Military Wiki
Birmingham pub bombings
Part of the Troubles
File:Mulberry bush pub bomb.jpg
Aftermath of the explosion in the "Mulberry Bush" pub, which killed ten people.
Location Birmingham, England
Date 21 November 1974
20:17 and 20:27 (GMT)
Target The "Mulberry Bush" and the "Tavern in the Town" pubs
Attack type
Time bombs
Deaths 21
Non-fatal injuries
Suspected perpetrator
Provisional Irish Republican Army

The Birmingham pub bombings occurred on 21 November 1974 in Birmingham, England. Bombs exploded in two central Birmingham pubs – the "Mulberry Bush" and the "Tavern in the Town" – killing 21 people and injuring 182.[1] Although telephoned warnings were sent, the pubs were not evacuated in time. Members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) are believed to have been responsible, although the IRA denied responsibility.[2]

The bombings yielded a wave of anti-Irish sentiment and attacks on the Irish community in parts of England.[3] A few days after, the British government introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which the Home Secretary described as "draconian" but necessary. Six Irishmen, who became known as the Birmingham Six, were arrested within hours of the blasts and in 1975 were sentenced to life imprisonment for the bombings. The men maintained their innocence and claimed police had coerced them into signing "confessions" through severe physical and psychological abuse. After 16 years in prison and a lengthy campaign, their convictions were quashed when the Court of Appeal acknowledged that they were unreliable. The episode is seen as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British legal history.

The bombings were the deadliest such attacks in Britain until the 2005 London bombings[4] and were one of the deadliest of the Troubles. A memorial plaque for the victims is in the grounds of Saint Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham.[5]


The IRA had been carrying out a bombing campaign in England since 1973. It attacked what it saw as military, political, economic and symbolic targets. This included attacks on infrastructure and businesses. Telephoned warnings were usually sent before attacks on civilian targets. The goal was to damage the economy and cause severe disruption to daily life, which would put pressure on the British government to withdraw from Northern Ireland.[6] In 1974 the IRA stepped up its bombing campaign in England and on average there was an attack every three days.[7] Five bombs exploded in Birmingham on 14 July, including one in the Rotunda and one at Nechells power station.[8] On 5 October the IRA bombed two pubs in Guildford frequented by military personnel, killing four soldiers and a civilian. Another soldier and a civilian were killed on 7 November when a pub near Woolwich Barracks was bombed.

On 14 November, IRA member James McDade was killed in a premature explosion while planting a bomb at a telephone exchange in Coventry. McDade was from Belfast but had been living in Birmingham. The local republican movement planned to have a paramilitary guard of honour accompany his coffin as it left England. The government said it would not be allowed and hundreds of police were deployed to prevent it.[9]


New Street in central Birmingham facing the cylindrical Rotunda. Visible on the right are the sign and doorway of "The Yard of Ale", the premises formerly occupied by the "Tavern in the Town"

At 20:11 a man with an Irish accent telephoned the Birmingham Post newspaper and said: "There is a bomb planted in the Rotunda and there is a bomb in New Street at the tax office".[10] A telephoned warning was also sent to the Birmingham Evening Mail newspaper giving an IRA codeword and warning of a bomb in the Rotunda.[11][12] The Rotunda was a 25-storey office block that housed the "Mulberry Bush" pub on its lower two floors.[13] The police began checking the upper floors of the Rotunda but did not clear the crowded pub at street level. Six minutes after the warning, at 20:17, the bomb exploded inside a duffel bag, devastating the pub.[10] Ten people were killed in this explosion and dozens injured, including one woman who was so badly wounded she was given the last rites administered by the Catholic Church to those on the point of death.

Police were attempting to clear the nearby "Tavern in the Town", a basement pub on New Street, when at 20:27 a second bomb exploded there. It killed a further 11 people and left many with severe injuries. The bodies of the dead and injured were strewn about the ruined pub.[2] A passing West Midlands bus was wrecked in the blast.[14] The explosion was so powerful that several victims were blown through a brick wall. Their remains were wedged between the rubble and underground electric cables; it took hours for firemen to free them.[15] The two pubs were about 50 yards (46 m) apart.[2] Buildings near the pubs were damaged and passersby in the street were struck by flying glass from shattered windows.

