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27 August 2009 Edition

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Remembering the Past: 19 prisoners escape from Portlaoise

PORTLAOISE: The breakout was an acute embarrassment for the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition government

PORTLAOISE: The breakout was an acute embarrassment for the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition government


ONE of the most successful and spectacular escapes during the present struggle for freedom was the mass breakout by 19 republican prisoners from Portlaoise Prison in the summer of 1974.
In November 1973, ten days after the dramatic escape of three republicans by helicopter from Mountjoy Jail, all republican prisoners in Mountjoy and the Curragh Camp were moved to Portlaoise Prison. During the early months of 1974, with over 120 republicans from north and south of the border imprisoned in Portlaoise, the prisoners began planning an escape.
At the end of June, following the discovery of an 80-foot tunnel in the prison, the number of gardaí in the jail was increased and 26-County soldiers patrolled the outside of the jail.
Undeterred by the discovery of the tunnel, the prisoners pressed ahead with another escape plan and 19 prisoners serving long terms of imprisonment, were selected to escape in mid-August.

Shortly after noon on the Sunday of the escape, the prisoners over-powered warders in the main cell block, climbed out onto a low roof and quickly made their way across the prison grounds.
As the general alert was sounded, during which soldiers opened fire, the men dashed seven yards to the Governor’s walled residence where they placed their first explosive charge at a gate leading to the prison walls. A second charge was then planted in an iron doorway and within seconds the republicans were outside the prison wall. After a 100-yard dash through fields and bushes outside the prison,the escaped reached the Borris Road where they commandeered cars and made their final dash to freedom.
The 19 who escaped were Michael and Seán Kinsella, Kevin and Martin McAllister, Oliver McKiernan, Brian Hearty, Tony Weldon, Tom McFeeley, Seán Morris, Pat Thornbury, Michael Nolan, Kevin Mallon, Ian Milne, Thomas McGinty, Eddie Gallagher, William Brown, Sammy O’Hare, Paddy Joe Devenney and Francis Bernard Hughes.
Within hours all were in safe houses throughout the 26 Counties. Despite an intensive search by gardaí and troops, none of the escapees were recaptured and 16 were still free at the end of the year.

The breakout was an acute embarrassment for Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave's Fine Gael-Labour Coalition government. A judicial inquiry into the episode was set up by Justice Minister Patrick Cooney which led to an increased garda and military presence being deployed in the prison and restrictions on food parcels and free association among the prisoners. The implementation of these measures was to have far-reaching consequences for republican prisoners, as conditions in the prison deteriorated rapidly over the following months, leading eventually to two hunger strikes in 1975 and 1977.
Nineteen republican prisoners escaped from Portlaoise Prison, 35 years ago on Sunday, 19 August 1974.

An Phoblacht Magazine


  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
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