The 5 Escapers: June 1941

Of the many attempts to escape from Crumlin Road, most didn’t get beyond the planning stage. Others did manage to get as far as the wall, like Gerry Doherty and Eamon Ó Cianáin[1]. Their escape attempt also took place from D wing on 5th June 1941.

A few weeks earlier the Luftwaffe had blitzed the city including districts beside the prison like the Antrim Road, Cliftonville and Oldpark. The air raids left over 900 dead and caused significant damage across large tracts of the city. It took days to bring the fires under control. But the districts close to the prison, that bore the brunt of the bombing, were in a state of chaos due to the damage and would provide ample opportunities for safe houses.

The air raids provided a challenge to the security routines of the prison, but don’t appear to have offered lapses that would lead to opportunities to escape. During the air raids, prisoners and warders were packed into a tunnel linking two parts of the prison. As well as the big raids, there were numerous smaller air raids and warnings of raids. The months before Doherty and Ó Cianáin’s escape attempt, German planes dropped bombs all around the prison. According to Joe Cahill, one warder who was renowned for his hatred of Catholics and sneered when they said rosaries in the D wing canteen, got particularly rattled. When the bombing seemed very close to the prison he broke, yelling at the internées: “Quick, quick, fuck yez, say the rosary to save us.[2]

Since his arrival in D wing, Gerry Doherty was continually on the lookout for an opportunity to escape. While Belfast was under threat of the blitz, the prisoners had slide bolts installed on the outside of their cell doors to allow for a swift evacuation during an air raid[3]. A prison officer would have to use the keys to open the cell doors if the lock was used, which meant the cells would have to be unlocked one at a time which did not allow sufficient time to evacuate prisoners (and, presumably, of more concern to the authorities, the staff). A circular glass panel in each cell door (known as the judas hole) was designed to allow the prison staff to shine a torch into the cell after lights out to confirm that prisoners were present.

Doherty was somehow able to retract the bolt on his cell door. How he did this isn’t clear. One suggestion is included in a statement in a file on another escape, in 1943. A prison officer claimed that a (non-political) prisoner reported finding a device made up of a lump of leather and a string to him and that this was a device widely known to have been used previously in the prison. It was belived that the leather was somehow used to plug a lock in a way that it would appear locked, but could be opened by pulling the string. However, given that Doherty’s cell in D wing was locked using a slider bolt at the time and not a conventional deadlock, it’s unlikely that device would have worked.

Billy McKee thinks Doherty was able to get out using the circular torch panel and that he had maybe found a way to remove it and replace it without it being noticed. This would allow him to put a weighted string out through the hole. Doherty could then swing this line and lasso the bolt and retract it so the cell door could be opened[4]. However he did it, Doherty’s ability to get out had obvious value for an escape attempt as it didn’t solve the issue of escaping from D wing or the prison building and grounds. It also provided an opportunity for practical jokes. After lock-up in the evening, Doherty would release himself from his cell and pay a visit to the door of a newly-arrived young internée. Doherty would knock the cell door and call out the prisoner’s name. On getting an answer, he would announce that they had just been informed that there had been a mistake and that the young internée should have his bag packed in the morning since he would be being released. The next morning, the orderly and prison staff opening the door for slops would find (and quickly disappoint) the eager young internée standing by his cell door ready for his release.

But Doherty’s routines inside D wing were well known to prison staff. As Jimmy noted in a communication smuggled out to the Adjutant of the Northern Command, such unofficial escapes could lead to the doubling of the guard inside the prison. Doherty’s nightime antics may have kept the focus of the prison’s security regime on preventing an escape attempt from within D wing itself. While keeping an eye out for an escape opportunity outside of D wing, Doherty had spotted that the remand and non-political prisoners, in C wing, were moved from the C wing yard and back into their cells for meals at 12.15 and 4.15, some 15 minutes ahead of the internées in D wing. Doherty realised that, if a way was found to breach the corrugated sheeting that separated the yards of C and D wing, it may be possible to escape over the wall of C wing.

Doherty must have got approval for his escape from the O/C of No. 1 Battalion (the internées in D wing) as significant effort went it to preparing the equipment for the escape. He manufactured a spanner from a spoon and, along with Paddy Gallagher and Ó Cianáin, they prepared a rope from bed sheets and a plywood grappling hook. The bed sheet rope meant acquiring a number of sheets from the laundry, which was where Jimmy worked. To manufacture a rope required multiple sheets to be procured from laundry, preferably without a prisoner’s identifying number stamped on them[5].

Doherty and Ó Cianáin decided to make their escape attempt at the end of May 1941. When the C wing prisoners returned to their cells, the escape team quickly loosened the sheeting and made for the wall. Gallagher threw the plywood hook over the wall and it caught first time. When he tried to climb the wall, though, the plywood hook simply disintegrated and the escape attempt was over. Doherty, Gallagher and Ó Cianáin rushed back to D wing without being noticed (apart from a maintenance man who merely repaired the sheeting).

