Monthly Archives: February 2019

Well, I Never……!

Quote from a review of Patrick Keefe’s ‘Say Nothing‘, by a correspondent  for National Public Radio (the nearest thing America has to the BBC or RTE):

Say Nothing switches back and forth between the mystery of who killed Jean McConville and the wider history of the Troubles. As a historian, there’s no mistaking his bias: (Patrick) Keefe is contemptuous of the British government and the security services, and he venerates the Provisional IRA.

What on earth was he smoking?

‘Voices From The Grave’ Documentary Now Available On The Net

In the wake of Patrick Radden Keefe’s book ‘Say Nothing‘, here, as evidence that many of the stories in his book have already been told, is the prize-winning RTE documentary ‘Voices From The Grave‘, which I co-produced.

The film is based on interviews of the late Brendan Hughes by Anthony McIntyre for the Boston College archive. These also formed the basis for the best-selling book of the same name. Both book and film made their debuts in 2010, nine years before ‘Say Nothing’.

Enjoy the film:



Update On ‘I, Dolours’ Availability On Net

I, Dolours‘ will be available on Hulu and Netflix UK at the end of March, not the beginning of the month, as I originally said.

Gerry Adams On The Tom Oliver Killing

Gerry Adams’ alleged role in the killing of Cooley farmer, Tom Oliver, who was accused by the IRA of passing information to the Gardai, has surfaced once again following the appearance of new Garda Commissioner and former PSNI Deputy Chief Constable, Drew Harris at a Dail Justice committee last week.

Harris, who was also the PSNI liaison with MI5, was asked whether the name of the IRA leader who turned down pleas to spare Tom Oliver, and which he had written down for the Smithwick Tribunal, was in fact that of Gerry Adams. Harris dodged the question, referring the matter to the PSNI.

Independent Dail deputy, Peter Fitzpatrick then went on the LMFM radio station to raise questions about Adams’ role in the affair and Adams’ responded in an interview on the same radio station which can be heard here. His section starts at 49 minutes, 30 seconds and ends at one hour, seven minutes and fifty seconds. (Thanks to MO for the tip-off)

The background to the controversy is this: Mr Harris gave evidence in a private session of the Smithwick Tribunal which was investigating allegations of IRA infiltration of the Garda Siochana in the Border area. Inter alia, he told the tribunal that intelligence evidence unearthed by the Northern security forces – the RUC and MI5 – suggested that local IRA members wanted to spare Oliver’s life and had approached a senior IRA figure seeking clemency.

Their appeal was rebuffed and Oliver was then shot dead in a particularly brutal fashion. Six bullets were fired into his skull.

When asked by the tribunal chairman, Judge Peter Smithwick, who this senior IRA figure was, Harris agreed to write it down and give it to the judge.

This story has been covered several times by You can read some of those pieces here, here, here, and here.

By the way, Mr Adams used his interview to declare his belief that I am not a reputable journalist. He then went on to describe his role in attempting to find justice for the family of Seamus Ludlow, killed in mysterious circumstances near his Co Louth home in 1976, while neglecting to tell the audience that I was the reporter who first reported the truth of Ludlow’s killing.

A Tribute To John Stalker: The Full Yorkshire TV Dramatisation

John Stalker, the former Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester who was framed by the RUC and MI5 when he came too close to the truth of the ‘shoot-to-kill’ scandal of the early 1980’s has died, aged 79.

I met Stalker – and his formidable wife, Stella – while helping the late Mary Holland organise a TV interview for Channel Four to mark the publication of his book on his inquiry into the RUC, during which he famously butted heads with then RUC Chief Constable, John ‘Jack’ Hermon.

John Stalker – pictured on the cover of his book

At a dinner with Hermon, the RUC chief allegedly passed over to Stalker an envelope on which was sketched Stalker’s family history, showing his various Irish descendants. Stalker, who unfortunately lost the envelope, saw this as a veiled threat by Hermon that the RUC had done their homework on his background and would accuse him of pro-Catholic sympathies if needed.

To help frame questions for Mary, a small number of the researchers were given advance copies of his book, whose contents were the subject of feverish speculation by the rest of the media. We were sitting on a book which some in Fleet Street would have paid a lot of money for.

