In a new book about Irish actor and hell-bent Richard Harris, author Joe Jackson claims the movie star was threatened by the two loyalists, who thought he was sympathetic to the IRA and Republicans for his attempt to curb fundraising for the organization in the United States. In the edited excerpts below, Mr Harris describes himself as a Republican and voices his support for a united Ireland, but said he could not tolerate violence.
On July 21, 1982, Richard gave a press conference in London to announce that the touring production of Camelot would open at the Apollo Theater in the West End the following November. It was to be directed by Michael Rudman.
An excerpt in a showbiz column reported that “Harris entertained the press with a torrent of reminiscences about his New York performance in the musical”. And, more personally, about why he is now sober.
But there was one contentious topic that no one dared ask Harris about until this uncredited reporter did. A day earlier, during British military ceremonies in Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, the IRA detonated two bombs, killing four Blues and Royals soldiers in Hyde Park and seven members of the Royal Green Jackets and their horses in Regent’s Park .
“But what about the perspective of one of the world’s most famous Irishmen on the London bombings, which killed a number of people twenty-four hours earlier?
No one saw fit to ask him, although Harris once wrote a harrowing and devastating indictment of the Irish problem titled Too Many Saviors on my Cross. Carefully, I ask the question. For once, words escape him. All he could mutter was “dreadful, just dreadful”, but his tears said it all.
Harris’ tears didn’t say it all. And those few words were not all he would say about the IRA’s bombing campaign. Moreover, that was not all the British media would say about Richard Harris in relation to the IRA.
Far from there. Indeed, this excerpt was more disturbing than many readers probably realized. A month later, in a lengthy interview with Tom McGuirk, for the Irish newspaper, the Sunday Tribune, he and Harris had lengthy discussions about the IRA.
But in this published article, the IRA was not mentioned. I mention this here only because Richard Harris and Tom McGuirk would find themselves at war in the courts within a year. Four years later, during our first interview, I asked Harris about his alleged support for the IRA.
J: Rumors of your support for the IRA probably date back to the early 1970s, when you attended a fundraiser for Noraid in New York. Did these rumors harm Camelot’s London run and lead to you receiving death threats at the same time?
A: The rumors go back to that time. They damaged this Camelot race, and yeah, I got a lot of death threats [from Loyalist paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland]. Sunday Express reporter John Junor [Editor-in-Chief 1954-1986]wrote a play after I did the Royal Variety commissioned performance, during which I met the Queen Mother and shook her hand.
The following Sunday he said: ‘I hope the Queen Mother wore gloves as she shook the (blood stained) hand of Richard Harris. He described me as a killer, funding IRA death squads, etc. We then had bomb threats at every performance, bombs arrived at the theater, and I received 17 death threats by phone and 11 by mail.
J: How much truth was there in the rumor of your support for the IRA?
A: I was a strong supporter of Noraid. I raised a fortune for them in America, knowing that the money raised was to go to both Catholics and Protestants and to rehouse the wives and children of people who were in prison. That’s what we were told.
But the Sunday Express article was misleading because they singled me out and didn’t mention who else was at that table during that Northern Aid function. It was a non-sectarian and non-denominational event to raise funds for all. The IRA was not mentioned that night by any speaker. It was recorded and the tapes were investigated by the US Department of Justice, which feared it was a subversive event. They decided not. We had alone at our table a Protestant bishop from Northern Ireland, many Protestants and Catholics, and Jewish senators. But in many newspaper reports it was an IRA/Sinn Fein table. It was not.
J: But you support the Irish Republican cause, don’t you?
A: I am a Republican. I believe in a united Ireland. I also believe that violence was imposed on the Irish. Go back to the story of the old Provisional IRA and you will see that this is true.
There is no doubt that the violence perpetrated by the British led to the creation of the Provisional IRA. They are the result of British tyranny and British violence. But I don’t, and I can’t approve, of the IRA taking the fight to the private sector. I can’t approve of them blowing up, say, Harrods. I can’t. Although we want to achieve a united Ireland – if that’s what everyone wants, and whether they like it or not, I do, and those who don’t will have to accept it when the time comes – but I can’t tolerate violence.
J: You just said yes, up to a point.
A: But not in the private sector. There is a war between the IRA and the British army, and this is the territory. People are going to die. But beyond that, I can’t believe it, and I won’t tolerate, and I don’t support.
(Here I have to break away from the chronology so far in this chapter, if only to try to undo the lie still prevalent, particularly in the UK, that Harris was a lifelong supporter of the IRA )
Within six months of this interview, unbeknownst to me, Richard lectured Irish companies in America and discouraged them from giving the IRA money or arms.
This led to him receiving death threats from the IRA. Six months later, in a libel case in London, Harris mentioned these death threats and said, “Someone has to take a stand against the IRA. The slaughter must stop. I’ve received six death threats on my life this year, and they’ll start again because of what I say in this court. None of this was reported in the British media.
Nor does the fact that on March 17, 1989, prior to a concert Richard performed with the Chieftains at Carnegie Hall and a pre-concert television show they did at the Tavern on the Green in New York, he received no more IRA death threats.
They said none of these threats were made. But the NYPD took the threats seriously enough to have bomb squads at every event. And during the event at the tavern, Richard, on a broadcast broadcast in Ireland, recited There are too many saviors in my cross, his 1972 appeal to ‘both sides’ for reconciliation.
Cliff Goodwin, in his book, Behaving Badly, claims that as early as 1970 Harris’ name appeared on a Northern Ireland intelligence report, which was sent to the Metropolitan Police Special Branch in London.
He claimed a hardline loyalist group had put his name on a list of high profile Irishmen he intended to kill.
One of his London-based ‘cells’ planned to shoot him one night as he returned home to Tower House. But the gang ‘received a high profile tip from Belfast’ and said the attack had been ‘politically aborted’. Goodwin further claims that no one deemed it necessary to warn Richard Harris.
It may be true. But a story Harris told me in 2001 suggests that the London Criminal Investigation Department was not pushed to protect him in 1983.
“When we were doing Camelot here in London, my life was in such danger because of this republican stuff that the criminal defense department of the police here came to me and said, ‘Look, we don’t like you. maybe not, but you are a guest in our country, and we have to protect you as a guest. So they had a guy watching me all day.
Finally, I said, “I don’t want to put the English taxpayer in this expense. If I get a bodyguard, will you give him a gun license? They said, ‘Let’s see who he is.’ So, I introduced them to this guy who was protecting me anyway, and they said, ‘OK’ and gave him that license. He lived in the room opposite, here at the Savoy, with a gun and took me to the theater etc.
“Keep a safe distance, I presume.”
“Yes, it has never been intrusive. Going back to the days of the Kray twins, I still have great underworld contacts here. He was one of them.
This subject arose after I asked Richard if it was true, as Tom McGuirk told me, that he had sent a “heavyweight” to Ireland to retrieve the biography tapes. Harris continued this part of the story.
“Yeah, when that thing happened with McGuirk, I sent it. He would have shot her. I said, ‘don’t shoot him, just get the tapes.'”
“Tom told me his side of the story and said he didn’t hand over the tapes that night.”
“No. But we got them back.
“Tom is a badass and has ‘friends!’
“Yes, but we took him to court and the judge ordered him to return them. We made him civilized, first, and he might be a badass, but he wouldn’t have handled that guy.
:: This is an edited section of a chapter from Joe Jackson’s book “Richard Harris Raising Hell and Reaching for Heaven”.
“Richard Harris, Raising Hell and Reaching for Heaven” by Joe Jackson is available now.