Hugh Callaghan was born in the Ardoyne in Belfast in 1930 where he spent an impoverished childhood. After the war he went in search of work to Birmingham where he married and settled down. After the Birmingham pub massacres in November 1974 he was arrested and charged as an IRA bomber along with five other men. Sixteen and a half years later the Birmingham Six were released from custody on 14 March 1991 after a successful appeal at the Old Bailey.
From reading your life story there was nothing in your childhood and early life to suggest that the future would be anything other than straightforward an uncomplicated. Did you yourself ever have the feeling that your life would take an extraordinary turn?
No, not at all. My book is called Cruel Fate and that is actually what it was. It hinged on deciding in just a couple of seconds to go somewhere with some people, no more than that.
Looking back, do you think the values you learned in your childhood in Belfast stood you in good stead for some of the difficulties which were to come?
Of course they did, because I had a very hard life in Belfast. If I had been spoilt in my childhood I would not have had the will to fight all the way against my conviction. My father was very dominating. He was an ex-army man and a real tyrant, mostly in drink, and some nights if he didn’t have his own way it would be terrifying. He once gave my brother Tom such a terrible hiding for selling a little harmonica to get the money for a game of snooker. He took him upstairs and it was just awful what he did. My mother and I were helpless because we were so frightened of him. Another time he beat me up because I wore his shoes – mine were too small and had holes in them. So I was used to a hard life and people treating me badly. Going to prison and being shouted at by prison officers reminded me of my young days. Not that I wasn’t frightened. I was always a nervous individual and it didn’t take much to break me down. I really couldn’t stand violence.
You must have gone over in your mind a million times that fateful day, 21 November 1974, and how differently things might have turned out if only, if only … Have you ever been able to make sense of the series of events which led to your being arrested?
It is difficult to make sense of it because it was just a million to one chance that we met together that night. The only thing I had in common with those fellows, apart from being Irish, is that we had never met together before. Certainly I went to the same pub and I’d seen them there before, but it wasn’t them I went in to see, but a friend of mine, who is now deceased, to talk about football. I think I may have had a drink with one of the fellows, Paddy Hill, and that only once, but I had my own circle of friends in Birmingham, and they weren’t part of it.
Had you or the others ever had any connection with the IRA?
I was never a member of the IRA. My family always voted Labour, and I still vote Labour up to the present day. I’ve never been a Republican. I wasn’t close enough to the others to know their politics, but I would say that they were just ordinary nationalist people, that is to say, part of the Catholic community.
You were in a sense set aside from the other five [of the Birmingham Six], in that they had all left on the train for Belfast. You hadn’t – you had merely seen them off. Did that seem to you at the time of arrest to be any sort of advantage?
Well, the solicitors always said to me that I was on the outskirts of it all, but I knew I was in an awful lot of trouble because I was at the railway station with the others; the only advantage I had was that they were arrested before me – I was arrested the next evening. I knew from Gerry Hunter’s wife that they had been arrested and I was able to tell her that in my honest opinion, nothing had happened, but she said, ‘They’ve been here and they’ve turned the place over. You’d better go.’ That frightened me, not in a sense that I had done anything wrong but in the sense that they could be looking for me too. I told Sandra [Gerry Hunter’s wife] that they would have to let them go, and if they didn’t I would go and tell a solicitor that I had been with them that night and that they had done nothing. But as it was I was arrested on the Friday evening, so I didn’t get a chance. Whether that would have made much difference or not, I don’t know.
But did you at any point imagine that the other five could have been involved without your knowledge?
No. They couldn’t have been, because they were with me all the time. The only time Gerry went out was to make a phone call to his uncle to say they were getting the train, but that was all. I knew quite well that those men did not plant the bombs. I didn’t know them well, but I knew them well enough to know that they weren’t IRA men. I could say without a fear of contradiction that they weren’t bombers.
Under pressure and physical beatings, four confessions were extracted from the six who had been arrested. You yourself said that the others were all officers in the IRA. We all know now the circumstances under which you came to say this, but what I want to know is, what view did the others take of your saying this to police officers?
