Tommy Gorman was one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ who escaped from the prison Ship Maidstone in 1972, 39 years ago this week. An interview by Anthony Neeson for the Andersonstown News.
Tommy Gorman graduated from the Republican school of hard knocks via the Divis Street riots of 1964 and the Divis Street pogroms five years later. On the first occasion the Reverend Ian Paisley threatened to lead a loyalist mob onto the Falls to take down the Irish tricolour which flew from the window of the Sinn Fein electoral headquarters; the RUC decided to do the job for him and initiated nearly a week of fierce rioting in the district. Tommy smiles and says it was then that he first spilt blood for Ireland when he was whacked across the head by an RUC baton. Five years down the line, in August 1969, Tommy found himself in Divis Street again as loyalists set Catholic homes alight and he witnessed RUC men tossing petrol bombs into the Arkle Inn at the corner of Divis Street and firing after fleeing Catholics and at those who were defending their homes. Soon after, he decided that the Civil Rights movement wouldn’t bring the necessary changes that the North of Ireland needed if it was to reflect a normal society, and, like many young men of his generation, he joined the IRA.
Today, prized among Tommy’s possessions, is a faded old photograph of himself and three friends, Jim Bryson, Tommy Tolan and Tucker Kane, outside the GPO in Dublin, taken a couple of days after they escaped from the prison ship Maidstone in Belfast Lough on January 17, 1972. Just five years after that photograph was taken only one of them would be still alive - the man I’m talking to. Jim Bryson was shot by paratroopers in August 1973 and died from his injuries three weeks later. A legendary figure in the IRA in the early seventies, he was on the run at the time of his killing. Tommy Tolan was murdered by the Official IRA in July, 1977, one of four people to die in feud-related shootings that day. Tommy ‘Tucker’ Kane died in a car accident on the Glen Road in July, 1976.
While Tommy often smiles fondly as he relives the escape, the comradeship and the excitement of that freezing night in 1972 - the story is always touched by the pain and sadness of the loss of his pals. “Back then the IRA would call a truce over the Christmas period because they were very conscious of the festive season, although none of our enemies ever adhered to it,” recalls Tommy. “In the early hours of December 27, 1971, Tucker Kane and Peter Rogers came back to my house in Carrigart Avenue in Lenadoon. It was nearly three o’clock in the morning so we decided to stay over. An hour or so later the house was hit and we were all arrested and brought to the temporary barracks on the Blacks Road. “In the cellar there were these blankets with eyeholes cut out of them, and we heard voices behind the eyeholes saying, ‘Yeah, that’s him’.” The next day the three were brought to Holywood Barracks. Whereas years later the RUC would employ the ‘good cop, bad cop’ method of interrogation, back in 1971 it was an entirely different RUC question-and-answer session that awaited Tommy Gorman. “It was more a case of bad cop, worse cop,” says Tommy. “From the moment you entered Holywood Barracks you got a beating and it lasted the three days you were there, so when we were brought to the Maidstone it was a relief to see your friends and comrades.”
Earlier that year, the IRA’s 1st Battalion in Andersonstown, of which Tommy was a member, successfully orchestrated an escape from Crumlin Road Gaol when nine prisoners - the legendary ‘Crumlin Kangaroos’ - famously absconded over the prison wall. With that morale-boosting success behind them, Tommy and his West Belfast comrades put their minds to escaping from the Maidstone which was moored in the icy waters of Belfast Lough. Within two weeks a plan was hatched. “There was barbed wire ringing the ship some 10 to 15 metres out from the hull so we thought we would have to somehow swing out and jump into the water, but the splash would have given us away,” continued Tommy. “Fortunately for us, a day before our planned escape another ship moored alongside us and when it departed it left a big hawser [a thick mooring cable] which had held the two boats together. It hung down from the top deck of the Maidstone and out into the water beyond the barbed wire. “We had arranged for IRA comrades on the outside to meet us at the other side of the dock, which was 500 to 600 yards away, and they were to have clothes and food waiting for us. We planned to leave the ship at around four o’clock in the afternoon, after we’d had our tea and they had finished the headcount, so that by the time we’d got across to the dock we’d be leaving with the hordes of Harland and Wolf workers. Unfortunately, they messed the headcount up and before we had even started we were running behind schedule.” One of the two iron bars which covered the prisoners’ porthole was sawn through and, one by one, the seven escapees, blacked up with shoe polish and smeared with butter to protect them from the cold, slid down the hawser and into the mid-winter lough.
