Ransom ’79 review: Charlie Bird and the £5m plot to blackmail the Irish government

Much-loved RTÉ journalist left a fascinating piece of semi-finished business when he died earlier this year

Ransom ’79
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Director: Colm Quinn
Cert: PG
Starring: Charlie Bird
Running Time: 1 hr 24 mins

Charlie Bird, the much-loved RTÉ journalist, left us a fascinating piece of semi-finished business when he died earlier this year. This film details his researches into a little-reported plot to blackmail the government in the grim late 1970s. Inevitably, as Bird encounters increasingly debilitating symptoms of motor neuron disease, there is some crossover with the 2022 documentary Charlie Bird: Loud and Clear. He is, at this stage, using ingeniously effective voice-generation software. We learn about difficulties in swallowing. But the key focus remains the evocation of a fetid period.

We begin with a busy montage of footage from the era to the accompaniment of the fizzy Treasure on the Wasteland, by the Dublin postpunkers The Atrix. It was a time of kidnapping, bankruptcy and men in bad suede jackets. Bird introduces us to the most unlikely of plots. It seems that, back in 1979, a note was sent to the Department of Agriculture demanding £5 million on the threat of introducing foot-and-mouth disease to Irish livestock. Thirty years before the 2007 outbreak, the fear of that condition was always at farmers’ elbows. As one contributor here explains, the importance of agriculture to the economy at that time is now hard to fully grasp.

The film explains how the authorities and the apparent ecoterrorists – a term not yet in vogue – communicated via personal advertisements in The Irish Times. At the heart of all this was confusion about how seriously to take the threat. It is explained that three possibilities remain. Was the scheme a hoax? Was the scheme real? Or were they in some muddy no man’s land where merely the threat was real?

Working with the director Colm Quinn and the versatile writer Colin Murphy, Bird draws on hidden reserves of energy to – with great economy – lay out a web that captures a surprising amount of the era’s discontents. Saor Éire, a republican splinter group, gets dragged into the yarn. An attempted exchange in Wexford generates a combination of tension and black farce.

In truth, Ransom ’79 plays like a superior TV documentary. But that is not to take away from the skill of the storytelling and the emotional heft of Bird’s contribution. It hardly needs saying that many ends are left dangling. That is how life is.

Ransom ’79 opens in cinemas on Friday May 24th

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