The 1944 IRA hunger strike

Seventy-five years ago this week, IRA sentenced prisoners in Crumlin Road ended a hunger-strike that had begun just over forty days earlier, on the 22nd February 1944. The hunger strike was the latest in a sequence of prison protests that had included a strip strike in mid-1943 and an earlier hunger strike by the female prisoners in Armagh Gaol in the winter of 1943. After the IRA finally began its long delayed campaign in England in January 1939, it had failed to reinvigorate the campaign by transferring its focus to the north. By the middle of 1943, in the face of the loss of key personnel and lack of resources and with no imminent prospect of a Versailles style post-war conference, the emphasis shifted to the prisons and publicity coups in what IRA Chief of Staff Hugh McAteer later described as an attempt to ‘preserve the spirit’ of the movement.

The circumstances of the IRA in the north, at this point, were now considerably removed from that of the generation who were active from 1916 to 1922. From the Easter Rising onwards, conflict with the British authorities and then Free State and Northern Ireland authorities had indeed seen many republicans interned or sentenced to terms in prison. Despite the widespread republican experience of internment and imprisonment between 1916 to 1924, the typical period of incarceration was more often measured in months than years and few faced extended periods in prison. Only a handful of republicans were imprisoned for longer periods, some serving terms in prisons in Britain for a number of years after the general amnesties that followed the signing of the treaty in 1921.

The existing sentencing policy applied in the north from the mid-1930s onwards saw republicans given prison terms for offences that only warranted a fine for others. This discrepancy increased wildly after 1936, first when Eddie McCartney was given a ten year sentence and then when the Treason Felony Act was invoked to hand lengthy prison sentences to the northern IRA leadership. That Act hadn’t been used since the 1880s, which was the previous period in which republicans experienced similarly long terms of imprisonment with the likes of Tom Clarke serving fifteen years in jail.

Long term prisoners create a particular set of circumstances. Using ‘criminalisation’ as a tactical response to present insurgency as illegitimate isn’t exactly new but it does bring its own complications. It may not be explicit state policy but long term insurgent prisoners are designed to be hostages with the prospect of early release held out as an incentive to ending an active insurgency campaign. While the immediate benefit to the state is removing key insurgents from active involvement for extended periods of time that has to be balanced against other factors. Once imprisoned they are able to take part in in-depth internal debates on strategy and tactics with other imprisoned leaders, are able to engage with an audience outside the prisons and often attract support as a prisoner from individuals and organisations who wouldn’t otherwise openly support the insurgency itself. As had happened in the 1890s, the publicity attracted by long term prisoners began to far outweigh any tactical purpose in holding them in jail.

By early 1944, the republican prisoners in A wing in Crumlin Road included the likes of Jimmy Steele and Hugh McAteer who had been imprisoned on multiple occasions and already spent six or seven years each in jail (Steele had first been in prison in 1923). Many others had served various short terms prior to receive lengthy sentences since 1940. Internees, housed in D wing in Crumlin Road, Derry Gaol, Armagh Gaol and (in 1940-41) on the Al Rawdah, had to contend with the uncertainty of internment – no trial or charges also meant no defined period of imprisonment. The internees’ only (vague) salvation was that political pressure or events would eventually bring their release. The fear for sentenced prisoners was that they would not get released in the same way. The creation of two separate prisoner communities (interned and sentenced) created the potential for internal dissent and conflict over strategy and tactics inside and outside the prisons that might bring their release.

In March 1943, the IRA’s Adjutant-General Liam Burke issued an edition of An t-Óglach for the first time in many years (it’s circulation was confined to IRA members). This included an article on ‘Unity’ with the prisons specifically mentioned: “Too often in the past we have allowed ourselves to be divided by some petty grievance or worse still by some false rumour manufactured by enemy agents. In order to satisfy personal spites or ambitions we have allowed that element of disunity to creep in among us. This is very often obvious in the Prisons where Volunteers, living together in confinement for long periods, find too much time to brood on every petty grievance that arises.” There is also an article on Guerilla Warfare that pointed out the legitimate status accorded to ‘Guerillas’ since the 1899 Hague Conference.