Stalker was taken off his investigation when largely bogus links were discovered between himself and Manchester businessman, Kevin Taylor, who was alleged, falsely it transpired, to have smuggled drugs on a yacht on which Stalker was a guest. Public anger in Manchester and in Ireland at Stalker’s treatment made  him a hugely popular figure. His book sold out.

RUC Chief Constable, Sir John ‘Jack’ Hermon

Stalker was taken off the investigation when he was intensifying pressure on MI5 to hand over a tape recording made by the spy agency of the death of a Catholic teenager, Michael Tighe, killed by a special RUC undercover unit at a hayshed near Lurgan, Co Armagh which had been used by the IRA to store explosives.

MI5 , which was and still is in charge of all covert electronic surveillance in Northern Ireland, was resisting the demand amid suspicions that the tape would also have demonstrated that the RUC shooters had not, as they claimed, given a warning before opening fire.

The tape might also have shown that the security establishment was aware that explosives stored at the shed were used by the IRA in a huge landmine explosion which killed three policemen. The suspicion was that the bombers had been allowed to plant the bomb – and the RUC/MI5 had allowed colleagues to be killed – so as to protect an informer.

The full story of the Stalker inquiry was told in a remarkable piece of television docudrama by Yorkshire TV, the sort of television journalism that Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch helped kill off within a few years. It lasts over three hours and is followed by a studio discussion (mostly for balance purposes). The discussion can be missed without any loss.

Incidentally John Hermon sued Yorkshire TV, not for alleging that he had allowed his officers to be killed by the IRA, but because it showed the actor playing him drinking a large glass of whiskey.


Chris Mullin On The Real Birmingham Bombers


Chris Mullin

On the evening of 21 November 1974, bombs planted by the IRA in two crowded Birmingham pubs, the Tavern in the Town and the Mulberry Bush, exploded, killing 21 people and injuring at least 170. Many of the injuries were life-changing. None of those responsible has been brought to justice.

This month, almost 45 years later, an inquest opens into the deaths. The inquest has been forced on the authorities by the persistence of a small group of bereaved relatives who want to know who made the bombs and who planted them. The coroner has resisted this demand, arguing that it is not the job of an inquest to identify perpetrators. The relatives challenged his decision in the courts: the police, they say, know the names of those responsible and should be obliged to disclose them. The police respond that, although they have their suspicions, they have insufficient evidence to charge anyone. The lower court refused to order the coroner to address the issue, but did conclude that he hadn’t properly considered the matter and referred it back to him. The coroner stuck to his original decision. The relatives then took their case to the appeal court, which found for the coroner. There the matter rests.

I know the names of the bombers. Four men were involved: two bomb-makers and two planters. More than thirty years ago two of them described to me what they’d done in some detail. By a process of elimination, assisted by information from former members of the West Midlands IRA, I also identified at least one of the remaining perpetrators, perhaps both, though neither would admit to me their role in the bombings. But I have never named names. Journalists do not disclose their sources. I interviewed many of those who were active in the IRA’s West Midlands campaign. To gain their co-operation I gave repeated assurances, not only to the guilty, but to innocent intermediaries, that I would not disclose their identities. I cannot go back on that now, just because it would be convenient. My purpose at the time was to help free the six innocent men who had been convicted of the bombing. I was never under the illusion that I could bring the perpetrators to justice. My researches, conducted between 1985 and 1987, formed the final chapters of my book about the case, Error of Judgment. In it two of the perpetrators are quoted at length, but not identified. I no longer have any compunction about identifying two of the men involved, who are now dead (I am about to do so), but the man described in my book as the ‘young planter’ is still alive, and I will not name him.

Within four hours of the explosions on 21 November five Irishmen – Paddy Hill, Gerry Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, Billy Power and Johnny Walker – were arrested at Heysham in Lancashire as they got off a train from Birmingham New Street which connected with the ferry to Belfast. A sixth man, Hughie Callaghan, was arrested the next day in Birmingham. The five were taken to Morecambe police station where Dr Frank Skuse, a Home Office forensic scientist, tested their hands for evidence of contact with explosives. Meanwhile a posse of detectives from the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad headed up the motorway to interview the suspects. In Morecambe Skuse conducted a Griess test, swabbing the hands of the suspects with ether, mixing it with caustic soda and noting the reaction. By dawn, he was claiming that the test had returned positive results for two of the five prisoners. He had no business making such a claim. Griess was only a screening test. Having obtained his initial results, he should have taken the samples back to his laboratory in Preston and fed them into a mass spectrometer, which gives a much more accurate result. Instead, Skuse told the West Midlands detectives he was certain at least two of the suspects had recently been in contact with nitroglycerine. From that moment, their fate was sealed.

