During the years 1918 and 1919 Irish republicans, including Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins, were imprisoned in Lincoln Jail in England. They occupied themselves with study and debate, and then devised a textbook prison escape, 100 years ago this month.
When they first arrived, the warders treated the Irish internees as ‘arch enemies’, believing that they were in league with Germany. But as time went by and the prisoners were refused a public trial, the prison guards came to the conclusion that there was no ‘German Plot’.
In his book on the escape, historian Declan Dunne describes a harmonious prison scene:
“The warders on patrol through the corridors of Lincoln prison at the time would have witnessed Seán Milroy puffing a cigarette and sketching in his cell; the flamboyant Paul Dawson Cusack, who on occasion cooked for the prisoners, complaining about the quality of vegetables; Samuel O’Flaherty explaining the synthetic inflectional forms of Greek verbs; Michael J Lennon calling ‘students’ to their Irish or Spanish classes; preparations for a musical evening with the performers rehearsing their recitations; Seán Etchingham elaborating on the finer points of horse-racing or yachting; Alasdair McCabe deep in thought while attempting to finish a chapter of his book on the economy of Ireland; de Valera standing beside his gramophone and typewriter showing his profound knowledge of mathematics by studying quaternions -- a number system that extends to complex numbers; and Laurence Lardner arguing with Thomas Ruane about a controversial point in Irish history in between games of handball.
“John O’Mahony was inclined to invite the warders into his cell to give them a quick ‘snifter’ of one of the many bottles of whiskey he had squirrelled into the prison, while recounting a humorous yarn about his work as a travelling salesman and hotelier. “
The warders had six MPs and a mayor under their charge. They could have been forgiven for thinking that planning a premature exit was not one of the prisoners’ preoccupations.
They were wrong. Michael Collins, who was head of IRA intelligence at the time, hatched a plan to get them out.
But there were a number of false starts on the journey to their freedom.
De Valera managed to make a copy of the prison chaplin’s key using candle wax and send it to the outside. However, it took three tries for Dev’s comrades on the outside to make a suitable copy - the first two, also smuggled into Lincoln Prison inside of cakes, did not work.
A functional key in hand, on February 3, 1919, at approximately 7:40 pm, Dev, McGarry, and Milroy calmly unlocked the doors to their cells, locked them behind them, and walked out into the prison’s exercise yard to meet Collins, Harry Boland, and Frank Kelly.
They stole through the back gardens of Lincolnshire in the dark, stopped at the Adam and Eve Pub, and caught a taxi, and made their way to a safe house in Manchester.
The prison guards reportedly noticed the three were missing by 9:30 pm that same night, but were baffled as to how the doors to their cells were locked.
Thirty-one years later, after the Irish War of Independence, after the Irish Civil War, and after serving his first term as Taoiseach, de Valera returned to Lincoln Prison for a visit.
According to an article that ran in the Lincolnshire Echo to mark the occasion, de Valera returned in the company of Fenner Brockway, Labour MP for Eton and Slough, who was serving a term of solitary confinement in the jail at the time of the escape and was a firm friend of the Irish.
“Mr Brockway told the Echo: ‘Eamon de Valera reconstructed his escape for the benefit of the Governor.’
“And Mr de Valera added: ‘I explained in great detail how we got out.’
“‘Dev’ asked the Governor if he could see the present master key and learned that since his escape the locks and, of course, the keys had been changed.”