Escape from Athlone barracks

An account of Volunteer Tom Maguire’s escape from Athlone Barracks in 1923.

Tom Maguire [March 28 1892 - July 5 1993] held the rank of commandant-general in the Western Command of the Irish Republican Army and led the South Mayo flying column during the Tan War.

In the 1921 elections to Dail Eireann, Maguire was returned unopposed as Teachta Dala for County Mayo as a Sinn Fein candidate. He opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty. In the 1923 general election, Maguire faced a contest and succeeded in securing the second of five seats in the Mayo South constituency, winning 5,712 votes [a share of 17.82 percent]. He was a member of the army executive which commanded republican troops during the Civil War.

Maguire was captured by Free State forces in mid-October 1922 and told that he would be executed, but his life was spared, possibly because of his prominence, and remained a TD until 1927.

At the time of his capture, he was organising the IRA close to Headfort, County Meath when he suddenly found himself surrounded. In his own words, “It was then that I really experienced the sort of mercenaries they [the Free State army] were, ex-British Army soldiers, tramps and misfits of every conceivable type. They had expanded their army to over 50,000 men and I suppose you do not find numbers like that unless you rake them from off the street corners.”

Court-martialled in January 1923, Tom waited anxiously to find out if he was to be executed. On one occasion, he was brought with a group of five others to cells for those to be executed the following morning but, while the others were shot, he received a last minute reprieve. His brother, 17-year-old Sean, wasn’t so lucky and was executed by firing squad while imprisoned in Tuam.

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Tom and his comrades decided they had to escape. The following account by Maguire details how they managed to successfully escape and return to the struggle against the counter-revolution.

“I escaped from the Athlone Garrison Detention on the 10th of June, 1923. Our jail was inside other lines of military buildings, two sides of which were used by the other detained Republicans, but with barred windows between us and them. On the other two sides were tall impressive walls. A small wash house containing a single tap stood against one of these walls. At the floor, where the tap dripped, a brick had been removed. I always thought that our only hope of escape would be out through a hole near the floor. Two military watch towers overlooked our small yard, in the centre of which was a recreation shed. The soldiers in them could not quite see into the wash house.

“Mick Mullen was a medical student from near Castlebar. I said to him one day, ‘our only hope of getting out of here is through that wash house, but I don’t know how it can be done except through the roof’. Mick tackled it, but found that it would not work. Meanwhile, a few local lads were brought in who knew Athlone. One of these recommended that we work upon the hole near the floor and escape that way. Six o’clock was lock-up time, so it was necessary to complete it before that. One chap stood idly in the door opening. If a military policeman appeared the chap working on the hole would draw his basin across it, scattering a few shirts alongside it meanwhile.

“At long last a very small hole penetrated through. We had very little time left. We decided we would go in pairs, taking one of the local lads to make up each pair. Quickly the first two scrambled and scraped their way through. They found themselves in an enclosed yard. Pushing at a barred window, it opened into a vehicle workshop. Emerging with a screwdriver and some tools they hastily opened a door out of this yard on to an internal roadway running parallel to the public road, entered now just past the rail station, and bordering a fetid canal.

“The internal roadway, was enclosed by another high wall. They proceeded on from there but I cannot say how exactly they went. We were now following close upon their tail. I went head first horizontally through the hole scraping myself abominably because I could not wear my jacket, but eventually emerging in the second enclosed yard. We did not know whether to attempt to cross this as the sentry could see into it also. Should we wait here for the change of guard or take the chance now? We felt we had to push on. We followed where we presumed the first party had gone. This brought us straight onto Pump Square, in other words right into where our own lads, the detainees, were housed. Would they spoil our chances by involuntarily greeting us? Again we had to take the chance. Jimmie Martin was with me now. Hastily donning our scuffed jackets, and pulling each out a hankie - they’ll take us for officers, we boldly walked into the big square. It was Sunday afternoon, and our lads were hanging about in the bright sunlight. Red caps and soldiers supervised them. Now, I thought, is the testing time; if there is a single shout we are finished. But they had enough sense to keep quiet.

“We crossed the square and emerged in the corner of Artillery Square, another big square, in the corner of which had been a tall old elm tree. It was cut down, but its long branches had not been lopped and these stood up almost reaching to the top of the wall. Could we make it? At the corner, suspended from an upright post that was carrying the barbed wire on top of the wall, was a strong length of wire with a loop upon the end of it. This was suspended above one of the branches that we now climbed up. I sprang for this loop and fortunately, got it on the first grab. With both of us holding it, we pulled ourselves to the top of the wall, passed through the barbed wire, and dropped twenty feet into the Protestant minister’s garden. There is a road close to this, and we got on to it. It leads to a place called the Batteries, where Free State soldiers were out walking their girls. The alarm had not been raised so we passed them without anyone taking notice. We got away as quickly as we could, leaving Athlone behind us. That night we were safely hidden in a house on the road to Athleague.

“Three separate pairs got out we learned afterwards, before the shutters closed and the escape hole was caught. It was well worth the effort, even though I was now on the run. I remained under cover until the end of 1925.”

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