Well, I got a bit of stick, but they were quite good about it really. Sometimes they even made a joke of it and told me to address them as ‘Captain’, and so on. But it wasn’t really funny at all. They knew that I was under a lot of pressure, and they were too. They also landed me in it, but there was never any animosity between us over that. It must be said too that I didn’t give the police the actual ranks. They asked me what my rank was in the IRA, and I answered that I wasn’t in the IRA. When the deposition papers came, we had all been given ranks, but it was the police who had done that, not me. It even came to light afterwards that there were no such ranks.
Did it take time for you to be able to forgive yourself for inventing these details and thus making the situation so much more complicated for everyone?
Well, I wanted to retract those things I said straightaway. I was conscious of what I had done, and when I was being taken by car to another police station I told the police that I wanted to retract everything. But they stopped the car and put a gun to my head and said they would throw me in the lake unless I stuck to what I’d said. It was really horrific. Remember, I had never had any dealings with the police, I had never been in a police station before in my life. And to be interrogated for such a terrible crime … it was very frightening. They were out to get people, and they didn’t care which way they got them, what means they used.
Did you think at any time that the people who were interrogating you believed that you were guilty?
They still do today, not all of them of course, but most of the West Midlands police force still think we did it. Even if they were to get the people who did do it, they’d still say we were involved. That’s how the police operate. That was the whole point of the Sunday Telegraph article – they’re still trying to reconvict us. It’s a sore point with them, especially because such a big case fell away from them – after all, they thought at the very beginning, ‘This is it.’ Deep down I expect some of them know we didn’t do it, but they’re not going to come out in public and say that; they’re going to fight and fight to say we did do it, just like they maintain they did nothing to us. They will never give in.
Has anybody from the police force every apologized to you about anything?
No. Even the judges never said sorry. The only time they got close to it was when the Broadwater Farm people got released, and they said they were sorry this had happened to other people in similar situations. But they did not mention names, and nobody has ever offered us an apology.
Your experience as a remand prisoner was savage and brutal, and you came to regard everyone in officialdom as the common enemy…doctors, warders, solicitors. Before that had you had a high regard for people in authority?
It was something I never thought about, people in authority, but I will say this: I never dreamed that the police would treat me in the way they did. I may have been naïve about the police, but I didn’t think that they would actually lie. When I went to the magistrates’ court, I remember seeing all the police smiling and I thought to myself, they will be smiling on the other side of their faces when all our evidence comes out and we go to the proper court. But when I saw how it was handled and heard the lies that were told, I knew then why the police had been smiling. We were hated in the courtroom. The national feeling was so against us that nothing we said was believed. I recall looking over at the jury and seeing them look up at the ceiling whenever any good points came out about us – one of them was even sitting here biting his nails and spitting them out; but when the bad points were mentioned, when the police said all those things against us, the jury would turn towards us with sinister looks. We didn’t have a dream of a chance.
You described the atmosphere in the courtroom as being very intimidating: ‘I could almost touch the hatred I felt from all those present in the court – magistrates, the clerks, the general public.’ At that point were you made to feel guilty simply by virtue of all being Irishmen in England?
Listen, I will tell you this. We were found guilty even before we went to court. That is my firm belief.
After the confessions were ruled admissible, your attitude became resigned and defeatist. Apart from your own self-belief was there anything else which saved you from the depths of despair?
I’m not a pessimist by nature, and during the trial I always firmly believed that something would show up, but as the trial went on, I could see how things were going. My wife said to me that if things went well she would see me in the square – that was in Morecambe – but I really knew by then it would have taken a miracle for us to get off. But I couldn’t just tell her that – you know how it is, you always hope. I was really depressed after we were convicted, but by the time of the first prison visit from my wife and my daughter, I told them, ‘Look, this is very, very bad, but I still believe that we will win this.’
After the trial, which was eight months after your arrest and lasted 45 days, you say that you still had faith in British justice. Was British justice ever something you had questioned before your own experience of it?
No. I was never involved much with the judiciary or justice, but I wasn’t against British justice at all. I’m still not against it today, but the way I see it, it is very unfair to many, many people.
Do you think Irishmen are traditionally suspicious of British justice?
