Monthly Archives: September 2018

What Will Irish-America Make Of ‘The Ferryman’?

The Ferryman‘, written by British playwright Jez Butterworth is set in Northern Ireland in 1981 during the Republican hunger strikes of that year, and deals with a Co. Armagh family’s trauma when the body of a relative, shot dead by the IRA and hidden in a local bog – he is one of the ‘disappeared’ – is discovered.

I have my own views on this play but they are based on what I have read about a production I have not seen and so I will remain silent, and let others who have seen it do the talking, or rather writing.

The Ferryman‘ was greeted with rave reviews when it premiered in the West End last May, and is due to open on Broadway next month – directed by Sam Mendes – when, doubtless, given the social, class and general anglophiliac background (not to mention ignorance of the conflict in Northern Ireland) of New Yorkers who can spend $150 a head or more on an evening in the Great White Way, we can expect much the same.

‘The Ferryman’ playwright, Jez Butterworth, Laura Donnelly (who appears in the play) and director Sam Mendes

I have posted two conflicting reviews below, one which appeared in The New York Times when ‘The Ferryman‘ was first staged in London, and beneath it a scathing critique by Guardian/Observer writer Sean O’Hagan whose views on the play can be summed up in one sentence:

What I had witnessed, and in part enjoyed, was a play that revealed more about English attitudes to Ireland than it did about Northern Ireland.

O’Hagan is also offended by the Irish stereotypes conjured up by Butterworth – obsession with the past and, of course, over-consumption of alcohol being only two – and one wonders what sort of reception the production would receive if similar caricatures or stereotypes featured in a play about African-Americans or Jews.

I’d bet the mortgage it wouldn’t come within sniffing distance of a Broadway theatre.

Review: ‘The Ferryman’ in Jez Butterworth’s Northern Ireland

Paddy Considine, center, gives Sophia Ally a lift during the play “The Ferryman.”CreditCreditJohan Persson

LONDON — It’s a mighty full house that’s presided over by Quinn Carney, the divided Irish hero of Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman,” which burst open at the Royal Court Theater here on Wednesday night, where its run is already sold out. (It moves to the West End in June.) The fiercely gripping play in which Quinn, a father of seven, appears is every bit as crowded.

And I mean teeming — with characters, plot, secrets, confessions, clashes political and sexual, betrayals, murders, ballads, poems, dancing, drinking, wrestling and the wails of banshees, whose reality is not to be doubted. The terrific cast — led by Paddy Considine and directed with a racing pulse by Sam Mendes — numbers 21, and that’s not counting the baby, the rabbit and the goose. Like everything else in “The Ferryman,” those nonspeaking performers are indisputably alive.

Set in rural Northern Ireland in 1981, this latest offering from the author of “Jerusalem” also overflows with storytelling vitality, the kind that so holds the attention that three and a quarter hours seem to pass in the blink of an eye, albeit a bloodied and black one. Consider yourself well warned when a little girl, gleefully awaiting an oft-told tale by an ancient relative, chirps excitedly: “I love this one! It’s so violent!”

That scene exudes the hearthside warmth of a classic, bustling domestic comedy in which an extended family lives in contented close quarters and everybody chips in to help. Of course, in this clan, even the little ones swear like sailors on a bender.

And the yarns spun by old Aunt Maggie Far Away (Brid Brennan), who spends much of her time in a wordless trance that might be mistaken for senility, feature the dismemberment of faerie warriors and are steeped in an erotic longing for the golden lad she once loved from a distance, now long disappeared. “I swear to Christ,” she says sweetly to the little ones gathered at her feet, “I could have ridden that boy from here to Connemara.”

Like much of “The Ferryman,” Ms. Brennan’s character (right down to her name) would seem to be drawn with an exaggeration that borders on parody. But as he demonstrated in his astonishing “Jerusalem,” seen on Broadway in 2011, Mr. Butterworth specializes in making what might be too much from anybody else feel somehow exactly right.

Life as he portrays it is so expansive, only myth and melodrama can accommodate its dimensions. And under the expert guidance of Mr. Mendes, an acclaimed film director (“American Beauty,” “Skyfall”) returning to the stage with avid conviction, “The Ferryman” embraces and absorbs explosive contradictions of story and sensibility.

The play begins with a stark, sinister scene that scarcely prepares us for the richness of what follows. We’re on a grimy back street of Derry, where Father Horrigan (Gerard Horan), a country priest, has been dragged for a meeting with the notorious Mr. Muldoon (Stuart Graham), a lean man of elegant menace.

It seems the bound corpse of one of Horrigan’s parishioners, missing for a decade, has been found in a bog, and Muldoon wants the good father to carry the news to the dead man’s brother. That’s Quinn, whom we meet at home in the next scene, dancing wildly in the wee hours to the Rolling Stones with a woman we assume is his wife or a lover.

She’s not. Caitlin Carney (Laura Donnelly) is Quinn’s sister-in-law and the wife of the dead man. Don’t trust your first assumptions as you watch this play; don’t entirely discount them either.

Quinn’s household includes his bedridden wife, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly); a married aunt and uncle, both called Pat (Dearbhla Malloy and Des McAleer); Caitlin’s teenage son, Oslin (Rob Malone); and a slow-witted handyman, Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson), who was taken in as a child after being abandoned by his parents, who were (and this is crucial) British.