Up to this point Lancashire police had resisted pressure from the West Midlands detectives to hand over the suspects for interrogation. After Skuse’s contribution the pressure became impossible to resist. Lancashire police effectively lost control of their police station and a programme of violence and intimidation began, lasting three days and two nights (during which time the prisoners were transferred to Queens Road police station in Birmingham), which resulted in four confessions. This was before the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984), which laid down strict rules for the treatment of suspects. Before its passage, confessions could be extracted by any means necessary, so long as any injuries inflicted weren’t too obvious. There were no tape or video recordings, no lawyer present, just police officers. The suspects who confessed claimed they did so after being beaten and deprived of sleep, having aggressive dogs put in their cells and, in one case, being subjected to a mock execution using blank cartridges.

The confessions were mistaken in details about the bombings and contradicted each other in major respects. Among the things they got wrong were the locations of the bombs, the types of bag they were carried in (something which only became apparent after scientists examined remnants found in the rubble, by which time it was too late to correct the confessions), and which suspects were supposed to have bombed which pub. They didn’t explain where the bombs had come from or who had made them. (Years later, at the Birmingham Six’s final, successful appeal in 1991, it was discovered that the interviewing officers had been rewriting their supposedly contemporaneous notebooks up to the day the original trial started.)

The trial took place at Lancaster Castle in the summer of 1975. Mr Justice (later Lord) Bridge made no secret of his approach to the evidence. ‘I am of the opinion,’ he told the jury, ‘not shared by all my brothers on the bench that, if a judge has formed a clear view, it is much better to let the jury see that and say so and not pretend to be some Olympian detached observer.’ He was as good as his word. The trial lasted 45 days. In addition to the six, there were three other people in the dock, charged with conspiracy to cause explosions. One of them was Michael Murray, a workmate of two of the six, who made no secret of his membership of the IRA. In the best IRA tradition he chose not to participate in the proceedings. His presence in the dock alongside the six was deeply damaging to their case. This is no doubt the reason the prosecution decided to try them together.

The case against the six was divided into what the judge called three chapters. The first was circumstantial evidence: they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and drank in the same pubs and clubs as a number of the wrong people. Even Bridge admitted that this ‘fell a long way short of anything that anyone could possibly regard as proof’. The two remaining chapters were the confessions and Skuse’s evidence. Skuse told the court, as he had told the police officers, that he was ‘99 per cent certain’ at least two of the accused had handled explosives.

There were clear difficulties with the prosecution case. The confessions were riddled with contradictions and the suggestion that they had been obtained by intimidation and violence could not be entirely dismissed – no one disputed that the men had suffered numerous injuries during their first few days in custody. The police position was that the injuries must have been inflicted after the suspects were remanded to Winson Green prison. The prison officers’ position was silence. The men’s position was that they had been assaulted both at the police station and at the prison. The distinction was important because if it could be demonstrated that the assaults had occurred in police custody the confessions would be invalid. A long procession of police officers ranging in rank from detective constable to chief superintendent gave evidence that no one had laid a finger on the suspects. In his summing up the judge outlined, in tones of incredulity, the scale of the conspiracy the police would have to have engaged in if the defendants were telling the truth. We now know that a conspiracy on this scale is essentially what did occur.

There were problems, too, with the evidence provided by Skuse. After applying the Griess test to the men’s hands at Morecambe, he did what he should have done before giving the police his conclusion and went back to his laboratory to feed the samples into a mass spectrometer. They all tested negative. What’s more, the clothes of all six men tested negative and a search of their homes revealed no trace of explosives. Where the bombs came from was a mystery left unexplored. Nevertheless, Skuse stuck to his assertion that the two positive Griess tests were proof of recent contact with explosives. Dr Hugh Black, a former Home Office chief inspector of explosives, appearing as a witness for the defence, pointed out that a range of innocent substances – anything containing nitrocellulose – could produce a positive Griess test. The problem was that Black was relying solely on his knowledge of chemistry. He had conducted no tests to support his (entirely accurate) assertions. The judge pounced on this.

