seamus dubhghaill

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


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The Mountjoy Prison Helicopter Escape

The Mountjoy Prison helicopter escape occurs on October 31, 1973 when three Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers escape from Mountjoy Prison in Dublin aboard a hijacked Alouette II helicopter, which briefly lands in the prison’s exercise yard. The escape makes headlines around the world and is an embarrassment to the Irish coalition government of the time, led by Fine Gael‘s Liam Cosgrave, which is criticised by opposition party Fianna Fáil. A manhunt involving twenty thousand members of the Irish Defence Forces and Garda Síochána is launched for the escapees, one of whom, Seamus Twomey, is not recaptured until December 1977. The Wolfe Tones write a song celebrating the escape called “The Helicopter Song,” which tops the Irish Singles Chart.

Following the outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s, the Provisional IRA conducts an armed campaign that seeks to create a united Ireland by ending Northern Ireland‘s status as part of the United Kingdom. As a result of increasing levels of violence in Northern Ireland, internment without trial is introduced there in August 1971, and in the Republic of Ireland the coalition government led by Fine Gael’s Liam Cosgrave is attempting to curb IRA activity. Fine Gael had come to power on a law and order ticket, with a policy of “getting tough on crime.” Suspected IRA members are arrested and accused of IRA membership by a superintendent in the Garda Síochána, a crime under the Offences against the State Acts. They are tried at the juryless Special Criminal Court in Dublin, where the traditional IRA policy of not recognising the court results in a fait accompli as no defence is offered and IRA membership carries a minimum mandatory one-year sentence, resulting in internment in all but name. In September 1973 IRA Chief of Staff Seamus Twomey appears at the Special Criminal Court charged with IRA membership, and states, “I refuse to recognise this British-orientated quisling court.” He is found guilty and receives a five-year sentence. By October 1973 the IRA’s command structure is seriously curbed, with Twomey and other senior republicans J. B. O’Hagan and Kevin Mallon all being held in Mountjoy Prison.

The IRA immediately begins making plans to break Twomey, O’Hagan and Mallon out of the prison. The first attempt involves explosives that had been smuggled into the prison, which are to be used to blow a hole in a door which will give the prisoners access to the exercise yard. From there, they are to scale a rope ladder thrown over the exterior wall by members of the IRA’s Dublin Brigade who are to have a getaway car waiting to complete the escape. The plans when the prisoners cannot gain access to the exercise yard and the rope ladder is spotted, so the IRA begins making new escape plans. The idea of using a helicopter in an escape had been discussed before in a plot to break Gerry Adams out of Long Kesh internment camp but had been ruled out because of faster and more sophisticated British Army helicopters being stationed at a nearby base. The IRA’s GHQ staff approves the plan to break out Twomey, O’Hagan and Mallon, and arrangements are made to obtain a helicopter. A man with an American accent calling himself Mr. Leonard approaches the manager of Irish Helicopters at Dublin Airport, with a view to hiring a helicopter for an aerial photographic shoot in County Laois. After being shown the company’s fleet of helicopters, Leonard arranges to hire a five-seater Alouette II for October 31.

Leonard arrives at Irish Helicopters on October 31 and is introduced to the pilot of the helicopter, Captain Thompson Boyes. Boyes is instructed to fly to a field in Stradbally, in order to pick up Leonard’s photographic equipment. After landing Boyes sees two armed, masked men approaching the helicopter from nearby trees. He is held at gunpoint and told he will not be harmed if he follows instructions. Leonard leaves with one gunman, while the other gunman climbs aboard the helicopter armed with a pistol and an ArmaLite rifle. Boyes is instructed to fly towards Dublin following the path of railway lines and the Royal Canal, and is ordered not to register his flight path with Air Traffic Control. As the helicopter approaches Dublin, Boyes is informed of the escape plan and is instructed to land in the exercise yard at Mountjoy Prison.

