Liam Mellows’s escape
Liam Mellows’s escape

How Liam Mellows escaped from exile in England to return to Ireland in time for the 1916 Rising, by eirigi.

A former full time organiser for Fianna Eireann, a founding member of the Irish Volunteers and a valued member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Mellows had spent a significant period reorganising the Volunteers in the west. James Connolly and the other Rising leaders saw him as the key to a successful revolt in County Galway. Once they heard word that he was to be deported, they set to work to get him back.

On Friday, March 24 1916, Liam Mellows was captured by the RIC in Athenry, County Galway. He was transported from the county on the night train and detained in Arbour Hill prison. There was no charge and no trial, he was simply left to wait. Soon, however, he got word that the British planned to send him into exile in England.

It was early evening when Nora Connolly arrived at her home. Barney Mellows was waiting inside and greeted her by exclaiming, “I’ve been waiting since a little after 12 for you”. He then told her he brought news of a ‘job’ and he passed her a note from her father James. It read: “Dear Nora, the bearer will tell you what we want you to do. I have every confidence in your ability. Your father, James Connolly.”

Barney told Nora of how his brother Liam was to be deported to England that night. His instructions were simple; as Liam was an important leader for the planned Rising, the two of them had to do their utmost to get him back to Ireland as soon as possible. Eamon Ceannt and James Connolly had given written plans of how the two might travel discreetly through Scotland and then England, while Sean Mac Diarmada had provided a list of safe houses which the pair could make use of in an emergency.

Helena Molony informed the pair that there was no information as to where Liam was being taken but, regardless of this, Barney and Nora were to set out for England immediately. The two were to take the Saturday night boat which was usually packed with returning theatre actors. The plan was that Barney and Nora would dress as actors and slip aboard the boat among the crowd. Helena Molony prepared both with theatrical haircuts and hats to finish the disguise. They were given instructions to travel to Birmingham and to keep in touch with a safe house there. Word would be left for them there once Liam’s whereabouts were known.

The pair took the ferry for Scotland. On the Sunday night, they were stuck in Edinburgh due to German Zeppelin attacks on April 2/3 and it was Tuesday before they arrived in Birmingham. They waited anxiously for news from Ireland. Over a week passed before information arrived that Liam was in Leek, under house arrest with distant relatives, the Morgans (he had been allowed by the British authorities to choose his own destination).

Having been transported to Holyhead under a British military escort, Liam had been allowed to travel on alone to Leek. The Morgan family welcomed him when he arrived unannounced on their doorstep and did not appear concerned when he told them that he would periodically have to report to the local police station.

A music lover, Liam had a relaxing few days playing the fiddle which he had taken with him on the journey. He also joined in family excursions and, on a Sunday, there was mass, followed by the ‘stations of the cross’, to attend and, afterwards, Liam, along with the Morgans, went to local hotel for a drink. While at the hotel a message arrived that read simply: “Bertie is here.”

Liam rushed back to the house where he was greeted by his brother Barney who told him that when he and Nora had received word of his whereabouts they hired a car and had reached Leek in a few short hours. The brothers went to have a private chat in John Morgan’s room. After changing clothes, Liam emerged and left with Nora. Barney then told the family that he would stay on in Liam’s place in order to cover the escape. The family acquiesced.

Nora had waited in the town centre in the hired car and, as soon as Liam arrived, they travelled back to Birmingham and were in Glasgow the very next day. That night, a friendly priest arrived at the safe house and delivered a complete clerical uniform several sizes too large for the young Mellows.

Once dressed for priestly duties, the two departed for the train station from which they set out for Greenock. On the train, the two shared a compartment with a group of rowdy cattle dealers. At one point, the group got so carried away in shouting about the poor prices they had received for their produce that they began to curse irreverently. Then, as quick as the outburst had started, one of them remembered the ‘priest’ in their midst. The man apologised profusely for their uncouth behaviour.

Liam was graceful and passed the incident off and even managed to stay with this group as he ascended the gangway to the boat. As luck would have it, a strike on cross channel boats from Liverpool, Fleetwood, Heysham and Stranraer meant that the Glasgow service was overwhelmed with potential passengers and hence police and harbour officials were not at their most observant.

The boat arrived in Belfast at six o’clock in the morning and Liam set off on foot for the Connolly family home in Glenalina Terrace on the Falls Road. He was followed a couple of feet behind by Nora who shadowed him in order to ensure nothing untoward happened. She had no need to worry as the priestly disguise seemed to do the trick. All along Castle Street Liam passed RIC officers coming on duty at the shift change and each of the officers in turn saluted as he passed.

Once Liam was safely in the family home, Nora wrote out a postcard for her father and sent it to Liberty Hall. It read simply: “Everything grand. We are back home. Peter.”

Nora contacted Denis McCullough who, in turn, arranged for Liam to be transported south to meet the commanders of the Rising. Within a week, he would be leading the Irish Volunteers in insurrection in Galway.

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