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28 October 2004 Edition

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Remembering the Past - The helicopter escape

The helicopter used in the spectacular escape

The helicopter used in the spectacular escape

On 31 October 1973, 31 years ago this week, one of the most spectacular and audacious escapes from an Irish prison took place when three of the IRA's key personnel were airlifted to freedom in a seconded helicopter from Mountjoy Prison.

At 12 o'clock on 31 October 1973, a mysterious Mr Leonard, wearing a white suit and hamming up a mid-Atlantic accent, arrived at the Westpoint Hangar (Dublin Airport) to take a flight in the five-seater Alouette II helicopter. The helicopter had a long history already. It had seen service in the French Air Force and President General DeGaulle had presented it to the wife of the South Vietnamese leader President Thieu. The South Vietnamese later sold the machine to Irish Helicopters Ltd.

This helicopter had been booked to shoot a film location in County Laois. When in the air, the pilot was told by Mr Leonard that he needed to pick up some photographic equipment and to touch down beside a farmhouse at Dunmace, near Stradbally. On landing, the unsuspecting pilot saw two men coming out of the trees before him, one armed with a revolver and the other carrying an armalite rifle. He was then told at gunpoint that the helicopter was to fly to Mountjoy Prison, following the path of the Royal Canal and railway lines.

As he entered the Dublin area, he dropped his helicopter height to 700 feet and approached the prison from the rear. The helicopter touched down in the centre of the compound outside D-Wing, where political prisoners had been exercising. Upon landing, Séamus Twomey, Chief of Staff of the IRA, JB O'Hagan, Quartermaster of the IRA, and Kevin Mallon, an IRA activist since the 1950s campaign, ran forward and boarded the aircraft.

Prison warders realised what was happening too late. Some of them even thought that the helicopter's arrival was a visit from the Minister of Defence. As the reality of an IRA escape dawned on them, they tried to intercept the escape but the IRA prisoners in the yard began grappling with them and blocking their way. One of the more intelligent of the prison officers kept screaming "close the f**king gates close the f**king gates", before reality dawned on him that the escape was going up and not out the gates.

As the helicopter cleared the prison walls, with the escapees on board, the pilot was ordered to take his aircraft to the Baldoyle Racecourse just outside Dublin city centre. The helicopter touched down at Baldoyle, where a car taken in O'Connell Street earlier that day was ready to drive them to safe houses.

Back in Mountjoy, the prisoners continued to run around the exercise yard to confuse the screws, who were attempting to carry out a headcount to discover the identities of the escapees.

Eamonn Mac Thomáis, OC of the prison, eventually held a parade in the yard and addressed the men. He said he had been informed by the prison authorities that a helicopter had landed in the yard and that a number of prisoners had escaped. He said: "I didn't see a helicopter and this being Hallowe'en, the prisoners that escaped must have gone out on witches' broomsticks. I don't see who is missing but the prison authorities want to do a headcount, which necessitates all men going to their cells." A count was carried out as the men filed inside and it was discovered that three prisoners were missing; their identities were discovered after a cell check.

The escape was a great morale boosting exercise for republicans, particularly to the 1,400 POWs then imprisoned. It had been planned meticulously by an outside IRA escape committee. The three escapees had been selected because of their high profile within the media, rather than men who were serving longer sentences. The primary purpose was to embarrass Liam Cosgrave, his Fine Gael Party, and the Labour Party with Conor Cruise O'Brien, who had boasted in September that their government was having greater success than the British in crushing the Republican Movement.

In Belfast, bonfires blazed in celebration of the event while 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."

Séamus Twomey gave an exclusive interview with Germany's Der Spiegal shortly after his escape and throughout Europe the exploit was termed "the escape of the century".

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