The author is a QUB Pol Sci Honours graduate and has written extensively on imperialism, national liberation struggles and class issues.
The Crumlin Road Gaol, since its first use as a prison in 1846, has had its fair share of controversy and tragedy in its century and a half of history as a functioning prison. The prison was built to Charles Lanyon's design based on 19th Century Utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon model. Most Victorian prisons adopted this model, as it afforded guards maximum surveillance potential via the 'wings' of the prison, which aerial views show radiate like the spokes of a wheel from a central position known as the circle.
Tom Williams, a young IRA member from the Beechmount area of west Belfast, who was executed in 1942, was perhaps the best known of the 17 people executed in the gaol. The 'Crum' is famous for having the maximum number of escapes and escape attempts from any prison in Ireland. It would be impossible, in this short article, to detail every escape and attempted escape from the Crum, but there is sufficient space to briefly examine some of the best known of the more recent escapes.
Joe Cahill and Other Republican Prisoners
The Crum's escapees and attempted escapees were almost to a man Republican prisoners, held in the prison either on political charges or as internees. Tom Williams' co-accused, lifelong Republican, the late Joe Cahill, had been involved in an unsuccessful escape plan on January 15th, 1943. His efforts were thwarted at the last moment by the observant son of a prison official who had earlier spotted Cahill's fellow escapees disappearing over the gaol's wall.
Cahill admitted later in life that he was perhaps the worst prison escapee during his lengthy periods of incarceration, having being apprehended or thwarted during every attempt. However, four Republican prisoners made good their escape that day, including Hugh McAteer, whose brother was later to become leader of the Nationalist Party and Jimmy Steele, a founding member of the Provisional IRA.
1989 Mass Escape Attempt
One of the most audacious plans for an escape from the 'Crum' occurred in 1989, when a mass escape by Republican remand prisoners in the gaol's C Wing was thwarted at almost the last moment. A JCB digger had been hijacked earlier and a powerful bomb placed in its bucket, which then was to be used to blast down the perimeter wall adjoining Saint Malachy's College, just off the Antrim Road. Small amounts of the powerful plastic explosive Semtex had been smuggled into the gaol, to enable the prisoners to blast their way out of C Wing's exercise yard.
Hijacked vehicles, unlocked and still with their ignition keys, had been left parked strategically in the backstreets surrounding the gaol for the departing prisoners to make good their escapes. Rioting in West Belfast was coordinated to tie up RUC and military resources on the day of the escape. The daring plan was thwarted, ostensibly because the JCB digger developed a puncture but there is suspicion that an informer had alerted the security forces to the plan.
The Crumlin Kangaroos
Perhaps the best known of the escapes from the Crumlin Road was the successful jailbreak by the famous 'Crumlin Kangaroos'. On the 17th of November 1971, as Republican prisoners were engaged in a match on the jail's football pitch, 9 prisoners using improvised rope-ladders clambered over the wall on their way to freedom. After negotiating a pre-cut hole in the final perimeter fencing, the nine prisoners piled into two cars left for them on the nearby Antrim Road.
Almost instantaneously, the nine Crumlin Road escapees, Thomas Kane, Seamus Storey, Bernard Elliman, Danny Mullan, Thomas Fox, Tom Maguire, Peter Rogers, Christy Keenan, and Terence 'Cleaky' Clarke became forever known as the 'Crumlin Kangaroos.' Christy Keenan and Danny Mullan's good luck deserted them the following day when they were recaptured in County Tyrone disguised as Cistercian monks, accompanied by two genuine members of the Portglenone based religious order.
Shortly after the escape, the Wolfhounds folk group recorded the now-famous Crumlin Kangaroos ballad, which became an instant hit in Ireland and among the Irish diaspora. The Wolfhounds had played their own remarkable part in Republican penal history when they took part in what could be termed a reverse escape from Long Kesh internment camp in 1971. The band was smuggled into Long Kesh, disguised as visiting clergymen and played an impromptu concert in Cage 4. When the screws twigged that they had been duped, a British Army riot squad surrounded the cage, which led to the prisoners confronting them for their intrusion and salvos of rubber bullets being fired by the troops.
