1973 Old Bailey bombing

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1973 Old Bailey Bombing
Part of the Troubles
Old Bailey entrance.JPG
Entrance door to the Old Bailey
LocationLondon, United Kingdom
Coordinates51°30′57″N 0°06′06″W / 51.5158°N 0.1018°W / 51.5158; -0.1018Coordinates: 51°30′57″N 0°06′06″W / 51.5158°N 0.1018°W / 51.5158; -0.1018
Date8 March 1973
14:49 (UTC)
TargetOld Bailey Courthouse
Attack type
Car bomb
Deaths1 British civilian (heart attack)
Injured243 [1]
PerpetratorProvisional IRA Belfast Brigade
AssailantsHugh Feeney, Gerry Kelly, Dolours Price, Marian Price, Robert Walsh, and other IRA volunteers
Convictedall but McNearney (acquitted for providing information)
Verdictlife in prison (later reduced to 20 years)

The 1973 Old Bailey bombing (known as Bloody Thursday in Britain [2]) was a car bomb attack carried out by the Provisional IRA (IRA) which took place outside the Old Bailey Courthouse on 8 March 1973. The attack was carried out by an 11-person active service unit (ASU) from the Provisional IRA Belfast Brigade. The unit also exploded a second bomb which went off outside the Ministry of Agriculture near Whitehall in London at around the same time the bomb at the Old Bailey went off. This was the Provisional IRA's first major attack in England since the Troubles began in the late 1960s. One British civilian died of a heart attack attributed to the bombing, estimates of the injured range from 180–220 from the two bombings. Two additional bombs were found and defused. Nine people from Belfast were convicted six months later for the bombing, one person managed to escape and one was acquitted for providing information to the police.[3]


The Troubles had been ongoing in Northern Ireland and to a lesser extent in the Republic of Ireland since the late 1960s.[4] Rioting, protests, gun battles, sniper attacks, bombings and punishment beatings became part of everyday life in many places in Northern Ireland, especially in the poorer working class areas of Belfast and Derry. These events and others helped to heighten sectarianism and boosted recruitment into Irish republican and Ulster loyalist paramilitary groups and the security forces; mainly the newly created Ulster Defence Regiment.

England had been relatively untouched from the violence up until the beginning of 1973, but the IRA Army Council had drawn up plans for a bombing campaign to take place in England some time early in 1973. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, loyalist paramilitaries had bombed Dublin and other parts of the Republic of Ireland a number of times before the IRA began its bombing campaign in England. These early loyalist bombings were carried out by the Ulster Volunteer Force and were small bombs aimed at destruction only, not injuring or killing anybody.[5][6] Following the Dublin bombings in late 1972 and in January 1973 carried out by Loyalists which killed three people and injured over 150, the media attention these bombings received helped the Provisional IRA decide to take its campaign to Britain in return. Another reason the IRA brought their campaign to England Billy McKee explained to journalist Peter Taylor was that the IRA had decided to bomb England early if there was an emergency in the IRA and it began to weaken in Ireland. The arrest of top Provisionals in both the Republic and Northern Ireland like Máire Drumm, Seán Mac Stíofáin, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Martin McGuinness in late 1972 [7][8] helped to convince the IRA to bomb England to take the heat off of the IRA in Ireland.[9]

The IRA selected the volunteers who would constitute the ASU for the England bombing operation,[10] which was scheduled to take place on 8 March 1973, the same day that a border poll – boycotted by Nationalists and Roman Catholics [11] – was being held in Belfast. Volunteers from all three of the IRA's Belfast Brigade Battalions were selected for the bombing mission, the team included 19-year-old Gerry Kelly, 24-year-old Robert "Roy" Walsh (an expert bomb maker from Belfast), Hugh Feeney (a Belfast-born IRA volunteer & explosives expert), and two sisters, Marian, 19, and Dolours Price, 22, from Belfast who were from a staunchly Republican family, along with five other lesser-known volunteers from Belfast: Martin Brady, 22, William Armstrong, 29, Paul Holmes, 19, William McLarnon, 19, and Roisin McNearney, 18.[12]


Several days before the bombing, the leaders of the Provisional Irish Republican Army ASU, which included sisters Marian and Dolours Price, went to London and picked out four targets: the Old Bailey, the Ministry of Agriculture, an army recruitment office near Whitehall, and New Scotland Yard. They then reported back to their Officer Commanding in Belfast, and the IRA Army Council gave the go ahead. The bombs were made in Ireland and transported to London via ferry, according to Marian Price.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary warned the British that the ASU was travelling to England, but were unable to provide specifics as to the target.[13]

The drivers and the volunteers who were to prime the bombs woke up at 6:00 a.m. and drove the car bombs to their various targets. Gerry Kelly and Roy Walsh drove their car bomb to the Old Bailey. It was planned that by the time the bombs went off at around 15:00, the active service unit would be back in Ireland. The bomb at New Scotland Yard was found at 8:30 by a policeman who noticed a discrepancy in the licence plate.[11][3] The bomb team started lifting out 5-pound bags of explosives and separated them, so that if the bomb did go off, the force of the explosion would be greatly reduced. The bomb squad eventually found the detonating cord leads, which ran under the front passenger seat of the car; Peter Gurney, a senior member of New Scotland Yard, cut the detonator cord leads, defusing the bomb.

