seamus dubhghaill

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


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The Crumlin Road Gaol Escape

crumlin-road-jail-escapeEight Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoners escape from Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, one of the most heavily guarded prisons in Europe, on June 10, 1980. Using handguns that had been smuggled into the prison, they take prison officers hostage and shoot their way out of the building and exit through the front gate.

The regime inside Crumlin Road Gaol on that day is just like any other. The prison had been the scene of several protests regarding strip-searching shortly beforehand, but the rules had been somewhat relaxed. On A and C Wings the remand prisoners are outside in the yard for exercise. As usual, several men from each wing are called for visits. Some of these visits are from solicitors and an area of the prison is set aside to allow legal teams and the accused a place to discuss their business in private.

When warders come to return one set of prisoners to their wing, the operation begins. One of the Volunteers produces a gun, forces the warders to release the other prisoners and then locks about ten warders in the cell. They then make their way to B wing’s visiting area and arrest all the warders, visitors and solicitors who are there, before locking about thirty up in a room. One warder named Killen reaches for his baton, is disarmed and hit over the head.

Two warders and a solicitor are ordered to strip and three of the IRA Volunteers, dress in two uniforms and a suit respectively, calmly walk to the main gate which is opened for them. They then pull guns on the real warders in this key security area and make them lie on the ground until their five comrades run across a small courtyard to join them.

Once outside however, the alarm is set off and British Army sentries pour a hail of automatic fire at the prisoners from a watch tower before they are able to reach the front gate. Undeterred, the prisoners dash through the bullets, weaving from side to side to throw off their attackers.

As the men make their escape, clearly visible to republican prisoners in cells on the top landing of A wing, loud cheers go up and makeshift flags are flown from the windows.

Outside the prison, cars have been parked by the IRA’s Belfast Brigade in the car park of the health clinic beside the courthouse, their ignition keys hidden under the floor mats. The prisoners run across the road towards the health centre, dodging bullets as they run. The escapees head towards the loyalist Shankill area where they commandeer cars to help their getaway.

Stunned by the daring escapees, the crown forces erect checkpoints across Belfast and along all border routes.

Seven of the escapees, known as the “M60 gang,” are brothers Tony and Gerry Sloan, Gerard McKee, Joe Doherty, Angelo Fusco, Paul ‘Dingus’ Magee and Tony Campbell. All are from Belfast and charged in connection with either an M60 machine gun attack in 1980 on a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) patrol in Andersonstown, or with the siege on the Antrim Road in May 1980, when a Special Air Service (SAS) captain is killed. The eighth escapee is Pete Ryan from Ardboe, County Tyrone who had been charged with killing an RUC Reservist and an Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) soldier.

All eight men reach safe houses within an hour and, after a lying low for a short while, are spirited over the border to begin new lives “on the run.”

One week later, at the annual pilgrimage to the graveside of Wolfe Tone, the father of republicanism, which is always a source of renewed strength for its participants, the crowd is given an added morale boost when at the closing ceremony, one of the escapees, Paul ‘Dingus’ Magee, makes a dramatic appearance on the platform.

There are many more attempts to break free from Crumlin Road Gaol before it finally closes its doors in April 1995, having being used as a weapon in the attempted suppression of the Irish freedom struggle for 151 years.

(From: An Phoblacht Magazine, http://www.anphoblacht.com, June 15, 2006 edition)

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The Battle of Saintfield

battle-of-saintfieldThe Battle of Saintfield, a short but bloody clash in County Down in what is now Northern Ireland, takes place on Saturday, June 9, 1798. The battle is the first major conflict of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 in County Down.

A rebel force, over a thousand strong, converge on a large house owned by the McKee family. The McKees are a family of loyalists, who are unpopular in the region because they had provided information to the authorities leading to the arrest of a radical Presbyterian minister and some members of his congregation. The McKees know that they are unpopular and are thus armed to the teeth. As the house is surrounded, shots are fired from the fortified house, hitting some of the attackers. Gunfire holds the insurgents back for a short while, until one of them, a fiddler by the name of Orr, manages to sneak around the back of the house with a ladder and sets the roof alight. The house is destroyed, and all eight members of the family inside are killed. News of this quickly reaches the British forces in the area, and a 300 strong force under Colonel Granville Staplyton, consisting of Newtownards Yeomanry cavalry and 270 York Fencibles, as well as two light cannon, march to the region.

