June Butler investigates Colm Quinn’s Ransom ’79, which tells the story of legendary Irish reporter Charlie Bird and his determination to break one final story before his life is cut short by Motor Neurone Disease.

An absolutely gripping feature about a criminal gang who attempted to pull off one of the most audacious heists this country has ever seen. The yarn is so unbelievable as it unravelled, twisted, and turned, the plot for the caper would not have been out of place in a book by le Carré. What is even more incredible, is the fact that the story remained untold until now. And the best bit of all? Every element is true. 

Charles Brown Bird (known as Charlie) was born In Sandymount, Dublin, 1949. In the late sixties, Bird started to become involved in far-left politics, later signing up as a member to the Young Socialists. In the early 70s, Bird joined Official Sinn Fein (later known as Sinn Fein: The Workers Party). By 1973, he was their director of elections in Dublin South Central – however, in 2022, Bird maintained that he left the political party shortly after joining and had not been involved with Sinn Fein for more than a few months when he first enlisted.  In 1971, Bird attended the funeral of Peter Graham, a leading member of Saor Éire – Graham had been assassinated by persons unknown in an internal dispute amongst the group. His killers were never apprehended. Saor Éire (also known as the Saor Éire Action Group), was an armed Irish republican group made up of Trotskyists and ex-IRA members. Considered to have officially disbanded in 1975, Deaglán de Bréadún, an Irish Times journalist wrote that the group’s numbers most likely never exceeded more than a few dozen members. 

Charlie evinced an interest in writing and was recruited to the payroll of RTÉ by Eoghan Harris, a member of the Workers Party in the mid-seventies. His writing career began by answering fan-mail for a children’s programme before moving to the RTÉ newsroom in 1980. At one stage, Bird became the only point of contact between RTÉ and the Provisional IRA – reporting on ceasefires and the internal minutiae of the peace process. On a more international level, Bird reported on the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990. He was in Syria when Brian Keenan was released by the group Islamic Jihad –  Keenan having been tortured and held by the faction for almost five years. Charlie reported on the Somali Civil War in the early ’90s and covered the Rwandan pogrom in 1994. He was Chief News Correspondent with RTÉ News up until January 2009, when he briefly took up the role of Washington Correspondent. Bird returned to RTÉ in 2010 and retired from the television station in 2012. 

Always a journalist with a sixth sense for the next great story, Charlie came out of retirement in 2021 to make a documentary about an almost forgotten crime committed over 40 years earlier. In 1979, a letter was sent to the Irish Government demanding a ransom of five million pounds to avert a criminal gang unleashing the highly contagious foot and disease into the animal populace, which would have been utterly devastating to the agricultural sector. Cows, pigs, goats, and sheep – all would have been targeted indiscriminately by the disease and required thousands of animals to be slaughtered and cremated. The virus would have brought the Irish economy to its knees – wiping out livelihoods and livestock in equal measure. Director Colm Quinn joined forces with Bird to make a documentary about the event. 

Within months of commencing his research into the crime, Charlie Bird was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. After experiencing issues with his voice and with further medical investigation, Bird was delivered the crushing diagnosis. He came to realise that this would be the last story he would break and determined to make his final fact-finding voyage one to remember. As the illness wreaked havoc on his body, and he lost his voice completely, Bird used an app on his iPad to replicate his own speech patterns, enough to speak on his behalf. 

In 1979, the digital age was the stuff of science fiction. Long before mobile phones pinging off cell towers became a means to uncover criminal activity, tracking offenders necessitates grass-roots detective work and relentless steely determination. Using DNA to uncover evidence was unheard of. While the letter could be tested for fingerprints (there were none), little else could be done. When the first typed extortion letter was received by staff at a government office, it caused panic and consternation – the initial question asked was whether the demand was a hoax. The second concern was that the missive should be kept as a strictly guarded secret with no one other than a select few allowed to have knowledge of it. Three letters were sent over a period.

Then the gang had made phone contact. When the criminals were asked why the format of one letter did not match the others, they responded by saying two different typewriters had been used – which proved that the same people were behind all three letters. Language analysts were given the documents to review and applied the Flesch-Kincaid Level to the text – Flesch-Kincaid is a scale used to quantify the readability of books and other written pieces. It would indicate the average number of years spent in the educational system that would be needed to understand a certain level of written prose. 

As the influx of communications continued, the gang upped their ultimatums. In the documentary, Bird travels the length and breadth of Ireland, interviewing those witnesses and key personnel on both sides of the fence who would have been involved at the time. He is accompanied by good friend and colleague, Colin Murphy, acting as Charlie’s voice and interpreter when nodding affirmation or an enthusiastic thumbs up is too subtle and needs greater explanation. In domestic scenes, Bird’s wife is seen lovingly buttoning her husband’s shirts – a moment of tenderness shared by two people who love each other deeply. 

The journey of making this film was Charlie’s last nod to the profession he was so passionate about, and it is both profound and humbling to witness this man’s bravery as his lifeforce inevitably ebbed away. Charles Brown Bird said it best when, in one of his final public appearances, he maintained “I may be preparing to die, but I’m still getting on with living”.  Ransom ’79 is a fitting ode to the memory of one of the most honourable and fearless journalists this country has ever seen.  

In cinemas 24th May 2024



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