When the Troubles came to Birmingham

When the Troubles came to Birmingham

Michael Flavin, novelist and academic, talks about his newly-published novel One Small Step, set against the background of the Irish community living in Britain

One Small Step is a novel about the Irish community in Birmingham at the time of the 1974 pub bombings. The hero, Danny Cronin, is a bright and curious boy with a science-fiction obsession, living with his parents and sister. The family moved to Birmingham from Derry at the outbreak of the Troubles. Danny’s life is ordinary until he becomes aware of bombs going off in London, Guildford, Coventry; all the while edging closer to Birmingham.

Two IRA bombs explode in two Birmingham pubs on the night of November 21, 1974, the most lethal attack Britain had experienced since World War Two. Danny’s life changes utterly as his family are implicated in the fallout from the bombings, their republican connections coming back to haunt them in the form of an unexpected visitor from Northern Ireland.

Danny escapes from the chaos by writing a parallel story of himself as an astronaut, taking on his demons, but in the final section of the novel he is forced to grow up very quickly and even begins to be radicalised by his experiences of anti-Irish racism.

The 1950s through to the 1970s were an interesting but challenging time to be Irish in Britain. On the one hand emigration offered enhanced prospects. An underperforming Irish economy was contrasted with the fruits of post-war reconstruction available across the water. Wide-ranging public services needed staff. There were plenty of opportunities for Irish people to be nurses, labourers or transport workers.

My own parents took advantage of the opportunity, moving to Birmingham from Co. Limerick. My father became a bus driver. Britain had an impressively functioning National Health Service at the time. Children could stay at school until eighteen, with fully funded university education for those fortunate and hardworking enough to get the grades.

Set against the opportunity, however, was the constant, belittling stereotyping of Irish people in the mass media. Thick drunks with a propensity for violence. The target of every stand-up comedian’s jokes on television, re-told in factories and school playgrounds.

The Troubles were, as far as many in Britain were concerned, mad paddies killing each other whilst gallant and stoic British troops tried to keep them apart but, on the first night of internment without trial in August 1971, the 342 men picked up were, without exception, from the Catholic, nationalist community. The murderous Bloody Sunday assault by the Paratroop regiment in Derry in January 1972, and a similar attack in Belfast’s Ballymurphy district some months earlier, ignited the Republican movement and exposed the myth of British neutrality.

Writing One Small Step was, for me, cathartic. Being a child of Irish parents in Birmingham at the time of the pub bombings made me fearful and untrusting. The anti-Irish backlash was real and tangible, resulting in beatings on the way home from school, my parents having made the decision (unwisely, in retrospect) to move into an area of Birmingham where we were the only Irish family. I went on to gain from Britain’s higher education system, becoming an academic and publishing books, but with a consciousness of never being fully assimilated, of never quite belonging; a wary foot in both camps.

In addition to One Small Step, I have also written a 2022 article on leadership in the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin, published in Terrorism and Political Violence and analysing the shift from an armed struggle to political engagement.

Both the novel and the article make use of a quote from the Palestinian academic Edward Said who, in Cultural Imperialism (1993) wrote, that from the twelfth-century start of British colonialism in Ireland, ‘an amazingly persistent cultural attitude existed toward Ireland as a place whose inhabitants were a barbarian and degenerate race.’ The Birmingham Pub Bombings of 1974 did not create anti-Irish racism: they resurfaced it.

One Small Step shows what life was like for Irish immigrants in Britain at the height of the Troubles. By focusing on one family and one child, the novel turns dry statistics into a human story of irreconcilable family tensions as the political impacts upon the personal.


One Small Step is published by Vulpine Press. Dr Michael Flavin is Senior Lecturer in Global Education at King’s College London.

Author Michael Flavin