18 September 2008 Edition
McFarlane praises South Armagh Volunteers' escape role
As republicans prepare to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1983 ‘Great Escape’ from Long Kesh, Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane – one of the key figures in the escape plan – speaks to An Phoblacht.
In advance of next Thursday’s commemoration talk, to be held in the Carrickdale Hotel near the Louth/Armagh border, McFarlane praised the role played by the Volunteers of the IRA’s South Armagh Brigade.
Little has been said in the past 25 years about the important input that the South Armagh units played in the events of 25 September 1983. Now, for the first time, Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane details how Volunteers from South Armagh set up a base in a unionist area close to Long Kesh to await the prisoners and escort them to safety in South Armagh:
“When we were planning the escape in the prison, part of the plan was a tie-in with the South Armagh Brigade. Their role was to await our arrival in the food lorry and lead us to the safety of South Armagh.
“The Volunteers set up their base in a box van in a very, very unionist area close to the jail. They were heavily armed and prepared for any eventuality, as they had heavy machine guns in their armoury in case the British came across us and used helicopters in the pursuit.”
McFarlane also disclosed that, in addition to the units based in the van, a number of others were in ambush position along the escape route ready to engage enemy ground forces attempting to block the return to the South Armagh area.
Unfortunately the escape plan began to unravel at the Tally Lodge inside Long Kesh, when screws coming on duty came across the escapees.
One screw blocked the main gate of the prison with his car and prevented the food lorry driving out. Of the 38 prisoners who were on the escape, 19 managed to get out of the prison, some escaped on foot while others hijacked cars and fled.
McFarlane explained that those awaiting the escapees in the van were lead by Volunteers Brendan Burns and Brendan Moley, who were to die on active service in February 1988.
“The Volunteers were using radio scanners to intercept the crown forces’ radio messages, so they knew the original plan was dead in the water – but they were also aware that some of us had got out of the prison and they decided their position in case some of the escapees made it to the rendezvous point,” stated McFarlane.
The former prison OC pointed out that the escape committee and the backup Volunteers had agreed a cut-off time for them to withdraw in case the escape didn’t go to plan
“Their decision was an amazing indication of the bravery, dedication and commitment of these Volunteers to the operation they were involved in. Not only did they stay in a hostile environment for about two hours beyond the cut-off time, they also ended up inside the security cordon that the Brits threw up to capture the escapees.
“Clearly their own freedom and their lives were on the line as a result of their decision to stay where they were and I cannot thank these Volunteers enough, nor can I commend their courage and commitment enough.”
McFarlane said that at one point the Volunteers had to take action to avoid detection by dragging a man and his dog into the vehicle.
“This man was walking his dog when he came across the van. He was obviously suspicious of it and started snooping around.
“Needless to say the lads spotted this man and knew they had to act. The driver, who was using a hollow tube between the cab and the back of the truck to communicate with those in the back, waited until the man was adjacent to the sliding doors at the side.
“He immediately gave the order to move, so the Volunteers in the back threw open the door and grabbed the man and his dog and dragged him inside.
“I think they advised him that it would be in his best interests to lie on the floor and keep his mouth shut,” quipped McFarlane.
Eventually, when it became clear that none of the escapees would make it to the rendezvous, the South Armagh units withdrew – throwing their captive out on the way.
As fate would have it McFarlane, who led a group of escapees on foot from Long Kesh, made it to South Armagh five days later.
“Of the group with me, all but Séamus McIlwaine was from the city. Séamus was from Monaghan and knew the country, where to hide during the day and how to move safely at night. He got us to South Armagh and it was a remarkable feat.
“Ironically we ended up in the comfort and security of South Armagh under the protection of the very Volunteers who had risked so much to help us the previous Sunday. It was a brilliant feeling to know that the Volunteers of South Armagh, whose courage and professionalism had put the Brits on the run, were guaranteeing our safety.”
McFarlane concluded by saying that next week’s 25th Anniversary commemoration “would be an acknowledgement of the role that South Armagh republicans played in the escape. It will be a great night, and the many people whose role is still a secret have the gratitude of the republican family throughout Ireland for their tireless work to free our country”.