Irish trials are show trials. They are glamorized in the papers, and you haven’t got a hope in hell if you’re an Irishman up on terrorist charges. There is no British justice in Irish trials, but sometimes there’s not much justice for other people either, Englishmen included.
But the police can’t influence the jury, twelve good men and true…
But you must understand that the judge sums up in such a way as to put ideas in the jury’s heads, and that’s exactly what he did with us that day. That’s the sort of thing that the Royal Commission is trying to put a stop to.
After you were convicted and sentenced to life, you say that there was no solace from the visits by the prison chaplain and you regarded him rather as a part of the prison establishment. Was that a huge disappointment for you?
Yes. I would have expected a man of the cloth to have sympathized with me, but that wasn’t the case; he didn’t. And he spoke to me in that tone of voice which suggested he thought I was guilty. I said to him, ‘You realize we didn’t do this?’ and he said, ‘Oh come, come, come’. I asked him what he meant by that, and it was obvious he thought we were guilty. I told him that if I couldn’t get a man of my own religion to listen to what I had to say, then it didn’t say much for the RC chaplaincy.
Are you a religious man?
No, but I’m not unreligious either. But when you are in the situation I was in and you can’t get an RC priest to sympathize with you, it’s bad.
You say at one point in the book that your faith in God declined rapidly and you didn’t experience Christ’s compassion in any Catholic chaplains you met around that time. Did you ever think that perhaps you were being tested by God?
No, I didn’t. I know that some of the clergy treated me badly, but I wasn’t against them particularly. If I didn’t go to Mass on a Sunday in the prison, I just said Mass in my own cell, away from the people. And I still had faith in God.
But when you were under extreme pressure, did you appeal to God for help?
Of course I did, I often prayed in the cell. We all used to pray, especially at the beginning when we were going back and forward to Winson Green Prison for court appearances. We had to run the gauntlet each time between rows of policeman with guns, the crowd shouting abuse, ‘Bastards! Murderers!’ And there were Alsatian dogs which terrified me. And when we were beaten at Winson Green and I thought we were going to die, I prayed as I’ve never prayed before. Everyone wanted to unleash their anger on us, and I remember saying to Gerry that they might as well kill us outright, ‘They’re going to do it anyway.’ We really thought we were going to get killed at Winson Green. After we were beaten we were put in a locked room and then we heard them call out, ‘Send the filthy bastards up!’ We were dragged one by one to the washroom, and I thought they were going to finish us off. By the time I was shoved into the bath it was full of blood and hair from the beaten bodies of the others. They dipped my head in the water and pulled it up again, and dipped it in again, then they dragged me out of the bath and kicked me on the floor.
Father Hugh Sinclair of Wormwood Scrubs was the only priest you established any real rapport with during your imprisonment. Was this less to do with the Church and more to do with his compassion as a human being?
More his compassion, I would say. In that respect he was completely different from the other RC priests that we met. All you want in prison is for somebody to talk nicely to you for a change and to help you, even if it’s just to make a phone call for you, or get the papers. He was very good in that way and I found him a very sympathetic man. He didn’t question my innocence the way the other chaplains did.
How important was it for you all to bring assault charges against the police in 1976 – what you called the screws’ trial? Was there an element of revenge, or was it principally to make known the truth?
It wasn’t revenge, that’s the last thing we wanted. We just wanted the truth to come out, nothing else. Revenge and bitterness are like cancer – they just eat away at you. At the very beginning, I was bitter, and that lasted for maybe three or four weeks, but I soon realized I would have to get a grip on myself. I settled down to trying to prove my innocence.
Even though a verdict of not guilty was passed, the judge agreed that someone had beaten you up. Did you take heart from the fact that it was now known that you had been assaulted in custody?
Not really, because the trial concentrated on who had beaten us first, the police or the prison warders. I gave evidence that we had been beaten at the police station and the subsequent beatings at Winson Green Prison were done to cover up the police beatings. But the judge in his summing up drew the juries’ attention to the screws’ long and outstanding service and to the ‘class of men’ making the accusations, and a verdict of not guilty was returned on all 14. I expected nothing else.
Your seven years in Albany Prison built up your resistance and gave you greater strength to deal with the difficult years ahead. Were you conscious of these changes in yourself or were they happening imperceptibly, as it were?
