Bombing London

It is difficult to revisit the IRA bombing of London in March 1973 and not be struck by the irony of the event in Dolours Price’s life.

The IRA had not bombed England since her father, Albert Price and a small group of his colleagues, including Gerry Adams’ uncle, Paddy Adams, had travelled to the English midlands to plant bombs in High Streets and under manhole covers on the eve of the Second World War.

The campaign was, to put it mildly, a disaster. A bombing in Coventry went badly wrong, killing five civilians, injuring seventy and leading to the arrest and execution by hanging of two IRA members, both friends of Albert Price and rather minor players in the bombing campaign.

The remains of the pair, Peter Barnes and James McCormack, were returned to Ireland in 1969, an event which became a prelude to the coming split in the IRA and the formation of the Provisional IRA whose advocacy of violence Dolours Price had enthusiastically embraced.

The next IRA campaign, from 1956 to 1962 was confined to Northern Ireland and took place mostly on or around the Border. So when Dolours and other comrades in ‘The Unknowns’ proposed taking the IRA’s war to London it seemed like a step backwards, an echo of a time when the IRA was weak and inconsequential.

Except these were different times for physical force republicanism. The Troubles were more than two years old, the IRA’s ranks were full of angry young people, bombs and gun-battles were daily events in Belfast, Derry, Tyrone and the Border areas, the organisation was flush with weapons, explosives and money, and the British were desperate for a settlement.

This time, it seemed, the IRA would take its war to the streets of London in very different circumstances than Albert Price and his comrades had thirty-three years earlier.

The operation was organised by the Belfast Brigade intelligence officer, Pat McClure, who also commanded ‘The Unknowns’, and Dolours Price, not yet 23 years old, took charge of the bombing teams. The operation had been approved and the volunteers selected by Belfast commander Gerry Adams; the plan had been endorsed by the IRA’s GHQ and the Chief of Staff, Joe Cahill.

The date chosen for the six car bombs to explode in and around central London was March 8th, the same day that a referendum was to be held in Northern Ireland on its status as part of the United Kingdom. Sectarian demographics – a solid Protestant/Unionist majority – made the outcome a formality.

The British hoped that with their constitutional future settled, Northern Ireland’s Unionists would be in a mood to make concessions to Nationalists, perhaps even agree to share power in government, something which the mandarins of Whitehall – and their opposite numbers in Dublin – had concluded was a necessary prerequisite for political stability and the eclipse of the IRA.

Aware of British and Irish thinking, the IRA operation was designed to act as a douche of ice-cold water over the aspirations of both governments, a violent reminder of the strength and determination of the Provos.

These days the descendants of those IRA leaders have a very different attitude towards a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland. Confident that the demographics are now moving in their direction, Sinn Fein leaders – who head the IRA’s political wing – now seek a new referendum, while Unionists, fearful of the outcome for the same reason, do not.

That is the first irony. Dolours Price went to bomb London to underline the IRA’s rejection of a referendum in a place she and her comrades regarded as a gerrymandered entity, while nowadays many of the same people who planned the attack would enthusiastically embrace one.

The March 1973 bombing attack in London was only a qualified success. Instead of six car bombs just four were brought into the capital and of those just two detonated, one outside the Old Bailey courthouse; the other two were located and defused.

The bombs also caused civilian casualties; one man died of a heart attack and over 100 were injured. Worst of all for the IRA, the entire bombing team, bar one, was arrested as they tried to board planes to Ireland at Heathrow. One lucky bomber was using the gents toilet when the police swooped and made his getaway in the confusion, but the others were arrested. One turned Queens Evidence, but the others were tried, convicted and sentenced to lengthy terms.

The second irony was that the arrest operation was due to informer activity, and up to that time Dolours Price’s life in the IRA, as a member of ‘The Unknowns’, had been overshadowed by her role driving alleged British agents across the Border to their deaths and unmarked graves. Now, thanks to at least one informer, she would go to jail and nearly die on hunger strike.

What we still do not know for sure is how many informers were involved in betraying the London bombing. There was certainly one. His story was told in a memoir of his life in the RUC Special Branch by George Clarke who rose to be Chief Superintendent, thanks in no small way to the intelligence supplied by Poyntz.

Clarke used a pseudonym for the agent – he called him ‘Seamus MacMahon’ in his book – but enough clues exist to identify the informer as George Poyntz, a publican and businessman based in County Monaghan in later life but in 1973 ‘an amateur car repairer’, in George Clarke’s words, whose cover was not blown for another decade.