In the prison’s exercise yard, the prisoners are watching a football match. Shortly after 3:35 p.m. the helicopter swings in to land in the prison yard, with Kevin Mallon directing the pilot using semaphore. A prison officer on duty initially takes no action as he believes the helicopter contains the Minister for Defence, Paddy Donegan. After prisoners surround the eight prison officers in the yard, fights break out as the officers realise an escape attempt is in progress. As other prisoners restrain the officers, Twomey, Mallon and O’Hagan board the helicopter. As the helicopter takes off, in the confusion one officer shouts, “Close the gates, close the fucking gates.” The helicopter flies north and lands at a disused racecourse in the Baldoyle area of Dublin, where the escapees are met by members of the IRA’s Dublin Brigade. Boyes is released unharmed, and the escapees are transferred to a taxi that had been hijacked earlier and are transported to safe houses.

The escape makes headlines around the world and is an embarrassment for Cosgrave’s government, which is criticised for “incompetence in security matters” by opposition party Fianna Fáil. An emergency debate on security is held in Dáil Éireann on November 1.

The IRA releases a statement on the escape, which reads, “Three republican prisoners were rescued by a special unit from Mountjoy Prison on Wednesday. The operation was a complete success and the men are now safe, despite a massive hunt by Free State forces.” Shortly after the escape Twomey gives an exclusive interview to German magazine Der Spiegel, where the reporter says people throughout Europe are joking about the incident as “the escape of the century.” Irish rebel band the Wolfe Tones writes a song celebrating the escape called “The Helicopter Song,” which is immediately banned by the government yet still tops the Irish Singles Chart after selling twelve thousand copies in a single week.

The escape results in all IRA prisoners being held at Mountjoy Prison and Curragh Camp being transferred to the maximum security Portlaoise Prison. In order to prevent any further escapes the perimeter of the prison is guarded by members of the Irish Army, and wires are erected over the prison yard to prevent any future helicopter escape. Cosgrave states there will be “no hiding place” for the escapees, and a manhunt involving twenty thousand members of the Irish Defence Forces and Garda Síochána ensues.

Mallon is recaptured at a Gaelic Athletic Association dance in a hotel near Portlaoise on December 10, 1973, and imprisoned in Portlaoise Prison. He escapes from there in a mass break-out on August 18, 1974, when nineteen prisoners escape after overpowering guards and using gelignite to blast through the gates. He is recaptured in Foxrock in January 1975 and returned to Portlaoise Prison. O’Hagan is recaptured in Dublin in early 1975, and also imprisoned in Portlaoise Prison. After the end of his original twelve-month sentence, he is immediately arrested and sentenced to a further two years imprisonment for escaping. Twomey evades recapture until December 2, 1977, when he is spotted sitting in a car in Sandycove by members of the Garda’s Special Branch who are investigating an arms shipment after a tip-off from police in Belgium. He drives away after spotting the officers, before being recaptured in the centre of Dublin after a high-speed car chase. He is also imprisoned in Portlaoise Prison until his release in 1982.

In 2021, Brendan Hughes publishes an autobiography Up Like a Bird, an account of the planning and organisation of the escape, co-authored with Doug Dalby.


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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)


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Birth of Ophthalmologist Arthur Jacob

Arthur Jacob, Irish ophthalmologist, is born on June 13, 1790, at Knockfin, near Maryborough, Queens County (now Portlaoise, County Laois). He is known for founding several hospitals, a medical school, and a medical journal. He contributes to science and academia through his 41-year term as Professor of Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and as the first Irish ocular pathologist. He is elected President of RCSI in 1837 and 1864.

Jacob is the second son of John Jacob, M.D. (1754–1827), surgeon to the Queen’s County infirmary, Maryborough, by his wife Grace (1765–1835), only child of Jerome Alley of Donoughmore. He studies medicine with his father and at Dr. Steevens’s Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin, under Abraham Colles. Having graduated M.D. at the University of Edinburgh in 1814, he sets out on a walking tour through the United Kingdom, crossing the English Channel at Dover, and continuing his walk from Calais to Paris.

