May 17, 2023

The Deadliest Day of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’

The Deadliest Day of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’

May 17, 1974. Four car bombs explode in the Republic of Ireland, killing thirty three people, injuring hundreds, and wrecking an attempt to end the long conflict over the future of Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles.


Cold Open

It’s May 17th, 1974 in the center of Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland.

With a newspaper tucked under his arm, 20-year-old student John Molloy steps off the busy sidewalk and hurries past a woman pushing a stroller. It’s just after five o’clock in the afternoon and the shops and offices of Dublin are emptying out into the street. A strike by a local bus drivers’ union adds to the sense of chaos on the crowded sidewalks. There are no buses operating today and many city workers are trying to find unfamiliar routes home on foot.

John weaves through the crowd until he reaches the doorway of a pub and ducks inside…

At the bar, John orders half a pint of ale shandy then settles himself on a stool and unfolds his newspaper.

He reads for a few minutes, happy to escape the hectic streets for the quiet gloom of the pub.

But that quiet and the front wall of the pub is shattered. 

John is thrown to the ground by the force of an enormous bomb blast. He blacks out for a few moments. And when he comes to, he’s helped to his feet by another customer. They’re both caked in dust and lean on each other as they stumble over the debris of the ruined pub.

The two men pick their way through the rubble to the street. John can only stand and stare in shock at what they find. Fires consume the shattered remains of parked cars. There’s glass everywhere. On the ground, the dead lie still, while the wounded moan in pain and grasp for limbs that have been blown away by the explosion. In the distance, John can hear emergency services racing toward the scene of the attack, their shrill wail echoing down the suddenly silent street.

In all, four car bombs explode in the Republic of Ireland that day – three in the capital Dublin and a fourth in the town of Monaghan, seventy miles to the north. 33 men, women, and children are killed in the attacks. Hundreds more like John Molloy are wounded.

But this is just the latest atrocity in the so-called Troubles, a conflict that has scarred the British Isles for many years. At the heart of this dispute is the status of Northern Ireland. All of Ireland was once under control of the United Kingdom. But a war of independence against British rule eventually led most of Ireland to cut ties with the UK and form a Republic.

But the six counties of Northern Ireland remained part of the UK. Most of the population there were Protestants, the descendants of British colonists who wanted to maintain their ties to the rest of the United Kingdom. But a considerable minority in Northern Ireland were Catholics, who tended to be Irish Nationalists and supported unification with the Republic to the south.

For years, both Unionist and Nationalist paramilitary groups have been fighting each other – one to preserve the United Kingdom, the other to end it. Neither side has been above using terror tactics on civilians to further their political aims. But of all the bloody days in this conflict, none will be more deadly than the car bomb attacks in Dublin and Monaghan on May 17th, 1974.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 17th, 1974: The Deadliest Day of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’.

Act One: Sunningdale

It’s the evening of December 6th, 1973 at the residence of the British Prime Minister, five months before the bombings in Dublin and Monaghan.

A lavish dinner is underway at 10 Downing Street. The Conservative Prime Minister, Ted Heath, raises a toast to his guests. Gathered around the tables in the grand dining room are politicians from both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland, as well as representatives of the Irish government.

The dinner is to celebrate the beginning of new talks over the future of Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister hopes the convivial gathering will get negotiations off to the right start. After dinner, as coffee is served, Heath introduces a choir who sing a medley of traditional Irish songs. It isn’t long before his guests, both Protestant and Catholic, are singing along.

Watching, the Prime Minister grins, thinking that perhaps this time the talks will make some progress.

Because earlier in the year, the British government published a proposal the Prime Minister hoped would end the fighting in Northern Ireland. It called for Unionists and Nationalists to share power for the first time. A new assembly would be elected in the province and a ‘Council of Ireland’ would be established to offer the Republic of Ireland some say in the governance of Northern Ireland. In return, the Republic would recognize the province as part of the United Kingdom. The proposals have been broadly accepted but now politicians have gathered for a conference to hammer out the final, most contentious details.