Throughout the trial Bridge lost no opportunity to intervene on behalf of the prosecution. Not only did he criticise Black for failing to conduct experiments, he also went for the prison medical officer, Dr Harwood, whose evidence inconveniently asserted that the defendants showed signs of injury when they arrived at Winson Green. Harwood’s problem was that he was trying to cover for what Bridge called ‘his cronies’ in the prison service by making out all the assaults had been carried out by the police. Bridge took him apart. Finally, there was a tricky moment when one of the Lancashire police officers strayed off-script on a key issue of timing. Under questioning from the prosecution, he stuck to his story. Eventually the judge rode to the rescue.

Bridge’s summing up covered 189 pages and took three days to deliver. It is peppered with heavy hints as to his view of the evidence, although he always took care to insert the sentence, ‘Members of the jury, it is entirely a matter for you.’ One of the most remarkable passages came towards the end, when Bridge turned to Michael Murray, who had sat silently throughout the proceedings. ‘You may think,’ he told the jury, ‘that Murray’s conduct in this trial has shown a certain measure of dignity totally absent from the conduct of his co-defendants. You may find yourself in difficulty in withholding a certain measure of respect.’ Murray, as it turned out, was the only person in that courtroom who actually had anything to do with the bombings.

My attention was first drawn to the Birmingham case by my friend Peter Chippendale, who covered the trial for the Guardian. He told me he thought the wrong people had been convicted. It was ten years or so before I began to investigate the matter. In the early 1980s I persuaded Carmen Callil at Chatto and Windus to commission a book on the case, but the advance was small and did not begin to fund the research necessary. In 1985, Ray Fitzwalter, the editor of ITV’s documentary series World in Action, agreed to take me on temporarily and give me the resources to look into the case.

To begin with, I spent much time, along with the World in Action journalists Ian McBride and Charles Tremayne, trying to find a police officer involved in the case who would tell a story different from the one told in court. The search proved fruitless. Next we got two independent forensic scientists to test Skuse’s evidence. They found, just as Black had suggested during the trial, that a range of innocent household substances containing nitrocellulose, from varnish to sprays, could produce a positive Griess test. Of particular interest was the discovery that packs of playing cards used to be coated with nitrocellulose. The five men on the train to Heysham had played cards during the journey. We got Ian McBride to shuffle a pack of old playing cards and, sure enough, his hands produced a positive Griess test. With that, the forensic evidence collapsed. Soon after a World in Action documentary describing our findings was shown in October 1985, I was contacted by a former police officer who had been at Queens Road police station and witnessed some of the comings and goings in the cell block. We made a second documentary.

The case against the six men had always been weak, but that in itself did not prove their innocence. The only way to do that was to track down the actual bombers. My colleagues were not immediately interested in this line of inquiry so I went about it alone, beginning with a visit to the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in July 1985. I didn’t expect him to deliver up the real bombers; I wanted him to indicate that he had no objection to my interviewing particular individuals, whose names I would put to him. I wanted especially to talk to Michael Murray, who, having served most of his 12-year sentence for conspiracy to cause explosions, had recently been released and was living in Dublin.

Murray was not at all keen to meet me, but agreed after the intervention of intermediaries. We agreed that I would not disclose his identity and that when we came to a question he didn’t want to answer he would say so, but not mislead me. I met him three times, in July and November 1985 and April 1986. The first interview lasted three hours. Despite his initial reluctance he provided an account of what happened on the night of the bombings. Two men had made the bombs and two others had planted them in the pubs. The targets had not been the pubs, but the buildings they were part of: one was in the Rotunda, a local landmark, and the other was underneath the New Street office of the Inland Revenue.

At that meeting Murray declined to discuss his own role, but at our second meeting he was frank. He was one of the men who had made the bombs and he had given the warning phone call (which had come too late). This still wasn’t enough to free the jailed men. The police never claimed to have caught the bomb-makers. Indeed they had never offered any explanation as to where the bombs came from. I had to find one or both of the planters and persuade them to describe what they had done in such detail that it wouldn’t be possible for anyone to go on pretending that the right people were in prison.

