Saturday, 8 August 2015

An IRA funeral march and the bomb at Biddy Mulligan’s Pub

This story looks at both sides of the ‘Irish Troubles’ in the 1970s and two major events in Kilburn.

The Victoria Tavern and Alec Keene, prize fighter
About 1862, the Victoria Tavern was built on the south corner of Kilburn High Road and Willesden Lane. Alexander Findlay, better known as champion prize fighter, Alec Keene, took over the license of the Victoria Tavern in 1866 and stayed until 1879.

Alec Keene’s first recorded fight was on 20 June 1848 against ‘Sambo Sutton’ (real name Thomas Welsh). Keene was described as ‘the young and fresh light weight’ while Sutton was called, ‘an old stager who has always conducted himself well’. Keene won the fight in ‘masterly style’ and the 200 sovereigns’ prize money went to his backer Jem Burn, an ex-fighter.

Keene fought successfully through the mid-1850’s but then retired and like many ex-boxers, opened a pub, ‘The Three Tuns’ in Moor Street, Soho. Exhibition matches were held there and he continued to act as a second for other boxers such as his friend and world champion, Tom Sayers. When he moved to Kilburn, Keene held boxing matches at the Victoria Tavern, and its semi-rural position allowed him to promote pigeon shooting competitions which proved popular.

Alec and his partner George Brown also provided mass catering for crowds at race meetings, such as the annual three-day Barnet Fair and Races. They set up a booth, or “canvas hotel” as they called it, for the sale of hot joints of meat, chicken and vegetables. And to wash it down there was: ‘Moet’s champagne, wines and spirits, Bass’s pale ale and Guinness’s stout’ with ‘cigars and the fragrant weed of the very best’ to round off the meal.

Keene moved to another pub in East Mosley for a few years before his death in 1881. His body was returned to Kilburn for burial at Paddington Cemetery in Willesden Lane, just a few hundred yards from the Victoria Tavern.

Origin of the Name Biddy Mulligan
The pub was re-named Biddy Mulligan’s in the 1970s. The name was taken from the best known character of Irish comedian Jimmy O’Dea. Highly popular from the 1930s onwards, O’Dea dressed in drag as Biddy Mulligan, a female Dublin street seller.

To see his act there is a film clip of Biddy on YouTube.

Support for the IRA
In 1971 Michael Gaughan, a member of the IRA Active Service Unit in London, was sentenced to seven years for attempting to rob a bank in Hornsey with two revolvers. In March 1974 he and four other IRA men went on hunger strike in Parkhurst Gaol on the Isle of Wight. They were force fed, a horrible process used earlier on Suffragette prisoners: ‘six to eight guards would restrain the prisoner and drag him or her by the hair to the top of the bed, where they would stretch the prisoner's neck over the metal rail, force a block between his teeth and then pass a feeding tube, which extended down the throat, through a hole in the block.’ Gaughan’s weight halved, and after a hunger strike that lasted 64 days, he died on 3 June 1974, aged just 24 years old.

The IRA wanted to maximum publicity. Four days later crowds of over 3,000 people lined the streets, as Gaughan’s coffin was taken from The Crown at Cricklewood through Kiburn to the RC Church of the Sacred Heart in Quex Road for a Requiem Mass. The slow procession was led by a piper and an IRA guard of honour wearing berets and dark glasses. The next day his coffin was taken to Dublin for another parade and burial. The eight men who escorted the coffin in Kilburn were charged by the police with unlawfully wearing uniforms. They came from the Birmingham and Manchester areas rather than Ireland or Kilburn, and were each fined £60. 

Michael Gaughan's funeral march in Quex Road, leaving the Sacred Heart Church (Getty Images)
The Biddy Mulligan’s Bomb
In the 1970s Biddy Mulligan’s was a popular drinking place among Irish residents in Kilburn. The writer Zadie Smith talks about going there with her mother when collections were regularly made for the IRA.

On the evening of Sunday 21st December 1975 a young man seemed to be acting suspiciously. He was carrying a holdall but when the manager, John Constantine, challenged him to open the bag, he refused and was asked to leave. The man was described as around 18 years old, slim with fair hair, wearing a blue denim jacket and jeans. About an hour later, the pub was shaken by a large explosion. Luckily, only a few of the 90 people in the bar were hurt and none of them badly. An old lady of 82, who had been a regular for almost 50 years, said there was a very large explosion and a lot of glass splinters went into her hair.

The bomb squad estimated that about three to five pounds of explosive had been left in the holdall outside the pub in the doorway. Scotland Yard said that a phone call had been received by the BBC the previous night from an Irish man claiming to be from the ‘Young Militants’, a splinter group of the Protestant Ulster Defence Association (UDA). He said they were going to carry the War against the IRA onto the mainland. Leaders of Sinn Fein in London said they collected about £17,000 a year in Kilburn and they were concerned about this UDA backlash.

Biddy Mulligans in 1975 (Getty Images)

The following day landlords of the other pubs in Kilburn put guards on the door to check people’s bags as they entered. Locals were very concerned that ‘the Irish Troubles’ had spread to Kilburn.

The police acted very quickly (presumably with accurate intelligence), and arrested six people on the 23 December, a man and woman in London and four men in Glasgow and Renfrewshire. In October 1976 four of the men appeared at the Old Bailey and they were all found guilty. Samuel Carson, 31, a store man of Bangor, was found guilty of organising the plot and was sentenced to 15 years. Alexander Brown, 18, a chef also from Bangor, indentified as the man who planted the holdall, was given 14 years. Noel Moore Boyd, 20, an electrician from Belfast who made the bomb circuit, got 12 years. Archibald McGregor Brown, 40, a lorry driver of Cumbernauld, who stole the gelignite and provided a safe base in Scotland, received 10 years. In sentencing it was said the men were Protestants who were determined that IRA sympathisers should not meet in the pub without retribution. The judge said, ‘It should be clearly understood whatever political, religious or social feelings people may have, a crime of vengeance is not allowed. What is more, the use of explosives, with all the implications of danger to life and limb, is totally unacceptable.’

Later the pub name was shortened to Biddy’s. For a few years it traded as an Aussie sports bar called the Southern K, but in closed about 2009 and today the building is a Ladbrokes betting shop.

The site of Biddy Mulligan's today (Dick Weindling, August 2015)

Singer-songwriter Sean Taylor was born and still lives in Kilburn. He has played at the Glastonbury Festival four times. Sean released seven albums between 2006 and 2015. One of the tracks on his 2013 album ‘Chase the Night’, celebrates ‘Biddy Mulligans’. You can hear it on YouTube:


  1. My wife whitness the funeral in kilburn but did not realise who he was. She was later questioned and searched by 2 plain close police. She was surprised by the interest by this police aabd answered all question. She was talk to go home. That was that. No one explained her anything. Only very recently se realised why she was stopped and the importance of the event

  2. I would love to make a documentary on this story! Any producers out there? I have all filming gear and contacts in London. So interesting. What other organisation would hold a funeral of one of their members in the Heart of London.

  3. The Great Article Post!!
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  4. Interesting read, it used to be my local in the early 80's when I was living and working in Kilburn.