Poyntz had worked for the Irish Special Branch during the 1956-62 IRA campaign and when the Troubles broke out in 1970-71 he resumed his treacherous activities, selling his information to both the Irish and British intelligence services as well as to the Loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association.

Poyntz’s task in the planning of the London bombs was to respray the six cars which were to ferry the bombs to England. In the process he learned enough about the plan to know who was involved and when it would happen – and crucially, that the bombing team would return to Ireland by airplane from Heathrow airport.

On the eve of the bombing he contacted George Clarke to sell his information, naming the Price sisters amongst those involved.

The original plan was to set off six car bombs in London and when the bombing teams arrived at the ferry all went well until the fourth car was heavily screened by security staff. Spooked by this, Dolours Price decided to leave the fifth and sixth car bombs behind on the basis that the risk of detection would put the entire operation in jeopardy while four car bombs would make the point as effectively as six.

She then phoned Belfast looking for Gerry Adams to tell him the news. Adams was not available and her message – ‘Tell Gerry it’s just four’ – was given to the person who answered, a veteran republican from east Belfast, to pass on.

George Poyntz did not know this and he could only have told Clarke that there would be six car bombs.

But when the bombers were being questioned after arrest, it became clear that the police in London were expecting just four car bombs. How did the police know that unless either the phone line to Belfast had been tapped, or another informer had been at work?

Auntie Bridie

Irish Republicanism was in Dolours Price’s DNA. Her father, Albert Price had joined the IRA in the 1930’s and took part in the organisation’s English bombing campaign in 1939 and 1940. Two of his colleagues were convicted of involvement in the bombing of Coventry in August 1939, on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War. They were hanged for the murder of five civilians killed in the explosion.

It was Dolours’ mother’s family, the Dolan’s which had the longer and deeper tradition of militant republicanism. Her grandmother was imprisoned in Armagh jail for attempting to steal a policeman’s gun while all six of her daughters, including Dolours’ mother, Chrissie, joined Cumann na mBan, the women’s branch of the IRA in 1932/33. Ironically, Dolours Price refused to join the group in 1971, demanding instead that she be allowed to enlist in the all-male IRA.

The six sisters were involved in a celebrated clash with the Northern Ireland police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in March, 1937 during the annual commemoration of the Easter Rising of 1916. Sporting paper Easter Lillies, the symbol of Irish Republicanism, was then an offence under the draconian Special Powers Act and the six sisters wore them brazenly on their coat lapels as they left a church service.

They were stopped by the RUC who demanded that they remove them. They refused, there was a struggle, two of the sisters managed to escape but the remaining four were arrested and arraigned in court. They refused to give their names and addresses and were sentenced to between 14 and 30 days at Armagh jail.

When Dolours and her sister Marian were transferred from Durham jail in 1975, they became the third generation of women in the family to serve time in the prison.

It was, however, the fate of one aunt, ‘Aunt Bridie’ as the children called her, which left the darkest mark on Dolours upbringing.

By May 1938, the IRA was making preparations for the upcoming bombing campaign in England and weapons were being obtained and stored in arms dumps. One dump was underneath the floorboards in a small two up-two down house in Leeson Street in the heart of the lower Falls Road in Nationalist west Belfast.

Bridie Dolan was by this time a ranking member of Cumann na mBan. She was ordered to meet up with a member of the IRA, a man of course, go to the house and transfer the weapons and explosives to a different hiding place. The man did not turn up and so ‘Aunt Bridie’ decided to complete the mission by herself.

Amongst the weaponry underneath the floor were thermite bombs in the shape of grenades. Thermite, a mix of metal dust and metal oxide, is the main ingredient in incendiary bombs of the sort that were rained onto cities in Britain, Japan and Germany during World War 2. Thermite can cut through steel and is said to be the hottest burning man-made substance in the world.

The thermite bombs in the Leeson Street dump were evidently unstable. When ‘Aunt Bridie’ reached down to pick them up there was an explosion.

In his classic study, ‘The IRA in the Twilight Years, 1923-1948’, Uinseann Mac Eoin described a 1941 meeting in Dublin of ‘Aunt Bridie’ and Southern IRA leader Peadar MacArdgail.

Bridie, he wrote, was:

 ‘….the victim of explosive injuries received three years before….when she had been sent to remove grenades from the home of the Bradys of Leeson Street. (So sensitive were these grenades that two bomb disposal experts, detailed from Kilroot Fort to remove them were also injured). She had lost both hands and her eyesight, and with her face disfigured, had her head still swathed in bandages as she underwent skin grafting, with a slit only for her mouth. A remarkably brave and uncomplaining woman, Peader says; we used to spoon feed her and then light a cigarette for her to smoke.’