I drew up a list of all those known to have been involved in planting bombs in and around Birmingham. Tracking them down wasn’t too difficult since many of them had served long prison terms. I started with those who’d been in prison at the time of the pub bombings. They didn’t necessarily know the identity of the bombers, but they did know which members of the West Midlands IRA were at liberty that night. They all agreed on one point: none of the Birmingham Six had been a member of the IRA.

I then began to track down those members of the West Midlands IRA who had been at liberty on the night of the bombings. Gradually I narrowed down my list of suspects and when I had been given the same name by three separate sources, I moved in on him. He lived on a bleak housing estate and was in his early thirties. He had been involved in seven or eight other city-centre bombings before the pub bombings. He set out to give me a sanitised version of his career, but as we started discussing the night of 21 November his voice began to tremble and fade away. At first, he lied, saying he had been warned to stay at home that night because something big was going to happen. After we changed the subject his voice grew stronger again. ‘I think you were in the pubs,’ I said to him. There was a long silence. We were sitting on the floor. He stared straight ahead, smoking. Then it all came tumbling out. This is what he told me:

On the evening of the bombings a person came to see me and said, ‘You’re needed for an operation.’ I went with him to a house. We went by car. The bombs were in the parlour, behind the sofa. One was in a duffle bag and the other was in a small brown luggage case. I was given the duffle bag and a pistol. I put the gun in my coat pocket. The other man carried the case. We walked into town. It was a good mile. The other fellow told me the targets ten minutes before we arrived. He said: ‘The one in the Tavern is for the tax office and the one in the Mulberry Bush is for the Rotunda.’ He added: ‘There’ll be plenty of warning.’ Believe it or not I accepted it. I didn’t want the stigma of cowardice attached to me. He kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, those people will be well out of there.’ I kept on about it and he repeated there would be substantial warning.

We approached down Digbeth. Just before we arrived we stopped in the entrance to a row of shops. The other guy opened the case and was fiddling with something. Then he reached inside my duffle bag. That was when the bombs were primed. We crossed the road without using the underpass because the police were sometimes down there. We did the Tavern first. Up New Street. Past the Mulberry Bush. The other fellow went to the bar and ordered two drinks. I took both bags and found a seat. I was shitting myself. The other person came back with the drinks. We took a sip and then got up leaving the duffle bag under a seat.

At the Mulberry Bush the procedure was the same. ‘This time I ordered the drinks. The other person found a table at the back. The bomb was left by a telephone.’ We talked for nearly four hours. I pressed him repeatedly for the name of the other man, but he refused to tell me. As I left, he said: ‘No offence Mr Mullin, but I never want to see you again.’

I learned from other sources that the other planter was called James Francis Gavin. It was from his house in Bordesley Green that the bombers had set out. By the time I was told about him, Gavin was in Portlaoise Prison, near Dublin, serving life for a murder committed in 1977. A pipe layer by profession, he was married to an English woman, served in the British army for three years and lived in Britain for many more. During the course of my three-hour interview with him he readily admitted to his involvement in the IRA’s West Midlands campaign and even to having advised IRA units all over the country about the layout of British military bases. When it came to the pub bombings, however, he flatly denied involvement. Instead he doggedly suggested that the bombings were the work of British agents bent on discrediting the IRA – something the IRA had never alleged. His reasons for this became clear as the interview progressed.

In the immediate aftermath of the pub bombings the IRA had issued a statement saying that it was not its policy to kill civilians; there would be an internal inquiry and the results of it would be published, ‘however unpalatable’. There was an inquiry, but the results were never published. I later interviewed an IRA veteran who sat on the inquiry. ‘A lot of lies were told,’ he said. ‘The people who had come out of England were interviewed. They all said, “It wasn’t us.” I firmly believed them at the time. Eighteen months later I was sitting in the house of one of the people who had been active in Birmingham. People had had a few drinks and they started talking. It became clear that we had done it. A second inquiry was held. It concluded that we had been lied to and that the people who had done it were walking around free.’

Michael Murray died in 1999, James Francis Gavin in 2002. Michael Christopher Hayes remains at liberty in Ireland. So does the young planter. Remarkably, they all spent time in West Midlands police custody after the bombings. The Birmingham Six were finally freed in 1991.