After the dinner at Downing Street, the politicians head to Sunningdale Park, a country house just west of London. There, three days of intense talks follow. But finally, late on December 9th, they strike a deal. A new power-sharing administration will take charge in Northern Ireland at the beginning of 1974. It will be led by Unionist politician Brian Faulkner, but many of the other positions will be held by Nationalists.

As Prime Minister Heath sits down to sign the agreement on behalf of the British government, he feels immense pride. It’s a historic accord, the first of its kind in Ireland, and Heath hopes it can be a step toward lasting peace.

But the Prime Minister is too optimistic. This attempt at compromise splits the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. Although some support the Sunningdale Agreement, many are virulently opposed to any involvement of the Republic of Ireland in the north. The most hardline opposition comes from a Northern Irish political party called the United Ulster Unionist Council. Spearheaded by the firebrand politician Ian Paisley, the Council vows to do whatever it takes to bring down the Sunningdale Agreement and destroy the new Northern Ireland Assembly.

And they quickly gain ground. So while the opposed Unionists focus their attention on their campaign, the British government is distracted by other issues. The United Kingdom is in the grip of an economic crisis. Inflation has spiked and industrial unrest is growing. By February, Prime Minister Ted Heath is eagerly seeking a mandate from the country for a tough new approach to unions. So, he calls a general election.

In the early hours of March 1st, 1974, in a village hall in rural Northern Ireland, hardline Unionist Ian Paisley waits for the election in a room of supporters. The 47-year-old politician is a tall, powerful man, with a bark of a voice, but a ready smile for his friends, and an even more eager growl for his enemies.

In a corner of the room, there’s a small black and white television and Paisley struts his way over to watch as results filter in from around the United Kingdom. As the votes come in, it’s clear that Ted Heath’s Conservative Party is losing seats. The Prime Minister has not got the result he wanted.

But Ian Paisley has. All across Northern Ireland, hardline Unionists like Paisley are winning their elections. It’s a profound shift in the political landscape in the province. And for Paisley, it's a mandate from the people to oppose the Sunningdale Agreement and the Northern Ireland Assembly it created.

In the aftermath of the election, Ted Heath resigns as Prime Minister. He’s replaced by the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Harold Wilson. As the new Prime Minister, Wilson promises to continue his predecessor’s efforts to secure peace in Northern Ireland. But Ian Paisley and his allies continue their efforts to bring down the new Assembly in the province. As part of their campaign, in early May 1974, a general strike is announced by the Unionist Ulster Workers’ Council.

The strike will cripple northern island with goods shortages, power cuts, and riots as Unionist paramilitaries blockade roads and ports. The British government will try in vain to negotiate, but the hardliners won’t back down. And opposition to the Sunningdale Agreement will soon take an even darker and more violent turn when on the streets of the Republic of Ireland, four car bombs target civilians.

Act Two: Blown Apart

It’s the afternoon of May 17th, 1974, less than an hour before the bomb attacks in the Republic of Ireland.

In a small house in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a young police officer from the Royal Ulster Constabulary listens as 62-year-old William Scott tells him about a break-in at his property. William claims it happened at around 10 that morning. He was getting changed after a night shift at the local records office when three masked men burst into the house brandishing guns and demanded the keys to William’s car. William handed them over, then one of the three men took off in his car. The others remained in the house, holding William captive in his bedroom for hours until they too departed around an hour ago, at 4 in the afternoon. William says it was then that he contacted the police.

The officer listens sympathetically to William’s story. It’s unfortunately common for both Nationalist and Unionist paramilitaries to hijack cars from people and use them for criminal activities. But the officer never suspects that William’s car is now part of a deadly plot.

While he writes up his report at the police station, he has no idea that by then William’s metallic green Hillman Avenger has been loaded with explosives, taken across the border into the Republic of Ireland, and driven 60 miles further south to the capital, Dublin. There, the car is left outside a grocery store on a busy street in the center of the city. At 5:28 PM, with people crowding the sidewalks all around, the bomb hidden inside the car explodes. Within just 90 seconds, two other car bombs nearby also detonate and dozens of people are left dead. Just an hour later, another car bomb rocks the town of Monaghan near the Republic’s border with Northern Ireland.

All told, 33 will die from the explosions and hundreds more are injured. The tragedy shakes the Irish public — and its politicians.