AntOglachMarch1943

Burke (who had escaped from Crumlin Road in 1941) was re-arrested and returned to Crumlin Road in April 1943. There were of course IRA prisoners and internees held at various locations on either side of the border and a number of long-term sentenced prisoners from the sabotage campaign in British prisons. By 1943, the IRA’s leadership had mostly relocated to the north and, from early summer, became increasingly focused on the prisons.

Both the 1943 strip strike and Armagh Gaol hunger strike had delivered sharp lessons in terms of mobilising political support outside the prisons. The key focus on the prison campaigns was to obtain political status (eg see Republican News, July 1943 below). So in February 1944 a hunger strike began, with teams of three joining in stages, first beginning with McAteer, Liam Burke (by now O/C of the republican prisoners) and Pat McCotter. The prison authorities delivered food and milk to their cells every day, hoping to tempt the prisoners to come off the strike by leaving the food there in front of them. The will power required to continue the strike, in the cold cells of Crumlin Road, with food in easy reach, must have been formidable.

RepNewsJuly1943

The prison staff also continued to subject the strikers to two to three searches a week, including strip searches, despite the fact they were no longer allowed out of their cells. On day four of the strike (26th February), David Fleming and Jimmy Steele joined the hunger strike with the second team, Steele had participated in previous hunger strikes including in 1936, Fleming was to participate in later hunger strikes. The first of the hunger strikers had already been moved to the prison hospital by the 16th March, by which time eighteen men had joined the strike, including Joe Cahill on the 9th March. On the 16th March, William Lowry, the Home Affairs Minister in Stormont, reported to Stormont that the “…condition of these men is only what could be expected after such a prolonged period without food. The Government cannot accept any responsibility for the actions of these men whose present condition is solely due to their own voluntary abstention from food“. He described hunger striking as a malignant and criminal practice and insisted that the medical treatment the prisoners were receiving was entirely satisfactory. Lowry went on to say, “…Their own relatives at an appropriate time, for example when death is imminent, will be duly notified.

The hunger strikers were joined for a week by 100 internees in Derry prison in mid-March. By the 22nd March, the Irish Times was reporting that Liam Burke, Pat McCotter, Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele were all weak after 30 days on hunger strike and had abandoned the strike. That story was not true but, as it was the latest in a series of inaccurate reports on the strike, it was becoming painfully obvious to the IRA prisoners that the censorship was preventing the strike having any impact on public opinion. When the forty day mark was passed, the IRA staff debated the futility of continuing when the chance of fatalities was now growing ever higher. On the forty-fourth day (6th April), the strike was called off. It seems, from Joe Cahill’s account in his biography A Life in the IRA, that the decision was not made by the hunger strikers themselves, as he puts it that a decision was “…taken to bring them off.” One key failure of the hunger strike was to secure parallel political status for internees and sentenced prisoners as there was no concurrent release of internees and sentenced prisoners in 1945. It wasn’t until 1950 that the last three sentenced prisoners, McAteer, Burke and Steele, were released.

The 1944 hunger strike may well never be commemorated or receive any significant attention yet it marks a significant stage in the development of republican tactics. A number of those involved in hunger strikes and prison protests of the early 1970s, such as Billy McKee and Prionsias MacAirt, had been in Crumlin Road at the time of the 1944 hunger strike. Others prominent activists in the early 1970s were also veterans of the 1940s, like Jimmy Drumm, Joe Cahill, Albert Price, Charlie McGlade and Harry White. The 1943/44 protests were Irish republicans first real experience of long term imprisonment in the twentieth century. They contain the roots of later republican thinking and experience that provides a context for prison protests, including the structure of hunger strikes and the role of publicity that became central to events in the 1970s and 1980s.

Thanks to Dr Breandán Mac Suibhne for the discovery of the March 1943 edition of An t-Óglach.

Who’s That Knocking on My Door: 75th anniversary of the death of Rocky Burns.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns, the only O/C of the Belfast IRA to be shot dead while he was in the role.
Rocky Burns

Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns in his coffin, from Resurgence, September 1946.

