‘The Great Escape’ 1976


A reprint of an article from The Starry Plough, detailing a historic escape by Republican Socialists from Long Kesh prison 40 years ago this week.



“ONE OF THE MOST CAREFULLY PLANNED AND CAREFULLY EXECUTED ESCAPES IN PRISON HISTORY ‘ is how one newspaper described the recent escape from Long Kesh by nine IRSP members and supporters. Seven are still free. Meanwhile massive searches and harrasment by British troops is reported from Belfast and South Derry.

The nine men dug their tunnel from one of the four huts in Cage 5, known as ‘mole hill’ because so many tunnels have been dug from there. Despite vigilant warders the escapees dug a 40 foot tunnel measuring only 18’ inches in diameter. The entrance of the tunnel was concealed by tile glued to a block of wood.


The escapers’ first problem occurred when they emerged from the tunnel to find that they were still inside the prison. But they were prepared for such an eventuality. They cut through a perimeter barbed fence and scaled a 20 foot high wall with improvised grappling hooks and ropes made from sheets in full view of British Army observation towers. Then, as one British soldier put it, ‘they disappeared into thin air!’

The following morning their fellow prisoners refused to leave their huts to delay the discovery of the escape. It was only when CHARLES O’DOHERTY from Old Park, Belfast was caught by the RUC in a field eight miles away and checked out as routine, that the RUC discovered that they were supposed to be in Long Kesh! They immediately contacted Long Kesh Concentration Camp. It was only then that the escape was discovered.

The following day GERARD STEENSON of West Belfast was recaptured on the M1 Motorway. The Northern Ireland Office then began to issue statements in an attempt to discredit the escape and save face. They claimed that if the escape had been better planned there could have been a mass break out, which is, of course, rubbish. Then they warned the public to be on the lookout for the escapers “some of whom are dangerous”. They may be dangerous to British imperialism and its allies in Ireland but they are the friends of the people. They are not criminals but political prisoners. Of the escapers three were serving sentences, three were on remand and three were awaiting trial, all for either political ‘offences’ or because of frame ups.

In the past there have been other escapes from Long Kesh. November 1974 saw 30 Provos tunnel their way to the perimeter wire, only a few got away. One, HUGH CONEY was murdered by British troops, who could have easily captured him. There is some fear that the same could happen to the IRSP escapers, particularly if they should be discovered by the sectarian UDR which is made up of ex-B Specials.In 1972 FRANCIS MCGUIGAN walked out of Long Kesh dressed as a priest. JOHN FRANCIS GREEN did the exact same in September 1973.

Since Long Kesh was opened in 1971, 48 prisoners have escaped. Since they are political prisoners they usually continue to be active in opposition to British imperialism in Ireland whereas if they were mere criminals they would presumably leave the country altogether. This fact accounts for the recapture of 35 of the 48 escapers. There are over 1200 political prisoners in Long Kesh.

HENRY DOGHERTY, BRENDAN MCMANUS, HAROLD FLYNN, (all from Belfast), GERALD CLANCY (Tyrone), JOHN KELLY, JOHN EDDIE MCNICHOL and SEAMUS O’KANE (all from South Derry) are still at liberty as we go to press. We salute their ingenuity, courage and skill and hope that their freedom will be long and fruitful to the struggle against British imperialism in Ireland.


Two of the men who are still free, ‘Hen’ DOGHERTY of Dock Row, Belfast and Harry Flynn of Springhill Avenue, Belfast, have escaped before and were only a few months in Long Kesh. Last May, while appearing in the Crown Court in Crumlin Road they stood on each others shoulders to reach the ceiling of their cell. They broke a hole in the skylight with a bench from the cell and went onto the roof. From there they entered the nearby firestation and nonchalantly four of them walked out the front door. Unfortunately, the last man out didn’t knowit was intended to walk out as the escape was an impromptu affair, and ran full speed up the Crumlin Road. The RUC saw him and shouted “halt”, so that the other four scuppered up the road after their comrade with bullets whistling around their ears. They all got away. Dogherty and Flynn were recaptured about three months ago in Belfast.”

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