seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


Leave a comment

The Great Portlaoise Escape

Nineteen republican prisoners blast their way out of Portlaoise Prison in County Laois on August 18, 1974.

The escape is a timely reminder of the determination, tenacity and ingenuity with which Irish Republican Army (IRA) Volunteers throughout the country fight against British rule in Ireland. It is also a reminder to the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition Government in Leinster House that their collaboration with the British and their attempts to defeat republicanism will not be an easy task.

The determination of republicans to escape from Portlaoise is demonstrated by the escape. In May 1974, an underground escape was planned but the 80-foot tunnel was uncovered and the prisoners’ hopes were dashed. However, almost immediately plans swung into place for a more daring escape operation.

A member of the Escape Committee spots a weakness in the jail security in the area of the prison where the laundry house is situated. The laundry leads to an outside stairway and down into the courtyard, where the Governor’s House and Warders’ Mess are located.

The prisoners discover that they can gain access to the laundry area quite easily. It is a doorway at the top of the courtyard which leads out onto the streets of Portlaoise town itself that give the prisoners hope that their plan will work. However, the Escape Committee decides that they need explosives to get through this gate and send word outside to this effect. The IRA on the outside, agreeing that the plan is “viable,” send in the materials and the plan is on.

The date for the escape is set for August 18, 1974 and planning proceeds inside the prison. The prisoners set themselves to work making prison guard uniforms. The idea is that when the escapees are running through the courtyard, the troops on the roof of the jail will not be able to distinguish between the escapees and the real guards and so will not open fire. This pre-planning proves to be a brilliant ploy as it gives those escaping vital seconds to clear the courtyard and make good their escape.

On the Friday before the plan is to proceed, a number of republicans are arrested in Portlaoise. This seems a bad omen and raises questions as to whether the authorities are suspicious that an escape is planned. However, the Escape Committee and those involved in the operation decide to press ahead with the plan anyway.

Sunday, August 18 duly arrives. According to prisoners who are in Portlaoise Prison at the time, no one can eat anything that day as the tension is unbearable. At 12:30 p.m., the designated time to put the plan into action, arrives and Liam Brown approaches the guard at the gate of the lower landing and asks to be let in. This is the signal for the first team of escapees to rush forward and get the key to the laundry. The guard is quickly overpowered and gives up the key with little resistance.

With this first stage of the plan successfully completed, the escapees open the door to the stairwell and rush through to the courtyard, followed by up to 25 other prisoners. As the prisoners race to the top of the yard to place the bomb at the outside gate, the soldiers on the roof are confused by the uniforms and cannot open fire.

The bomb then explodes, blasting the door to pieces. As the prisoners make the final dash for freedom, the soldiers fire warning shots over the heads of the fleeing republicans. Some of the prisoners drop to the ground fearing the worst but as the guards race from their mess they call on the soldiers to stop firing.

Those who are captured are brought into the Wing again and the governor demands a head count. The prisoners, however, refuse to comply, adding to the confusion and thwarting the prison authorities’ attempts to identify the escapees. It is only after the guards threaten to send in the riot squad several hours later that the prisoners allow a head count to be taken. When they realise that 19 men had escaped, the joy the prisoner experience is immense as they thought only 14 had got away.

In an attempt to capture the escapees, the Dublin Government launches a statewide search operation. Every outhouse in County Wexford is searched. The Irish Naval Service is even called in and put on the alert. The searches go on for over a week but to no avail. The nineteen men had gotten clean away.

Those who escape are Liam Brown, Paddy Devenny and Micky Nolan from Belfast; Tom McFeely and Ian Milne from County Derry; Thomas McGinty and Eddie Gallagher from County Donegal; Patrick Thornberry, Kevin McAllister and Martin McAllister from County Armagh; Francis Hughes and Kevin Mallon from County Tyrone; Oliver McKiernan from County Fermanagh; Bernard Hegarty and Sam O’Hare from County Louth; Michael Kinsella and Seán Kinsella from County Monaghan; Seán Morris from County Meath; and Tony Weldon from Dublin.

(From: “30 years on: The Great Portlaoise Escape,” An Phoblacht, http://www.anphoblacht.com, August 26, 2004)


Leave a comment

Commissioning of the LÉ Deirdre (P20)

The Deirdre (P20), an offshore patrol vessel in the Irish Naval Service, is commissioned by Lt. Cdr. Liam Brett on June 19, 1972. The building of LÉ Deirdre marks a milestone in the development of the Naval Service, being the first ship purpose-built in Ireland to patrol in Irish waters. She is named after Deirdre, a tragic heroine from Irish mythology who committed suicide after her lover’s murder.