On the 10th February 1944, he and another member of the IRA left the Continental Café on Chapel Lane (now St. Mary’s Repository and the Holy Shop beside the Hercules Bar) and walked along Chapel Lane where they were stopped by two plain clothes RUC men and asked to produce their identification. Burns had previously evaded arrest when he had faulty identification by asking the RUC Sergeant who had challenged him for advice and then sitting through a lecture on how to go about getting the correct identification. On this occasion, Burns and his companion were turned around and told they were being brought back along Chapel Lane to Queen Street RUC Barracks. As they were walking crossing into Queen Street, a uniformed RUC Constable, John Trainor, from the Waterside in Derry, was on the other side of the road. In a later compensation hearing it was stated that Trainor had recognised Burns and was intending to join the others at Queen Street Barracks. Trainor was an ex-British soldier and former Army light heavyweight boxing champion.
After his death, the RUC stated that they had wanted Burns in relation to an attempt to shoot a prison warder, Nathaniel Robinson, on 25th January 1944 (just over two weeks previously). Relations between the republican prisoners in Crumlin Road, Derry and Armagh and the prison staff had rapidly deteriorated following the escapes of January and March 1943. This had culminated in the sentenced prisoners holding a strip strike in the middle of 1943 followed by a hunger strike by women prisoners in Armagh in the winter of that year. Since internment had recommenced in 1938, confrontations between the IRA and prison staff had oscillated wildly between a modus vivendi and a number of violent episodes in which warders had been attacked outside the prison, killing at least one, Thomas Walker, in February 1942. Since 1940, a significant number of republican prisoners had either died in the various prisons or been released when terminally ill only to die at home shortly later (eg see the account of the Al Rawdah here). Indeed, while he had been interned himself, Burns had been vociferous in calls for the Belfast Battalion of the IRA to carry retaliation against prison staff on the outside.
In 1939, Burns, then only 18, was in Derry Gaol when the republican internees took over a wing on Christmas Day. Like the rest, Rocky was subject to indiscriminate beatings by the Specials, RUC and British soldiers when the internees lost control of the wing again. When the B Specials, RUC and fire brigade were trying to break into the wing, they used a battering ram on the barricaded steel door, accompanied by Rocky singing ‘Who’s That Knocking At My Door?’ (click the link below to hear a popular version of the song from the 1930s).
On the 25th January, two men had confronted Robinson as we walked down Alliance Avenue on his way into Crumlin Road prison. One shot was fired at him. While the bullet did hit his hand, Robinson’s belt buckle deflected it, preventing a more serious injury. When he was brought hospital it was widely reported that he had identified one of those involved, following Burns death the press identified one of his attackers as Burns. This may be an incident referred to by Harry White in his own biography (Harry) in which he was involved in an IRA operation against a prison officer and in which he too was identified. In Harry, White doesn’t identify the second man with Burns on February 10th although it doesn’t appear to be White himself.
Whether Trainor had been deliberately positioned to cover Burns or not, according to the statement made at the inquest on 21st February, as the party crossed Castle Street onto Queen Street Burns pulled his revolver and tried to make a run for it. The official account claimed he had shot one of the RUC men then ran along Queen Street for twenty yards and then collapsed.
The reports from the subsequent inquest (on 21st February) are slightly unclear. Burns was shot through the liver and received three other bullet wounds. Bullets hit the window frame of the radio shop, two doors down from Queen Street RUC Barracks, while Burns gun had discharged five rounds, with one remaining in the chamber. The initial RUC statement on the incident, reproduced in the Northern Whig on 11th February, stated that Trainor had already joined the two plain clothes RUC men while they were escorting Burns and his companion to Queen Street Barracks. However, the exact sequence of events is unclear.
Trainor was hit by a single bullet that hit him in the arm, passing through his shoulder and neck which suggested that he had his arm raised and was firing his revolver. Whether he had approached Burns and the others as they walked on to Queen Street and told the others who Burns was, or had pulled his gun to cover Burns on realising who he was, he was the only RUC officer wounded in the exchange. Harry White seems to have believed that all Burns wounds came from one of the plain clothes officers. Burns companion managed to escape in the confusion.
Queen Street

The scene of the fatal shooting today. The spot where Burns tried to break away is the foreground of the image, he collapsed roughly just before where the bus is pulled in. 

