At 8.30 am on Friday 15th January, 1943, Jimmy Steele, Paddy Donnelly, Ned Maguire and Hugh McAteer escaped from A wing in Crumlin Road. In a well planned escape they broke through the roof, descended a rope to the yard and then scaled the perimeter wall in the morning before it got light. Only for a prison officer, Lance Thompson’s, son raising the alarm after seeing McAteer (the last over the wall), a second official escape team of three men would have followed them at 9 am and then the escape route was open to any others that could make it after that. The escape caused a sensation and significant embarrassment to the northern government which offered a £3,000 reward for information leading to the capture of any of the escapees. Details of the escape were published in Republican News in March 1943 and by Hugh McAteer in the Sunday Independent in 1951.
The Dublin edition of the March 1943 Republican News reported:
The Belfast Escape
The following Communique was issued from Northern Command Headquarters in the afternoon of 15th January 1943.
“At 8.30 this morning a daring and successful escape was made from Belfast Prison by four Irish Republican prisoners. The names of the four men are Lt.-General Hugh McAteer, Comdt.-General Seamus Steele, Capt. Patrick Donnelly and Lt. Edward Maguire, and all four reported to Command Headquarters within four hours of leaving the prison.”
Interviewed at Command Headquarters one of the men said: “The plan almost failed when we reached the outer wall. We had miscalculated the height of the gaol wall and the overtopping barbed wire, and the pole for placing the hook on top of the wall proved to be too short. We tried to reach the top of the wall by placing one man on another man’s shoulders, but the height was too great, and thrice the men slipped and fell. For the next attempt a third man climbed on to the second man’s shoulders and reaching up he raised the hook to his utmost, and saw it barely clear the top of the wire and drop securely into position. The success of the escape was then assured.”
In his 1986 biography, Harry. written with Uinseann MacEoin, Harry White mentions a poem about the escape published in the March 1943 Belfast edition of Republican News (which was edited by Jimmy Steele at the time, while on the run). I’ve not tracked down a copy of the March 1943 Belfast edition, but I found a poem in an undated issue of Rushlight magazine from the 1980s called The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail (which I’ve reproduced below). I suspect this is the same poem. The tone is correct for February/March 1943 as Ned Maguire was recaptured in Donegal on 22nd March (after assisting in the mass escape from Derry prison the day before). The poem may even be a first hand account, as internal details appear accurate, such as the escapees being named in the order in which they seem to have gone over the wall, as well as the line “it seemed like a dream“.
The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail could have been written by Jimmy Steele himself as he published numerous self-penned poems and songs (and wrote much of that Belfast edition in March 1943). His work was published in newspapers and magazines that were banned under the infamous Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Acts (or expected to be banned), so author’s names were usually omitted. A brief list of publications he contributed to, or edited, from the 1930s onwards includes An Síol, Wolfe Tone Weekly, An tÓglach, War News, The Critic, Republican News (in the 1940s and again in 1970), Resurgent Ulster (also printed as Ulaidh ag Aiséirighe), Glór Uladh, Saoirse and Tírghrá. He also produced a number of publications for the National Graves Association in the 1950s and 1960s containing some poems and songs under his own name that were published anonymously elsewhere. I’m also pretty sure my granny (Jimmy’s sister-in-law) once told me that he also wrote Our Lads in Crumlin Jail. Billy McKee recalls that Jimmy wrote the original version of Belfast Graves to which verses were later added (and lines from which feature in Brendan Behan’s play Borstal Boy).
The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail was also popularised as a song. My mother remembers that it was sung to the tune of The Old Orange Flute (I’ve linked a version recorded by The Dubliners). The melody used for The Old Orange Flute is really just an archetypal music hall standard also used for Six Miles from Bangor to Donaghadee (the link is a recording by Richard Hayward from 1948). The versions of The Old Orange Flute by The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers from the 1970s incorporated lines from both songs. I’ve inserted breaks in the lines of The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail to create verses that match The Old Orange Flute’s phrasing since it is a better fit. The premise of The Old Orange Flute – a dystopia where inanimate objects acquire political agency all of their own, is found in at least one other comic song – The Fenian Record Player. I’m sure there are others, too.
I’ve reproduced the poem below as it appears in Rushlight. The punctuation doesn’t fit the verses when put to the melody of The Old Orange Flute which does seem to be consistent with it originating as a poem. There is one error – the reward was £3,000 not £500 – and one spelling mistake – ‘dispair’. Obviously, the punctutaion and errors may have been faithfully reproduced, or originated, in Rushlight. There may have been other verses written about this particular escape, but I’ve not come across any others to date (or the March 1943 Belfast edition of the Republican News).
The Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail
Oh gather round boys and I’ll tell you the tale
Of the daring escape from the Crumlin Road Jail,
It was the neatest and sweetest thing you ever saw,
When four Irish rebels broke all Prison law.
Oh, the deed was well planned and I’m sure you’d agree
That if you break out of prison you deserve to be free,
Well it seemed like a dream but in fact it was real,
And one of those lads was our own Jimmy Steele,
And then was Donnelly and the third was Maguire,
And now that they’re free they’ll set England on fire,
The peelers and Specials all trembled with fear,
When they heard that the fourth lad was Hugh McAteer.
The Police were all standing outside the big gates,
When up drove a car and out stepped Dawson Bates,
He said “This is an awful and terrible disgrace,
To let four Irish rebels break out of this place.”
He ordered a search throughout Belfast that day,
And £500 was the price he would pay
If anyone came forward to tell him the tale
Of how four Irish rebels broke out of his Jail.
But no-one came forward, the reward is still there,
The whole British forces went mad in dispair,
They searched every place where they thought they might be,
But the search it was useless … the rebels are free.