The rebels, however, anticipate the move and are waiting in ambush. Stapylton sees the road ahead twisting into woods, and orders a pair of scouts to check for anything suspicious. The men do not seem to be particularly vigilant, as they return and declared the road ahead to be safe.

The redcoats march into the wooded area, a dense hedge snaking along the road on one side. On the opposite side, the ground steadily rises, with the areas higher up the slope dominated by demesne woods. This provides cover for the Irish. The Irish rebels are mostly armed with pikes and the terrain allows them to quickly swarm the soldiers on the road below. In the fierce hand-to-hand combat that follows the British forces are overwhelmed. One of the fencibles, a veteran of wars in Europe who manages to survive the attack later states that he had never before witnessed such fierce fighting.

Over fifty men are piked to death before Staplyton manages to order the soldiers. He then brings his cannon into play against the mass of rebels before him, inflicting enough casualties with canister and grapeshot to blunt their attack. In the meantime, Staplytons force uses the situation to march to safety.

The Battle of Saintfield is largely regarded as a victory of the United Irish rebels. Long after, in the 1950s, two skeletons, a sword and bayonet of the York fencibles are found in the area.

The rebellion in Down proves to be short lived. Only a few days later the rebel army is slaughtered at the Battle of Ballynahinch.

Many of the dead from both sides of the battle are placed in a mass grave within the grounds of the nearby Presbyterian church. Although there is a plaque signifying the location of these graves, the area seems largely neglected with what appears to be temporary vehicle access over the belligerents final resting place. In May 2010 a memorial park is finished and opened. The area has been cleared and landscaped, with several new plaques and information boards being erected. The graves have been refurbished and the headstones relaid.


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The Dunmanway Killings

dunmanway-massacreThe Dunmanway killings, also known as the Dunmanway murders or the Dunmanway massacre, takes place in and around Dunmanway, County Cork between April 26-28, 1922. The event refers to the killing (and in some cases, disappearances) of thirteen Protestant men and boys.

The killings happen in a period of truce after the July 1921 end of the Irish War of Independence and before the outbreak of the Irish Civil War in June 1922. All the dead and missing are Protestants, which has led to the killings being described as sectarian. Six are killed as purported British informants and loyalists, while four others are relatives killed in the absence of the target. Three other men are kidnapped and executed in Bandon as revenge for the killing of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) officer Michael O’Neill during an armed raid. One man is shot and survives his injuries.

On April 26, 1922, a group of anti-Treaty IRA men, led by Michael O’Neill, arrive at the house of Thomas Hornibrook, a former magistrate, at Ballygroman, East Muskerry, Desertmore, Bandon (near Ballincollig on the outskirts of Cork City), seeking to seize his car. Hornibrook is in the house at the time along with his son, Samuel, and his nephew, Herbert Woods, a former Captain in the British Army. O’Neill demands a part of the engine mechanism that had been removed by Hornibrook to prevent such theft. Hornibrook refuses to give them the part, and after further efforts, some of the IRA party enter through a window. Herbert Woods then shoots O’Neill, wounding him fatally. O’Neill’s companion, Charlie O’Donoghue, takes him to a local priest who pronounces him dead. The next morning O’Donoghue leaves for Bandon to report the incident to his superiors, returning with “four military men,” meeting with the Hornibrooks and Woods, who admit to shooting O’Neill.

It is not clear who orders the attacks or carries them out. However, in 2014 The Irish Times releases a confidential memo from the then-Director of Intelligence Colonel Michael Joe Costello (later managing director of the Irish Sugar Company) in September 1925 in relation to a pension claim by former IRA volunteer Daniel O’Neill of Enniskeane, County Cork, stating: “O’Neill is stated to be a very unscrupulous individual and to have taken part in such operations as lotting [looting] of Post Offices, robbing of Postmen and the murder of several Protestants in West Cork in May 1922. A brother of his was shot dead by two of the latter named, Woods and Hornbrooke [sic], who were subsequently murdered.”

Sinn Féin and IRA representatives, from both the pro-Treaty side, which controls the Provisional Government in Dublin and the anti-Treaty side, which controls the area the killings take place in, immediately condemn the killings.