Eleven days after the bombings, leading politician in Northern Ireland, Brian Faulkner, makes a momentous announcement on the steps of Belfast’s Parliament Building. A crowd of journalists surrounds Faulkner as he explains why he has resigned from the government set up by the Sunningdale Agreement just a few months earlier:

"FAULKNER: It is however apparent to us…that the degree of consent needed to sustain the executive does not at present exist nor as Ulstermen are we prepared to see our country undergo for any political reason the catastrophe which now confronts it…"

With the resignation of Faulkner and other Unionists, the power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland collapses, and the Sunningdale Agreement falls apart.

The peace process has been brought down by a devastating combination of worker strikes and paramilitary violence. Though the culprits behind the car bombs are still unknown, many see the deadly recent bombings in the Republic of Ireland as part of the same campaign.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Unionist paramilitary groups all deny responsibility. But privately, many Unionists view the bombings as revenge for attacks committed by Nationalist paramilitaries striking from bases in the Republic of Ireland. One prominent Unionist politician even tells a journalist off the record that the people of Ireland “deserved every bit of it.”

In the Republic, an investigation into the bombings is launched. Police soon determine that Unionist paramilitaries from the Ulster Volunteer Force were behind the bombings - despite their denials. But investigators are criticized for not moving faster to catch the killers. Key evidence is misplaced, and promising leads are left unpursued. In July 1974, just two months after the bombings, the trail goes cold and the team investigating the attacks is disbanded.

The failure to hunt down those responsible for the bombings appalls survivors and bereaved families. They try to request further investigation, but they are stonewalled by the governments in Dublin and London. And as the violence continues in Northern Ireland, the victims of the four car bombings begin to fear that their trauma and suffering have been forgotten.

In the mid-1990s, they will launch a campaign for justice putting pressure on the Irish government in Dublin until, finally, the politicians agree to a formal inquiry into the attacks. After twenty-five years, the public will eagerly await its findings, ready to finally learn who was behind the explosions and what really happened on that bloody day in May.

Act Three: Unanswered Questions

It’s December 2003, almost three decades after the car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan.

At his suburban home outside the Irish capital, John Molloy sits down at his kitchen table. In his hands is a large, thick envelope. He trembles slightly as he pulls it open and slides out the document inside. It’s the report of the independent inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

John was just 20 when he was injured by one of the car bombs detonated by Unionist paramilitaries in Dublin. What John saw that day has never left him. But in the late nineties, after years of suffering, he heard about the fight for justice for those affected by the bombings and quickly joined the campaign. Now, the inquiry he and many others fought for has delivered its report.

Taking a deep breath, John begins to read its findings.

The inquiry has concluded that the bombings were mainly a response to the Sunningdale Agreement, the power-sharing deal that was signed in 1973. The report also addresses rumors that British intelligence were somehow involved in the bombings. It confirms that Unionist paramilitaries were capable of carrying out the attack themselves. But the report cannot rule out collusion by individuals within the British security forces and it notes that cooperation with the inquiry from the British government has been slow and limited.

John cannot help feeling frustrated as he reads. After all the campaigners’ work, this report raises more questions than it answers. The fight for the truth will have to continue. But to this day, no one has ever been charged with the bombings.

Peace in Ireland, however, has been reached. While the 1974 bombings in Dublin and Monaghan may have helped upend the Sunningdale Agreement, a similar deal was signed twenty-five years later — and this time it worked. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 paved the way for the end of violence in Northern Ireland. It was opposed once again by hardline Unionists, but the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland backed the deal and a new power-sharing administration was established in Belfast in 1999.

But the welcome success of that peace process could not mend all the scars inflicted by the Troubles. And of all the dark moments in that long conflict, there was none bloodier than that spring afternoon in Dublin and Monaghan when 33 innocent people were murdered and hundreds more injured on May 17th, 1974.


Next on History Daily. May 18th, 1980. Mount St. Helens, a volcano in the scenic Washington countryside, erupts after a century of dormancy, triggering the largest landslide in recorded history and becoming the United States' deadliest volcanic event. 

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound Design by Katrina Zemrak.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.