It is harvest day. There’s to be toiling in the fields and the kitchen, and drinking and feasting after. It would all be perfectly jolly, except for our niggling awareness of the shadows cast, by that opening scene with Mr. Malloy and by news of the fatal hunger strikes of Irish Republican Army prisoners in the Maze prison. That darkness thrums like a bass line.

“The Ferryman,” as you may have inferred, is Mr. Butterworth’s contribution to the literature of the conflict known as the Troubles, and on one level, it recalls Sean O’Casey’s epochal dramas of civil war from the 1920s. But Mr. Butterworth is digging beyond the tensions of political factionalism to uncover more atavistic impulses.

Like “Jerusalem,” which probed the British yearning for a lost mythic grandeur, “The Ferryman” portrays a people in thrall to millenniums of history, in ways they’re not always aware of. On the one hand, there’s the embittered Aunt Pat, who as a girl witnessed the death of her brother during the Easter Rebellion and can’t stop talking about it; on the other, there’s the fey Aunt Maggie, with her gossamer-spun stories of elfin wars and lost loves.

Uncle Pat is the most long-winded of the family raconteurs, with daily events inspiring detailed accounts of tediously similar happenings of years gone by. He is also a devoted reader of Virgil, whose “Aeneid,” and its account of its hero’s visit to the shores of the underworld, gives “The Ferryman” its title.

The specter of death never leaves the stage in this production, which has been designed with radiant verisimilitude by a crack team that includes Rob Howell (sets and costumes), Peter Mumford (lighting) and Nick Powell (sound). Yet it feels as if the show’s every molecule vibrates with bounteous life.

After “The Ferryman” ends — probably well after — you may start to disassemble it in your mind, and realize how many of the conventions of old-fashioned melodrama it honors. But you won’t be capable of such dispassion while you’re watching it.

In the play’s second act, a harvest dinner is interrupted by a collective, bacchanalian urge to dance. Suddenly, this extended family is on its feet and stepping high, moving from country jigs to free-form frenzy.

Everyone onstage is as caught up in the sensory sweep of the music as the audience has been in Mr. Butterworth’s galloping narrative. That there’s a mortal chill in the festivities, and a premonition of dark endings to come, makes the fire of the moment burn all the brighter.

The Ferryman
Royal Court Theater

Critics loved The Ferryman. But I’m from Northern Ireland, and it doesn’t ring true | Opinion

Sean O’Hagan

Early in the summer of 1981, when the IRA hunger strike had already claimed the deaths of four republican prisoners, I travelled home from London to Armagh. My parents had not long moved from the estate where I grew up to my late grandparents’ house three miles south of the town. Even though we no longer lived in the hub of the nationalist community, I was utterly unprepared for the atmosphere that hung over the place, a sense of disbelief, communal grief and simmering tension unlike anything I had ever experienced there.

Back in London, listening to the nightly news reports on the hunger strikes, I felt a sense of dislocation, of not belonging, that was profound. It was exacerbated not just by the intransigence of the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, but by the bewilderment of many of my English friends, whose knowledge of Anglo-Irish history was, to say the least, cursory. Though the notion of blood sacrifice for a cause seemed almost beyond my own comprehension, I was torn by conflicting emotions, by complex bonds of community and place, by the gulf between who I was and where I was.

If that is an extreme example of cultural dislocation, it is nevertheless apparent, from my experience, that no matter how long an Irish person has lived in England there are moments when their Irishness – their otherness – is made apparent in often uneasy ways. I felt that uneasiness several times last month, as I sat in a packed and expectant Gielgud theatre in London on the opening night of The Ferryman, director Sam Mendes’s ambitious production of Jez Butterworth’s new play. The glittery audience, primed by almost universally ecstatic reviews, rose in rapturous applause at the end, carried along by the play’s extraordinary energy and the gritty cut-and-thrust of Northern Irish banter from the cast of almost 20 actors.

No one else seemed to mind the cliches and the stereotypes of Irishness abounding here: the relentless drinking, the references to fairies, the Irish dancing, the dodgy priest, the spinster aunts – or the sense that the play ties itself in knots tackling ideas of place, loyalty and community. Butterworth and Mendes fill the stage with noise, movement, songs and stories, but once that bravura energy had subsided, I was left with that familiar sense of unease, of dislocation. What I had witnessed, and in part enjoyed, was a play that revealed more about English attitudes to Ireland than it did about Northern Ireland.

The Ferryman, for all its ebullience, is essentially about a mysterious absence and the infecting nature of the silence that ensues. It is set on a farm in rural Armagh in 1981. At its heart, two mysteries intertwine: the fate of Seamus Carney, a young man “disappeared” by the IRA on New Year’s Day, 1972, and the unspoken love that has grown in his absence between his brother, Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine), and Seamus’s wife, Caitlin Carney (Laura Donnelly). Caitlin and her troubled 14-year-old son, Oisin, live under the same roof as Quinn, his ailing wife, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), and their six children. So too do Quinn’s uncle Pat and his aunts, Patricia and Maggie, the one a staunch and bitter Irish republican, the other a more gentle soul whose long silences are broken by voluble gusts of remembering and prophecy.

This is fertile territory for Butterworth, whose previous play, Jerusalem, evoked ancient English myth and archetype through the modern outlaw figure of Johnny “Rooster” Byron, an outsider whose amorality was cloaked in rich, self-mythologising storytelling. More pertinently, given the setting, it is fertile territory in which to explore the remarkably underwritten collective psychology of the Troubles: the silences, secrets and complicity, tacit and otherwise, that attended 30 years of violence and more than 3,500 deaths. It is also a chance to shed light on the long shadows cast by the so-called “disappeared” of the Troubles, who, as Butterworth makes clear, often existed as suspended presences among their families and friends, even as knowledge of their murders was commonplace in their communities.

