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Bombings, beatings, anti-Irish racism, and dreaming of being an astronaut

Michael Flavin’s novel One Small Step explores what it was like to be a young boy growing up in Birmingham’s Irish community in the mid 1970s

I grew up in an Irish family in Birmingham. My most deeply rooted memory from childhood is the Birmingham pub bombings of 21st November 1974, one of the most notorious and consequential events of the Troubles.

Twenty-one people were killed and over 180 injured in two pubs bombed by the Birmingham IRA, acting without authorisation from IRA leaders and in retaliation for the death, one week earlier, of one of their members, James McDade, who was killed when the bomb he was planting at the Coventry telephone exchange went off prematurely.

The two pubs were chosen as targets because the Tavern in the Town was underneath an Inland Revenue office, while The Mulberry Bush sat at the base of the Rotunda, a Birmingham landmark. A third bomb on the same night, planted at a branch of Barclays Bank on the Hagley Road, one of Birmingham’s main arterial routes, failed to explode.

The IRA cell responsible for the Birmingham pub bombings typically gave warnings, using the code word ‘Double X’ in phone calls to the offices of the Birmingham Post and Mail. However, on this occasion the public telephone earmarked for the purpose had been vandalised and, by the time an alternative phone box was found, it was too late to prevent mass casualties.


The reaction and the revulsion in Birmingham were instant. The Birmingham Irish Centre was attacked, as were Catholic schools and churches. Irish people were refused service in shops. Irish workers were sent home from their workplaces, at risk of assault from their colleagues.

An Anti-Irish demonstration was held at the Longbridge car assembly plant attended by 1500 employees marching under the banner, ‘Hang the Bastards’.

Within a week of the bombings the British parliament passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act which allowed suspects to be held for up to seven days without charge, a provision which has since been extended to 14 days. A park near my childhood home featured the graffiti, ‘Irish kill – rubber bullets don’t,’ a technically incorrect statement (14 people were killed by rubber bullets in the Troubles, half of them children), but the broader point was made.

We were not welcome.

Six Irishmen were wrongly convicted of the bombings: five from Belfast and one from Derry. They assembled at Birmingham’s New Street Station shortly before the bombs went off. Five of them were heading to Belfast to attend McDade’s funeral and visit family. The sixth man saw them off from the station.

When the train arrived at Heysham port in Lancashire, the men were questioned by British Transport Police and were asked to come to nearby Morecambe police station. An unreliable and subsequently discredited forensic test found that three of the men had handled explosives. The five were tortured and three of them signed false confessions. The man who saw them off at Birmingham’s New Street station was also arrested and mistreated. He, too, confessed.

At the men’s trial, the confessions were shown to be contradictory and inaccurate. Statements forced from them claimed the bombs has been carried in plastic bags but subsequent examination of the crime scenes showed they had been left in suitcases with ‘D’ shaped handles. It didn’t matter.

The Birmingham Six were convicted on what the judge, Mr Bridge, later Baron Bridge of Harwich called, “the clearest and most overwhelming evidence I have ever heard”. The six men were sentenced to life and remained imprisoned until 1991 when a sustained campaign, sparked by Chris Mullin’s book, Error of Judgement, finally bore fruit at the second appeal against the convictions.

My novel, One Small Step, is based on my experiences of growing up in Birmingham’s Irish community and experiencing the anti-Irish backlash at first hand. The main character, a young boy called Danny Cronin, dreams of becoming an astronaut but is brought down to earth by beatings on his way home from school in the wake of the bombings, marked out by his Catholic school uniform.

He tries to navigate his brutal new reality but home provides no respite as the bombings and their paranoiac aftermath bring family tensions to the surface, exacerbated by the unexpected arrival of a republican visitor from Northern Ireland.

Danny retreats into his fantasy science fiction world in which he bravely takes on his alien enemies. The novel shows how the political impacts on the personal; Danny’s rebellious consciousness is forged in the explosion of the IRA bombs. It uses a child’s story to illuminate questions of history, ethnicity and violence.

It can be argued that the Birmingham pub bombings produced anti-Irish racism in the city, but I don’t agree. It was already there. One Small Step concludes with a quote from Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism: ‘Ireland was ceded by the Pope to Henry II of England in the 1150s; he himself came to Ireland in 1171. From that time on an amazingly persistent cultural attitude existed towards Ireland as a place whose inhabitants were a barbarian and degenerate race’.

My book is fiction but contends that the Birmingham pub bombings did not create anti-Irish racism. Instead, they brought its latent presence to the surface. When John Junor, editor of the Sunday Express, wrote, following the IRA Brighton bomb of 1984 which targeted the Conservative Party conference, ‘wouldn’t you rather admit to being a pig than to being Irish?’ he was highlighting how the media and, to an extent, the wider public consciousness homogenised and demonised Irish people throughout the Troubles, conflating an entire community with the actions of a tiny number of individuals.

One Small Step is a novel about what it was like to be Irish in Britain during the Troubles. Danny Cronin summarises his own and his family’s position: ‘No one is sorry for our trouble. We’re Irish bastards.’ It revisits a time when a barbaric act led to the oppression and criminalisation of the Birmingham Irish. It sees the pub bombings through the eyes of an innocent child whose innocence is obliterated by the violence on all sides.

  • Michael Flavin is Reader in Global Education at King’s College London. His Troubles novel, One Small Step, is published by Vulpine Press. He is also the author of a psychological thriller, The Voice Hearer, and academic articles on The Troubles published in Terrorism and Political Violence and Small Wars and Insurgencies.
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