“I was the first to go and I thought to myself, if anything happens I’ll just climb back in again. But once I got onto the hawser I soon realised there was no going back and I slid all the way down into the water. “It was a quiet night, which made it difficult for us. The water was cold but because the adrenalin was pumping so hard we didn’t really feel it. After I jumped into the sea I came back up to the surface and turned onto my back. At that point I thought I was going to be shot dead. I was just waiting for the shooting because the lights from the ship were incredibly bright and I couldn’t understand how anyone could miss me. I could see all our lads’ heads at the portholes. When I realised I was in the clear I turned and swam quietly to a wee pier where coal was being unloaded to the power station nearby. It took me about 20 minutes.”
Wearing nothing but a pair of socks and underpants, Tommy crouched on his hunkers, shivering, waiting for his six comrades. But after what seemed like half an hour, Tommy decided all was not right and, about six o’clock in the evening, he went in search of anyone, or anything, that would get him to a safe house. Spotting a bus parked nearby, he jumped on board, only to come face to face with the driver in the front seat. It was a sight that rocked the startled man back on his heels. “I told him I had fallen overboard from a boat and swam ashore and that I had taken my trousers off because they were dragging me down. He insisted on taking me over to the security hut on the dock but I kept telling him I wanted to go to hospital. Eventually, he gave me his coat but then he insisted again that I go to the security hut and he grabbed hold of me. I hit him and he fell. I started running away and there was a jangling noise from the coat pockets. I stopped and put my hand in and found his change. I didn’t want him to think that I was a crook, so I turned and gave it to him and then ran on. “When I got back to the pier the other lads had gathered there. We decided to press on. We came across a yellow Vauxhall Viva and the seven of us piled in to get some warmth while we decided what to do. You can imagine it, seven of us with various degrees of nakedness squashed into a car not much bigger than a mini!”
The best way to describe the scene was like something out of Monty Python, said Tommy, laughing as he relived events. “Jim Bryson pulled the seat cover off the Vauxhall and wore it around himself. Tommy Tolan had found an umbrella and I was dressed in a busman’s coat. With the other four semi-naked, some wearing large flip-flops, we made our way back towards the bus. When we got there, Peter Rogers, who had been a bus driver in his former life, immediately jumped into the driver’s seat. The driver came running out again and this time he was punched unconscious. As we moved off, some security guards jumped into a wee grey van parked behind us and came after us. Tommy Tolan and Jim Bryson were lying in the middle aisle singing Provie songs and as we approached the gate a cop walked out and put his hand up, but when he realised we weren’t stopping, he jumped out of the way.
“We crossed the Lagan at Queen’s Bridge, went down Oxford Street and turned into the Markets. You’d have thought everything was planned because as we reached the Markets the kids jumped on the bus and began dismantling it like locusts. We went into a local pub, naked and black and said we’d just jumped off the Maidstone and again you’d have thought it was planned because suddenly people started to undress, handing us ill-fitting trousers and shoes. A man in the bar just handed us the keys to his car saying, away yiz go, and before we knew it we were in billets in Andersonstown.”
The escape from the Maidstone, allied to the earlier Crumlin escape, was a massive shot in the arm for the IRA. Within days the seven were being paraded in front of the world’s media in Dublin and it was at that time that the treasured photograph was taken of Tommy with Tucker Kane, Tommy Tolan and Jim Bryson outside the GPO.
“It’s really a story of three escapes,” says Tommy. “In 1971 we orchestrated the escape from the Crum, while in 1972 we escaped from the Maidstone. Then I was arrested again and we were all in the Crum together and we managed to get Jim Bryson out in 1973 only for him to be shot dead soon after. “In the overall scheme of things, the escape from the Maidstone mightn’t have been all that significant, but the IRA have a knack of pulling off coups like that when things aren’t going well and it buoyed people for a spell.
“I was devastated by all of their deaths, but I was particularly close to Tucker. He was a very quiet fella who liked nothing better than walking his dogs and now and then we’d go off over the mountain and see if we could raise some hares. I was in the house when news came through that he’d been involved in an accident and I thought that he’d be okay. He was on a life support machine for a couple of days and when he died his wife donated his organs. I get a very strange feeling looking at that photograph of the four of us and I often wonder why I survived and they didn’t. You ask yourself, why me? I’ve been in a few tight situations in the past and could have died, so it could easily have been the whole four of us. They were all young men when they died, but they did so much in their short lives. Whenever I look at that photograph, I’m back in the water with them swimming away from the Maidstone.”