In this instance, Butterworth is drawing on the first-hand experience of Laura Donnelly, who plays Caitlin, and whose uncle was killed by the IRA in January 1981. Despite rumours that circulated about sightings of him, his body was accidentally uncovered in a bog across the border in May 1984. The vanishing at the heart of The Ferryman is, for Donnelly at least, a tangible one. In the play, the body of Caitlin’s long-missing husband, Seamus Carney, is found, perfectly preserved, in a bog across the border in Co Louth, with a bullet hole in his skull.

The complex nature of community loyalties during a time of violent political struggle is a central aspect of The Ferryman, played out on stage through the bonds and tensions of an extended family with ties to Irish republicanism, past and present. The play’s success would rest, I thought, on how deftly Butterworth captured the nuances of a place and its people, on the authenticity of accents and rhythms of speech, in the verbal jousting that can come across as caustic – to the point of combative – to an outsider. One of the most powerful scenes is when the teenage boys – Quinn’s sons and their more savvy cousins from Derry, who have come to help with the harvest – swap Troubles war stories. Fuelled by whiskey, Shane Corcoran breaks the Provisionals’ omerta by bragging about how he has acted as a lookout for the local Derry brigade of the IRA. The scene moves from the boastful to regretful to the recriminatory, each beat meticulously orchestrated.

There are several visceral interludes like this, but for me, the sense of uneasiness prevailed. Everything was overstated, turned up to the max; out came the inevitable roll call of characters-cum-caricatures: the compromised priest, the bitter republican aunt (shades of James Joyce’s Catholic aunt, Dante Riordan, from Portrait of the Artist…), the alcoholic with the heart of gold and the menacing IRA men, who, in this instance, moved from silently threatening to the point of caricature. Then there’s the drinking: not just the alcoholic uncle, but the whiskey-slugging dad, the sozzled teenage sons and – wait for it – the children allowed thimblefuls of Bushmills for breakfast. Comedic, for sure, but so close to a cultural stereotype as to be offensive.

My paddywhackery detector went leaping into the red at the first mention of banshees (for the uninitiated, an Irish female fairy spirit whose wail augurs death). Aunt Maggie Faraway hears them and we, in turn, hear their symbolism. Now, banshees have their place in Irish drama, but they belong to the often hokey world of Yeats, Lady Gregory and the Irish literary revival of the 19th/early 20th century. They do not belong in a play set in Northern Ireland in 1981, where the mention of banshees would more likely have referred to a post-punk group of the same name led by a young woman called Siouxsie. Indeed, the eldest Carney girl is in thrall to Adam Ant, while the young and cocky Shane Corcoran from Derry disrupts the general Oirishry by blasting out Teenage Kicks by the Undertones to the bewilderment of his country cousins – although by 1981, three years after its release, the song was already an anthem of escape throughout Northern Ireland. These details matter in a play that depends on the accurate evoking of a place and time.

Part of Butterworth’s stock in trade is the evoking of magic and myth, but the heightened tone that worked for Jerusalem does not quite convince here. The whole idea of a farming family in county Armagh in the 1980s celebrating the annual harvest as a semi-pagan ritual of feasting and drinking seems implausible to the point of unreal. The exhausted tropes of Irish mysticism seemed to have seeped into The Ferryman from other older dramas about a different pre-modern Ireland across the border.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the IRA men are the most problematic characters, but not for the reasons you might expect. “There are no good guys or bad guys,” Sam Mendes said recently of The Ferryman, “it is only shades of grey.” This is patently not the case. The IRA characters are straight from central casting, with the commander, Muldoon, and his pair of henchmen played for maximum drama at the expense of nuance.

A great part of the IRA’s enduring power, as well as the tacit support they depended on, came from the fact that they were embedded in local communities. They weren’t strangers, but people you knew and had grown up with. I never quite understood, then, why Muldoon and his minders had been dispatched from Derry – nearly 70 miles away – to warn the Carney family that they should remain silent about the murder of Seamus Carney. Surely the issue would have been addressed by the local IRA, who would have sent someone to have a quiet word in Quinn’s ear? No need for the arrival of a godfather from Derry straight out of a Scorsese film. No need either for his minders to tell the local priest that his sister will be “disappeared” if he does not help them silence the Carneys. Please!

In Butterworth’s defence, Muldoon and Quinn have previous. They served time together in Long Kesh prison when Quinn was a committed republican foot soldier. Just how committed is revealed when Muldoon reminds Quinn of something he said just after the birth of his first son. “You looked me in the eye and said you’d watch that baby burn in a fire if it meant a free Ireland. And I thought: ‘That is what it takes. That is the cost of freedom.’” Now, I know the IRA are the baddies here, but would it not have served a drama that deals in silence, threat, complicity and its consequences to have them appear just a tad more psychologically complex? And does Quinn really believe his brother’s murder was revenge for his leaving the IRA?

Dramatically, too, I had difficulty with The Ferryman. Without revealing too much about the play’s inevitably violent denouement, it seemed overwrought and overplayed. When the heart-stopping drama of that visceral moment subsides, I was left wondering, not for the first time, why?

