bad feeling or negativity they received from fellow Brummies. It was a  dark cloud many still carry today.

Gradually and mainly because so many Irish people live in the city and have intermarried into English families and are part of the multicultural fabric of the city the bad feeling subsided surprisingly quickly.

I have found that the general disposition of the majority of British people toward the Irish has always been friendly and I feel as someone who lived there in various parts I have the experience to back up this opinion. I get annoyed when I hear commentators make remarks on Irish radio about how difficult it must have been for the Irish in the UK in the 1970s. 1980s during the height of the IRA bombings . It was difficult for everyone not knowing when some fanatic was going to kill you for Ireland. As in Birmingham indiscriminate bombs do not separate one nationality from another. Most people who express this opinion have never spent anytime in the UK and experienced the politeness and generosity of the majority of the British population.

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