After the blasts, police evacuated all pubs in the city centre and halted all bus services. The streets became crowded with people attempting to leave the area on foot. The resulting traffic jams prevented ambulances getting to the scene quickly and many of the injured were ferried to hospital in taxis.[13] Police commandeered all available rooms in the City Centre Hotel on New Street and it became an emergency first-aid post.[13]

At 21:15, a third bomb was found in a bag outside a bank on Hagley Road, about two miles away. The detonator went off when a policeman prodded the bag, but the bomb failed to explode.[16][17]

Altogether, 21 people were killed and 182 people were injured. Most of the dead and wounded were young people between the ages of 17 and 25, including two brothers: Desmond and Eugene Reilly. One of the victims, 18-year-old Maxine Hambleton, had only gone into the "Tavern in the Town" to hand out tickets to friends for a party. She was killed seconds after entering the pub and had been standing beside the bag containing the bomb when it exploded. Her friend, 17-year-old Jane Davis, was the youngest victim of the bombings.[18] The others who were killed by the bombs were Michael Beasley (30), Lynn Bennett (18), Stanley Bodman (51), James Caddick (40), Thomas Chaytor (28), James Craig (34), Paul Davis (20), Charles Gray (44), Anne Hayes (19), John Jones (51), Neil Marsh (20), Marylin Nash (22), Pamela Palmer (19), Maureen Roberts (20), John Rowland (46), Trevor Thrupp (33), and Stephen Whalley (21).[19]


The bombings were immediately blamed on the IRA, and the police and government came under great pressure to clamp down on the organization.[2] A few days after, the British Government introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Among other things, this allowed suspects to be held up to 7 days without charge and allowed people to be deported from Great Britain to either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.[13][20] Roy Jenkins, then British Home Secretary, called the Act "draconian measures unprecedented in peacetime", but nevertheless deemed it necessary.[20] There were also calls to reintroduce hanging for those convicted of terrorist acts. Dáithí Ó Conaill, a member of the IRA's Army Council, replied: "For every IRA volunteer they hang, we will hang two British soldiers until the British give in". The bid to reintroduce hanging was unsuccessful.[21] However, the Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed on 29 November 1974.[20]

The bombings stoked anti-Irish sentiment and sparked a wave of attacks on the Irish community in parts of England.[13] Irish homes, pubs, businesses and community centres were attacked, in some cases with firebombs.[13] Irish people were assaulted[13] and there was "talk of English workers dropping bricks on the heads of Irish Catholic workmates on building sites".[3] Workers at thirty factories in the Midlands went on strike in protest at the bombings, while workers at airports refused to handle flights bound for Ireland.[13] Because of the anger against Irish people in Birmingham after the bombings, the IRA's Army Council placed the city "strictly off-limits" to IRA active service units.[22] In Northern Ireland, loyalist paramilitaries carried out a wave of "revenge attacks" on Irish Catholics. In the two days following the bombings, five Catholic civilians were shot dead by loyalists.[23]


On the night of the bombings, six Irishmen were arrested at Heysham Port while about to board a ferry to Belfast and charged with carrying out the bombings. They became known as the "Birmingham Six".[24][25] The men were from Belfast but had lived in Birmingham for some time. They knew IRA member James McDade and had been travelling to Belfast for his funeral and to visit their families.[13] They had got a train from Birmingham New Street station shortly before the bombs exploded. Four of the men signed confessions written by police. However, they maintained their innocence and claimed officers had coerced them into signing the "confessions" through severe physical and psychological abuse. This included beating, deprivation of food and sleep, mock executions, intimidation, verbal abuse and threats against them and their families.[26]

At the time, the Provisional IRA denied responsibility for the bombings.[20] It is said that the IRA leadership and IRA supporters were "horrified" by the bombings.[27] Brendan Magill, Sinn Féin's national organizer in Britain, called the bombings "disgraceful".[28] Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, then Sinn Féin President, "made inquiries and confirmed that the IRA leadership had not sanctioned the bombs".[27] Dáithí Ó Conaill, then a member of the IRA's Army Council, said shortly after:

If IRA members had carried-out such attacks, they would be court-martialled and could face the death penalty. The IRA has clear guidelines for waging its war. Any attack on non-military installations must be preceded by a 30-minute warning so that no innocent civilians are endangered.[21]

Ó Conaill also said that none of the Birmingham Six had ever been members of the IRA.

Red Flag 74—a small breakaway faction of the International Marxist Group—claimed responsibility for the bombings at the time. It had claimed responsibility for bombings before and said it received training and explosives from the IRA. However, the police did not take the claims seriously.[29][30]

