At Halloween 1973 in Dublin, one of the most audacious, cleverly planned jail escapes in Irish history occurred when three political prisoners - JB O’Hagan, Seamus Twomey and Kevin Mallon were lifted by helicopter from the exercise yard of Mountjoy Jail’s D Wing at 3.40pm to the cheers of other prisoners and the bitter embarrassment of the 26-County coalition government.
As the hijacked helicopter landed in the yard to collect the three republicans, one screw was heard to shout vainly and ludicrously “shut the gates”.
Another republican prisoner who was incarcerated in Mountjoy at the time of the escape wrote in particular reference to one of the escapees, Seamus Twomey: “One shamefaced screw apologised to the governor and said he thought it was the new Minister for Defence arriving. I told him it was our Minister of Defence leaving.”
In Belfast bonfires blazed in celebration of the event and in Dublin over 300 Garda detectives searched hundreds of homes in a vain attempt to track down the escapers.
A typically downbeat IRA statement referred to the Mountjoy escape at the end of a list of IRA operations against the British crown forces: “Three republican prisoners were rescued by a special unit from Mountjoy Prison on Wednesday. The operation was a complete success and the men are now safe, despite a massive hunt by Free State forces.”
The escape was a great morale boost for republicans throughout Ireland and abroad and a bitter disappointment for British political and military leaders who were attempting militarily to suppress republican resistance in the Six Counties. It was also a cause of deep embarrassment for the Cosgrave coalition in Dublin, widely regarded as the most repressive 26-County administration since the 1940s. This was a government which was a self-proclaimed ‘law and order’ regime and which was making a particular crusade of suppressing support for the republican cause in the 26 Counties.
On the day following the escape, a conference of 26-County army and Garda security chiefs took place in Dublin. Top of the agenda was how to ensure that such an occurrence could never take place again. At the same time, a judicial inquiry into the state’s ‘security system’ was initiated by the Dublin government.
The Mountjoy helicopter escape became one of the most celebrated jail breaks of all time and has been immortalised by the highly popular republican ballad The Helicopter Song, which contains the memorable lines “It’s up like a bird and over the prison. There’s three men a missing I heard the warder say”.
The escape of three republican prisoners by helicopter from Mountjoy Jail, Dublin, took place on 31 October 1973, 49 years ago this week.