Writing the story of the Irish mob

Crime writers Noel ‘Razor’ Smith and Andy Nolan told David Hennessy about their forthcoming crime book that looks at this country’s gangs and gangsters that were either Irish or of Irish descent.

Former armed robber and bestselling crime author Noel ‘Razor’ Smith and Andy Nolan of the Biblecode Sundays are co-writing the book Green Bloods which examines the stories and influence of Britain’s Irish gangs and gangsters.

Noel told The Irish World: “Our aim with this book is to give a bit of air time to the stories people don’t usually hear. There’s been loads of stuff said about the Krays and the Richardsons. The people we’re putting up were doing it under the radar while they were more public. The good thing is alot of them have now given up crime. They’ve left it behind but in their day, you couldn’t mess with these people.”

Andy adds: “It was quite obvious that especially in the 90s and into the 2000s a lot of the most well known criminal families around the country seemed to be of Irish descent.

“I thought there was a story in that, certainly a book that no one had really touched upon before.

“Writing a book like this, I wanted to get Noel on board because he has served time with a lot of these guys we’re featuring. It was important to get a personal perspective on those chapters and tell it how it was because he was there.”

Noel ‘Razor’ Smith committed over 200 armed robberies and was jailed for life in 1997. He turned his life around following the death of his son and has been pursuing a career in journalism and crime writing since he was released in 2010.

Andy Nolan is known for playing the accordion in The Biblecode Sundays but has also written and produced the short films Tax City and Jack Mulligan.

Andy explains that the book starts with famine times when those leaving Ireland in great numbers had to do whatever they could to survive.

Crime writers Andy Nolan and Noel ‘Razor’ Smith

“We wanted to bring it right back to the time of the Great Famine when so many Irish people had to leave Ireland.

“You had a huge amount of Irish people on the move, penniless, starving, hungry and desperate to make ends meet.

“Ports like Liverpool took in huge numbers of Irish immigrants who were trying to make their way to America but the ones who couldn’t afford the onward journey ended up staying in Liverpool so Britain became home to the poorest of the poor.

“And one way out of poverty of course was crime because a lot of these Irish immigrants had no education and no real means or tools to survive.

“There was a lot of religious intolerance in Scotland and England at the time towards Catholics, especially Irish Catholics. There was a strong indigenous Protestant population who despised Irish Catholics from the minute they got off the boat. The Irish became very tribal and entrenched and literally had to fight to survive and defend their faith.

“They found that they had to organise themselves pretty quickly and literally defend their homes against baying mobs that were out to get Irish Catholics.

“There was literally pitch battles between Irish labourers and indigenous Scots and English.

“These immigrants had to form street gangs to defend themselves and they became very lucrative enterprises and very powerful.”

There have been many books detailing the life and crimes of Irish-American gangsters such as Whitey Bulger but they believe there is an untold story of the Irish criminals of Britain.

Andy says, “We very quickly bring it up to modern day. The main chapters are from the period from the 70s right up until the late 90s where there was major crime families in London, Manchester, Glasgow and in Liverpool who were top dogs and of Irish descent.

“I think it’s no coincidence that those guys lived through that No Blacks, No Irish , No Dogs era where anti-Irish racism surfaced very, very strongly once again.

“A lot of those criminals, that would have been the backdrop to their lives and probably one of the reasons they went on to be career criminals.”

Noel was born to Irish parents in South London and grew up with notorious criminals such as the O’Driscoll brothers who are said to have inspired Only Fools and Horses’ Driscoll brothers.

“There was quite a lot of families like that and they all got involved in crime for some reason. But we did live in really bad poverty so maybe that had something to do with it. I became a criminal as well and it was the fact that we never had anything. If you wanted something, you had to take it.

“A lot of the criminals you come across in the prison system are of Irish descent.

“Once you get in jail it seems to be like an inbuilt thing where we want to fight back against the system

“The Irish have always had this militant thing. They don’t really take orders well, especially from people in uniform, maybe that’s a throwback to years of oppression by the British army, the Black and Tans and whatever.

“Having analysed it when I first went into prison, 90% of the prison staff were ex-British army, ex- forces. You used to get a lot of ex-paratroopers and obviously we were in with a lot of IRA prisoners as well.

