Éamon de Valera, along with Seán McGarry and Seán Milroy, escape from Lincoln Gaol in Lincoln, Lincolnshire, England on February 3, 1919. The escape plot is engineered by fellow Sinn Féin members Harry Boland and Michael Collins (pictured to the left of de Valera).
After his participation as a leader of the Easter Rising of 1916, de Valera is arrested and sentenced to death for his role in the uprising, but the sentence is later commuted due to his American citizenship. Following his release from prison in 1916, he quickly gains fame on the Irish political scene, ultimately becoming the leader of Sinn Féin. He also gains notoriety amongst the British political elites, which ensures his eventual re-arrest and imprisonment in Lincoln Gaol.
De Valera is sent to Lincoln Gaol presumably for his participation in a “German Plot” against the British. Once incarcerated at Lincoln, de Valera, wanting to embarrass the English, quickly begins to plan his escape with the assistance of Milroy and McGarry. Irish Republicans on the outside, including Boland and Collins, also assist in the planning.
Open fields surrounded by barbed wire are to the rear and east of the prison. The Republicans hope to use this to their advantage by sneaking de Valera through a rear door. The plans are sung in Gaelic to de Valera through a window in his cell by a fellow Irish inmate in order to confuse the guards. The first song tells him of the escape route and the second gives him instructions to obtain a copy of the master-key for the prison.
De Valera, being a deeply religious man, is active in the prison’s chapel from the beginning his internment. Using his connections within the chapel, over time he manages to steal candles from the altar. While Mass is being read, he “borrows” the master-key of the chaplain and makes an impression of it in the candle wax. The mould is then wrapped in paper and tossed over the prison wall so a duplicate can be made.
The key is duplicated and smuggled back into the prison concealed in a cake and the escape begins on the evening of February 3, 1919. While Collins and other members of Sinn Féin cut through the barbed wire, a group of Irish girls are sent to flirt with the prison guards to ensure they are preoccupied. With the guards’ attention diverted, de Valera, wrapped in a fur coat, McGarry, and Milroy are able to walk to the back door of the prison and, after some difficulty with the key, walk away from the prison.
They stroll down Wragby Road to the Adam & Eve Pub where a taxi driver, unaware of who his passengers are, awaits them. De Valera is swiftly moved to the railway station where they split up. Collins and Boland catch a train to London from St. Mark’s while the rest drive to Worksop where another innocent taxi driver drives them to Sheffield. De Valera then returns to Ireland briefly before traveling on to the United States. The prison officials, realizing that the men will be virtually impossible to locate, concede defeat after a one day search of the city.
The escape from Lincoln Gaol is major news and is covered in all the national papers. Prison officials blame the escape on the ability of special prisoners to interact with the general prison population. The escape proves to be an important moment in Irish history – when a cake, a wax key, and some pretty Irish girls help spring the future Irish president from Lincoln Gaol.