Éire Ghaelach – Éire Shaor
Something truly strange must have happened in the offices of the Sunday
Anglo Independent over the last few days. Why? Because someone has managed to smuggle an article into the newspaper examining a facet of Irish Republican history that isn’t the usual concoction of lies, propaganda and counter-factual fantasies. Unprecedented!
“Armed only with a pot of pink chrysanthemums and a walkie-talkie, a Limerick convict sprang the UK’s most-wanted KGB spy in a daring prison escape that would go down in British penal history.
The tale of how Seán Bourke helped double agent George Blake outwit his jailers is just one in a new series of stories of Irishmen who made breaks for freedom.
There was Francie McGuigan — hooded, beaten, subjected to sleep deprivation and thrown out of a helicopter — who later coolly escaped through the main gates of Long Kesh dressed as a priest.
Then, there was Charlie ‘Nomad’ McGuinness, who helped execute a high-wire escape across the walls of Derry jail before scattering cayenne pepper to throw the bloodhounds off the scent.
And there was George Gilmore, who waded to freedom through sewage, and 38 IRA prisoners in Long Kesh who used soup ladles to tunnel, Colditz-style, more than 40 metres to freedom.
“The Irish are great at two things — funerals and prison breaks. We have a long history of prison breaks, especially among Republican prisoners,” says Paddy Hayes, director of ‘Éalú’, a six-part series on notorious Irish prison escapes which begins on TG4 on Thursday.
“Some of them were reckless. Some of them had no fear for their own safety while others were opportunists. The guile these men used and the painstaking research they went into for some of these escapes was extraordinary,” Paddy says.”
If that wasn’t extraordinary enough take this:
“The ordeal suffered by IRA man Francie McGuigan makes for compelling viewing. In 1971, Francie, then just 23, was taken from his home during a British army swoop and imprisoned for seven days at Girdwood Barracks in Belfast.
There, says Paddy, he became one of the ‘Hooded Men’ — he was hooded, beaten and subjected to psychological torture including white noise, sleep deprivation and being thrown out of a helicopter.
Francie was sent to Long Kesh Internment Camp, where on being asked by the governor if he had any questions, he cheekily asked: What’s the best way out of here?”
The governor replied coldly that “the only way out is through the front gate”. Later, after his escape, Francie sent him a postcard thanking him for his advice.”
Finally, there were the 38 IRA prisoners who, in 1974, tunnelled over 40 metres to freedom outside the perimeter fence of Long Kesh.
It had been a meticulously planned escape — in the best Colditz tradition, the mouth of the tunnel was hidden under pieces of corrugated iron and the internees held sing-songs every night to conceal the sound of their digging.
The painstaking work was done over the course of three weeks using soup ladles and metal trays, and pieces of wood were used to shore up the roof of the tunnel.
On November 6, 1974, the prisoners made a break for it. One by one they crawled on their stomachs into the tunnel, through the underwater section, to freedom.”
The story comes with two different by-lines, the first giving the credit to Penny Cronin (who previously penned this historical piece) the second to Áilín Quinlan (a freelance journo with several newspapers), which is… odd.
But as the old saying goes, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Just ask Baron Maginnis of Drumglass.
Now in its third series of acclaimed documentaries, Éalú airs on TG4 on Thursday at 10.30pm.
Below is the first part of the Éalú episode examining one of Ireland’s great revolutionary heroes, Tom Malone.