Venezuela – Trump Hires The Prince Of Darkness, No Friend Of The Irish Peace Process

Elliot Abrams is one of the darkest figures ever to walk the stage of US foreign policy. As adviser to three presidents – Reagan and the two Bush’s – Abrams brought a swashbuckling version of neoconservative intervention to South and Central America and to the Middle East, inter alia helping the dictators ruling Guatemala and El Salvador deflect criticism of vast human rights abuses – including massacres of opponents – and conspiring with Israel and Iran to finance right-wing rebels in Nicaragua.

He was convicted of lying to Congress about his role in the Iran-Contra affair but was spared jail time when President George H W Bush pardoned him.

George H W Bush’s son, George W Bush appointed Abrams as a special assistant in 2001, in which capacity Abrams left his neocon mark on the Irish peace process.

Elliot Abrams – Trump’s man in Venezuela. He didn’t want the US to talk to Gerry Adams

The Bush White House’s first special advisor to the peace process was former academic and State Dept official Mitchell Reiss who was known for his tough approach to the Provos, at one point curtailing Gerry Adams’ ability to raise funds in the US for Sinn Fein until and unless the IRA decommissioned fully and recognised the PSNI.

But not tough enough for Abrams. When Reiss finally relented and, following Sinn Fein’s acceptance in January 2007 of the new police arrangements, withdrew sanctions against Adams, Abrams got Reiss sacked, apparently telling colleagues that the Sinn Fein leader should never be treated as a normal politician.

Mitchell Reiss, Bush’s first Irish peace envoy, sacked by Abrams because he advocated talking to Adams

Reiss was replaced by career diplomat Paula Dobrianski, whose Ukrainian-born father was a renowned anti-Communist activist in the 1950’s.

Now that Donald Trump has brought Abrams out of retirement and given him the job of overseeing the opposition to the Maduro government in Venezuela – arranging the anticipated coup, in other words – Sinn Fein can expect an even cooler reception at the White House.

Below is a profile of Abrams produced by the estimable Real News Network:


Amazon Misses The Irony…..

‘The Ferryman’ Reviewed: A Hunger Strike Parable

I went to see The Ferryman at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre in Broadway recently with decidedly mixed expectations of Jez Butterworth’s play, which is set in Northern Ireland at the climax of the 1981 IRA hunger strikes.

Jacobs theatre

The work was hailed as a masterpiece by critics when it premiered in London’s West End last May, and now the same has happened in New York where the critics have been, if anything, more extravagant in their praise.

But two reviews I’d read, which I posted on this blog last year, soured me. One, by The New York Times’ chief theatre critic, Ben Brantley (whose verdict can reputedly make or break a production) called The Ferryman:

‘…(a) fiercely, gripping play’ that ‘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….’

But (in his review of the London production) he went on to say this about Butterworth’s work:

‘….The Ferryman portrays a people in thrall to milleniums of history, in ways they’re not always aware of’.

I groaned inwardly. Why are only the Irish in thrall to their history? Why never the Brits or the Americans? What is Brexit about if it is not inspired at least in part by (an imaginary) glorious imperial past when ‘wogs began at Calais’, Jacob Rees-Mogg lookalikes ruled millions of Indians and Africans, and half the globe was daubed a regal red?


Jacob Rees-Mogg

What is ‘Make America Great Again’ about, if not an appeal to a past in which America was ruled and guided by heterosexual Wasps? Why are these peoples not in thrall to their history but the greatest flaw of the Irish is that they always are?

If The Ferryman reflected this caricature of Ireland, especially the Ireland of 1981, then I had better ways to spend three-and-a-bit hours.

And then a riposte to Brantley appeared in The Guardian a couple of months later which seemed to confirm my doubts. It was written by Sean O’Hagan, one of the paper’s feature writers, who protested at the Irish stereotypes littering what is (a lot of the time) a very crowded stage:

‘….the relentless drinking, the references to fairies, the Irish dancing, the dodgy priest, the spinster aunts….’.

He concluded:

‘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’.

All of which persuaded me to give The Ferryman a miss, until a generous friend treated myself and Joan to tickets. And so off we went to Broadway & 56th Street, expecting, if not the worst, then not much better.