“I remember there was a guy called Joe McDonnell who was in Albany. I was in with a robber from North West London. He’d had an argument with two black fellas out of North London and they were plotting to do him when he was at work.

“Joe McDonnell, who was the head IRA man, heard them outside his cell so he invited them in for a cup of tea, sat them down in his cell and politely told them, ‘Listen, you go anywhere near this geezer, you’re in serious trouble. He’s looked after by us’. Simply because he was an Irishman.

“You used to get a lot of that stuff in jail. We had a lot of discrimination from prison officers who were ex-forces.

“Everyone used to play rebel songs and you would get the screws coming around targeting you. If you’re playing Come Out you Black and Tans, there would be a couple of ex-paratroopers at your door with the leather gloves on saying, you’re getting a search and they deliberately break your stereo.”

Although Billy Hill, a high profile London-Irish gangster who ruled London’s underworld is detailed in the book the Krays, who took over his empire, are not.

Noel back in his bank robbing days.

Although the Krays have some Irish blood, their story has been told.

Andy says, “Some of these characters and criminal families people will know about. Some people won’t know the strong Irish connection behind them and indeed how powerful they actually were and still are. We deliberately didn’t include the Krays or the Richardsons albeit they do have some Irish links.”

Noel does not hide his dislike of the Krays having been in prison with Reggie himself.

“I was never impressed by the Krays at all. they were probably the most stupid and pathetic criminals ever, they both committed a murder in front of dozens of witnesses, they thought they were untouchable.

“Their story is a myth that’s been built up since they got arrested. Inside there’s a big rivalry between South London gangsters and East London gangsters. The East London guys always talk about the Krays, South London always talk about the Great Train Robbers.

“When the train robbers were arrested, nobody gave a statement. Nobody said a single word about them. When the Krays got arrested, people were running from the East End, spraining their wrists making statements about these guys because they were so hated and feared, they wanted them out of their area whereas the train robbers were seen as Robin Hood type heroes. “The Krays were seen as proper nasty people who would rob you even if you had nothing.

“To me there is no glamour with the Krays, it was built up afterwards.

“I was in with Reggie in Maidstone and the Scrubs. I know people don’t like talking about it but Reggie was as gay as Ronnie. Certainly inside he was known as a sexual predator amongst young prisoners. He would have people up in his cell and pay them in tobacco for sexual favours. They never impressed me at all, the Krays.

“We decided not to go down that avenue. It’s been done to death.”

Andy adds: “The beauty of this book is that we feel strongly that the characters and families that we’re covering were much bigger. We feel that they bring much more to that story of Britain’s underworld than possibly the Krays ever did.”

The writers have had approaches from publishers but have not been convinced they are the right publishers for the book.

Noel says: “What we’re looking for is someone who wants to get behind this and believe in it. We’ve got a certain vision of this book. It’s unique. It’s not been done before. Nobody has really looked at the influence of the Irish in the criminal world, in particular in the UK.

“We’re still looking for the right publisher. If you’re out there, get in touch.”

Here are some names we pulled from the Irish criminal files.

Billy Hill

Once known as the king of London’s underworld, Billy Hill was born to an Irish woman in Camden.

Hill was linked to smuggling, protection rackets and extreme violence. He was one of the foremost perpetrators of organised crime in London from the 1920s through to the 1960s. His gang managed cash robberies and defrauded London’s high society of millions at the card tables of John Aspinall’s Clermont Club.

In 1952, he planned the Eastcastle St. postal van robbery netting £287,000 (equivalent to £8.32 million now) and in 1954 he organised a £40,000 bullion heist. No one was ever convicted for these robberies.

Noel says: “He doesn’t get much credit for it but he was a master criminal.

“One of the biggest cash robberies ever in this country before the Great Train Robbery was called the Eastcastle Street post office robbery where 15 men hi-jacked the post office van and nicked £280,000 in cash in 1952 so £280,000 in those days was a lot of money and the whole job was apparently organised by Billy Hill.

“He planned every minute of it. Nobody was ever arrested for the job and not a penny was ever recovered.

“They reckoned Billy Hill had planned it so well that there was nothing that could go wrong.

