Senior republicans joined at the weekend to commemorate one of the most famous events of the conflict, the 1983 escape from the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. ----- EXTENDED BODY:
On Friday night in Letterkenny, Gerry Kelly, Bobby Storey and Brendan ``Bik'' McFarlane reconstructed Europe's biggest jail break since the second world war in a gathering of over a thousand republicans.
On September 25, 1983, IRA PoWs took over a block in the H-Blocks and held it for nearly two hours, allowing 38 prisoners to escape.
The reconstruction involved video screens, maps and photographs, and anecdotal personal accounts of participants.
In typical republican style, black humour was the order of the day. But the importance of the escape, following the loss of ten republicans in the 1981 humger strikes, was lost on no-one.
There was a particular tribute to those who assisted the escape but who stayed behind and did not participate. ``They are the forgotten ones but they all played a part just as much as we did," said Bobby Storey.
The escape plan depended on the use of a `hobby' shop, where the prisoners were allowed to make harps and other craft items to sell on the outside.
One prisoner was told to make a wooden gun with a wooden silencer. ``Of course, it wooden work,'' said Storey. But the gun did play an important role, he pointed out, as Kelly wielded it to gain control of the van that would be used for the escape.
The planning was ad hoc, he said. Those chosen to escape were not even told until just beforehand. The prisoners identified the wardens who would be on duty on the morning of the escape so the uniforms they took off them would fit. The escape began at a signal from Storey.
``There were 30 of us on the block and only three of them, so that part was easy. We told them they were under arrest and we took it from there,'' he said.
Storey described how the prisoners gained control of a tally lodge just 30ft away from a British Army watchtower. A soldier looked on as the prisoners fought with wardens who had just come on duty.
``He must have been the stupidest of all the Brits they ever sent over here,'' Storey joked. ``He thought we were arguing about a football match or something.''
The screen behind the stage, which had been showing diagrams of the prison, switched to images of farmhouses and rivers as it was explained that although 19 prisoners were immediately recaptured, others escaped across fields.
``We were lying in a drain. Someone had seen us and there were RUC and army everywhere,'' Storey said. ``They were so close we could hear them talking. One said, `If I ever get my hands on Storey, I'll kill him' so it wasn't a great incentive to give myself up.
``Eventually they spotted us and ordered us out. It was the Lagan for God's sake and we couldn't swim so that was the scariest bit of the whole lot.''
Storey was pragmatic about the prisoners' motivation for the escape. ``I would love to say we realised its political significance but really all we were looking for was to get back to the struggle,'' he said.
The trio finished by thanking everyone connected with the escape, and there were presentations to the relatives of those who had died.
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