I don’t know where I got the strength, maybe from God, but it gradually came and gave me the will to fight to clear my name. I was just hopeless at the beginning, I couldn’t even make my bed up. But when I got to Albany, it was a better prison, there was plenty of exercise, plenty of fresh air, and when my family visited me for the first time there they saw a big improvement in me.
You wrote in your book: ‘To be a sensitive soul in prison is hard enough, but to be an innocent and to have to endure every day the barbarity of prison life is pure hell.’ You wrote these words of someone else, Michael Hickey, one of the Bridgwater men, but do you also think that applied to you? Were you a sensitive soul?
In prison you meet all sorts and you have to be as hard as possible – you cannot afford to be a softie. You put on a show, you joke and laugh with the rest, but when you get away form them, you say to yourself that you’re not one of them. There were only a few people I could tell I was not a criminal. I couldn’t say it to everyone, only those I could really trust. The others would have scoffed and said, ‘Who do you think you are then? The bee’s knees?’ There are some very violent people in prison and there were times I was glad to get behind my door at night, just to get away from them. It’s no good being a softie in prison, but deep down I was a softie.
Did you ever make genuine friendships in prison?
Oh yes. There was a Scots fellow, a nice fellow, and strangely enough a Protestant Orangeman into the bargain. We got on well together and it was great. It also proved that I wasn’t a bigot – if the fellow was a good man I didn’t care what he was, I talked to him and befriended him. But for the first three years I was on my own, nobody wanted to walk with me during exercise in the prison yard, partly because of what I was in for. They thought that if they were seen walking with me, they probably wouldn’t get parole. Ironically enough, there were eventually two fellows who did walk with me occasionally, and they got a lot of parole, probably because I wasn’t in any sense a troublemaker.
You said that you preferred solitude to the company of others in prison…and yet on the outside I have the impression that you were a gregarious person. One always imagines the loneliness of prison to be one of the worst aspects….
It is a very lonely business. A lot of people go to pieces in prison because of the loneliness, but you can’t afford to get too emotional. I used to get very upset particularly after visits. When you go into the visiting room it’s full of visitors, people from the outside world, and it’s all very tense. It’s really difficult when your family walk away and you have to go back to your cell. Especially when you haven’t done anything, when you’re an innocent person, it was heart-breaking. It took me years and years to get used to it.
Although it was undoubtedly hard for you in prison, you concede that it was much harder for your wife. But that in turn must have made it more difficult for you to bear, knowing what she was going through…
At least I only had the prison population to put up with, but she had the whole city of Birmingham, the whole wide world to put up with. I always worried that something would happen to her, that she would be treated badly, that somebody would throw a petrol bomb through her house. That’s the sort of thing they said to me in the police cells would happen to her – they even said that my daughter had been killed in the bombings, and I didn’t know whether or not it was true because I hadn’t seen her. So you can imagine what sort of things went through my mind in prison.
Not all marriages survive prison and there were casualties among the Birmingham Six also. Your marriage did survive. Did you always feel it would?
Well, I did, yes. But if my wife had ever come to me and told me she couldn’t handle any more and that we would have to separate, I wouldn’t have stood in her way. I couldn’t have blamed her, but I somehow always knew that she wouldn’t do that. She is a very very strong woman. And a very brave one. She even went on to the streets to get signatures, and that meant facing the crowd and putting up with insults. I don’t think I could have done it in her situation.
It would be naïve to assume that the marriage could have remained the same over your 17 years in prison, or that you could have picked up where you left off with your wife. What changes did it undergo, what were the main differences?
Of course it’s very difficult after 17 years. You just can’t get together as man and wife and expect everything to be the same. We both realize that, and we’ve discussed it. We are very fair to one another, but it is difficult. I live in London now most of the time – I don’t feel I could live in Birmingham anymore, although I go up there to see my family. My wife has her house in Birmingham which is where she feels she wants to live, and she understands that it would not be easy for me to live up there on a regular basis. So there is a bit of estrangement, just as a result of the difference between years ago and today.