The motivation of the killers remains unclear. It is generally agreed that they were provoked by the fatal shooting of O’Neill by Woods, whose house was being raided on April 26. Some historians have claimed there were sectarian motives; others claim that those killed were targeted only because they were suspected of having been informers during the Irish War of Independence, and argue that the dead were associated with the so-called “Murragh Loyalist Action Group,” and that their names may have appeared in captured British military intelligence files which listed “helpful citizens” during the war.

(Pictured: Herbert Woods, centre, whose decision to shoot sparks the massacre)


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The Battle of New Ross

battle-of-new-rossThe Battle of New Ross takes place in County Wexford in southeastern Ireland on June 5, 1798, during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. It is fought between the Irish Republican insurgents called the United Irishmen and British Crown forces composed of regular soldiers, militia and yeomanry. The attack on the town of New Ross on the River Barrow, is an attempt by the recently victorious rebels to break out of County Wexford across the River Barrow and to spread the rebellion into County Kilkenny and the outlying province of Munster.

On June 4, 1798, the rebels advance from their camp on Carrigbyrne Hill to Corbet Hill, just outside the town of New Ross. The battle, the bloodiest of the 1798 rebellion, begins at dawn on June 5 when the Crown garrison is attacked by a force of almost 10,000 rebels, massed in three columns outside the town. The attack has been expected since the fall of Wexford to the rebels on May 30 and the British garrison of 2,000 has prepared defences both outside and inside the town. Trenches are dug and manned by skirmishers on the approaches to the town while cannon are stationed facing all the rapidly falling approaches and narrow streets of the town to counter the expected mass charges by the rebels, who are mainly armed with pikes.

Bagenal Harvey, the United Irish Leader recently released from captivity following the rebel seizure of Wexford, attempts to negotiate surrender of New Ross but the rebel emissary Matt Furlong is shot down by Crown outposts while bearing a flag of truce. His death provokes a furious charge by an advance guard of 500 insurgents led by John Kelly who has instructions to seize the Three Bullet Gate and wait for reinforcements before pushing into the town. To aid their attack, the rebels first drive a herd of cattle through the gate.

Another rebel column attacks the Priory Gate but the third pulls back from the Market Gate intimidated by the strong defences. Seizing the opportunity, the garrison sends a force of cavalry out the Market Gate to attack and scatter the remaining two hostile columns from the flanks. However the rebel rump has not yet deployed and upon spotting the British manoeuvre, rally the front ranks who stand and break the cavalry charge with massed pikes.

The encouraged rebel army then sweeps past the Crown outposts and seizes the Three Bullet Gate causing the garrison and populace to flee in panic. Without pausing for reinforcement, the rebels break into the town attacking simultaneously down the steeply sloping streets but meet with strong resistance from well-prepared second lines of defence of the well armed soldiers. Despite horrific casualties the rebels manage to seize two-thirds of the town by using the cover of smoke from burning buildings and force the near withdrawal of all Crown forces from the town. However, the rebels’ limited supplies of gunpowder and ammunition force them to rely on the pike and blunts their offensive. The military manages to hold on and, following the arrival of reinforcements, launches a counterattack before noon which finally drives the exhausted rebels from the town.

No effort to pursue the withdrawing rebels is made but when the town has been secured, a massacre of prisoners, trapped rebels and civilians of both sympathies alike begins which continues for days. Hundreds are burned alive when rebel casualty stations are torched by victorious troops. More rebels are believed to have been killed in the aftermath of the battle than during the actual fighting. Reports of such atrocities brought by escaping rebels are believed to have influenced the retaliatory murder of over 100 loyalists in the flames of Scullabogue Barn.

Casualties in the Battle of New Ross are estimated at 2,800 to 3,000 Rebels and 200 Garrison dead. Most of the dead Rebels are thrown in the River Barrow or buried in a mass grave outside the town walls a few days after the Battle.
The remaining rebel army reorganises and forms a camp at Sliabh Coillte some five miles to the east but never attempts to attack the town again. They later attack General John Moore‘s invading column but are defeated at the Battle of Foulksmills on June 20, 1798.

(Pictured: The 1845 illustration “The Battle of Ross” by George Cruikshank)