The M60 Squad Escape
The M60 Squad's dramatic jailbreak from the Crum, ten years after the Kangaroos lept to freedom, occurred in the midst of the H Block Hunger Strikes in Long Kesh, during 1981. The M60 Squad, so-called because of their IRA active service unit's use of the powerful American made M60 general-purpose machine-gun which possessed a withering cyclic rate, during planned ambushes of enemy forces.
Eventually, they were captured in premises at the junction of the Antrim and Limestone Roads in May 1980. As the Provisional IRA active service unit was about to open fire on the nearby, heavily fortified, Antrim Road RUC barracks, they were surprised by undercover SAS troopers. In the ensuing gun battle, a SAS Captain, Herbert Westmacott, was fatally wounded and the M60 Squad were captured, following a stand-off where a priest negotiated their surrender.
In June 1981, the seven members of the M60 Squad including Joe Doherty, Paul 'Dingus' Magee, Robert 'Fats' Campbell, Gerard McKee, Tony Sloan, Gerry Sloan, and Angelo Fusco, who had been held in the Crum since their arrest, were within days of their trial at the no-jury Crown Court. The Courthouse itself was situated just across the road from the gaol but as events proved, the M60 Squad had other plans regarding their attendance at their forthcoming trial there.
On June 10th when the M60 Squad and an eighth prisoner, Pete Ryan from Ardboe, in Tyrone, were attending pre-trial consultations in the legal visiting area of the prison, they produced handguns, relieved the screws on duty of their uniforms and the lawyers of their suits. The eight then made their way towards the gaol's front gate, with two of the M60 Squad in prison guard's uniforms where they bluffed their way through the inner gate of the airlock type exit. A prison guard on the outer gate recognised one of the prisoners and promptly raised the alarm but was unable to stop the fleeing Republican prisoners who stormed past him, exiting onto the Crumlin Road itself.
By this stage, sirens were sounding in the gaol and British forces guarding the prison and courthouse were alerted. As the M60 Squad made their way across the Crumlin Road, it must have appeared to the British Army sentries on duty in the perimeter sangars, that two prison guards were chasing six well-dressed men. Undercover RUC men opened fire on the fleeing IRA escapees who took cover and returned fire as they ran through the parking lot of the Crumlin Road Health Centre, adjacent to the Courthouse. IRA support units had left unlocked cars, with keys left in the ignition in the Health Centre car-park, which some members of the escapees availed of. Joe Doherty and some of the escaping IRA prisoners managed to hijack vehicles in the nearby Loyalist Shankill Estate.
Eventually, all the M60 Squad escapees made their way to the Republican heartland of nearby West Belfast and were subsequently moved to the relative safety of southern Ireland. The 1981 Crumlin Road escapees enjoyed mixed fortunes during their periods on the run. Of the escapees, Pete Ryan was tragically gunned down in a SAS ambush, Paul 'Dingus' Magee was arrested on active service in Britain and Joe Doherty fought a lengthy extradition battle from the USA. Joe Doherty, who was eventually deported in 1992, remained in Long Kesh Prison until 1998, when he was freed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Ingenuity of Republican Prisoners
There were, of course, many other escapes and attempted jailbreaks from Crumlin Road Prison throughout the years but the ones listed above are arguably the most memorable. Through the years, Irish Republican prisoners have managed to escape from places of confinement as diverse as Long Kesh, Mountjoy Gaol, Brixton Prison, Derry Gaol, Portlaoise and the Maidstone Prison Ship. Through sheer ingenuity, patience and determination, Republican prisoners have tunnelled, swam, sawed, blasted, driven and even flown out of prisons they have been held in.
Legacy of the Gaol
The Crumlin Road saw approximately 25,000 political prisoners pass through its grim doors, in its 150-year life as a prison. Now that it has been preserved as a museum, many Crumlin Road Gaol 'Alumni' including ex-prisoners, ex-guards and indeed ex-escapees, have once again entered the precincts of the prison sans hand-cuffs but this time on guided tours, which no doubt induces bittersweet nostalgia for many.
- A Brief History of Crumlin Road Gaol | Culture Northern Ireland
Historian John Quinn's account of the life and times of Crumlin Road Gaol.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2019 Liam A Ryan