You never wanted to be considered for parole because you always wanted to establish your innocence through the courts, and parole, you felt, would have compromised your position. It must have been very difficult at times not to waver from this…
If I had accepted parole I would have been saying I was guilty. You don’t get anything out of prison unless you show remorse for the crime you’ve committed, so how was I going to ask for parole when I hadn’t done anything? I said quite categorically that I wasn’t going to accept parole – I told the assistant governor and I said it on BBC television – and if they gave me parole nevertheless I told them they would have to carry me out of the prison gates. The assistant governor watched the programme with his wife and when he heard what I said he told her he thought I was a man if my word, because I had said the same to him.
Your first real break came in 1985 with the World in Action Programme. Were you amazed at the power and influence of television?
I was really over the moon with that. The first thing I thought was that now perhaps they would get off my family’s back. People would talk to them and be a bit more friendly. It was terrific, it gave me a new hope. I jumped for joy when that programme came out.
In 1987 the Home Secretary referred your case back to the Court of Appeal. What were your feelings when you heard that?
I knew then there was no going back. Even if we lost, there was no going back. It was a great feeling.
The psychiatrist’s report on you before the appeal said that you were suggestible, submissive, timid and nervous. Did you have mixed feelings about the report, even though it was likely to help your case?
I had no mixed feelings about the report. It was a brilliant report, and completely accurate.
When the appeal was dismissed in January 1988 you said that the humiliation was almost as bad as the rejection. What did you mean by that?
It was clear after a couple of days of the appeal hearing that we weren’t going to get anywhere, you could just tell by the hostility of the judge and the way all the evidence put forward was just dismissed out of hand. It really was frustrating and humiliating, and for the first time I felt real pessimism. I thought, here we are, we’ve got great witnesses giving good evidence, and they’re just throwing it all back. When we lost the appeal I remember Richard Ferguson, our QC, saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ But even though I felt down, I said to him, ‘Don’t be sorry, Richard, because we’ll be back again.’ And we were.
Lord Denning, the former Lord Chief Justice, spoke on television after your appeal, saying that the public confidence in the law was more important than one or two people being wrongfully convicted. How did that make you feel?
Well, I’ll be honest with you, although it was the most outrageous statement, it probably helped us a good deal along the way. When people start saying it’s better to keep innocent people in prison so as to keep the system in the right perspective, that can only help innocent people. He did us a favour.
He also said that Chris Mullin had done a great disservice to British justice. Do you think that Lord Denning ought to have been publicly condemned and brought to account for his part in it all?
Of course, but Lord Denning is known for making outrageous statements, so Chris Mullin wouldn’t take a lot of notice of him anyway. Chris was a very brave man and he did a lot of brave work to get at the truth. Lord Denning would have been discredited by the people who knew Chris Mullin.
When you were in prison your daughter got married. How were you able to cope with not being able to attend the wedding?
Oh, I was very sad, very sad. I found it difficult to come to terms with that. I was looking forward to the day she got married, and the only consultation was that I got a video of it and saw it in prison, but even so…
Did her husband come and visit you?
Oh yes, and I liked him very much. He was a very special person who touched many people’s hearts in his short lifetime. He was killed in a motorway pile-up in January 1992. There was a lorry on the hard shoulder, with smoke coming out of it – he went into the smoke, and all the vehicles behind pushed him straight into the lorry, so he was killed instantly. He was only about 30 and his death totally devastated my daughter. She was left with a 14-month-old daughter and another on the way. It was a tragic death, and very sad for me, because I was up in Birmingham at that particular time, staying with her. On the evening in question I was in the shower when I heard screaming. I knew it wasn’t the baby, and when I rushed out of the shower, my daughter was lying on the floor screaming, ‘Arthur’s been killed! Arthur’s been killed!’ The policeman who had broken the news was still in the room.
When you were waiting for the second appeal you had news of your brother Tom’s death. Was that a very low point for you?