However, at the Old Bailey the bomb exploded, injuring many and causing extensive damage. Scotland Yard stated it had warned the City of London police at 14:01 to search near the Old Bailey for a green Ford Cortina; the car was not located until 14:35 and exploded at 14:49 while police were evacuating the area.[3] A shard of glass from the explosion is preserved as a reminder, embedded in the wall at the top of the main stairs. Several more people were injured by the car bomb near the Ministry of Agriculture, which brought the total number injured to over 200. A British man, 60-year-old Frederick Milton, died of a heart attack.[14] Dolours Price wrote in her memoir: "There were warnings phoned in but people had stood about, curious to see... If people ignored the warnings and stood around gawking, they were stupid. The numbers of injured came about through curiosity and stupidity."[12] The ASU was caught trying to leave the country at Heathrow Airport prior to the explosions, as the police had been forewarned about the bombings and were checking all passengers to Belfast and Dublin. All 10 gave false names that did not match their documents.[11][3]

Court and sentence[edit]

The IRA volunteers had to be tried at Winchester Crown court as the Old Bailey was wrecked by the car bomb there. The trial took 10 weeks and was set amid extremely strict security. William McLarnon pleaded guilty to all charges on the first day of the trial. On 14 November 1973, a jury convicted six men and two women of the bombings. The jury acquitted Roisin McNearney in exchange for information, and she was given a new identity. As her verdict was handed down, the other defendants began to hum the "Dead March" from Saul, and one threw a coin at her, shouting "Take your blood money with you" as she left the dock in tears.[15] Six of the nine people convicted admitted to Provisional IRA membership.[16]

At the court, the judge sentenced the eight to life imprisonment for the bombings and 20 years for conspiracy, while 19 year old William McLarnon who's family was forced out of their home in August 1969 was sentenced to 15 years,[11] when his sentence was read out he shouted "Up The Provisional IRA".[17] As the eight were led to the cells below the court, several gave raised fist salutes to relatives and friends in the public gallery, who shouted "Keep your chins up" and "All the best". The Price sisters immediately went on hunger strike, soon followed by Feeney and Kelly, for the right not to do prison work and to be repatriated to a jail in Ireland. The bombers on hunger strike were eventually moved to jails in Ireland as part of the 1975 IRA truce agreed with the British. In 1983, Kelly escaped from Maze Prison and became part of an IRA ASU in the Netherlands; he was recaptured three years later by the Dutch authorities and extradited.[15]

Further IRA bombs in England[edit]

The Old Bailey bomb was the beginning of a sustained bombing campaign in England. The next major bombing by the IRA in England was the King's Cross station and Euston station bombings which injured 13 people and did widespread damage. Another significant attack that year was the 1973 Westminster bombing which injured 60 people. Two more people would die in England from IRA bombings in 1973, bringing the total to three for the year in that part of United Kingdom.[18] The next year 1974, was the bloodiest year of the Troubles outside of Northern Ireland with over 70 people being killed in the Republic of Ireland & England combined. 34 were killed in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, 21 from the Birmingham pub bombings, 12 from the M62 coach bombing and several people were killed by the IRA's Balcombe Street Gang.[19]

One of the Old Bailey bombers Marian Price explained the IRA's reasoning for bombing England. "It doesn't seem to matter if it's Irish people dying." So if the armed struggle was to succeed then it was necessary to "bring it to the heart of the British Establishment" Hence symbolic targets such as the Old Bailey: "the targets were carefully chosen".[20]



  1. ^ Richard English - Armed Struggle: The History Of The IRA (Macmilian) pg.163
  2. ^ IRA, The Bombs and the Bullets: A History of Deadly Ingenuity By A. R. Oppenheimer pg.76
  3. ^ a b c d "Ten held after Provo bombs blast London". The Guardian. 9 March 1973. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
  4. ^ Melaugh, Martin (3 February 2006). "Frequently Asked Questions – The Northern Ireland Conflict". Conflict Archive on the Internet. Ulster University. Retrieved 18 May 2017.
  5. ^ "Irish Tighten Security After Dublin Bombing". The Lewiston Daily Sun. Dec 29, 1969. pp. 1, 7. Retrieved 1 August 2017 – via Google News Archive Search.
  6. ^ "Bomb Damages RTÉ TV Studios". RTÉ. Retrieved 1 August 2017.
  7. ^ November 1972 CAIN
  8. ^ December 1972 CAIN
  9. ^ Peter Taylor Behind The Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein, p.179,181
  10. ^ Moloney, Ed (5 July 2007). A Secret History of the IRA. Penguin Books. ISBN 9780141900698. Retrieved 1 August 2017 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ a b c d Eder, Richard (16 November 1973). "8 Get Life Terms in London Blasts". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
  12. ^ a b Sawyer, Patrick; Graham, Bob (23 September 2012). "IRA bomber says Adams ordered terror attacks on London targets". Irish Independent. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
  13. ^ Wilson, Ray; Adams, Ian (2015). Special Branch: A History: 1883-2006. Biteback Publishing. p. 234. ISBN 9781849549639. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
  14. ^ "Old Bailey bomber arrested over murder of two soldiers". The Daily Telegraph. 17 November 2009. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
  15. ^ a b "BBC ON THIS DAY: IRA gang convicted of London bombings". BBC News. 14 November 1973. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
  16. ^ Melaugh, Dr Martin. "CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict 1973". CAIN. Retrieved 1 August 2017.
  17. ^ Richard English - Armed Struggle: The History Of The IRA (Macmilian) pg.163
  18. ^ https://www.memorialatpeninsula.org/?p=13737
  19. ^ https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/othelem/chron/ch74.htm
  20. ^ Richard English - Armed Struggle: The History Of The IRA (Macmilian) pg.163