The Birmingham Six were sentenced to life imprisonment in August 1975. They were convicted based on their "confessions", on Griess test results, and on circumstantial evidence. At the same trial, IRA member Michael Murray, Michael Sheehan and James Kelly were convicted for conspiring to cause explosions. During the trial, one of the six—John Walker—claimed that Murray had privately admitted being one of the bombers.[26] Murray allegedly told Walker: "I'm very sorry to see yous in here. Nothing went right that night. The first telephone box we got to was out of order".[31] The six said they were "scapegoats" because police did not have enough evidence to convict the real bombers. During their 16 years in prison there were numerous calls for their release and protests against their ill-treatment and imprisonment. In 1985, World in Action, a Granada Television program, presented evidence that seriously challenged the validity of the convictions. On the program, former IRA Chief of Staff, Joe Cahill, acknowledged that IRA members had been involved.[32] In 1986, journalist Chris Mullin published Error of Judgement: Truth About the Birmingham Bombings, which provided further evidence that the men had been wrongly convicted. It also included anonymous interviews with some of those who claimed to have been involved in the bombings. They claimed the bomb warning had been delayed because the telephone box was out-of-order and by the time they got to another phone it was too late.[33] Maureen Mitchell, who survived the bombing, claimed in 2009 she met an IRA member who admitted his involvement, but who called the bombings a mistake.[34] On 28 March 1990, ITV broadcast the Granada Television documentary drama, Who Bombed Birmingham?, which concluded that the six were wrongly convicted. The programme's investigations established five men it believed to be the bombers, it named four of them.[35] One was Michael Murray.[36] The programme also claimed the bombings were planned by Seamus McLoughlin (aka Belfast Jimmy). Others bombers included bomb maker James Francis Gavin (aka James Kelly) and bomb planter Michael Christopher Anthony Hayes.[37]

At the conclusion of the Birmingham Six's second appeal in 1991, their convictions were quashed after the evidence and the confessions were found to be unreliable.[38] They were released on 14 March 1991 after the judgment of the Court of Appeal was handed down.[39][40][41]

Patrick Hill, one of the six, said that police had told them from the beginning "that they didn't care if we did it or not – that people right at the top needed convictions". He said that the six had learned the names of the real bombers and claimed their identities were known among the upper echelons of both the IRA and the British government.[42] He said that he was told by IRA members that five people carried out the bombings; two of whom had died, and two of whom had been given immunity by the British government due to the Good Friday Agreement.[43] Both Patrick Hill and Brian Hambleton, of Justice for the 21, believe they have evidence that a British double agent was part of an IRA unit that carried out the bombings.[44][45] The British government has put a 75-year embargo on documents relating to the bombings.[45]

Denis Faul called on the IRA to apologize for the bombings. Sinn Féin called the bombings "wrong" and said that if "issues relating to the IRA concerning the Birmingham bombings are still to be addressed, then it is very clearly the Sinn Féin position that this should happen".[46]

In 2013 Julie and Brian Hambleton—brother and sister of Maxine Hambleton, a victim of the bombings—started a campaign called "Justice for the 21". Its stated aim is to get the criminal investigation into the bombings reopened and the perpetrators brought to justice.[47]

In 2014, former senior IRA officer Kieran Conway admitted that the terrorist group had carried out the Birmingham pub bombings.[48]

Cultural references

On 28 March 1990, ITV broadcast the Granada Television documentary drama Who Bombed Birmingham?, which re-enacted the bombings.[49] It was written by Rob Ritchie and directed by Mike Beckham, starring John Hurt as Mullin, Martin Shaw as World in Action producer Ian McBride, and Patrick Malahide as Michael Mansfield (QC).[50][51]

Key elements of the novel The Rotters Club by Jonathan Coe involve the bombings.[52]