Growing up, with a living martyr to the IRA’s cause in an upstairs bedroom, Dolours Price’s childhood and adolescence was dominated by the blind and helpless Aunt Bridie for whom even the most basic human function was impossible without assistance.

Another aunt looked after Bridie on a semi-permanent basis but the other Dolan sisters took turns giving their sister a break by taking Bridie in for a week or two. But everyone had to feed Bridie cigarettes, food and cups of tea, and help take care of her other needs.

From Dolours Price’s interview it is clear that ‘Aunt Bridie’ was a seminal influence on her political development, a ghastly reminder that the cause for which she had been so terribly disfigured had still to be fought for and won.

‘I, Dolours’ – The Backstory

By Ed Moloney


The origins of this film on the life of the late Dolours Price – directed by Maurice Sweeney and produced by New Decade TV – lie in an interview that she gave to the Belfast daily, The Irish News in February 2010, in which she spoke, for the first time publicly, about her part in the saga of the IRA ‘disappeared’.


That interview set in motion a cascade of crises that culminated in an agreement between herself and myself in which she made a promise not to reveal any more about the ‘disappeared’. In return she would record her story on tape and video and it would not see daylight until she died. That way the truth could eventually be told without causing harm to herself.


The journey to that agreement was a long and complicated one, so for the purpose of brevity I will tell the story in bullet points:


  • For around three or four years I was the director of the Boston College Oral History Archive which was established in 2001 to collect and record interviews with participants in the Northern Ireland Troubles, primarily Republican and Loyalist activists;
  • I had been a journalist in Belfast until 2001, most recently for the Dublin-based Sunday Tribune. That year I moved to New York. In 2003, Penguin published my study of the IRA’s journey to the peace process, a book called ‘A Secret History of the IRA’;
  • Dolours Price was one of several former IRA members who I spoke to for the book. Amongst other things, she confirmed the existence and role of ‘the Unknowns’ and told me about the ‘disappeared’;
  • When the Boston archive was set up, Dolours Price agreed to give a series of interviews about her life and times in the Provisional IRA. Both myself and the researcher knew that she had been involved with ‘the Unknowns’ in taking people away to be ‘disappeared’;
  • Before the interviews began Dolours was given the opportunity to exclude subjects she did not wish to speak about at all or fully in her interviews, matters that she did not want her family to know about. She chose ‘the disappeared’ as one of those subjects.
  • In 2009, I was asked to write a book based upon interviews given to the archive by Brendan Hughes, a former Belfast commander of the IRA, a hunger striker and a onetime close friend of Gerry Adams. RTE and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland also accepted a proposal to make a documentary based on the book;
  • In late 2009 we approached Dolours Price in Belfast for an interview and she agreed. She and Brendan Hughes had been close comrades. Shortly afterwards I was contacted by a family member who told me that Dolours had been ill with PTSD. I was asked not to interview her and immediately agreed. There the matter would have ended but for events;
  • I have always believed that one event in particular pushed Dolours Price over the edge. In late 2009, the Belfast daily,The Irish News reported that the IRA had lied when it had admitted ’disappearing’ people during the Troubles. A list of victims prepared by the organisation, the paper reported, was incomplete. Missing was Joe Lynskey, the IRA’s chief of intelligence in Belfast and the first ‘disappeared’ victim to be driven across the Irish Border by Dolours Price;
  • Joe Lynskey was a friend of Dolours Price. He believed utterly in the IRA, believed he had been rightly sentenced to death and went willingly with Dolours across the Border. He could have escaped but didn’t. I think the reminder of all that disturbed her intensely and led to the next fateful step;
  • In February 2009, Dolours Price gave an interview about the ‘disappeared’ to The Irish News reporter who had broken the Lynskey story, but her family intervened with the editor to reduce the harm. I visited her in hospital that day only to learn that she had scheduled another interview, this time with The Guardian. Her family didn’t seem to know about this. I knew the journalist; he was good at his job. Nothing, it seemed, was going to stop her from telling her story to the world;
  • It was clear that a major effort would have to be made to stop her from a course that would be disastrous for her and her family;
  • So, I made the proposal that has led to this film. She could sit down and tell her story on tape and video; it would then be stored away until her death. Only then would the world hear what she had to say about that period – and I told her that if she predeceased me, and I was able, I would ensure that her story was told. She agreed;
  • Although subsequently she gave interviews to CBS and The Sunday Telegraph, Dolours Price never revealed publicly the full, untold story of the ‘disappeared’ which is disclosed in this documentary. She kept her word. And I have now kept mine;


The result is this film, ‘I, Dolours’.