The single English character, Tom Kettle, a kind of holy fool, is also unbelievable. While it is interesting on one level to see the tired stereotype of the thick Paddy upended, Kettle seems more of a plot device than a rounded character. How do these too-broad brush strokes make their way into a play that, if it is to succeed at all, must rely on subtlety and attention to detail? One clue may be the Irish writers that Butterworth selfconsciously nods to: the metaphor of the ferryman is used in Brian Friel’s play, Wonderful Tennessee, while the Carney family name is taken from Tom Murphy’s early play, Whistle in the Dark, which is also set at harvest time. Seamus Heaney’s bog poems are in there, too: Tollund Man, The Grauballe Man and Punishment, which deals in a different way with the tensions of community and collusion.

Friel and Murphy belong to a generation of Irish playwrights for whom myth and magic still retained a sliver of their mythic power to unsettle. Butterworth is an English writer grappling not just with the complexities of Northern Ireland politics and culture at a pivotal time in its history, but also with the full weight of the Irish dramatic tradition. You can see why he feels the need to nod respectfully to his most obvious influences, even if they don’t quite fit.

What makes me most uneasy about The Ferryman, though, is the differences the play unconsciously highlights between Irish and English cultural sensibilities, between the Irish people’s idea of themselves and the English idea of them. I was uncomfortable at the gales of laughter that greeted every swear word uttered by the child characters, at the hilarity that ensued every time the uncle opened his bottle of Bushmills or a girl used the word “ride” as shorthand for sex. (Aunt Maggie Faraway, an elderly Catholic spinster, brought the house down with her use of the same word, which made me wonder if we had finally crossed into Father Ted territory.)

The attentiveness that ensued when Aunt Maggie sang a lovely Irish air – Yeats’s fairy ode, The Stolen Child – was equally mystifying. The notions of Ireland these stereotypes evoke – a wild, unfettered place of terminal boozing and unfettered romanticism – seemed to have somehow endured despite the Troubles, the Celtic Tiger, and even the sudden dramatic appearance in the English psyche of the DUP, who, believe me, are more alarming than those banshees. (If you want to measure the cultural chasm between Northern Ireland and the Britain to which it supposedly belongs, the pre-deal ignorance of the DUP’s existence might be a good place to start.)

Given that both Butterworth’s parents were part Irish Catholics, one wonders if he has that second-generation nostalgia for an Ireland that has been passed down to him rather than experienced first-hand. One wonders, too, how the play would be received by an audience in Dublin or Galway, or, more to the point, Armagh, Belfast or Derry.

Whatever, no one around me in the Gielgud theatre seemed bothered by the banshees or the boozing or the mad Irish dancing, nor by the dramatically heart-stopping, but utterly implausible, Tarantino-esque – or should that be McDongah-esque – denouement. Everyone rose to their feet as one to applaud. The critics too, have been amazingly reluctant to acknowledge these stereotypes. This may be to do with Butterworth’s – and Mendes’s – current cachet, but, to me, it betokens something else. This is what the (Northern) Irish are like, that ovation seemed to say, this is how they carry on, bless ’em.

I am not, by the way, disputing Butterworth’s right to write a play about Ireland and the Troubles. I would not go so far as the academic Terry Eagleton, who once noted that “English attitudes to the Irish are a bizarre mixture of affection, uneasiness, condescension and hostility”, but I could not help thinking that this was the sound of a mainly middle-class English audience having their cultural stereotypes confirmed rather than questioned.

‘Massacre At Ballymurphy’ – Watch The Documentary Here

For residents of the United States and other places that are not Ireland or Britain, this version of the documentary film shown on the UK Channel Four over the weekend has been made available to YouTube and can be watched here. For those who live in Ireland or Britain and missed the film, tough luck (or maybe invest in a VPN):

The MRF File – Part Four: The Thoughts Of Brigadier Frank Kitson

From James Kinchin-White and Ed Moloney

The following letter, written at the end of December 1971 by Howard Smith, the UK Representative to the NI government in Belfast prior to direct rule – and later the head of MI5 – to Philip Woodfield, the then head of the NI department in the Home Office, has a double value.

Howard Smith – Whitehall’s man in Belfast before Direct Rule, later head of MI5

First, it provides confirmation that the MRF was being constructed in the winter of 1971, which dovetails nicely with the theory that the MRF evolved out of the Bomb Squad.

Second, the letter, dated December 4th, 1971, encloses a three and a bit page assessment of the situation in the North written by the British Army’s Belfast commander, Brigadier Frank Kitson which gives us an interesting insight into Kitson’s thoughts on the way forward for British strategists some five months or so after the introduction of internment.

On the MRF, Kitson wrote:

As you know we are taking steps….in terms of building up and developing the MRF and we are steadily improving the capability of Special Branch by setting up cells in each (RUC) Division manned by MIO/FINCO’s (Military Intelligence Officers/Field Intelligence Non-commissioned Officers) and by building up Special Branch records with Int Corps Section.

Just a few months before Kitson’s missive, the RUC Special Branch was a joke in the North’s security universe. The lists of names provided by the Branch to the military to be arrested on August 9th 1971 and interned, turned out to be hopelessly out of date, based largely on Special Branch records of activists involved in the Border campaign of 1956-62, and was politically biased, leaving out Loyalist extremists entirely while including civil rights leaders who had no or next to no paramilitary links.

It is arguable that by giving the Branch such a high profile in MRF operations, Kitson rescued the North’s secret policemen from the dustbin of history and propelled them to an eventual high profile role in the ultimate defeat of the IRA.