And boy, was I wrong. The Ferryman is not flawless, for sure, but buried in the drama, not too deeply, but clearly beyond the reach of the reviewers cited here, lies a truth about the conflict in Northern Ireland, and the nature of the IRA leadership propelled to power by the events described in this play. Together they mark out The Ferryman as a special creation, and Jez Butterworth as a talented, diligent and perceptive writer.


Jez Butterworth

If I was Gerry Adams, The Ferryman would chill my heart; the play foreshadows a place in history that could well become his touchstone. But more of that anon.

None of this is to say that the criticisms made by Sean O’Hagan are misplaced. The stereotypes are there in abundance, especially the drinking which not only has the children tippling, but vast quantities of Bushmills are consumed, perhaps the most expensive whiskey on the Irish market, well beyond the means of most farming families (I counted three bottles drunk in one day).

And the cursing by the children grates; girls of six, seven or eight in most Irish families do not say ‘Fuck’ in front of adults, repeatedly, or in the presence of relatives. And that is before you get to the mysticism, the faeries and dancing.

But I have to say my misgivings about all this diminished as the defining and powerful core of the play revealed itself.

Set in a Co Armagh farmhouse as the 1981 hunger strikes reach their exhausted conclusion – Micky Devine, the 10th and last hunger striker to die, succumbs as the play comes to a bloody conclusion – The Ferryman focuses on the Carney family, particularly Quinn Carney, the family’s dominant male and himself a former IRA internee, as they come to terms, each in their own way, with the news that the body of Seamus Carney – their brother, husband, father, uncle, nephew – has been found in a peat bog in Co. Louth. He has a bullet hole in his skull.

Seamus Carney disappeared in January 1972, New Year’s day to be exact, and while rumours swirled, and eyewitnesses lined up to testify that he had gone to Liverpool, or Wales and that he had even been seen in Loyalist Carrickfergus, the truth is that he was killed by the IRA, apparently because he was judged to be an informer, and his body hidden in the bog – and no-one, least of all his nearest and dearest told. He was one of the IRA’s ‘Disappeared’.

This part of the play echoes the real history of the ‘Disappeared’. I couldn’t help but think of Joe Lynskey as I watched the drama unfold. My mind went back to the day I met Joe’s family in 2009 to tell them what had really happened to him, as told by the late Brendan Hughes in his interviews with Boston College, and also later, in separate interviews, given by Dolours Price, who had ferried Joe to his death. There were disturbing echoes of Joe Lynskey’s death in The Ferryman.


Joe Lynskey

Lynskey was the very first person dispatched to a secret grave on the orders of the Belfast IRA leadership in mid 1972.

Like the Carney’s, his family was fed lies about various sightings, in one instance that he had been spotted as far away as Australia. But unlike Seamus Carney, Joe’s remains have never been recovered.

And deception of the sort peddled to the Lynskeys was cooked up for the other families. When you think about it, someone, somewhere in the IRA must have been given the task of overseeing the process, composing the lies, timing their release for maximum effect, recruiting and briefing delivery boys (surely the lowest form of life in this story), making sure every family was serviced – or at least those who otherwise might kick up dust – and ensuring that each lie was consistent with its predecessor and so on. A factory of lies no less. Hidden away in an attic or under floorboards somewhere in Ireland, there will be a cardboard box filled with a record of its product.

In The Ferryman, the IRA recruit a tame priest to tell the Carney family that their disappeared kinsman has been found; and then a trio of IRA heavies  appear at the household just as the family is beginning an end of harvest celebration – and the Bushmills is flowing.

Their spokesman, clad in a black leather jacket, is known simply as ‘Muldoon’. He is, it soon becomes clear, the leader of the IRA in Derry with a sufficiently well developed public profile that some in the Carney household address him respectfully as ‘Mr Muldoon’. It is not difficult to suppose he is a proxy for Martin McGuinness, although few in the audience on 56th Street would have made that connection.


‘Muldoon’ confronts Quinn Carney (played by Paddy Considine)

The purpose of his mission soon emerges. Muldoon asks to speak to Quinn Carney alone:

MULDOON – This is a critical time Quinn. The hunger strikes have garnered an unprecedented global focus. We stand a chance of becoming a real political force. That’s why it’s critical, moving forward, that when the news concerning Seamus is released, that no wrongful allegation be made which might damage our efforts, or jeopardise our goals.