Dr Eddie McEntee, who had his practice in King Street, was brought around to attend to the wounded. McEntee was himself a former member of the Belfast IRA and brother of Sean McEntee, then a minister in the Free State government. Burns was brought to the Royal Victoria Hospital where his condition never improved and he died on the morning of Saturday 12th February 1944. Trainor was later discharged from the RUC due to his wound (in September 1944 he was awarded £1,250 compensation).
Burns had first been imprisoned as a seventeen year old Fianna member in April 1938, for possession of a banned publication.  Released that September he joined the IRA, only to get picked up in the September 1939 internment sweep that coincided with the outbreak of World War 2. Interned in Crumlin Road, then Derry Jail, he was one of those who escaped and was recaptured in March 1943, spending time in the Curragh before making a pre-arranged resignation from the IRA, signing out of prison, then returning to Belfast where he took over as Belfast O/C following the arrest of Jimmy Steele in May 1943.
IMG_0974

Burns and other recaptured escapers on a lorry in March 1943.

Burns was such a larger than life figure that his death was keenly felt (you can read more about him here). He is also one of those who Laurie Green based his main character on in the novel and film, Odd Man Out.
Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns is buried in the Harbinson plot in Milltown cemetery.

 

 

The Great Escape: Derry, 1943

On the 20th March 1943 the IRA staged a mass escape through a tunnel from Derry Jail. The escape was one of a series of high profile actions by the IRA in the north in the first half of 1943.

The escape itself is well covered by an episode of the TG4 series, Ealú: To Hell and Back (currently not available online but worth a look if you can find it). There is a longer account of the escape on the blog here, so this article looks more at the wider context of the escape in terms of the IRA in 1943.

Planning for the Derry escape had begun in October 1942 when a tunnel was started in the cell of Harry O’Rawe and Jimmy O’Hagan (there are also accounts of the escape in Uinseann McEoin’s Harry and The IRA in the Twilight Years). The prospects for the IRA at the time looked bleak. After IRA Chief of Staff Sean Russell’s sabotage campaign in Britain failed to put much pressure on the government in London, the IRA had not articulated a clear change in strategy. The outbreak of the world war in September 1939 had also dramatically altered the wider political context. Northern irritation at the IRA’s Dublin-centric leadership had culminated in the removal of Stephen Hayes as Acting Chief of Staff (deputising for Russell), ostensibly for betraying the IRA. Hayes, like Russell, actually appeared to be intent on recalibrating IRA actions to coalesce with the political ambitions of Fianna Fail, as it had done up to at least 1932. Sean McCaughey, the IRA Adjutant General who led the investigation of Hayes, suspected that this was somehow being facilitated by a resuscitated IRB.

The world war had presented the IRA opportunities on two fronts. Firstly, the Allies desire for the USA to enter the war increased dramatically as the toll of their early setbacks mounted over 1940. Irish-America sensed an opening to leverage Ireland into the debate and countered some Allied propaganda by flagging parallels between the German’s treatment of other European territories with that of the British Empire, particularly Ireland. The presence of Sean Russell in the USA in 1939 had already raised the profile of the Irish issue (and effectively demonstrated that any value the English sabotage campaign, ultimately, had also  lay in exerting pressure on the UK via Irish-America).

The second front was in being able to draw lines between the British Empire and its enemies. Quite a lot has been written about the IRA and Nazi Germany, yet contacts were minimal, extremely erratic and apparently valueless to either side. In Belfast, over the same period, the IRA, was attempting to widen its political base by forming a Republican Club. This coincided with communists and the left pushing for a broad anti-fascist front and provided common ground. The Belfast steering committee included both IRA volunteers like Charlie McGlade, Jack Brady, Ernie Hillen and Tarlach Ó hUid, and, Communists, trade unionists and other interested parties like Malachy Gray, Jimmy Johnston and Jimmy Devlin (Ó hUid names members in his 1960 memoir Ar Thoir Mo Shealbha). Billy McCullough and Betty Sinclair were even to be jailed for publishing an article by the IRA in the left wing newsletter Red Hand. Over the course of 1939, the communist’s public language shifted from a broad ‘antifascist front’ to opposing Britain’s ‘imperialist war’. This initiative fragmented when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Communists position shifted dramatically towards supporting the Allies war effort in line with Russian foreign policy.