His motives can only be guessed at but perhaps he envisaged a day when the military would step back from the front lines to be replaced by the RUC. Or it may be that he borrowed heavily from his experience in Kenya where he was an Military Intelligence Officer attached to the Kenyan Special Branch and he had what he called a Field Intelligence Assistant (FIA) to assist him in the war against the Mau Mau.

On British policy in N.I., Kitson essentially argued that unless and until the British government had a coherent and unified political strategy in Northern Ireland, the British Army might not be able to assist and might even make matters worse.

Internment had initially been a failure – thanks to British mistakes in large measure – but in subsequent months the military had managed to make progress against the IRA, not least because the IRA was over-manned and the calibre of many of its volunteers left much to be desired.

But as things stood in the winter of 1971, the IRA, winnowed of inferior members, had become more efficient and dangerous (hence the need for the MRF); but the military could make no more progress unless the political policy parameters were agreed in Whitehall.

In this sense Kitson was arguing for any policy as long as it was agreed and everyone knew what it was. He posits the two alternatives as he saw them: a ‘Segregated’ policy which would essentially back the Unionists, and an ‘Integrated’ strategy which would be more pro-Nationalist.

But like a good and obedient soldier, the military man showed no preference himself.

Within two years mandarins like Howard Smith would be helping to usher in Direct Rule and paving the way for Sunningdale, arguably backing Kitson’s Integrated strategy.

But therein lies another tale.

Here is Smith’s letter and Kitson’s paper:


The MRF File – Part Three: The Beginnings, The Bomb Squad And The Mysterious Capt Watchus

By James Kinchin-White and Ed Moloney

Aside from the widely-held belief that the MRF was the brainchild of Brigadier Frank Kitson – the commander of the British Army in Belfast between September 1970 and April 1972 – and that it was largely modeled on the pseudo-gangs that he created to counter the Mau-Mau during the Kenyan uprising of the 1950’s, precious little is known about the genesis of the unit which was the precursor of undercover British military activity during the Troubles.

However a close study of documents now available from the British government’s archive at Kew in Surrey, makes it possible to put some flesh on the otherwise bare bones, enough perhaps to construct a working theory to explain the origins of the MRF.


In the spring and summer of 1971 the IRA started to intensify its commercial bombing campaign in Belfast, partly in the hope of forcing the British to introduce internment before intelligence on the nascent Provisionals had improved, but also in the knowledge that this would destabilise Unionist politics.

In one spectacular and provocative act that July the IRA orchestrated a series of explosions along the route of the annual Twelfth Orange parade in Belfast.

The bombs exploded during the night and the next day thousands of angry Orangemen were obliged to march past devastated streets and wrecked shops and businesses, helpless witnesses to the gravest threat to the NI state since its foundation.

As the summer lengthened and the bombings escalated, Unionist anger intensified, fueling demands for a crackdown on the IRA and strengthening political extremists like Ian Paisley and their working class Loyalist counterparts in the paramilitary groups. The pressure on the British Army to respond grew accordingly.

One of the first responses to this growing crisis was the creation of a mobile unit of plainclothes soldiers, in radio contact with British bases around Belfast, who patrolled the city in civilian cars in the hope of intercepting bombing teams either en route to targets or on their way home after delivering their deadly loads.

This unit was known as the Bomb Squad and a flavour of its modus operandi and membership can be gleaned from log sheet entries from the evening of May 16th and 17th, 1971. They were radioed in by soldiers from the Ist Bn Light Infantry.

The first reads:

Some one in the Bomb Squad slowed a patrol down using a pistol – more details to follow but a very dangerous practice.

Man got out of a white Vauxhall waved down a mobile. As the commander got out of the veh, man had his hand on a pistol in his belt – very luck (sic) not to get shot.

The log entry added:

Man had dark hair with a scots accent, grey suit white shirt

The second, the following night reads:

Ref Bomb Squad incident.

1. Man said he was Special Forces.

2. Carrying Mil ID Card.

Got into Red Vauxhall Cresta, new car – didn’t take Regd No.

Here are the relevant log sheets:

Log sheets from 39 Brigade – Kitson’s Brigade – are available for May 1971 through to July but not for the autumn months following the introduction of internment that August.

The available logs show a regular pattern of activity by the Bomb Squad in Belfast; sometimes the unit is at the scene of an explosion or violent incident arresting suspects, more often the regular military is radioing it with intelligence about suspicious cars or people.

It is important to understand what the Bomb Squad was not. It was not involved in defusing explosive devices; that task was left to the Army Technical Officer (ATO) who operated separately. The Bomb Squad’s job was to catch IRA bombers, or if that was not possible to make the IRA’s journey to targets more difficult and dangerous.

Here is an example of one of the Bomb Squad’s more pro-active operations which took place in Divis Flats on July 7th, 1971:

1 RGJ – Ref the 2 men arrested. Sniffer was clear but Bomb Squad are dealing as there is fairly good evidence against them. But since have arrested man with nail bomb in pocket in DIVIS on a balcony at WHITEHALL BLOCK. This is where the bombs (all nail) have been coming from. Total of 12 to date.


More typically, the Bomb Squad would respond to radio messages from units on the ground. Here, for example, the Bomb Squad is alerted, on an unknown date in July, after traces of explosives were detected on the hands of three or four men at the scene of a bombing, referred to just as ‘Gilbbey’s explosion’.

The traces were detected using something called a ‘sniffa’ device, the suspects were arrested and taken to the nearest RUC station, followed closely by the Bomb Squad which presumably were present during the suspects’ interrogation:

1 RGJ (1st Btn Royal Green Jackets) – Four men detained at scene of Gilbbey’s explosion. Of these 3 have positive sniffa traces on their hand. They are being sent to Musgrave St – (ACTION) Bomb squad info.

