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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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Death of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich

tomas-o-fiaichRoman Catholic Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, the Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh and an ardent Irish nationalist, dies of cardiac arrest in a hospital at Toulouse, France at the age of 66 on May 8, 1990 after falling ill on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Lourdes is a Catholic shrine where a peasant girl reported a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1858. Miraculous cures have been reported there.

Ó Fiaich is born Thomas Fee on November 3, 1923 in Cullyhanna, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, within sight of the border with the Republic of Ireland. He changes his name to the Gaelic form as his love of the Irish language and nationalist sentiments develop.

An announcement of the death, issued by the church’s press office in both Belfast and Dublin, says Ó Fiaich had appeared unwell to doctors accompanying the group of 600 pilgrims from his seat at Armagh in Northern Ireland.

Ó Fiaich is admitted first to a hospital in Lourdes, then flown by helicopter to Toulouse. Philippe Giovanni, director of the Rangueil Hospital there, says the cardinal died of a brutal cardiac arrest soon after being admitted.

While calling for a unified Ireland and criticizing British policy in Northern Ireland, Ó Fiaich, whose name is pronounced O’Fee, also castigates the violence of the Irish Republican Army, the predominantly Catholic outlawed guerrilla army that seeks to end British rule in Northern Ireland and unite it with the Republic of Ireland.

Ó Fiaich is appointed spiritual leader of Ireland’s four million Catholics in in 1977. Two years later Pope John Paul II makes him one of the first cardinals of his papacy.

Tributes to Ó Fiaich poured in from some both sides of the Irish border. In Dublin, Taoiseach Charles Haughey says he is “devastated, … deeply grieved.” Britain’s top official in Northern Ireland, Secretary of State Peter Brooke, also expresses sadness. “We did not always agree about everything, but he treated me with the greatest possible courtesy, friendliness and warmth.”

However hardline Protestant leader Ian Paisley of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party says Ó Fiaich is “the mallet of Rome against the Protestants of Northern Ireland.” He claims Ó Fiaich had “made an outrageous statement that the majority of bigotry in Ulster stemmed from the Protestant section of the community” and added, “He did not seem to realize that the IRA, which is carrying out the most atrocious of outrages … were the people who needed to be indicted with bigotry.”

In Belfast, Ulster Television suspends scheduled programs for an hour and airs a religious program and a news program about the cardinal.

Ó Fiaich retains close ties to Armagh, which had been dubbed “bandit country” because of the IRA activity. From the time he becomes primate, he speaks publicly of his wishes for a united Ireland. He visits IRA guerrillas in jail, calls the British Army’s fatal shooting of an Irish civilian murder, and says the border dividing Ireland is “unnatural.”

Following his death, Ó Fiaich lies in state at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, where thousands of people line up to pay their respects.

(From: AP News, apnews.com, May 8, 1990)


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Birth of Cardinal Tomás Séamus Ó Fiaich

Tomás Séamus Ó Fiaich, Irish prelate of the Roman Catholic Church, is born in Cullyhanna, County Armagh, on November 3, 1923. He serves as the Catholic Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh from 1977 until his death. He is created a Cardinal in 1979.

Ó Fiaich is ordained a priest on July 6, 1948. He spends his first year of ordination as assistant priest in Clonfeacle parish. He undertakes post-graduate studies at University College, Dublin, (1948–50), receiving a Master of Arts (MA) in early and medieval Irish history. He also studies at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, (1950–52), receiving a licentiate in historical sciences.

In 1952 Ó Fiaich returns to Clonfeacle where he remains as assistant priest until the following summer and his appointment to the faculty of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. He is an academic and noted Irish language scholar, folklorist and historian in the Pontifical University in St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, the National Seminary of Ireland. From 1959 to 1974 he is Professor of Modern Irish History at the college. In this capacity he suggests to Nollaig Ó Muraíle that he begin research on Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh and his works. He “was an inspired lecturer, an open and endearing man, who was loved by his students… Tomas O’Fiaich was my Good Samaritan.”

Ó Fiaich serves as vice president of the college from 1970 to 1974 and is then appointed college president, a post that traditionally precedes appointment to an episcopal position in the Irish Church. He holds this position until 1977.

Following the relatively early death from cancer of Cardinal William Conway in April 1977, Monsignor Ó Fiaich is appointed Archbishop of Armagh by Pope Paul VI on August 18, 1977. He is consecrated bishop on October 2, 1977. The principal consecrator is the papal nuncio Archbishop Gaetano Alibrandi. The principal co-consecrators are Bishop Francis Lenny, the auxiliary Bishop of Armagh, and Bishop William Philbin, the Bishop of Down and Connor. Pope John Paul II raises Ó Fiaich to the cardinalate on June 30, 1979, and he is appointed Cardinal-Priest of S. Patrizio that same day.

Ó Fiaich dies of a heart attack on the evening of May 8, 1990 while leading the annual pilgrimage by the Archdiocese of Armagh to the Marian shrine of Lourdes in France. He arrives in France the day before and complains of feeling ill shortly after saying Mass at the grotto in the French town. He is rushed by helicopter to a hospital in Toulouse, 125 miles away, where he dies. He lies in state at the cathedral in Armagh, where thousands of people lined up to pay their respects.

Ó Fiaich is succeeded as archbishop and cardinal by a man six years his senior, Cahal Daly, then the Bishop of Down and Connor.