The subsequent fallout among those involved in the Republican Club was to continue to colour events in Belfast for decades, denouncing republicans within weeks of Tom Williams execution in 1942 and reputedly betraying senior IRA figures and dumps to the RUC (see Swan, Official Irish Republicanism, 1962 to 1972, p93). What this more acute was that, in the wake of the Hayes fiasco, the IRA’s centre had shifted to the north and Belfast. By mid-1942, weapons were being relocated to the northern dumps in preparation for a proposed campaign. After the capture of the main dump in late August 1942, massive RUC raids saw over 200 arrested in the hours after Williams execution at the start of September. The northern campaign never materialised (although the lower Falls was put under curfew until December 1942). With no prospect of success via a military victory, again, whatever strategy was in place relied upon achieving sufficient publicity in the USA that Irish-America might demand an Irish republic be included in any post-war Versailles-type treaty. By the end of 1942 and start of 1943 it was becoming apparent that no negotiated settlement would take place as the Allies demanded unconditional surrender by the Germans.

Subsequent IRA actions in the north in 1943 should then be understood as operations intended to generate as much publicity as possible, with two main audiences. The first was its belaboured supporters in Ireland, under pressure at home, and, interned on both sides of the border, and, both sides of the Irish Sea. The second was, as ever, Irish-America, and whatever future political support it might be able to deliver.

The focus on the newsworthiness of the escape also explains some of the flaws in the IRA’s overall plan for the Derry escape. The success factors in the high profile escape from Crumlin Road prison that January were not replicated in the Derry escape (resulting most of those who escaped being immediately picked up and interned in the south). Despite considerable logistical support on the ground, the main thrust of the escape plan was to get those involved over the border. That was despite the fact that the southern government had been even more bloodthirsty in pursuit of the IRA than even the northern government. Consciously or not, the real value in the escape was in the newsworthiness.

Two quotes shed some light on IRA thinking at the time. In his historical novel, An Ulster Idyll, Vincent McDowell (himself a 1940s internee) captures the general thinking among republicans in 1942: “They could look forward to peace eventually and some kind of normality, but the IRA hoped that they would have a place in the final peace conference, and that the question of Irish unity would be raised, hopefully with the help of the Americans.” Similarly, Hugh McAteer, the IRA Chief of Staff at the time (who himself had escaped in January 1943), wrote in the Sunday Independent in 1951 that by the middle of April 1943 the IRA leadership were openly admitting to each other that the military offensive begun in September 1942 was failing: “…we acknowledged to each other what we had long felt in our own hearts – that the possibility of our plans in the North succeeding was out of the question for the present. The propaganda value of the Derry escape, as evidenced by the many popular ballads, was tremendous; the practical result very small.

history

Photo showing prisoners re-captured by Free State soldiers in Donegal (published in Tim Pat Coogan’s The IRA).

Mass escape from Derry Jail, 2oth March 1943

On the 20th March 1943 the IRA staged a mass escape through a tunnel from Derry Jail. The escape was one of a series of high profile actions by the IRA in the north in the first half of 1943. The escape itself is well covered by an episode of the TG4 series, Ealú. This article looks at the wider context of the escape in terms of the 1940s IRA campaign.

Information about the escape was only disclosed to the Chief of Staff McAteer and the Northern Command Adjutant Jimmy Steele at an IRA army convention held in Ballymacarret in February 1943. McAteer and Steele had themselves escaped from Crumlin Road in January 1943. Finance for the Derry escape had already been (unwittingly) procured in a hold-up in Strabane on 2nd February by Jim Toner, O/C Tyrone, and his adjutant, Joe Carlin which netted £1,500[1]. The outside operation  was to be planned by Steele, Liam Burke, Harry White and Louis Duffin. Toner and Jimmy Clarke would help organise back-up. Word was sent in that the escape was to take place on the Saturday morning, 20th March, at 8.30am.