The Luftwaffe had been blitzing the city on the night of Sunday 4th/5th May. This time the bombing mainly targeted the east of the city and the harbour area, causing a further 150 deaths. Again, the clean-up operation took a number of days. There were further air raids on the city on the Monday night (5th/6th May). None of those who participated made any mention of whether the air raids had any additional bearing on their decision to escape.

Doherty and Ó Cianáin reviewed the problems and decided on a second attempt, using a stronger hook, on the 5th June. Over the course of the next week, Liam Burke, Phil McTaggart and Billy ‘Bildo’ Watson joined the escape attempt. Gallagher dropped out, not convinced that the risk of success balanced the risk of a prison sentence on top of internment for a failed attempt. The reconstituted escape team tried again on the Tuesday, this time choosing to attempt it at 12pm. The five would-be escapers managed to open the fencing again. For this attempt, they used steel bars from under table-tops to make a stronger hook. At the last minute, two further prisoners Harry O’Rawe and Paddy Joe Doyle joined them, but only on the condition they would be last over the wall.

Once into the C wing yard the hook again caught easily and, this time, survived the first ascent, which was by Billy ‘Bildo’ Watson. Next over was Eamon Ó Cianáin, then Liam Burke, then McTaggart. Gerry Doherty was then on the rope when two warders appeared and grabbed at his legs. Having spotted the gap in the security precautions and masterminded the escape, Doherty had watched the other four exit the prison over the wall only to now find himself being dragged back down the rope by the two warders. But O’Rawe and Doyle then intervened and managed to free Doherty from the warders and he too managed to get over the wall. Escaping through the adjoining convent and St Malachy’s College, with no pre-arranged get away vehicles or safehouses, all five got clean away.

Passing through St Malachy’s College, Watson, McTaggart and Burke reached the Antrim Road only to encounter a car driven by a friend of one of them. They were driven off straight away. Ó Cianáin and Doherty had separated and ran off in different directions. Ó Cianáin quickly found his way to a safe house. Doherty, a Derry man who didn’t know Belfast well, lost his way. Reaching North Queen Street, he knocked on the door of the first house with a Sacred Heart lamp in the window.

He asked the woman inside: “Do you know any republicans, missus?

She looked at him. “Aye, there’s one working on the roof now.” Within two days Doherty was across the border. Media reporting of the escape was largely suppressed. The official investigation also didn’t get off the ground until several days later. By then the prison staff had got their stories straight and the authorities were unable to find a scapegoat. From the point of view of the IRA, prisoners like Jimmy Steele, were able to control access to sheeting via the laundry. This was to become the source of material for ropes and ladders for future escapes.

The internées left in D wing got great mileage out of the escape. Prison staff could barely move around the wing without someone singing Five Internées, a song written about the escape:

Five internees went over the wall, Barney-Boo,

Five internees went over the wall, Barney-Boo,

The rest of the lads were playing football,

When five internees went over the wall,

Inky-pinky Barney-Boo.

Five internees went over the wall, Barney-Boo,

Five internees went over the wall, Barney-Boo,

The Prison Officer Johnston stood aghast,

He didn’t know men could climb so fast,

Inky-pinky Barney-Boo.

Five internees went over the wall, Barney-Boo,

Five internees went over the wall, Barney-Boo,

Then Thompson cried, “Now come back, here!”

But Doherty smiled and said “No fear!”

Inky-pinky Barney-Boo.

[adaped from a version given by Tarlach Ó hUid in Faoi Ghlas, 1985, p98. The tune, variously ‘Parlez-vous’ or ‘The Back of the Bus is in the Huff’ is an old musical hall standard from World War 1, ‘Three German Officers‘].

[1] The account here is drawn from accounts in McEoin (1997) by Ó Cianáin and Liam Burke, and from McGuffin, J. 1973. Internment.

[2] Anderson 2002, 99. Cahill must have heard this story at second hand as he was not imprisoned until 1942, and spent his time in A wing not D wing. The raid described in the story about the warder seems to be most closely matched by the April raids, but could have been the May 5th/6th raids (the day before Doherty and Ó Cianáin’s second escape attempt).

[3] This information and the following stories were told to me by Billy McKee.

[4] This is consistent with another issues – Doherty apparently couldn’t re-close the bolt so the prison staff knew he could get out of his cell.

[5] This is based on the sheeting used for a later escape where the material was examined by an inspector of Trench House.


5 thoughts on “The 5 Escapers: June 1941

  1. Gerry “The bird” Doherty is an interesting character. He apperently was an escape artist with a fair few escapes under his belt, although this is the only one that’s ever detailed. He was later in charge of the stewards for the Bloody Sunday march.


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