See also


  1. The Birmingham Framework -Six Innocent Men Framed for the Birmingham Bombings; Fr. Denis Faul and Fr. Raymond Murray (1976)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 "Birmingham pub blasts kill 19". BBC News. 1974-11-21. Retrieved 2007-08-15. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Every Briton now a target for death". Sydney Morning Herald. 1 December 1974. 
  4. "Britain 'defiant' as bombers kill 52 in attack on the heart of London". 8 July 2005. Retrieved 23 November 2010. 
  5. "Birmingham pub bombings: Families remember victims in moving service". Birmingham Mail. 21 November 2009. Retrieved 5 April 2010. 
  6. O'Day, Alan. Political Violence in Northern Ireland. Greenwood Publishing, 1997. p.20
  7. Gibson, Brian. The Birmingham Bombs. 1976. p.50
  8. Gibson, p.49
  9. McKittrick, David. Lost Lives. p.494
  10. 10.0 10.1 Mullin, Chris (1990). "Chapter 1". Error of Judgement (3rd ed.). Poolbeg. p. 1. ISBN 1-85371-090-3. 
  11. Dillon, Martin (1996). 25 Years of Terror: The IRA's war against the British. Bantam Books. p. 188. ISBN 0-553-40773-2. 
  12. "The man who spoke to a Birmingham pub bomber: A voice calm, collected and full of hatred". Birmingham Mail. 22 November 2012.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 13.7 13.8 McKittrick, David. Lost Lives. pp.497-498
  14. "David Cameron says new Birmingham pub bombings probe unlikely". The Sunday Mercury. 22 November 2009.
  15. The Birmingham Pub Bombings, 21 November 1974, a personal account by Alan Stuart Hill
  16. Mullin, Chris (1990). "Chapter 1". Error of Judgement (3rd ed.). Poolbeg. p. 5. ISBN 1-85371-090-3. 
  17. "Third explosive on night of Birmingham pub bombings proved real culprits got away". Birmingham Mail. 24 November 2013.
  18. "Family of Teenager Killed in Birmingham Pub Bombings in 1974 'insulted' by plans for compensation". Birmingham Mail. Edward Chadwick. 3 February 2009. Retrieved 3 February 2012
  19. David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton (2008), Lost Lives. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, pp.496-500
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 Chronology of the Conflict: November 1974, Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN)
  21. 21.0 21.1 "Two-for-one reprisal vowed for each IRA member hanged". Montreal: The Gazette. 12 December 1974. 
  22. "Millimetres from disaster". Sunday Mercury. 13 April 2003.
  23. McKittrick, Lost Lives, pp.501-502
  24. "Release of Birmingham Six: Statements". Seanad Éireann. 15 March 1991. 
  25. "Former MP says sorry to Six over 'guilty' remark". Independent, The (London). [dead link]
  26. 26.0 26.1 [ Extract from The Birmingham Framework by Denis Faul & Raymond Murray (1976). Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN).
  27. 27.0 27.1 White, Robert W. Ruairí Ó Brádaigh: The Life and Politics of an Irish Revolutionary. Indiana University Press, 2006. pp.221, 381
  28. McGladdery, Gary. The Provisional IRA in England. Irish Academic Press, 2006. p.91
  29. "Bombings Trigger Backlash". Reading, Penn.. 24 November 1974.,1319677&dq=bombings+trigger+backlash&hl=en. Retrieved 12 July 2011. 
  30. O'Ballance, Edgar. Terror in Ireland: The Heritage of Hate. Presidio Press, 1981. p.204
  31. Gibson, p.148
  32. "IRA fails to say sorry for Birmingham pub bombs". The Guardian. 22 November 2004.
  33. Mullin, Chris. Error of Judgement (3rd Edition). Poolbeg Press, pp.153-154
  34. "Birmingham Pub Bombings were a 'mistake' IRA bomber tells survivor ". Birmingham Mail. 20 November 2009.
  35. "BRITISH TV NAMES BOMBING SUSPECTS". The New York Times. 29 March 1990.
  36. Sean O’Neill (2004-11-18). "The man behind the pub bombs in Birmingham that killed 21". The Times. Retrieved 2007-08-05. 
  37. YouTube: 5:43 Who Bombed Birmingham? (Part 11)
  38. Schurr. "Expert witnesses and the duties of disclosure and impartiality: The lessons of the IRA cases in England". Retrieved 10 October 2011. ""Both the scientific evidence of contamination by nitroglycerine and the documents said to set out the confessions obtained by the police were found to be unreliable following the admission of fresh evidence."" 
  39. Expert Witnesses And The Duties Of Disclosure & Impartiality: The Lessons Of The IRA Cases In England; Beverley Schurr
  40. Chronology of the Conflict: 1991, Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN)
  41. "Birmingham Six member dies in hospital". The Guardian 22 May 2006.
  42. Guardian newspaper: Birmingham Six man signs petition, 22 April 2012
  43. Don Hale (2014-03-02). "Birmingham pub bombers given secret letters promising immunity - claims Paddy Hill". The Birmingham Mail. Retrieved 2014-03-10. 
  44. "Birmingham pub bombing families' fury as Martin McGuinness speaks at peace conference". Birmingham Mail. 18 September 2014.
  45. 45.0 45.1 "Member of Birmingham Six challenges IRA pub bombers to come forward". The Guardian. 2 February 2014.
  46. "IRA should apologise for pub bombings: Sinn Fein". The Guardian. 18 November 2004.
  47. "Birmingham pub bombings: Call to reopen investigation". BBC News. Retrieved 16 November 2013. 
  48. "Birmingham pub bombings: Ex-IRA chief admits 'we did it - and I am ashamed'". Birmingham Mail. Retrieved 9 December 2014. 
  49. New York Times; 29 March 1990; British TV Names Bombing Suspects
  50. BFI Screenonline - World in Action
  51. The Kaleidoscope British Independent Television Drama Research Guide 1955-2010, page 3304 (Simon Coward, Richard Down & Christopher Perry; Kaleidoscope Publishing, 2nd edition, 2010, ISBN 978-1-900203-33-3)
  52. The Rotters Club Jonathan Coe ISBN 0141033266

External links

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