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8 September 2005 Edition

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Remembering the Past - Mass escape from the Curragh

By Shane Mac Thomais

On the 8 September 1921, 84 years ago, one of the most daring and successful IRA prison breaks took place.

In 1921 over 1,300 IRA Volunteers were imprisoned in the Curragh Camp, County Kildare. The camp was sprawled over ten acres and the men were housed in 60 wooden army huts arranged in four rows, designated A,B,C and D. The compound was rectangular and entirely enclosed by barbed wire fences and at each corner of the compound stood a high tower on which machine guns were mounted and manned 24 hours a day. Powerful searchlights swept continuously once darkness fell, making sure no prisoner was out of his hut at night.

The British believed it was impossible to escape from the camp and prior to September 1921 all attempts had ended in failure. One potential escaper concealed himself in a laundry van only to be discovered at the main gate, while another hid in a latrine until lights out and crept towards the wire only to find himself looking down the barrel of a guard's rifle.

After many foiled escapes, the prisoners decided that if it wasn't possible to go out through the wire, they would have to go under it. A first tunnel was started in April 1921, mined with the blood sweat and tears of Jim Brady and Jim Gavin. It was discovered by a squadron of the King's Own Scottish Borderers when they received a tip off from one of the numerous stoolpigeons they had placed in the camp under the guise of prisoners.

After the discovery of the first tunnel, further escapes were postponed until after the Truce was announced on 11 July 1921. This time, two tunnels were started. The first was known as the Dublin Brigade tunnel, as most of those who worked on it were from Dublin. The second tunnel, mined by the men of the West of Ireland and a few men from Tullamore, was a smaller unshored boring known as the Tullamore tunnel or rabbit burrow.

Both tunnels were dug inch by agonising inch. The tools they used were a screwdriver and table knives they had stolen from the dining hall. The only ventilation came from the entrance of the tunnel and consequently, the atmosphere at the workface was foul. The IRA men worked on grimly hour by hour, enduring the fetid smell of damp earth in complete darkness for eleven days until they were close to exhausted. Excess soil from the tunnel was taken out in pillowcases and scattered from pockets into the soil of the camp and lookouts were posted to watch out for guards who might hear the digging under ground.

On 5 September British troops of the East Sussex Regiment began to unload timber and barbed wire at the perimeter fence and word went around the camp that a second camp was about to be made in the direct line of the tunnels. It became imperative for one of the tunnels to reach the outside perimeter as soon as possible. The Tullamore tunnel was chosen as it was more advanced. Onwards thence in a million, a military patrol had approached the tower just as the escapers had begun to cut the wire. The officer in charge of the patrol thought the challenge was directed at him and the sentry in the tower thought that the sound he had heard came from the patrol.

Brady and Galvin continued to cut the wire and then returned to the hut to tell the other escapers how to get out of the camp. Over 50 made good their escape. By the time most of them had reached the wire, a thick fog covered the Curragh. The next morning, a roll call was called at 7am and an immediate large scale search was mounted but to no avail, as none of the escapers were ever captured.

An Phoblacht
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