In 1971, a contract is signed with Verlome Cork Dockyard (VCD) to build an offshore patrol vessel for the Naval Service. Built in 1972, LÉ Deirdre is built as a replacement for the Ton-class minesweepers, and one of the first vessels custom-built for the Irish Naval Service. She has a longer range and is a more seaworthy ship for work in the Atlantic. LÉ Deirdre becomes the prototype for the later Emer-type vessels.

Deirdre undertakes a number of search and rescue operations throughout her career. For example, LÉ Deirdre is one of the vessels involved in the 1979 Fastnet race rescue operations, assisting the crews of two yachts. In 1990, during the rescue of a Spanish trawler crew in Bantry Bay, a member of LÉ Deirdre‘s crew dies and is posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and Spanish Cross of Naval Merit.

By the time of the vessel’s naval decommissioning in early 2001, LÉ Deirdre has travelled approximately 450,000 nautical miles. She is replaced by a Róisín-class patrol vessel.

Deirdre is sold at public auction for IR£190,000 to the English yacht chartering company Seastream International for conversion into the luxury charter yacht Tosca IV for the company’s owner, businessman Christopher Matthews. Speaking on the radio, a Seastream spokesman appears pleased with their bargain as they had been prepared to bid up to IR£500,000. The auction starting price had been IR£60,000.

The conversion in a Polish shipyard is not completed as the English owner is killed while piloting a Eurocopter EC130 helicopter which crashes at Sauk Prairie, Wisconsin after hitting power lines over Lake Wisconsin on August 6, 2004. In 2007 LÉ Deirdre is towed to Brazil for further refit and completion. Substantially complete, she arrives at Jacksonville, Florida in September 2012 for final outfitting as Santa Rita I. However, in August 2014, Santa Rita I is towed to Green Cove Springs, Florida, for breaking.


Leave a comment

The 1979 Fastnet Race

fastnet-race-memorialNineteen people lose their lives during the 1979 Fastnet Race, which begins on August 11, 1979. The race is the 28th Royal Ocean Racing Club‘s Fastnet Race, a yachting race held generally every two years since 1925 on a 605-mile course from Cowes direct to the Fastnet Rock and then to Plymouth via south of the Isles of Scilly. In 1979, it is the climax of the five-race Admiral’s Cup competition, as it has been since 1957.

A worse-than-expected storm on the third day of the race wreaks havoc on over 303 yachts that started the biennial race resulting in 24 yachts being abandoned, of which five are lost and believed to be sunk due to high winds and severe sea conditions. The nineteen fatalities consist of fifteen yachtsmen and four spectators.

Rescue efforts begin after 6:30 AM on August 14, once the winds drop to severe gale Force 9 on the Beaufort scale. Emergency services, naval forces, and civilian vessels from around the west side of the English Channel are summoned to aid what becomes the largest ever rescue operation in peace-time. This involves some 4,000 people, including the entire Irish Naval Service‘s fleet, lifeboats, commercial boats, tugs, trawlers, tankers and helicopters.

The handicap winner is the yacht Tenacious, designed by Sparkman & Stephens, owned and skippered by Ted Turner. The winner on elapsed time in the race is the 77-foot Condor of Bermuda, skippered by Peter Blake, which gains around 90 minutes on the leader at the Fastnet rock, the Kialoa IV, by chancing a spinnaker. Jim Kilroy of the Kialoa IV has broken his ribs and there is damage to the yacht’s runners. Condor of Bermuda breaks the Fastnet record by nearly eight hours (71h 25m 23s).

The disaster results in a major rethink of racing, risks and prevention.

(Pictured: Memorial to those who died in the 1979 Fastnet Race, Lissarnona, Cape Clear Island, Cork, Ireland)


Leave a comment

Samuel Beckett Awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature

samuel-beckettSamuel Barclay Beckett, Irish avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director, and poet, is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 23, 1969. Beckett lives in Paris for most of his adult life and writes in both English and French. He is widely regarded as among the most influential writers of the 20th century. He is elected Saoi of Aosdána in 1984.

Beckett’s work offers a bleak, tragicomic outlook on human existence, often coupled with black comedy and gallows humour, and becomes increasingly minimalist in his later career. He is considered one of the last modernist writers, and one of the key figures in what Martin Esslin calls the “Theatre of the Absurd.” Waiting for Godot is generally regarded as his best-known play.