Jacob studies at Paris until Napoleon‘s return from Elba. He subsequently pursues his studies in London under Sir Benjamin Collins Brodie, Sir Astley Cooper, and Sir W. Lawrence. In 1819 he returns to Dublin, and becomes demonstrator of anatomy under Dr. James Macartney at Trinity College Dublin. Here his anatomical researches gain for him a reputation, and he collects a museum, which Macartney afterwards sells to the University of Cambridge.

On leaving Macartney, Jacob joins with Robert James Graves and others in founding the Park Street School of Medicine. In 1826 he is elected Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), and holds the chair until 1869. He is elected President of RCSI in 1837 and 1864. He founds an Ophthalmic Hospital in Pitt (now Balfe) Street in 1829 and in 1832, in conjunction with Charles Benson and others, he founds the Baggot Street Hospital, Baggot Street, and later practices there after the opening of a dedicated eye ward. His younger rival, Sir William Wilde, subsequently founds the competing St. Mark’s Ophthalmic Hospital in Lincoln Place (beside Trinity College) in 1844.

In 1839, with Dr. Henry Maunsell, Jacob starts the Dublin Medical Press, a weekly journal of medical science, and edits forty-two volumes from 1839 to 1859, in order “to diffuse useful knowledge… to instil honourable principles, and foster kind feelings in the breast of the student” among other desirable aims. He also contributes to the Dublin Journal of Medical Science. He takes an active part in founding the Royal Medical Benevolent Fund Society of Ireland and the Irish Medical Association.

At the age of seventy-five Jacob retires from the active pursuit of his profession. His fame rests on his anatomical and ophthalmological discoveries.

In December 1860 a medal bearing Jacob’s likeness is struck and presented to him, and his portrait, bust, and library are later placed in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. He dies at Newbarnes, Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, England, on September 21, 1874. He is buried at Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin.

In 1819 Jacob announces the discovery, which he had made in 1816, of a previously unknown membrane of the eye, in a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The membrane has been known since as membrana Jacobi and forms the retina. Apart from his discovery of the membrana Jacobi, he describes Jacob’s ulcer, and revives cataract surgery through the cornea with a curved needle, Jacob’s needle. To the Cyclopædia of Anatomy he contributes an article on the eye, and to the Cyclopædia of Practical Medicine treatises on Ophthalmia and Amaurosis.

In 1824 Jacob marries Sarah, daughter of Coote Carroll, of Ballymote, County Sligo. The marriage produces five sons. She dies on January 6, 1839.

(Pictured: Photograph of a marble bust of Arthur Jacob on the main staircase of the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital, Dublin, Ireland)


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Birth of Sir Eyre Coote, Soldier, Politician & Governor of Jamaica

Sir Eyre Coote, Irish-born British soldier and politician who serves as Governor of Jamaica, is born on May 20, 1759.

Coote is the second son of the Very Reverend Charles Coote of Shaen Castle, Queen’s County (now County Laois), Dean of Kilfenora, County Clare, and Grace Coote (née Tilson). Educated at Eton College (1767–71), he enters Trinity College Dublin (TCD) on November 1, 1774, but does not graduate. In 1776 he is commissioned ensign in the 37th (North Hampshire) Regiment of Foot and carries the regiment’s colours at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War. He fights in several of the major battles in the war, including Rhode Island (September 15, 1776), Brandywine (September 11, 1777) and the siege of Charleston (1780). He serves under Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, in Virginia and is taken prisoner during the siege of Yorktown in October 1781.