Yes, the lowest perhaps. We had been very close once and when we were young, Tom had been my hero. The governor of Long Lartin, Joe Whitty, was a very fair man – he did us a lot of good turns, getting us on TV, and that sort of thing. He told me he would give me parole to go to Tom’s funeral, but he also said, ‘Mr Callaghan,’ – that was how he always addressed me, which was most unusual – ‘I’ll give you a bit of advice. I’ll certainly give you parole, and I don’t even have to ring up to ask the parole board, but you have to think what’s going to happen if you go out there. The TV people will get to hear about it, the police will get to hear about it, and your brother’s funeral will be turned into a charade.’ He told me to go back and think about and said I could make as many phone calls as I wanted. I went back and thought about it, and the next day I told him I wouldn’t be going. I didn’t want my whole family to be upset. Joe Whitty was the best governor I ever met.
In August 1990 you went back to the court for the third time. This time you won a small victory over what you called ‘the spite and stupidity of the screws’ who had wanted you to travel as top security Category A prisoners. Was that an important and symbolic victory for you?
Very important, and I say that without fear of contradiction. When you go in a Category A van you’re in a big wagon escorted by the police. Category B and C prisoners travel in ordinary vans. When we saw the category A wagon Gerry Hunter and I refused to go, and we took our stuff back to the wing. We contacted our defence solicitor Gareth Peirce, and she got in touch with the Irish embassy and they talked it out. Eventually Gareth rang up and told us we would be going in an ordinary little van. We won a good victory and all the people in the prison were very pleased. The police were still trying to discredit us, but they failed.
Did you ever feel that in some curious way what happened to you was meant?
No, no, I ever thought that. I just put it down as fate. Cruel fate.
Did anything good come out of your 16 years in prison?
Not really. Prison taught me not to trust people in general, and although I feel – without being big-headed about it – I’m still a good human being, I do think it’s made me harder in my ways. I haven’t got the patience with people I used to have.
You came across many bad, embittered, hard people, full of hatred, yet you also encountered many good people on the way. Do you believe in the end that good triumphs over evil, or is that wishful thinking?
The only way I can answer you is to say that there are a lot of people who are bad so you cannot release them from prison, but there are also many good people in there, even though they may be guilty of terrible crimes. There are also loads of innocent people, people who are on their own, who haven’t had the publicity we have had, who haven’t had the campaign we’ve had. We were very lucky in the people who took up our case, the type of campaigners we had, the support from all over the world. Some people, though innocent, aren’t so lucky. As for good triumphing over evil, I still feel we haven’t been fully vindicated in certain areas of the media, and that grieves me some. People will say we got off on a technicality, and so we have a battle on our hands all over again.
When you describe your moment of release, you said you wanted to hug everyone in the waiting crowd, and that you had not forgotten the faith of the ordinary people like yourselves who had believed in you. Was it not a bitter thought that the faith of the ordinary people, no matter how sincere and well meaning, could do nothing to save you and have you released? That had to be left to people of power and influence like Chris Mullin and Ludovic Kennedy…
Well, it is a sobering thought. But I never forgot the many letters of support I had, not just from Irish people, but from others too. Of course a lot of people just hopped on the bandwagon when it became clear we were innocent, but I wouldn’t have expected people years ago to believe in us. How could they in view of what the papers were saying? I had a famous radio announcer do an interview with me and he said to me beforehand that he was really sorry that he had done nothing to help me when I was in prison. My answer to that was that I didn’t expect everybody to help me. After all, a lot of people just don’t take any interest in things, and it’s not everybody that starts fighting people’s cases for them. But I thought it was a very nice thing for the fellow to say, and I feel the same about all those people amongst that crowd outside the Old Bailey.
Your freedom, although you craved it, must have been very difficult to come to terms with. Are you still adjusting?
In this situation you learn day by day. Some days you’re OK and other days you’re not. Believe me, it takes a long time to adjust after 16 and a half years, and I bet the other five men would say the same. I’m certainly not the same person that I used to be.
Do you wake up sometimes thinking you’re still in prison?
Oh yes, I do. When I was in prison I sometimes used to think I was in my own bed at home, and now it’s the other way round. And sometimes my wife has to shake me because I have been having nightmares about the beatings at Winson Green. I have nightmares every other week.
Do you think you’ll ever enjoy life as you used to do before you went to prison?
I don’t expect I will, because I’m not the same person I was. I’m known as one of the Birmingham Six now, and that has changed everything. But I live in hope.