In October 1969 while on holiday in Tunis with his wife Suzanne, Beckett hears that he has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Anticipating that her intensely private husband would be saddled with fame from that moment on, Suzanne calls the award a “catastrophe.” In true ascetic fashion, he gives away all of the prize money. While Beckett does not devote much time to interviews, he sometimes meets the artists, scholars, and admirers who seek him out in the anonymous lobby of the Hotel PLM St. Jacques in Paris near his Montparnasse home. Although Beckett is an intensely private man, a review of the second volume of his letters by Roy Foster in the December 15, 2011 issue of The New Republic reveals Beckett to be not only unexpectedly amiable but frequently prepared to talk about his work and the process behind it.

Confined to a nursing home and suffering from emphysema and possibly Parkinson’s disease, Beckett dies on 22 December 22, 1989, just five months after the passing of Suzanne. The two are interred together in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris and share a simple granite gravestone that follows Beckett’s directive that it should be “any colour, so long as it’s grey.”

Of all the English-language modernists, Beckett’s work represents the most sustained attack on the realist tradition. He opens up the possibility of theatre and fiction that dispense with conventional plot and the unities of time and place in order to focus on essential components of the human condition.

On December 10, 2009, a new bridge across the River Liffey in Dublin is opened and named the Samuel Beckett Bridge in his honour. Reminiscent of a harp on its side, it is designed by the celebrated Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who also designed the James Joyce Bridge further upstream. The newest ship of the Irish Naval Service, the LÉ Samuel Beckett (P61), is named for Beckett. An Ulster History Circle blue plaque in his memory is located at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh.


Leave a comment

The Bombing of Air India Flight 182

air-india-182Air India Flight 182, an Air India flight operating on the Montreal, CanadaLondon, U.K.Delhi, India route, is destroyed by a bomb on June 23, 1985, at an altitude of 31,000 feet and crashes into the Atlantic Ocean while in Irish airspace.

It is the first bombing of a 747 jumbo jetliner. A total of 329 people are killed, including 268 Canadian citizens, 27 Britons, and 24 Indians. The majority of the victims were Canadian citizens of Indian ancestry. The incident is the largest mass murder in Canadian history. It is the deadliest terrorist attack involving an airplane until the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States in 2001. The bombing of Air India 182 occurs at the same time as the Narita Airport bombing in Japan. Investigators believe that the two plots are linked, and that those responsible are aiming for a double bombing. However, the bomb at Narita explodes before it can be loaded onto a plane.

At 07:14:01 GMT, the crew of Air India 182 “squawked 2005,” a routine activation of its aviation transponder, as requested by Shannon International Airport Air Traffic Control (ATC). The plane then disappears from radar. A bomb in a Sanyo tuner in a suitcase in the forward cargo hold explodes while the plane is at 31,000 feet at 51°3.6′N 12°49′W. It causes rapid decompression and the break-up of the aircraft in mid-air. The wreckage settles in 6,700-feet deep water off the southwest coast of Ireland, 120 miles offshore of County Cork. No “mayday” call is received by Shannon ATC. ATC asks aircraft in the area to try to contact Air India, to no avail. By 07:30:00 GMT, ATC has declared an emergency and requests nearby cargo ships and the Irish Naval Service vessel Aisling to begin searching for the aircraft.

The bomb kills all 22 crew and 307 passengers. One hundred thirty-two bodies are recovered. The remaining 197 are lost at sea. Eight bodies exhibit “flail pattern” injuries, indicating that they had exited the aircraft before it hit the water. This is a sign that the aircraft had broken up in mid-air. Twenty-six bodies show signs of hypoxia (lack of oxygen). Twenty-five, mostly victims who were seated near windows, show signs of explosive decompression. Twenty-three have signs of “injuries from a vertical force.” Twenty-one passengers are found with little or no clothing.

Canadian law enforcement determines that the main suspects in the bombing are members of the Sikh militant group Babbar Khalsa. The attack is thought to be a retaliation against India for the operation carried out by the Indian Army Operation Blue Star to flush out several hundred Sikh militants who were within the premises of the Golden temple and the surrounding structures ordered by the Indian government, headed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Though a handful of members are arrested and tried, Inderjit Singh Reyat, a Canadian national, remains the only person convicted of involvement in the bombing. Singh pleads guilty in 2003 to manslaughter. He is sentenced to 15 years in prison for building the bombs that exploded aboard Flight 182 and at Narita.

The subsequent investigation and prosecution lasts almost twenty years and is the most expensive trial in Canadian history, costing nearly CAD 130 million. The Governor General-in-Council in 2006 appoints the former Supreme Court Justice John C. Major to conduct a commission of inquiry. His report is completed and released on June 17, 2010. It concludes that a “cascading series of errors” by the government of Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) had allowed the terrorist attack to take place.