On his release Coote returns to England, is promoted major in the 47th (Lancashire) Regiment of Foot in 1783, and in 1784 inherits the substantial estates of his uncle Sir Eyre Coote. He inherits a further £200,000 by remainder on his father’s death in 1796. He resides for a time at Portrane House, Maryborough, Queen’s County, and is elected MP for Ballynakill (1790–97) and Maryborough (1797–1800). Although he opposes the union, he vacates his seat to allow his elder brother Charles, 2nd Baron Castle Coote, to return a pro-union member. He serves with distinction in the West Indies (1793–95), particularly at the storming of Guadeloupe on July 3, 1794, and becomes colonel of the 70th (Surrey) Regiment of Foot (1794), aide-de-camp to King George III (1795), and brigadier-general in charge of the camp at Bandon, County Cork (1796).

Coote is active in suppressing the United Irishmen in Cork throughout 1797, and in June arrests several soldiers and locals suspected of attempting to suborn the Bandon camp. On January 1, 1798 he is promoted major-general and given the command at Dover. He leads the expedition of 1,400 men that destroy the canal gates at Ostend on May 18, 1798, holding out stubbornly for two days against superior Dutch forces until he is seriously wounded and his force overwhelmed. Taken prisoner, he is exchanged and in 1800 commands a brigade in Sir Ralph Abercromby‘s Mediterranean campaign, distinguishing himself at Abu Qir and Alexandria. For his services in Egypt he receives the thanks of parliament, is made a Knight of the Bath, and is granted the Crescent by the Sultan.

In 1801 Coote returns to Ireland. Elected MP for Queen’s County (1802–06), he generally supports the government, and is appointed governor of the fort of Maryborough. He gives the site and a large sum of money towards the building of the old county hospital in Maryborough. In 1805 he is promoted lieutenant-general, and he serves as lieutenant-governor of Jamaica (1806–08). His physical and mental health deteriorates in the West Indian climate, and he is relieved of his post in April 1808. He is second in command in the Walcheren Campaign of 1809 and leads the force that takes the fortress of Flushing. However, he shows signs of severe stress during the campaign and asks to be relieved from command because his eldest daughter is seriously ill.

Coote is conferred LL.D. at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1811. Elected MP for Barnstaple, Devon (1812–18), he usually votes with government, but opposes them by supporting Catholic emancipation, claiming that Catholics strongly deserve relief because of the great contribution Catholic soldiers had made during the war. He strongly opposes the abolition of flogging in the army. Despite a growing reputation for eccentricity, he is promoted full general in 1814 and appointed Knight Grand Cross (GCB) on January 2, 1815, but his conduct becomes increasingly erratic. In November 1815 he pays boys at Christ’s Hospital school, London, to allow him to flog them and to flog him in return. Discovered by the school matron, he is charged with indecent behaviour. The Lord Mayor of London dismisses the case and Coote donates £1,000 to the school, but the scandal leads to a military inquiry on April 18, 1816. Although it is argued that his mind had been affected by the Jamaican sun and the deaths of his daughters, the inquiry finds that he is not insane and that his conduct is unworthy of an officer. Despite the protests of many senior officers, he is discharged from the army and deprived of his honours.

Coote continues to decline and dies in London on December 10, 1823. He is buried at his seat of West Park, Hampshire, where in 1828 a large monument is erected to him and his uncle Sir Eyre Coote.

Coote first marries Sarah Robard in 1785, with whom he has three daughters, all of whom die young of consumption. Secondly he marries in 1805, Katherine, daughter of John Bagwell of Marlfield, County Tipperary, with whom he has one son, his heir Eyre Coote III, MP for Clonmel (1830–33). He also has a child by Sally, a slave girl in Jamaica, from whom Colin Powell, United States Army general and Secretary of State, claims descent.


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The Battle of Kilrush

james-butler-earl-of-ormondeThe Battle of Kilrush, a battle at the start of the Irish Confederate Wars in Ireland, takes place on April 15, 1642, soon after the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

The battle is fought between a Royalist army under the James Butler, 12th Earl of Ormonde, and Richard Butler, 3rd Viscount Mountgarret, who leads Confederate Irish troops raised during the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Ormonde and Mountgarret are cousins, both being members of the Butler dynasty.