The planning of the Derry escape had begun in October 1942 when a tunnel was started in the cell of Harry O’Rawe and Jimmy O’Hagan[2]. The month previously, Tom Williams execution had coincided with a military campaign in the north by the IRA (the first formal northern offensive since 1922). A fifteen foot shaft had been sunk and then an eighty foot tunnel burrowed out towards a house in Hardinge Street and all the spoil disposed of. Communication in and out of the jail was by secret text between the lines of letters to Annie Hamill by her fiancé, Paddy Adams, who was O/C of the prisoners (she was also a sister of another internee, Sean Hamill). The tunnel was now nearing completion having gone through all manner of problems including water-logging, a collapse (nearly killing Billy Graham), and even having to dig under a coffin. The excavated soil from the tunnel even clogged the drains which had to be cleaned out but didn’t arouse suspicion.

Twenty men were to attempt to escape, to be supported by waiting IRA units in Derry and across the border in Donegal. Selection was based on those who would commit to reporting back for duty to the IRA, north of the border, once they had escaped. Once the twenty had passed through the tunnel, any other internée was free to follow them and make their own way to safety. It was hoped as many as eighty might escape.

For use in the Derry escape, Liam Burke had went to Currans to hire a furniture lorry and driver on the 18th March. The cost of the hire was to be £9 (this was paid to the firm after the escape). He and Jimmy Steele were to travel up to Derry in the lorry with the driver, called Davy, who was unaware of their true mission.

The lorry was going to be left at the corner of Abercorn Place, so that the escapers, who were expected to emerge in Harding Street, could run down and jump into the back. The escape was confirmed for 8.30 am on the Saturday morning. There were three flights of steps at the top of Abercorn Place, where it met Harding Street, which prevented the lorry being moved to just outside the house where the tunnel would emerge but also meant that it wasn’t close enough to arouse suspicion. Liam Burke was to position himself at the top of the steps to guide any escapers to the lorry.

The tunnel had been propped with bits of wood salvaged from around the prison plus sandbags made from pillow cases. In total 15 tons of clay had been removed for the tunnel. The sound of digging it up had often been masked by music practice. The tunnel itself had been completed before the IRA had organised the getaway vehicles and so there was a nervous wait inside the prison by the internees who were itching to get out[3]. The exit was in the coal bunker of Joseph Logue’s house in Harding Street.

The next day, Friday 19th March, Steele and Burke were picked up by the lorry which then began the drive up to Derry. On the way, the driver Davy wasn’t very talkative. He then stopped off at the main door of an RUC station in Castledawson, parked up the van, and went inside. Steele, sitting in the front seat, and armed with a revolver, had no idea whether the driver had recognised him (his niece worked for the same firm)  or become suspicious and was, at that very moment, giving him away to the RUC. It can’t have been too far from his mind how Hugh McAteer, the previous October, had accepted an invitation to an old school friend’s house only to deliver himself, the Chief of Staff of the IRA, straight into the hands of the waiting RUC without a fight.

To make matters worse, Steele was sitting at eye level right beside a wanted poster that said:

Royal Ulster Constabulary, Reward of £3,000. The above Reward, or proportionate amounts thereof, will be paid to the person or persons furnishing information to the police leading to the arrest of any one or more of the persons whose photographs and descriptions are given hereunder, and who escaped from Belfast Prison on the morning of 15th January, 1943.”

Under the text were pictures and descriptions of himself, Hugh McAteer, Ned Maguire and Pat Donnelly. Eventually, though, Davy returned to the van, got in and drove off (it turned out he had got lost and went looking for directions).  When they reached Derry, Steele produced his revolver and told Davy that his van was being commandeered by the IRA. Davy looked at the revolver and then told Steele that it wasn’t necessary as he was an IRA supporter. He even pointed out that he could drive the van better than anyone else so it would be better if he stayed with them[4]. Steele explained why the furniture van was being commandeered but Davy agreed to remain with them and help out with the escape. As it was, he was the best placed to act as the getaway driver[5] anyway.

Steele and Burke had arranged to be billeted in a safe house in the city. Other members of the Belfast IRA had arrived separately, in twos and threes, to help in the escape.

