800px-Chamberlain_Square,_Birmingham

The 1974 Birmingham Pub Bombings - Recollections of a tense time

Relatives of the 21 people killed in the 1974 IRA bombings of two pubs in the centre of Birmingham are this week seeking to have the inquest into their deaths re-opened.

The bombings were the worst IRA terrorist attack in the 30 years of the Northern Ireland troubles and caused the biggest loss of life in a British city of the campaign.

The Provisional IRA had started an operation in Britain in March 1973 when an IRA unit from Belfast, including Gerry Kelly and sisters Dolours and Marian Price, left car bombs at the Old Bailey.

From then on, IRA bombings in British cities became a way of life as the organisation tried to intensify pressure on the British Government to give in to their demand of an immediate British withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

But the Birmingham bombings saw the IRA reach a new level of terrorism. Two bombs in rucksacks exploded without warning inside two popular and crowded city centre outs – the Tavern in the Town and the Mulberry Bush – on the night of November 21st, 1974.

21 people were killed and 180 people were injured, with many suffering horrific, life changing wounds. Although the IRA did not admit they had planted the bombs until many years later, it was widely believed the attacks were in revenge for the death of IRA member James McDaid, who blew himself up while preparing a bomb in nearby Coventry a week earlier.

The bomb attacks caused revulsion and horror in Britain and led directly to Home Secretary Roy Jenkins introducing the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which gave the police powers to arrest and detain suspects for up to seven days without charge.

There was also an instantaneous backlash agains the large Irish population who lived and worked in the greater Birmingham area.

I have vivid memories of the Birmingham bombs and the very tense atmosphere that all Irish people in Britain had to live through as a result of the IRA’s atrocity.

I was a student living in Coventry but working full time for a Midlands brewery – Mitchell and Butler – in November 1974. I was also active in the Troops Out Movement which called for the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland.

My job at the brewery was as a drayman on the lorries that delivered beer to pubs throughout the midlands but mostly in the Birmingham area.

When I turned up for work at 8am on the morning following the bombings, I could sense the tension. There were mutterings of “They should all be hung” and “Fucking Paddies” from my colleagues.

Luckily for me, my foreman was a wise and shrewd man. He called me aside and told me he was putting me with Robert for beer deliveries that day.

Robert was a well-built young man whom I knew from casual conversation had served as a Paratrooper with the British Army in Northern Ireland. That was hard to bear for me. I had witnessed the Paras murdering 13 innocent civilians in Derry on Bloody Sunday in January, 1972.

But that day, Robert was my lifesaver. When I climbed into the truck’s cab he immediately said to me: “Keep your mouth shut today. Let me do the talking.”

We then set off our delivery route; all pubs in Birmingham where the only topic of conversation was the previous night’s massacre.

Robert was true to his word. At every pub he talked to the landlords, staff and customers about the events in the city while I carried out my work – stacking crates of beer in the cellar.

It was a tradition that every pub where a delivery was made gave a free beer to the brewery workers. That day was surreal as I had to sit in up to a dozen pubs in Birmingham sipping beer in silence while Robert deflected any attention away from me.

Paddy Hill, who was wrongly convicted of the Birmingham Bombings

Paddy Hill, who was wrongly convicted of the Birmingham Bombings

 

I got through the working day with no hostility, something in retrospect that I find very surprising given the outrageous events that had happened in Birmingham.

When we returned to the brewery in Coventry, the foreman took me and Robert aside and asked if everything had been OK.

We assured him that there had been no problems and to this day I am grateful for Robert’s presence on that tense day.

Other Irishmen were not so lucky. Six innocent Irishmen were arrested and wrongfully convicted of the Birmingham bombs.

The Birmingham Six had to spend 17 years in prison and wait until 1991 for their names to be cleared.

The perpetrators of the IRA atrocity made their way safely back to Ireland where they lived without any consequences for their awful deeds.

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