Ormonde’s troops leave Dublin on April 2 and march unopposed from Naas to Athy and on to Maryborough, now Portlaoise, arriving on April 8. There they resupply the royalist garrisons and send cavalry forces to support those at Carlow and Birr, before returning to Athy on April 13. Setting out at 6:00 AM on April 15, and having decided to avoid a battle on their return march to Dublin, the government troops are blocked by Mountgarret’s rebel militias at Kilrush, two miles south of Suncroft, between Kilcullen and Moone in southeastern County Kildare.

The land is remarkably flat, with the exception of two ridges that run nearly parallel northward from a castle, with a marsh lying between. The army of Ormonde, consisting of 2,500 foot soldiers and 500 horses, assembles on the high grounds of Ardscull, Fontstown, and Kilrush, while the rebel army under Mountgarret, consisting of 8,000 foot soldiers and 400 horses, proceeds in the same direction along the heights of Birtown, Ballyndrum, Glasshealy, and Narraghmore. Mountgarret, having the advantage in numbers, and anxious for battle, outmarches Ormonde’s forces, and posts himself on Bull Hill and Kilrush, completely intercepting Ormonde’s further progress to Dublin. A general engagement becomes unavoidable. The left wing of the Irish is broken by the first charge. The right wing, animated by their leaders, maintains the contest for some time, but eventually falls back to neighbouring Battlemount. Here they break, flee and are pursued with great slaughter across the grounds they had marched over the previous day. Ormonde’s army then marches on to Dublin, arriving on April 17.

Ormonde’s army suffers twenty fatalities and approximately forty wounded in the Battle of Kilrush. Mountgarret’s rebel army loses more than 700, among which are several colonels. The victory is considered of such consequence that Ormonde is presented with a jewel valued at £50 by the Irish Government.

(Pictured: Sir Peter Lely’s oil painting of James Butler, 12th Earl of Ormonde)


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The Rose of Tralee Festival

rose-of-traleeThe first Rose of Tralee festival is held in Tralee, County Kerry, on August 25, 1959.

The Rose of Tralee festival is held every August in Tralee to choose a young woman to be crowned the Rose. The winner is the woman deemed to best match the attributes “lovely and fair” relayed in the song. She is selected based on her personality and should be a good role model for the festival and ambassador for Ireland during her travels around the world. It is not a beauty pageant, and the participants are not judged on their appearance but on their personality and suitability to serve as ambassadors for the festival. The festival bills itself as a celebration of the “aspirations, ambitions, intellect, social responsibility, and Irish heritage” of modern young women.

The festival has its origins in the local Carnival Queen, once an annual town event, fallen by the wayside due to post-war emigration. In 1957, the Race Week Carnival is resurrected in Tralee and it features a Carnival Queen. The idea for the Rose of Tralee International Festival comes when a group of local business people meet in Harty’s bar in Tralee to come up with ideas to bring more tourists to the town during the horse racing meeting and to encourage expats back to their native Tralee. Led by Dan Nolan, then Managing Director of The Kerryman newspaper, they hit on the idea of the Rose of Tralee Festival. The event starts in 1959 on a budget of just £750.

The founders of the organisation are Billy Clifford, an accountant with the Rank Organisation, who is one of the first recipients of the Golden Rose award, Dan Nolan, involved with the Tralee Races, Jo Hussey, a shopkeeper in Tralee, and Ted Keane, Sr., a local restaurateur.

Originally, only women from Tralee are eligible to take part. In the early 1960s it is extended to include any women from Kerry and, in 1967, it is further extended to include any women of Irish birth or ancestry. In 2004 Regional Finals are introduced to offer more people an opportunity to participate in the Rose of Tralee International Festival. It is held every year until 2015 in Portlaoise, County Laois, on the June Bank Holiday weekend. In 2014 it is announced that the 2015 Regional Finals will be the last, in favour of a revamped selection process held in Tralee.