On July 9th, 1971 – Log serials 58 to 60 – another routine operation takes place when the Bomb Squad is alerted about the location of an explosion at the RUC station at New Barnsley in Ballymurphy, suggesting, perhaps, that one of its patrols was in the area at the time and could give pursuit:

2 Para – Explosion. (ACTION) HQNI

1 LI – RUC Stn, New Barnsley, no cas. (ACTION) Bomb Squad infor.

2 Para – Blue 1100 responsible – the bomb was tossed into the compound. (ACTION) Clamp less AB.

‘Clamp less A & B’ was a standing order which instructed mobile patrols in the area to set up a roadblock.

The following morning, at 7:45 am on July 10th, an item from 1st Btn Light Infantry in the log sheet (serial 50) shows that the Bomb Squad was also involved in intelligence work:

1LI At 0001 Havana St Plastic St Night Watchman Francesco Antonio was not there. Bomb squad are interested in him. He may have been connected with the bomb attack.

Which bomb attack aroused suspicion about Mr Antonio is not clear but a 50lb IRA bomb was detonated in a manhole in nearby Flax Street the night before and this may have focussed the Bomb Squad on the whereabouts of the the night watchman. Here is the log sheet:

On July 13th, 1971 the IRA planted a bomb at the British Homes Stores in central Belfast and the Bomb Squad was able to arrest two people on the scene who were from the New Lodge Road area (Serial 13).

Separately, the ATO reported in to describe the damage (Serial 16), thus confirming that the Bomb Squad and bomb disposal were organisationally unconnected.

First the Bomb Squad:

Bomb Squad – 2 People arrested British Home Stores John C Quigley 9c ALAMEIN House, Margaret O’Connor 19 ARLINGTON St wife of James O’Connor – (ACTION) HQNI informed

Then the ATO:

ATO – British Home Stores: 10-20 lbs – too much debris to tell means of initiation. Seat of explosive outside CASTLE INN. Extensive damage to windows. Moderate structural damage. Other stores affected. (ACTION) HQNI informed.

There are two more references to the Bomb Squad in the available 39 Brigade log sheets for 1971.

One, dated 23:15 pm, July 14th, from Ist Battalion, Light Infantry, reads:

1 LI – Explosion. North west of my location, Plastic Factory, North Havana St. Clamp less A & B – (ACTION) Bomb Squad info. CCI

The second, on the same date, but five minutes later, reads:

1 LI Co-op – Alliance Ave. Old Park Rd. Car suspect Whie VW CIA 702 one head light, last seen heading NS along Westland Rd, a red mini 9994 UZ seen in Dunkeld Gdns moving fast, by RUC – (ACTION) Bomb squad info. ATO tasked, HQNI info.

The last reference to the Bomb Squad in the available log sheets comes on July 19th, 1971, serial 79 at 23:45 pm, which reads:

To: 1 LI, From 2 PARA – 1300A Reg No 1370 UZ, 2 passengers, 1 male, 1 female, no rear window, seen moving from our area to yours. Seen near Paisley Pk – colour white – (ACTION) Info RUC, bomb squad


Ten months later, the available 39 Brigade log sheets make no mention at all of the Bomb Squad. Instead the MRF makes its first appearance, at least in the documents that are available from Kew for inspection.

From this we can say with a high level of confidence that in 1971 the British Army mobile unit tasked to catch IRA activists, especially bombers, was the Bomb Squad; a year later it was the MRF, although we know it did more than than chase suspected IRA bombing teams through the streets of Belfast. More of that later.

The MRF first appears on available 39 Brigade log sheets on May 31st 1972, although it is more than likely that the unit was operational some time before that.

The occasion was an elaborate surveillance operation on the Royal Avenue Hotel on May 31st, 1972 which at various stages embraced not just the MRF but also the new Brigadier of 39 Brigade (Kitson had left at the end of April) and the GOC, General Harry Tuzo.

(Click here for archive footage of the Royal Avenue Hotel before and during the Troubles: )

The British Army had intelligence that the IRA was planning to hold a press conference in the hotel and the MRF was tasked to keep an eye on a Triumph Toleda car in the hotel car park which contained a man the military believed would attend the press conference.

The Army planned to cordon off the hotel and screen all those in attendance. Army PR people would arrive to identify bona fide journalists. The Europa hotel was also under surveillance in case there was a change of venue.

At one point the MRF tailed a suspicious car, thinking that perhaps the venue for the press conference had been changed to Casement Park or Ardoyne. They followed the car which took a circuitous route towards Lisburn and then was lost. The military suspected it might have been a decoy.

It is not entirely clear how the operation ended except there is no record in the logs of soldiers or RUC entering the Royal Avenue Hotel. At one point the GOC, General Tuzo intervened:

Here are the log sheets for the Royal Avenue Hotel operation:


We know that some time after the summer of 1971 the Bomb Squad no longer appeared in 39 Brigade log sheets and we know that sometime thereafter the MRF makes its first appearance. It was certainly active by May of 1972.

But is that enough evidence from this material to support the view that the MRF evolved out of the Bomb Squad? By itself the answer must be no.

But there is other evidence linking the two units and it comes in the shape of one Captain Arthur Herbert Watchus, known to his friends as ‘Sassy’.