On the morning of the escape, the prisoners found that the mouth of the tunnel had been blocked. As time wound down to the escape the idea had begun to take hold that the authorities’ failure to uncover the tunnel was a rouse and the plan was simply to shoot the internees as ‘escapers’ as they emerged from the tunnel. So, on discovering the tunnel blocked, they assumed the escape was over. Outside, Steele and Burke were unaware of any of the dramas inside the prison as the agreed time of 8.30 am approached. By now, the prisoners had realised that the tunnel was blocked by two bags of coal which were then transported back through the tunnel and into the prison clearing the way for the escape.

The prisoners then began to emerge from the tunnel and, much to the Logue family’s shock, ran through the house into the road. Kevin Kelly remembers that Joseph Logue had stood with one leg in his trousers in the parlour as they ran through. When he reached the street he saw Liam Burke and Chips McCusker and, even sixty years later, remembered the feeling of elation and how fresh the air was after being inside (Derry Jail was notoriously dark and damp). Kelly himself says:

You could never describe the feeling.”

Burke then handed Kelly a revolver and directed him towards the van in Abercorn Place where Steele was still sat in the front with the driver.

Back in the Logue’s house, Sean Hamill was keeping watch over the Logues as the other members of the escape team emerged from the tunnel. He remained there until the last man came out, even then delaying to make sure no-one else was going to emerge[6]. Kelly had jumped into the back of the lorry while some others delayed in Abercorn Place. To free up space Steele and Burke were going to stay in the city, rather than leave with the lorry, and Ned Maguire took over in the lorry’s cab with the driver for the next part of the escape bid[7].

A young girl who noticed the escapees in the street went to the prison gates and informed the staff (who were already suspicious that something was going on). By the time the warders discovered the tunnel, 21 men had passed through it and had escaped. Fourteen of them climbed onto the lorry. Some, including Harry O’Rawe[8], Hubert McInerney, Brendan O’Boyle, Chips McCusker and Billy Graham didn’t go on the lorry and made their way to Letterkenny on foot[9]. Sean Hamill had remained in the Logues to prevent them raising the alarm. By the time he left the house, the lorry had already driven off. Having previously spent time in the city (he had originally been picked up and interned there), Hamill then decided to stay in Derry on the run, and felt able to make his way across the border. O’Boyle was the last official escapee[10], while Jimmy O’Rawe, the last to escape through the tunnel, was the first non-official member of the escape team to go through the tunnel and the only non-official escaper to get out. He didn’t know Derry well and was picked up during the blackout on Sunday night by the RUC.

Those in the lorry drove off[11], making the four and half mile journey to Carrigans where they were to cross the border with the intention of linking up with the waiting IRA unit on the other side. The journey was pretty uneventful and the apprehension and tension among the escapers in the back exploded in a yell of triumph when they crossed over the border at Carrigans and travelled on to St Johnston where they were supposed to be met by another lorry. Instead, nine ended up surrendering that night to pursuing Free State soldiers and Gardaí. They were re-interned (a certain naivety still existed among northerners about the capacity of Fianna Fáil to support the unionist government), this time in the Curragh. A famous photograph shows eleven men captured by Free State soldiers in the back of a lorry.

Photo showing prisoners re-captured by Free State soldiers in Donegal (published in Tim Pat Coogan's The IRA.

Photo showing prisoners re-captured by Free State soldiers in Donegal (published in Tim Pat Coogan’s The IRA.

Having left the lorry (it was eventually found in Sion Mills), Steele and Burke made an uneventful train journey back to Belfast. Steele was dressed in his Auxiliary Fire Service uniform while Burke was dressed as a priest. After they arrived back in Belfast, the £9 was forwarded to Currans to pay for the hire of the lorry.

Some, like Kevin Kelly, believed the timing of the escape was wrong and they should have gone out in the evening to take advantage of the blackout and then night-time. Within a week only three of the 21 were still at liberty. Lessons from the May 1941  and January 1943 escapes from Crumlin Road had not been learned, like not using getaway cars or trying to co-ordinate with outside help, with obvious consequences (in contrast, it was months before any of the May 1941 or January 1943 escapees were recaptured).

Strategically, the IRA appeared to have an eye, either consciously or subconsciously, on the propaganda value of an escape over the immediate practical contribution freeing 21 experienced volunteers would make to its northern campaign. As the IRA’s centre had shifted to the north in the early 1940s, a growing emphasis was put on positioning the question of Irish unity on the agenda of any expected Versailles-style conference that might happen after the world war. The IRA’s sabotage campaign in Britain had started in January 1939, but by September the start of the world war held out the prospect that a British reverse might be a catalyst to the re-establishment of the Irish republic as declared at Easter 1916 (the IRA’s ultimate objective).

