An article by Liz Gillis for Kilmainham Tales on one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of the prison, which took place 100 years ago this week.
The sole objective of the escape from Kilmainham Gaol was to get Frank Teeling out, as the time set for his execution was drawing near.
There had been previous attempts to get the men out before they finally succeeded on the night of St. Valentine’s Day, February 14th 1921.
The plan finally decided upon was that a pair of bolt-cutters and some revolvers were to be smuggled into the Gaol.
The men were to make their way out of the Gaol into a yard not overlooked by any sentry posts, make their way to a side gate, cut the lock on that gate and open it.
Outside the gate members of the Dublin Brigade would be ready to take them to safe houses.The bolt-cutters and revolvers were smuggled into the gaol by an unnamed prison guard and were hidden in a disused cell at the corner of the corridor known today as “Murderers’ Gallery”.
On the night of February 13 Ernie O’Malley, Patrick Moran and Frank Teeling decided they would take their chance.
How they got out of their cells is interesting. The padlocks on the doors had been opened by one of the friendly prison guards but left to look like they were still locked.
So, by pushing their hands through the larger spy holes (originally used by the prison guards to shine a lantern through), the men could lift the bolts, slide them across and gently open their cell doors and come out into the corridor.
In the meantime, while approaching the laneway outside the Gaol, members of F Company, 4th Battalion came upon some British soldiers and their girlfriends. To ensure no alarm was raised these were taken to a safe location, away from the Gaol.
By now the three men were at the gate trying to break the lock. As the detachable handles had been put on the bolt-cutters the wrong way, there was insufficient leverage and the bolt-cutters broke.
Hastily, the men whispered what had happened to their comrades outside and a rope ladder, tied to a rope weighted with lead, was thrown over the wall. The three would-be escapees pulled on the rope, but it would not move – it was caught in a groove in the wall. Again they pulled, harder and harder, until suddenly the rope snapped. They had no option but to go back to their cells.
The guard who had smuggled the bolt-cutters into the Gaol was so distraught at the failure that he went to Oscar Traynor, O.C. Dublin Brigade. To prove that he was dedicated to helping free the men, he said he would cut the lock himself. He was shown how to use the bolt-cutters and, confident that he would succeed, he smuggled them back into the Gaol on Valentine’s Day, February 14.
As soon as it got dark they again tried to escape.
Teeling, it seems, was the first to make his way out to the yard this time, presumably with the help of the guard, and they worked on cutting the lock.
O’Malley came from his cell and called into Moran’s cell to alert him to what was happening, but Moran refused to go with them.
O’Malley made his way to the “Conditions Corridor” passing by the guard cell unnoticed, and told Simon Donnelly what was going on. (Donnelly knew the area well and would know the quickest route away from the gaol).
Before leaving the corridor, Ernie O’Malley went to the cell of Desmond Fitzgerald, who loaned him five shillings for tram fare. O’Malley then made his way out of the building, presumably the same way as the night before.
Donnelly soon followed and, while passing by Moran’s cell, he again asked him to go. Moran refused, believing he would be found innocent at his trial. He bade farewell to Donnelly and in a last attempt to ensure the men got away, Moran began to sing very loudly so as to attract the attention of the guards to him.
By the time Donnelly got out to the yard and crept over to the gate, the lock had been cut. All that was left for them to do was to get the bolt across. The bolt, however, was rusted. With their guns, butter or grease that the men had saved from their meals was applied to the bolt and, after a few uneasy minutes, they were successful in sliding the bolt across.
Gently they opened the gate, inch by inch and, one by one, they slipped out.
According the Donnelly, the three then made their way down a back road hiding the guns in a garden on the way – where this road was is not certain. He says they passed close to Richmond Barracks, and then walked along the canal. They were nearly caught by a military patrol while trying to cross one of the canal bridges. Throwing themselves on the grass banks they waited for the patrol to pass. They then got on a tram going to the city.
Donnelly got off in Camden Street, O’Malley and Teeling got off the tram in Heytesbury Street, where they went to the house of the Malones close by.
The men were free, but unfortunately O’Malley’s words to Patrick Moran were to prove true. Moran was tried the very next day in City Hall for his part in the shootings in Mount Street on Bloody Sunday.
Moran had seventeen people to verify his whereabouts, including a policeman. They all stated he was nowhere near the shootings.
These witnesses were obviously friendly to the IRA as Moran was indeed involved in the shootings; his unit was at the Gresham Hotel.
However, he was charged with the shootings in Mount Street and even though a witness for the prosecution would not admit for certain that it was Moran at the scene, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Someone did hang for the shootings on Bloody Sunday, and on 14 March 1921, Paddy Moran together with 5 other Volunteers paid the ultimate price for their devotion to the freedom of their country when they were hanged in Mountjoy Gaol.
As for O’Malley, Teeling and Donnelly - they were wanted men but continued in the movement.
Finally, on 11 July 1921, hostilities between the Crown Forces and the IRA ceased with the Truce coming into effect at 12 noon. The War of Independence was over.
Negotiations began between the British and Irish governments, which eventually led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921.
The Republic was not granted and within six months war would once again rage throughout Ireland, only now it was Irishman fighting Irishman, comrades would soon be enemies and sadly, after all they had been through in Kilmainham Gaol, Teeling, O’Malley and Donnelly again took up arms, Teeling fighting on the pro-Treaty side and O’Malley and Donnelly on the anti-Treaty side, fighting a war for the same objective but just different ways on how to achieve it.
* A version of this article originally appeared in Sentences, the in-house journal for the guides of Kilmainham Gaol.