So what I merely ask is this. That you accept that Seamus’ disappearance was a tragedy which had absolutely nothing to do with us. And in doing so, that you provide me with assurances that if a reporter were to telephone that there’ll be no hot-headedness. That you and everyone under this roof will be trusted to behave responsibly. If you can provide me with that assurance then you have my word…..

QUINN – No. The answer is no. I’m gonna drink this drink, and bury my brother. And I will ask you to leave my home…and leave this family be.

And so, with Muldoon spurned, his lie rejected, the scene is set for the play’s bloody (literally) culmination.

In the real hunger strike, there was also a lie, a real one which killed real people, six of the ten dead, by my count, some of whom died in excruciating pain. But this lie was told, and for many years believed.

It took Richard O’Rawe, IRA prisoner and PRO for his protesting comrades in Long Kesh/The Maze prison, the best part of twenty-five years to summon up the courage to make the lie public, first in interviews for Boston College that I oversaw, and then in a book titled, Blanketmen.

O’Rawe’s claim was that in the midst of a rising death toll and political tension, the British government made a proposal to end the protest, by granting most of the prisoners’ demands.


Richard O’Rawe

The proposal was accepted, almost gleefully, both by O’Rawe and the IRA’s prison commander, Bik McFarlane, but was then rejected by the organisation’s leadership outside the jail.

A committee headed by Sinn Fein’s then vice-president, Gerry Adams had been set up by the IRA to run the protest. Some mystery is attached to this body. It was a creation of the Army Council but according to one Council member I spoke to after the protest, the committee rarely if ever reported back. It appeared to function with a considerable degree of independence.

It was this committee that rejected the British offer and in consequence six more prisoners, IRA and INLA would die before the fast was eventually called off that autumn.

An important question remains unanswered. Why did the Adams’ committee reject the British offer when the prisoners’ leaders thought it acceptable?

We can only speculate but the smart money says that it had something to do with the beguiling political opportunities offered by the prison protest. A number of factors were working to the political and electoral advantage of the IRA: Margaret Thatcher was British prime minister at the time and she was loathed by NI Nationalists for her evident arrogance towards all things Irish; the Catholic Cardinal had strongly identified with the prisoners’ protest for political status and the SDLP, the North’s moderate, constitutional Nationalist party was reluctant to openly oppose the prisoners’s cause or question their motives.

Adams Sands

Gerry Adams poses in front of a mural of Bobby Sands

So when the sitting Westminster MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone suddenly died, Sinn Fein abandoned its opposition to electoral politics and nominated Bobby Sands as its candidate in the impending by-election. Sands was the leader of the protest and the first to go without food; he was also likely to be the first to die. The SDLP stood aside, the Catholic church stayed silent, the Nationalists of the constituency turned out in numbers and Sands won the by-election comfortably.

It seemed to be a victory for the hunger strikers but it had implications that reverberated beyond the prison’s walls

This was the Provos’ first electoral triumph, a promising victory for sure which broke through the abstentionist ban favoured by the more austere Irish republicans. But how to capitalise on it when Sands died, which he surely would?

If the hunger strike was settled before his successor was elected then a great chance to make a major political breakthrough would be lost, an opportunity to make Sinn Fein a real player in Irish politics would be missed. But if the hunger strike was still underway, the Provos could be almost certain of a repeat victory. And then, who knows?

So, the Adams’ committee’s rejection of the British offer that O’Rawe and McFarlane had accepted, ensured that the hunger strike continued and with it the propitious circumstances for Sinn Fein’s electoral breakthrough. The rest, as they say, is history.

The deception inherent in this manoeuvre is the equivalent of Muldoon’s effort in The Ferryman to cajole and threaten the Carney family into accepting the lie about Seamus Carney’s disappearance. The prize is the same: the ‘chance of becoming a real political force’.

I don’t know whether Jez Butterworth read Richard O’Rawe’s book when he was researching The Ferryman, but I’d bet the mortgage he did. The play shows so many other signs of historical research, and the insights gained thereof, that it would be extraordinary if he missed it.

And the other lesson from our evening on Broadway? Don’t believe what you read in theatrical reviews.