Captain Watchus is one of those rare soldiers who manages to rise from the other ranks’ canteen, to the sergeants mess and then to the officers mess – an ordinary squaddie who climbs the greasy pole to join the officer class, in his case an officer in the Parachute regiment, army number: 22995768.

In March 1967, Sgt Major Watchus was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and his elevation was duly noted in the London Gazette:

By the time Arthur Watchus was posted to Northern Ireland he had earned another promotion, to Captain and it was as Captain Watchus that he makes his first appearance in the 39 Brigade log sheets.

At half-past midnight on July 13th, 1971, the day after the Twelfth and two nights after IRA bombs had blasted the route of that year’s Orange parade, Capt Watchus contacted HQNI – British Army headquarters at Thiepval barracks in Lisburn – to say that he had caught “two of the bombers” who were tackled by members of the bomb squad as they were laying the explosive charges.

“Will be cast iron case’, he announced:

So in the summer of 1971 Captain Watchus is a member of the Bomb Squad, possibly a senior member.

A year later Captain Watchus is still serving in Northern Ireland but now he enters the 39 Brigade log sheets under the label MRF.

The first entry, dated may 11th, 1972 suggests not only that he is a member of the MRF but a senior member, with sufficient authority to propose operations to Thiepval barracks. He may well be the MRF’s field commander:

Here is the full log:

Here are more log sheets detailing Captain Watchus’ interaction with the MRF. This one shows that he participated in the surveillance of the Royal Avenue Hotel:

Here is Captain Watchus monitoring an operation called JUMPING BEAN from the MRF operations room. JUMPING BEAN may well be a reference to the arrest of Louis Hammond, a British Army deserter who joined the Provisional IRA. He was arrested in May 1972 by the military and agreed to work as a double agent. Around a year later he was found shot and badly wounded, apparently by the IRA. Whatever the truth, Watchus’ role suggests he was a senior MRF figure.

So Captain Arthur Watchus provides real evidence of a link between the Bomb Squad and the MRF, and a strong pointer to the MRF’s origins.

‘No Stone Unturned’ – The Lawyers Speak Out To Irish-America, Blame PSNI For Arrests


This is an edited version of a statement issued to Irish-American activists by Niall Murphy, solicitor for film-makers Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey who were arrested at the weekend and questioned about the alleged theft of documents from the Police Ombudsman’s office in Belfast during the production of  ‘No Stone Unturned’, the expose of the 1994 Loughinsland killings.

The journalists were arrested and questioned by officers from the Durham police but lawyers for the two men insist the operation was really a PSNI affair.

Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney – their arrests was entirely a PSNI operation claims their lawyer

“….my view is that this was a wholehearted PSNI agenda. No doubts about that. Durham Police and the PSNI were keen to point to Durham’s independence. What should also be noted is that only three Durham Police officers were apparent on Friday, the Senior Investigating Officer Darren Ellis and two detectives asking pre-prepared questions in interview, reading from scripts.

“In addition to these 3 Durham officers the arrest and detention strategy involved well over 100 PSNI officers. There was at least 25-30 officers in attendance at each search location, the two homes and the business address and each Durham detective was attended by a PSNI detective in interview also.

“The senior co-ordinating sergeant supervising the interviews was a PSNI officer as was the custody sergeant who imposed restrictions on the liberty of the two journalists when granting bail. This same custody sergeant also refused to release tape recordings of the interviews in abject departure from ordinary practice.

“In my respectful opinion, this arrest and interview strategy was overwhelmingly directed and executed by officers of the PSNI.

“The arrests occurred on Friday 31 August and as Saturday 1st turned to Sunday 2nd September, Drew Harris assumed his powers as Garda Commissioner in the south. One train of thought might say that this was his parting gift.

The victims of the Loughinisland killings

“The irony is that the producers of the film, Trevor Birney and Alex Gibney had actually proactively sought out the senior command of the PSNI to TELL THEM that the film would be naming the names of the suspects. ACC Stephen Martin was the senior officer who reposed no concerns other than if the film intending EXPLICITLY revealing that any of the suspects were in fact informers, as that would impact the ability of the PSNI to recruit and maintain informers.

“It is obvious that the interests of the families of those murdered are of little or no concern.

“The Truth Cannot Be Arrested.  The film, as you know, premiered in New York on 30 September, (2017). A link was provided to the Police Ombudsman simultaneously with the British premiere in London a week later on 7 October (2017). As such, the Ombudsman had a full week to seek an injunction as did the killers and the police, as the details were widely circulated on social media. No such injunction was taken, nobody has issued libel proceedings (although the 12 month limit to issue proceedings doesn’t expire until 7 October) and press complaints lodged against newspapers were all dismissed.

“This arrest strategy is an utter farce solely directed at intimidating those who seek to expose state involvement in murder. Journalists today, NGO’s, lawyers and families tomorrow…

“‘A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny’.

“Ironically this is a quote from Winston Churchill…”

Ludlow Family Defect To KRW Law Breakaway

In the first high profile client defection from KRW Law to the new law firm established by former KRW employees, the family of slain Co Louth forestry worker Seamus Ludlow have announced that they are hiring the new company to represent the family’s interests.

Ludlow family spokesman, Michael Donegan made the announcement on Facebook, saying that the new firm’s representative Gavin Booth would henceforth be the family solicitor:

As there have been no different views regarding our future legal representation, and since the general consensus within the Ludlow family has been that we should stay with Gavin Booth (seen here some time ago with Thomas Fox), it is now my duty to confirm that Gavin Booth will be our solicitor from this day forward.