“The thing that amazes me about that job is ever since then every major cash robbery and there’s been a lot, Tonbridge, The Great Train Robbery, Brinks-Matt, all those robberies have been massive robberies but people always end up getting caught. Billy Hill’s job, nobody got caught and that’s what he was known for. He was a staunch man who knew how to plan and was very clever. He had a lot of police in his pocket as well back in those days.”

He mentored Reggie and Ronnie Kray, who would inherit Hill’s criminal empire when he eventually moved abroad.

Andy says: “He met the Krays when they were young kids and he kind of took them under his wing and a lot of the stuff that they went into was because of Billy Hill, because they admired him so much.

“He was of Irish descent as well and a lot of people didn’t know that. He was known as the king of London’s underworld but he was actually Irish.

“He was quite proud of that as well. He used to get a lot of grief when he was a kid, ‘Cheeky little Irish git’ and stuff like that from the other street gangs but he would always stand his ground.”

The Bradish brothers

Noel with Vinnie Bradish

The Bradish brothers from North West London led Britain’s most ruthless and prolific gang of armed robbers in the late 90s and early 2000s. They are believed to have carried out as many as 200 raids. In 2002 Sean Bradish was given four life sentences while his brother Vinnie received 22 years. Another member of the gang Steven Roberts turned supergrass and gave evidence against the brothers.

Noel says: “Vinnie was born in Hillingdon but I think the family moved into the WIllesden Green area and they used to operate around Harlesden, Wembley, Cricklewood, Kilburn, all those really Irish areas. Their parents are Irish, from Limerick.

“They learned their trade with ‘The Dirty Dozen’ gang from around Cricklewood/Kilburn who were led by Jimmy Doyle, another second generation Irishman, and were mostly Irish and second generation Irish.

“Sean could be a violent man. There’s an incident in the book where a guy came into the local on the Stonebridge estate and he’s suspected of rape. They gave him a beating and that but Sean actually goes over the top and and hits him, according to the supergrass Steven Roberts, about 20 or 30 times in the face with a broken glass.

“They were at it for five years. To be robbing places every month for five years, you’ve got to be pretty good at it.

“One time Sean and Vinnie were going out for the night and saw a van delivering to a cash machine and decided to rob it on the spot, just put paper bags on their heads, pretended they had a gun and got away with a few quid. They were quite good at what they did.

“The only reason they actually got caught was that one of their gang turned supergrass.”

Jimmy ‘The Danger’ Beirne

Jimmy ‘The Danger’ Beirne was a member of the Roscommon Under-21 football panel that sensationally defeated Kildare in the All-Ireland final in Croke Park in 1966.

“The Danger” came to London in the late 70s where he was arrested in 1983 and sentenced to three years in prison for obtaining 353 gold Kruggerand coins worth the considerable sum of £96,000 from a Jersey bank with a forged bank draft.

He served his time and returned home to Ireland but arrested in London again in 1997 for importing cocaine with a street value of £6.5m into the UK. It would take three trials and millions in legal fees before the gang was convicted with Beirne getting 18 years.

Noel said: “Me and Jimmy were both category A prisoners in Belmarsh. He came into my cell one day and said, ‘I want you to write me a letter. Will you if I dictate it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, who’s it to?’

“He said, ‘This reporter at the Sunday World. It’s about my case. I’m trying ot get some of it sorted’.

“I’m sitting down with a pad and he starts dictating the letter to me and the first thing is, ‘Youse bunch of f**king eejits. If you don’t stop mentioning my name in your paper, I’m going to get someone to come around and blow your offices up-‘

“I said, ‘Woah, Jimmy. We’re category A prisoners. They read every letter that goes out. You can’t be threatening to blow up the Sunday World’s offices’.

“He said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right, Write this. One of these days when you come out of your office, there’s going to be a fella sitting on a motorbike waiting for ya and he’s going to put one right in your nut’.

“I’m going, ‘No, you can’t be doing that, Jimmy’. So in the end I convinced him to write a more sensible letter so we wouldn’t be nicked. Jimmy didn’t give a sh*t really.

“The reason he was called Jimmy the Danger was because he used to play Gaelic football and they used to say, ‘If you can get past the Danger, you deserve your score’. That was his nickname as a sportsman but it carried on into his criminal life. He was a big lump but he wasn’t a violent man.”

John Gilligan

Notorious for allegedly ordering the hit on murdered journalist Veronica Guerin, Noel spent some time in prison for Dublin gang boss John Gilligan. Although Gilligan may not feature in the book, Noel does have a tale about the Dublin crime boss from their time in a London prison together.

Noel said: “I was in Belmarsh with John Gilligan. A lot of the screws hated him but they wouldn’t do anything to provoke him because they knew he was a powerful man. He could make a phone call and people outside would be getting kidnapped and never seen again. When you’ve got that sort of reputation, people don’t mess around with you.

“There’s quite a story about Gilligan. He was walking along the landing on the unit. He hates priests, vicars, anything like that. Apparently he walked past the priest and sort of muttered as he walked past, ‘Effing paedophile’ and sure anough the priest reported him to the governor saying, ‘He called me a paedophile’.

“When Gilligan went up in front of the governor, he said, ‘No, I’d had a bad phone call from Ireland. I didn’t even notice the priest there and I was muttering about paedophiles as I walked past’.

“So the priest said, ‘No, you actually turned to me and said, ‘You paedophile, get off the wing’.

“Gilligan said, ‘No, I didn’t’. And the governor found in Gilligan’s favour. The priest then resigned. He didn’t want to work in a prison system where a criminal was going to be believed over his words but they didn’t want to upset him, they didn’t want to cause aggravation. Because he was a high risk prisoner, he was allowed to get away with certain things.

“These guys, you know you don’t mess with them. It’s as simple as that. They have a kind of air about them. They carry themselves in a certain way that you don’t approach them unless you’re approaching them in a friendly and respectful way.

“Even the screws don’t mess around with them. They don’t give them any concessions but they treat them with a certain amount of respect because they know they’re dangerous, tough men who if they’re provoked will do something.”

Ray Bishop

Andy with Ray Bishop

Ray Bishop was once Britain’s most wanted man. From a council estate in South East London, he was an armed robber, a drug smuggler, and a people trafficker, developing a serious addiction to cocaine and heroin along the way.

However, in a remarkable turnaround, he got clean from drugs to realize a dream of becoming British Middleweight Boxing Champion.

Noel says: “I first met Ray Bishop when he was really young. He was known as a really wild fella in the prison system and he was seriously involved in drugs in those days. He wasn’t afraid to go against a lot of the more established criminals. He just didn’t care.

“He grew up to be a better person.

“He did a lot of armed robberies in the 80s and early 90s. He’s been done for a bit of everythng. I think the last thing he was involved in was people smuggling. He got done with illegal immigrants in the back of his lorry and he had done that because of a drug deal that went wrong. He had lost the drugs. A Dutch firm phoned him up and said, ‘Come over to see us’.

“He thought he was going to get killed but they said, ‘Drive this lorry into England’. And he thought it was going to have drugs in it. When we got stopped, turned out it was Chinese immigrants. Ray was nicked for it.

“A measure of Ray’s character is rather than start crying and saying, ‘I’m going to prison’, Ray immediately started planning his escape in the police station.”

While in his police cell, Ray used a biro he managed to steal, a paper clip and the jam that came with his morning meal to make something that could pass for a blood-filled syringe.

“Then when he went to court the next morning and they were about to remand him in custody, he grabbed hold of the security guard in the dock. He put it up to his neck and told everybody it was a syringe full of AIDS-infected blood and managed to escape from the court.

“He got away. He was on the run for a while.

“He came off the drugs completely. I was with him when he went through his rehab in Grendon Prison and he turned into a completely different guy. At the age of 37 he got released and became the British middleweight boxing champion.

“He’s going well now, he’s got his own scaffolding firm and he’s been out of crime for quite a while.”

Belfast Joe

One character that Noel came into contact with was revealed to be a member of the notorious Shankill Butchers.

The Shankill Butchers were an Ulster loyalist gang that was active between 1975 and 1982 in Belfast.

They were notorious for kidnapping, torturing and murdering random Catholic civilians. They were responsible for the vicious murders of at least 23 people.

Noel said: “Belfast Joe is what we used to call him. He came to England in the late 70s. He came into a predominantly Irish community and in order to get along he said that he was a Catholic and hinted that he was an IRA man on the run for having shot an SAS man or something.

“It turns out he wasn’t. He was actually one of the loyalist paramilitaries, the UVF. He was one of the Shankill Butchers who were the most prolific serial killers and torturers the UK has ever known.

“They were kidnapping innocent people as long as they were Catholic, one of the leaders was asked one time who he would kill and he said anyone from three years old to 100 years old.

“They used to torture people horrifically.

“He came over here on the run and set himself up over here as a semi-gangster.

“Eventually the INLA found out where he was and attempted to kill him. He was actually going into his house when the car pulled up and two guys jumped out and fired off eleven shots. How they didn’t hit him I don’t know. Because the police were called for that, that was how he got sussed out. He obviously thought, ‘It would be safer to go back to Ireland and do my bird than to hang about over here when they know where I live’.

“He was taken back to Belfast and he was jailed. He was given ten life sentences.”

The Keanes

“The Keanes were a family originally from Limerick who moved to Woolwich in the 70s and they were a proper outlaw family and they’re known all over that part of south London.

“Someone would say, ‘Someone’s done the post office, that’s gotta be one of the Keanes’. ‘My house got burlged last night, go and look for the Keanes. They’ll have done it’. They had this reputation.

“The two oldest brothers Danny and Michael got done about 1985 for the murder of a squaddie. It was a pub fight.

“They both ended up doing life but then quickly the other brothers stepped up to the plate and were forever in and out of prison. Major criminals and major nuisances to the prison services.

“Belmarsh was like home away from home for them. When that was built, if I remember rightly, I think two of the brothers and a cousin worked on the building of Belmarsh, they were actually labourers on that job. When the prison was built, they’ve kept it going ever since by being prisoners there.

“I was in Albany on the Isle of Wight with him back in the 80s. There was a fella who came in who was known as a bully and had the nickname ‘The Devil’. He was a scouser. He was a big black fella and he used to bully all the young prisoners.

“He would wait by the gates and anybody who came on who it looked like he could bully, he would go, ‘Oi, give me a contribution out of your canteen’.

“Mickey Keane got shipped to the nick. He’s got his canteen and sure enough the Devil was there and he said, ‘Hey Irishman, have you got something for me in that canteen bag?’

“Mickey said, ‘Sure I have. Do ya like Peaches?’ The fella said, ‘Yeah, I love peaches’.

“Mickey pulled out a tin of peaches and said, ‘Here, have these’. And smashed him straight in the head with the peaches and he bashed the geezer with the tin of peaches all over the wing.

“After that, the fella was a broken man, he never bullied anyone again and his nickname in other nicks was ‘Peaches’.

“Another one, I think this was down in Dartmoor and Mickey shouts out to me, ‘Wait a minute. Someone’s coming to my door’.

“I shout, ‘Who is it, Mickey? He goes, ‘It’s 12 screws to beat me up and a governor to deny it ever happened’. He was so funny.”

And was that what it was? “It was indeed. He gave the governor a load of lip earlier on and they decided he needed a beating.”

John Bindon

Spotted by none other than Ken Loach who asked him to star in his film Poor Cow, John Bindon acted in iconic films such as Get Carter and Quadrophenia, often being asked to play gangsters or tough detectives.

Also a hard man off screen, he was believed to be running protection rackets and alleged to have connections to the Kray twins and the Richardson Gang.

In 1978, Bindon was tried for the murder of London gangster Johnny Darke. He pleaded self-defence and was acquitted but it was the end of his acting career.

Noel said: “He went on to commit quite an infamous gangland murder. Funny enough, when he was wanted for the murder, he had been stabbed pretty badly in the fight and they managed to smuggle him to Ireland. He ended up in Dublin on the run. His mother was Irish.

“I was inside with Johnny Bindon in ’79 when he got nicked for the murder. They called Bob Hoskins to give evidence at his trial. Johnny Bindon’s nickname was “Biffo” because he used to punch people and knock them out.

“When they asked Bob Hoskins, ‘I believe your friend John Bindon is known as Biffo. Can you tell us why that is?’

“Bob Hoskins went, ‘Well look at him, he’s a big cuddly bear’. When in fact his nickname was for knocking people out.

“He took care of a lot of business for the Krays. Their gangs were really in control. Anything that happened in London, they had a say in. People went to see them and asked permission. It was more a courtesy thing really. John Bindon had associated with them when they were at the height of their power. He was seen as their man out here.”

Bindon also claimed to have had an affair with Princess Margaret in the late 1960s.