26 August 2004 Edition
30 years on: The Great Portlaoise Escape
In August 1974, 19 republican POWs blasted their way out of Portlaoise Prison in County Laois.
The escape was a timely reminder of the determination, tenacity and ingenuity with which IRA Volunteers throughout the country fought against British rule in Ireland.
It was also a reminder to the then Fine Gael/Labour Coalition Government in Leinster House that their collaboration with the British and their attempts to defeat republicanism would not be an easy task.
The determination of republicans to escape from Portlaoise was demonstrated by the 1974 escape. In May of that year, an underground escape was planned but the 80-foot tunnel was uncovered and the prisoners' hopes were dashed.
However, almost immediately plans swung into place for a more daring escape operation.
A member of the Escape Committee spotted a weakness in the jail security in the area of the prison where the laundry house was situated. The laundry led to an outside stairway and down into the courtyard, where the Governor's House and Warders' Mess were located.
The prisoners discovered that they could gain access to the laundry area quite easily.
It was a doorway at the
top of the courtyard which led out onto the streets of Portlaoise town itself that gave the prisoners hope that their plan would work.
However, the Escape Committee decided that they needed explosives to get through this gate and sent word outside to this effect.
The IRA on the outside, agreeing that the plan was 'viable', sent in the materials and the plan was on.
The date set for the escape was set for 18 August 1974 and planning went ahead inside the prison.
The POWs set themselves to work making screws' uniforms. The idea was that when the escapers were running through the courtyard, the troops on the roof of the jail would not be able to distinguish between the escapers and the real screws and so wouldn't open fire.
This pre-planning proved to be a brilliant ploy as it gave those escaping vital seconds to clear the courtyard and make good their escape.
On the Friday before the plan was to go ahead, a number of republicans were arrested in Portlaoise Town. This seemed a bad omen and raised questions as to whether the authorities were suspicious that an escape was planned.
However, the Escape Committee and those involved in the operation decided to press ahead with the plan anyway.
Sunday 18 August duly arrived. According to prisoners who were in Portlaoise at the time, no one could eat anything that day as the tension was unbearable.
The time to put the plan into action, 12.30pm, arrived and Liam Brown approached the screw at the gate of the lower landing and asked to be let in.
This was the signal for the first team of escapers to rush forward and get the key to the laundry.
The screw was quickly overpowered and gave up the key without too much resistance.
With this first stage of the plan successfully completed, the escapers opened the door to the stairwell and rushed through to the courtyard, followed by up to 25 other POWs.
As the POWs raced to the top of the yard to place
the bomb at the outside gate the soldiers on the roof, confused by the uniforms, couldn't open fire.
The bomb then exploded, blasting the door to pieces.
As the prisoners made
the final dash for freedom the soldiers fired warning shots over the heads of the fleeing republicans.
Some of the prisoners dropped to the ground fearing the worst but as the screws raced from their mess they called on the soldiers to stop firing.
Those who were captured were brought into the Wing again and the governor demanded a head count.
The prisoners, however, refused to comply, adding to the confusion and thwarting the prison authorities' attempts to identify the escapers.
It was only after the screws threatened to send in the riot squad several hours later that the Prisoners allowed a head count to be taken.
When they realised that 19 men had escaped, the joy the POWs experienced was immense as they thought only 14 had got away.
In an attempt to re-capture the escapers the Dublin Government launched a state wide search operation. Every outhouse in County Wexford was searched. The navy was even called in and put on the alert.
The searches went on for over a week but to no avail. The 19 men had got clean away.
Those who escaped were Liam Brown, Paddy Devenny and Micky Nolan from Belfast; Tom McFeely and Ian Milne from County Derry; Thomas McGinty and Eddie Gallagher from Donegal; Patrick Thornberry, Kevin McAllister and Martin McAllister from Armagh; Francis Hughes and Kevin Mallon from Tyrone; Oliver McKiernan from Fermanagh; Bernard Hegarty and Sam O'Hare from Louth; Michael Kinsella and Seán Kinsella from Monaghan; Seán Morris from Meath; and Tony Weldon from Dublin.
• On 22 October, this daring escape will be the centrepiece of a re-union of ex-Portlaoise POWs. It will provide an opportunity for those incarcerated there to renew old friendships and relive their experiences of time spent there. Portlaoise was a prison which witnessed horrific beatings of republican POWs, hunger strikes, visit protests and death.
For further details of this event and for anyone with information on Portlaoise and particularly anyone involved in the escape itself, please contact Ann O'Sullivan in Dublin (01) 8782301 or Ciara or Angela in Belfast (028) 90200770.