It is understood that Mr Booth now works for the KRW rival.

Seamus Ludlow (47) was found shot to death in a country lane not far from his home near Dundalk, Co Louth in May 1976, sparking decades of speculation about who was responsible.

Suspects ranged from members of the British SAS to the IRA but in 1998 this reporter was able to disclose in The Sunday Tribune that his killers were a group of UDR soldiers and Red Hand Commandos (RHC), a particularly violent Loyalist group, who had wandered across the Border after a day’s drinking in search of an IRA leader to kill.

Unable to find him they came across Seamus Ludlow making his way home from a local bar, offered him a lift and then took him to the laneway where he was shot dead. His body was then thrown over a hedge. The killer, nicknamed ‘Mambo’ was a notorious RHC gunman.

The source for this account was a Comber, Co. Down man, Paul Hosking who had gone on the trip that day not realising how it would end. He told this reporter that in 1987 he had given a full account of that night’s tragedy to the RUC who had done nothing about it.

Equally, the family have accused the Irish police, an Garda Siochana of a smear campaign by erroneously blaming the local IRA for killing Ludlow, alleging he had been an informer.

The family are not alone in suspecting that the two police forces were trying to deflect attention away from the Red Hand Commando gunman because he was an agent of a branch of British intelligence.

The family say they were given promises of a commission of inquiry in the Garda investigation of the Ludlow murder but in November last year the Dublin High Court ruled against their bid to force the government to establish the inquiry.

Their legal efforts are continuing, now led not by KRW but by their new rivals.

The MRF File – Part Two: More Evidence On MRF’s Name, Some Conflicting

By James Kinchin-White and Ed Moloney

There are three references in the following official British Army reports and correspondence to the MRF’s name being the ‘Mobile Reaction Force’, and one which seemingly prefers the title, ‘Military Reaction Force’.

A separate Log Sheet of incidents compiled by the Royal Anglian Regiment on May 12th, 1972 also refers to the ‘Mobile Reaction Force’. The Anglians were based in Belfast, the MRF’s main operational area.

The first reference to ‘Mobile’ comes in a letter written by the Director of Army Staff Duties, Brigadier W G H Beach on February 17th, 1972 to Brigadier M E Tickell, the Chief of Staff at British Army HQ at Thiepval Barracks, Lisburn.

The correspondence came in the wake of a visit by Beach to British Army units, including the MRF, earlier that month.

The letter is a formal version of the ‘loose minute’, or draft which figured in the first post in this series on the MRF’s name and can be regarded as a confirmation of the term, Mobile Reaction Force, used in the ‘loose minute’.

The reference to ‘Military Reaction Force’, comes in a document outlining the composition and duties of regiments and units in the 39 Brigade (Belfast) area in August 1972. It appears this document was widely circulated in the Brigade area. It is reproduced in full towards the end of this post.

Our preference is to suggest that ‘Mobile’ is the correct term since it is the one used by the British Army’s top brass in confidential correspondence between themselves; the term ‘Military’ comes in a document that would have had a wide circulation in the 39 Brigade area and could well have been seen by elements not entirely trusted by the military’s higher echelons. Amongst these would have been Belfast-based UDR regiments.

The first reference in this batch of documents to ‘Mobile’ comes at the end of the second page of the correspondence between Tickell and Beach, in which it is also revealed that the MRF recruited former SAS personnel to its ranks:

The second reference to ‘Mobile Reaction Force’ comes at the tail end of a six-page summary of the visit to British Army units by Maj-Gen Beach, the Director of Army Staff Duties on 8th and 9th February, 1972.

This document also has an intriguing reference to ‘Operation Four Square’, although it seems from the size of the operation – ’20 to 22′ infantry units –  that this is not the same as the ill-fated attempt of the same name by military intelligence to discern IRA activists through the forensic examination of dirty laundry which was interdicted by the Provos’ Belfast Brigade in November that year.

The reference to the MRF suggests that the unit’s headquarters were at Palace barracks, Hollywood and that the OC at the time was somewhat dissatisfied at the level of continuity in his commanders, i.e. they were being constantly changed.

Here is the six-page document:

Then there is this document which discusses the use of second hand cars by the ‘Mobile Reaction Force’:

These log sheets below, which catalogue events in the Royal Anglian Regiment’s operational area in Belfast, describe an incident in which the CO of the Anglians requested the assistance of the ‘mobile reaction force’ in the arrest of the Adjutant of the Official IRA’s 1st Battalion, one Peter McIlroy.

The idea was that the MRF soldiers, in plain clothes, would accompany two RUC Special Branch officers into the Orchid Bar in King Street where they would arrest McIlroy and send him off to Long Kesh.

Note the signature in right hand margin of the MRF’s commander approving the Royal Anglians’ request.

In the event the Special Branch men appear to have got cold feet. One stayed in his car and the other would not enter the bar, leaving the two MRF soldiers to search the club by themselves in vain for the Official IRA officer.

Here are the relevant extracts from the log sheets followed by the full logs themselves:

On page 7 of the following document, which is a summary of units and their duties in the 39 Brigade area (Belfast) dated August 1972, the MRF is referred to at the ‘Military Reaction Force’ and the following interesting detail is given about its role, relationship to RUC Special Branch and modus operandi:

The document also has this interesting detail on the British Army’s arrest policy in the summer of 1972. Loyalist activists could not be arrested or interned, even though sectarian murders were soaring, but republicans of various sorts were fair game:

Here is the full report: