On the 45th anniversary of the escape from Crumlin Road Jail by the ‘Crumlin Kangaroos’, an extract from ‘Internment’ by the late John McGuffin on an extraordinary chapter in the republican struggle.
The 1971-1972 internment period became notable for the number of escapes successfully effected. These were, of course, immensely beneficial for the morale of the internees and those engaged in the civil resistance campaign -- and very damaging for the Government’s already dented image.
The first attempt was made in September in Crumlin Road jail. Five men, using ropes made of sheets to which were tied hooks from the metal struts of two tables, succeeded in getting on top of the outside wall, during a football match. The escape had been timed to coincide ‘with an explosion outside the wall set off by comrades, but ‘It ‘backfired’ when the men heard a nail bomb go off on the Antrim Road and mistook this for the signal. They got to the top of the wall, however, only to be confronted ‘by an army patrol pointing their guns at them. The coincidental nail bomb had alerted the army. The five jumped back down and mingled with the footballers who were restraining the screws. An immediate investigation to determine the identity of the five would-be escapers was thwarted when all the men in C wing threw their sheets out onto the landing in a pile so that the escapers could not be identified.
Faulkner announced that security was being tightened. The following month the nine ‘Crumlin Kangaroos’, as they became known, went over the wall when rope ladders were thrown over from outside. Dressed in football gear, on 17 November, nine men’ went over the wall, through the already-cut barbed-wire perimeter and into waiting cars. “Screws made only half-hearted attempts to stop us,” one escaper said. Two, Keenan and Mullan, were recaptured near Omagh, but the other seven successfully crossed the border and were soon to appear at a press conference in Dublin. Two monks and several local businessmen were subsequently charged with aiding and abetting the escapers.
In fact, the IRA had its own escape committee, both inside and outside the prisons and camps, but even they bad nothing on the opportunity provided by the next piece of bureaucratic incompetence. Sean Hanna, of Henrietta Street, walked out the front gates of Crumlin. He had just finished a two-month sentence and was to be brought to court to appear on an explosives charge. If acquitted of this, he was certain to be interned. (Over a dozen men acquitted in the courts or against whom the Crown had withdrawn all charges were arrested as they left the court and interned. But the prison authorities had made a ‘mistake’. Hanna, having walked out, completely disappeared. The Government announced that security was being tightened.
Two weeks later an even more embarrassing escape was made. The Green Howards, stationed in Ardoyne, were cock-a-hoop. They had captured Martin Meehan and Tony ‘Dutch’ Doherty, two of the most wanted local Provisionals. Both were severely beaten up and then tortured in Palace barracks. Next they were detained in Crumlin in the last week of November. (It is interesting to note that the army informed the press, who gleefully splashed it, that Meehan and Doherty had been responsible for nearly every murder that had taken place in Northern Ireland in the previous three years. They had “conclusive proof,” they said, that Meehan and Doherty had killed the three Scottish soldiers shot in Ligoneil, to say nothing of the five Green Howards shot in Ardoyne. Despite all this ‘proof’ Meehan and Doherty were not charged with any crime -- just detained under the Special Powers Act).
On 2 December the prison authorities got a phone call from the press. Reporters had asked people of Ardoyne why bonfires had been lit and were told that it was because Meehan and Doherty had escaped; could the prison authorities confirm this, the reporters asked. The authorities were startled. It was the first they’d heard of it. A check was made and the awful truth revealed. Meehan, Doherty and Hugh McCann were, indeed, gone. In fact, Meehan and McCann had crossed the border before the prison authorities even knew they had escaped. Doherty stayed around to take care of some business and leisurely crossed over the next week. For five hours they had hidden, uncomfortably, in a manhole, up to their knees in water, until the rest of the prisoners had gone in from exercise, and then, under cover of fog, went over the wall, using a sheet. Comrades on the inside had wrecked the normal head count by staging an ‘incident’. Furious, Faulkner ordered an inquiry into prison security. It was prepared by Cyril Cunningham and handed to Faulkner on 7 December. On 9 January 1972, a wet and stormy day, Brendan Dunlop (18) escaped from the Palace barracks torture compound. He had been escorted by a policeman to the toilet and, on his return, had ducked behind the hut instead of re-entering it. The policeman, preoccupied with the rain, assumed that Dunlop had gone in and he wandered off. Dunlop waited a while and then escaped over the barbed-wire fence under cover of the storm. He then calmly walked five miles across town to a friendly house. Two days later he was in Dublin.
On 9 January also an attempted tunnel escape from Crumlin was foiled. Three tunnels, two nearly complete, from C wing Nos. 9, 14 and 20 were discovered. Three days later two guns were found in Crumlin. It obviously wasn’t as secure as was desirable and so several men were moved to the Maidstone since it was ‘more secure’ -- but it was also very overcrowded. Consequently on 16 January fifty men were taken from the Maidstone to the new camp at Magilligan. This sudden move spurred on the internees on the ship. Next day seven of them escaped from the ‘escape-proof’ Maidstone.
This was the most bizarre of all the escapes. The men had been watching the tide for weeks, trying to gauge it. Tin cans were tossed out and their movements checked. The antics of a young seal were observed. Finally, the men were ready to go. Butter had been collected from food parcels and, during the evening recreation period, 5 o’clock, the men smeared themselves all over with the butter as a precaution against the cold. Then they daubed on boot polish, and, clad for the most part only in football shorts or pyjamas, they cut the bar on the porthole with a fret saw and slipped through. Meanwhile, their comrades chatted to the overconfident guards. No escape was expected and vigilance was slack. After all, armed guards on the deck manned searchlights, the water around the ship was full of barbed-wire, and it was also far too cold for anyone to survive in.
Undaunted, the men clambered down the Maidstone’s steel hawser and entered the water. Several of them were cut by the barbed-wire but all succeeded in struggling through it. In single file they slowly swam the 400 yards through the bitterly cold water to the shore. It took them twenty minutes. Then the first hitch occurred. Two cars, and members of the Andersonstown unit with warm clothes were waiting for them -- 500 yards away. The men had landed at the wrong spot. Moreover, a delay in their starting time caused by a recount on board meant that when they finally made the pier on Queen’s Island their comrades were nowhere to be seen.
Resourceful as ever, they reverted to the stand-by plan. Peter Rodgers, in his soaking underwear, emerged from cover and approached Queen’s Road bus terminus. A startled bus dnver having a cup of tea was asked for the loan of his greatcoat; Rodgers explained that he had fallen in. The driver lent him the coat and set out on his run back to the City Hall. The men, tired and freezing, waited until the bus returned at 6.30 p.m. The driver went into the security office, presumably to report the incident and the ‘loan’ of his coat. As he entered, the seven men broke cover. Rodgers, who before internment had been a bus driver, leapt into the cab and drove off as the others piled. in. ‘Gunning’ the bus -- “the bloody thing only did 40 mph” -- Rodgers drove for the main gates. The security guard had several minutes to phone through an alert which would result in the heavy gates being closed, but luck was on the escaper’s side. The gates were open. As they drove past the gesticulating gate-men they waved back. The security guards, perhaps too astonished by the sight of semi-nude black men, did not fire. The bus headed for Verner Street in the Markets area, across the bridge. It was soon picked up by an army land rover but the soldiers were not foolhardy enough to pursue it right into the heart of this staunch Republican area. Instead, they alerted the local regiment, the Royal Horse Artillery. Colonel Tony Budd appeared in front of the TV cameras that evening to inform an alarmed public that everything was under control. The escapers were surrounded in the area and could not get away. In the morning they would go in and arrest them. This caused some amusement to the ‘Magnificent Seven’ (as they were instantly named) who were by then sitting in a drinking club in a completely different part of, the city, watching the Colonel on TV. In fact, they had been no more than three minutes in the Markets. Word of their arrival had spread instantly through the grapevine and people had flocked into the narrow little streets bringing them clothing and two get-away cars. They were clear before the soldiers arrived.
Next day the Royal Horse Artillery indulged themselves by smashing down doors and ransacking the area, but to no avail. Frustrated, they vented their rage on a few local inhabitants and detained 25 men for ‘screening’. But no escapers, wanted men or guns were found. Within a week the Magnificent Seven were giving the by then customary press conference in Dublin.
By now things were all set for an escape from Long Kesh. There had been an abortive attempt in the first week of November when eight men had tried to break out of Compound 1 which lay closest to the perimeter. They had slipped out of their nissen huts at night and successfully cut their way through the first barbed-wire fence. But a patrol of soldiers with guard dogs had spotted them and they had had to dash back to the huts. The authorities were unable to identify any of them, but security was again tightened. Not enough, however. On Monday 7 February, Francis McGuigan, a well-known Republican (Provisional) from Ardoyne, walked out of the camp. As with the Meehan -- Doherty -- McCann escape, the press were the first to know. McGuigan’s mother was able to tell them that her son was safe before the camp commandant was even aware that he was missing. McGuigan was soon over the border, but reticent about his method of escape as other people were involved and it could be used again. Rumours flew and Unionist MP’s alleged that he had escaped disguised as a priest. In a heated question-and-answer session, the Junior Minister for Home Affairs at Stormont, John Taylor, revealed that it had taken 18 hours to discover his escape because “it wasn’t possible, without the assistance of the army, to have periodic roll calls or even head counts at Long Kesh. Needless to say, the internees do not cooperate in such exercises,” he added. Rev. William Beattie of the Democratic Unionist Party displayed his brand of Christian charity in the comment: “The Minister’s attitude that the internees be given human treatment only insults this House because they are not human; they are subhuman.”
Crumlin Road jail was soon to be in the news again. On 12 February a mass jail break by 85 political prisoners on remand in C wing was narrowly foiled. The theme tune of TV’s ‘Dr. Who’ was the signal for the break, and at 5.50 p.m. all the prison officers on C wing were ‘taken over’ by the internees. No violence was used, except in the case of one English officer who struggled, and a young lad, who wasn’t involved in the break, thinking it was just a riot, hit him with a billiard cue. The screws were tied up and “treated courteously,” according to the would-be escapers’ statement. Using the keys, the men got into the passage leading to the exercise yard and sawed through two bars with the omnipresent hacksaw. Out into the yard they went with mattresses and blankets to put over the barbed-wire. Meanwhile, three more screws chanced to walk in and two of them were tied up also -- making eight in all. One, however, seeing what was happening, ran back and gave the alarm. As the men were getting over the wall the soldiers arrived with orders to shoot. The men were forced back and, rather than risk death, they surrendered. “But for one bit of bad luck, C wing’s 85 ‘remands’ would all have been freed,” claimed a statement smuggled out of the jail to The Irish News and published on 15 February 1972.
Nor was that the end of tribulations of the security forces at Crumlin Road jail. On 5 May 19-year-old Michael Joseph Willis of Belfast disappeared from it. Again it took an anonymous phone call to alert the authorities that an escape had taken place. Willis, an Official Republican, had just been sentenced to ten years on a firearms charge. After ten days he was rescued by the IRA, escaping in a garbage truck. A week later he, too, appeared m Dublin. An interesting sequel was his appeal against the sentence. This was heard, in abstentia, on 1 June, and the sentence was reduced to seven years, the judge commenting that “Willis seems to have absented himself from custody.”