As the possibility of British defeat receded, attitudes changed and, different dynamics emerged, first with the German invasion of Russia[12], and then with US entry into the war. The latter in particular, created the hope of a Versailles-style conference. And this is not as far-fetched as it now sounds. Irish unity had been an active issue in the public discussions of US support for the allies and then participation in the war. And until the Yalta conference in 1945, it was assumed there would be a negotiated end to the war. In Belfast, the IRA, under Hugh McAteer, had issued a number of public statements about the deployments of US troops in the north in 1942 and 1943 hoping to gain some headlines in the US. In his historical novel, An Ulster Idyll, Vincent McDowell (himself a 1940s internee) captures the general thinking among republicans in 1942:

“They could look forward to peace eventually and some kind of normality, but the IRA hoped that they would have a place in the final peace conference, and that the question of Irish unity would be raised, hopefully with the help of the Americans.”

McAteer, in the Sunday Independent in 1951[13] wrote that by the middle of April 1943 the IRA leadership were openly admitting to each other that the military offensive begun in September 1942 was failing:

“…we acknowledged to each other what we had long felt in our own hearts – that the possibility of our plans in the North succeeding was out of the question for the present. The propaganda value of the Derry escape, as evidenced by the many popular ballads, was tremendous; the practical result very small. The mass of the people were thoroughly disillusioned by the attitude of the 26-County Government towards us in the North; hundreds of our more experienced men were imprisoned or interned. The pattern of our work was thus clear. We had first of all to preserve the spirit of the movement, even if we could achieve nothing more concrete, and, secondly, to keep ourselves out of the jails as long as possible, and even this was becoming more difficult.”

By April 1943 then, the IRA’s northern offensive had largely petered out and by the middle of that year there was a clear shift towards dealing with prison issues. McAteer’s statement about the IRA’s thinking in March and April 1943 may also reflect growing public confidence in the possibility of an outright allied victory following Stalingrad and El Alamein and the realisation that a post-war conference to settle territorial claims and disputes was now looking unlikely.

With the possibility of a Versailles-type settlement gone, as McAteer states, the priority was now “..to preserve the spirit of the movement”. That set the stage for next big propaganda coup of the IRA, its 1943 Easter Commemoration in Belfast, which I’ll cover another day.

[1] McEoin (Harry), p133

[2] There are various accounts, including in Harry and The IRA in the Twilight Years, also an episode of the TG4 series, Ealú: To Hell and Back.

[3] Kevin Kelly, interviewed on Ealú.

[4] Hayes, 2004, 69

[5] Hayes 2004, 69

[6] Information as related by Sean to his son Féilim.

[7] Based, in part, on Hugh McAteer’s account (Sunday Independent 13.5.1951)

[8] O’Rawe had stood and watched Eamon Ó Cianáin and others escape over the wall in Crumlin Road in May 1941, only for warders to arrive and end his chances of escape. O’Rawe had helped wrestle the warders away from Gerry Doherty who was the last man over the wall on that occasion.

[9] As Chips McCusker was standing with Liam Burke when Kevin Kelly emerged from Logue’s, those who didn’t go in the lorry appear to have chosen not to do so either to divide the escapers up to evade capture or due to lack of space (McAteer, writing in 1951, implies that they were left behind).

[10] Coogan 1970 The IRA, 185

[11] According to Liam Burke’s account in The IRA in the Twilight Years, the driver and Ned Maguire took the lorry to the border, himself and Jimmy apparently staying the city.

[12] In Ar Thóir mo Shealbha Tarlach Ó hUid describes how a loose collaboration between the broad left in Belfast and the IRA in 1940 came apart over differing opinions over the ending of the German/Soviet pact with the German invasion of Russia. Joe Cahill (in Anderson’s 2002 biography of him A Life in the IRA) also relates that the moods in the prison and relations between warders and prisoners ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of the war and the changing alliances.

[13] Sunday Independent 20th May 1951