Ransom 79 – Interview with director Colm Quinn

In 1979, a ransom demand for five million pounds was sent in a letter to the Irish government. The letter stated that if the money wasn’t handed over, the punishment would be the release of the deadly foot and mouth disease in the country. Ireland was heavily reliant on agriculture at the time, and a foot-and-mouth outbreak would have devastated the economy. The threat was kept a secret between a few gardai and government officials. Almost 40 years later, the veteran journalist Charlie Bird learned of the ransom and decided to investigate who was behind it. Not long into the investigation, Bird was diagnosed with motor neuron disease. He decided to share his diagnosis with the public. Alongside playwright and journalist Colin Murphy, Bird chased his final story with determination despite his declining health while documentarian Colm Mooney charted their progress in Ransom ’79. We spoke with Mooney to find out more.


How did you get involved in the film?  

Charlie’s friend of 50 years is the producer, John Kelleher. He wanted to make the documentary, particularly with John, because they go back so far, and they were both determined that the story would get told. John brought me on board early on before Charlie’s diagnosis of motor neuron disease. John and I were having conversations about a few different projects, and when he had the conversation with Charlie, he knew this would be a great story to tell and asked me to be part of it. It was such a privilege to be brought on board. John and his producing partner, David Power, did a brilliant job securing a decent budget that would do justice to the story. This allowed me to film reconstruction scenes and access much archive footage.

You have a great collection of interviews from former taoiseach to minister and retired gardai. Was it hard to get them to participate in the documentary?  

We filmed for a long period, and when you try to get these names involved, you want to get a complete picture. We wanted to interview experts in veterinary medicine and agriculture. We wanted the ministers of the day and the investigating guards from the time. Charlie and Colin contacted former members of paramilitary organisations. There was a real sense of forming a complete picture of the era, and these threats emerged. Our interviewees came slowly but surely. From a journalistic point of view, it was exciting to watch Charlie and Colin work together and see how they chased up leads and potential interviewees. The documentary is the documenting of that journalistic process. It was exciting to see it come together, and unexpected things happened along the way.

The stories Charlie covered in his career, from the peace process to the National Irish Bank, to name just two, are incredible. His instincts are so strong when it comes to a story and which way to go in terms of chasing those stories. Watching him do it firsthand and seeing how he and Colin chased things together was so exciting and such an interesting journey.

You usually have a roadmap when making a documentary, but this could have taken you anywhere.  Do you enjoy working like that? 

Yes, there were certain jumping-off points where we had some key information at the outset, but the fact that this story was 40 years old and remained a secret meant there was a lot of digging involved. That’s the great thing about a documentary: the unpredictable nature. When you’re making a film like this, the surprises you encounter along the way are the same surprises the audience experiences when they watch the film. That’s what made it so compelling and unpredictable. It was a fascinating process, for sure.

As you said, Charlie covered many important stories, and your opening montage gives a fantastic overview of Irish and world history through Charlie’s reporting. Did you have a wealth of footage to choose from?

There was a lot of footage to whittle through. It is like a short film within the opening section. We wanted to give a sense of how Charlie was present for so many major stories, both domestically and internationally. The track we chose for the montage is Treasure on the Wasteland by The Astrix, which dates to the period our film covers and leads to a lovely energy. From the perspective of an Irish audience, everybody knows Charlie and his achievements, but we still felt it was important to lay that out at the outset. We wanted to underline that his journalistic instincts never went away and that he had another story that he really wanted to tell. The opening gives a really strong sense of Charlie’s character and energy.

There is a lovely moment where Charlie talks about having a nose for a great story and how that hasn’t gone away despite the challenges of his illness. 

It was a lovely moment. There were a few moments like it throughout the film between Charlie and Colin. In a way, those observational scenes are the pillars of the story. There’s a real authenticity to them. We are looking at two pals who are grappling with the story they’re trying to tell but also grappling with the challenge posed by Charlie’s illness, and these things, at times, unfold in the same scene. There is one scene where they’re on the train together, and you get a sense of both story elements. There is a lovely warmth and empathy between Colin and Charlie. There are a few times in the film that have a real emotional resonance. Colin has this lovely, empathetic connection with Charlie. It was a privilege to be able to document that.

A documentarian’s job is to observe, but it must have been hard for you to see Charlie’s health declining. How did you manage in those moments? 

It was difficult, for sure. Charlie has shown us that it’s possible to live a very meaningful life that contains joy and engagement despite an illness. Charlie’s creative and intellectual engagement with this project was happening alongside his condition, and it was important to capture those moments of joy and the meaning that Charlie was experiencing. Telling the story sustained everybody. The fact that he was taking so much from the very telling of the story was beautiful to be a part of. At the same time, motor neuron is an awful disease, and it was important that the film showed that aspect of it too, that it didn’t shy away from showing the challenges Charlie faced.

Charlie was so public with his difficulties that it would have been an injustice to shy away, but at the same time, you made the film with respect. You turned the camera away at times when he was struggling. Another filmmaker would have kept rolling. What made you decide to give him space when it was needed? 

Charlie’s well-being was paramount to the process of making this film. There were one or two occasions when we had to cut back on filming, which was absolutely no problem. Our approach was very much built on the ability to respond to how he was feeling and maintain his well-being.

Were you concerned about attracting unwanted attention from any of the parties involved with the ransom, they are criminals, after all. 

Charlie’s awareness of the period and the milieu of the time were interesting to see. Once two journalists start to dig into a story, information can emerge from the most unexpected places, and again, it was exciting to follow that and see that journalistic process unfold. It took a lot of research to learn more about the gangs involved. At one point, you can see the two of them grappling with the ethical considerations around who you can name and who you can’t in relation to a story like this. It was important to show that the guys were taking those considerations into account as part of the investigation. The investigation portrayed a turbulent time in this country’s history, economically and politically.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the documentary? 

I hope the audience will take away a sense of Charlie, his courage, resilience, and his determination. We would love an audience to take a sense of the meaning, joy, and fulfilment that Charlie was able to experience in his life. Despite the diagnosis, he was doing what he had done his entire career: telling stories, and you could see the fulfilment he got from telling this story.

Words – Cara O’Doherty


RANSOM 79 is at Irish cinemas from May 24th