On the morning of September 9, 1942, Garda Detective Sergeant Denis O’Brien is leaving his home in Ballyboden, Dublin. He is between his front gate and his car when he is cut down with Thompson submachine guns. O’Brien, an Anti-Treaty veteran of the Irish Civil War, had enlisted in the Garda Síochána in 1933. He is one of the most effective Detectives of the Special Branch division, which has its headquarters at Dublin Castle. The shooting greatly increases public feeling against the IRA, particularly as the murder is carried out in full view of his wife.
Following the arrest of Hugh McAteer in October 1942, Kerins is named Chief of Staff of the IRA. Despite a massive manhunt by Gardaí, he remains at large for two years. He stays at a County Waterford home for two weeks while he is on the run, having given his name as Pat Carney. He is captured several months after he leaves the home.
Kerins had previously left papers and guns hidden at Kathleen Farrell’s house in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines. He telephones the house, as he intends to retrieve them. However, Farrell’s telephone had been tapped by the Gardaí. On June 15, 1944, he is arrested in an early morning raid. He is sleeping when the Gardaí enter his bedroom and does not have an opportunity to reach the Thompson submachine gun which is hidden under his bed.
At a trial before the Special Criminal Court in Collins Barracks, Dublin, Kerins is formally charged on October 2, 1944, for the “shooting at Rathfarnham of Detective Dinny O’Brien.” At the end of his trial, the president of the Military Court delays sentence until later in the day to allow Kerins, if he wishes, to make an application whereby he might avoid a capital sentence. When the court resumes, he says, “You could have adjourned it for six years as far as I am concerned, as my attitude towards this Court will always be the same.” He thus deprives himself of the right to give evidence, to face cross-examination, or to call witnesses.
Kerins is the last IRA member to be executed in the Republic of Ireland. He is buried in the prison yard. In September 1948, his remains are exhumed and released to his family. He is buried in the Republican plot at Rath Cemetery, Tralee, County Kerry.
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.
Kelly is the eldest of ten children born into a staunchly Irish republican family. His father, also named James Kelly, had stood for Sinn Féin in local elections in 1918, topping the poll. An ancestor from the late 18th century, Robert Kelly, was a member of the Society of United Irishmen, and was supposedly a Officer Commanding of the United Irishmen in the East Cavan/South Monaghan area. Kelly joins the Irish Army in 1949. By 1960 he has been promoted to captain and appointed to the intelligence section at army headquarters.
Kelly is a central figure in the Arms Trial, having travelled to Hamburg to arrange the purchase of arms. It emerges later that Neil Blaney had ordered him to do so outside normal legal channels, but before the weapons arrive the GardaSpecial Detective Unit has heard of the plan and informs TaoiseachJack Lynch, aborting the importation and resulting in criminal charges for the plotters. Although in his summation the judge says it is no defence for Kelly to say that he believed that the government had authorised the importation of arms, Kelly is acquitted.
Although he is acquitted, Kelly suffers financially because he had felt compelled to resign from the Army even before the prosecution is brought. He prints and publishes a personal memoir in paperback format called Orders for the Captain? in 1971.
Kelly never denies that he had been involved in extra-legal arms purchase talks, but contends that he had been ordered to do so by some ministers. A typical version of the events is found in a 1993 hostile biography of Charles Haughey, claiming: “As early as October 1969, to the certain knowledge of Charles Haughey, James Gibbons, the Department of Justice, the Special Branch and Army Intelligence, there were meetings with leading members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), when they were promised money and arms. The critical encounter took place in Bailieborough [sic], County Cavan, on Saturday, 4 October 1969. It had been arranged by Captain James Kelly, an army intelligence officer, and Cathal Goulding. Kelly, at that stage, was already the subject of several security reports to the Secretary of the Department of Justice, Peter Berry, from the Special Branch, implicating Kelly with subversives and with promises of money and of arms.” Kelly never objects to such versions of the events of 1969.
Following the Arms Trial, Kelly joint-founds Aontacht Éireann, a political party directly born out of the scandal. He is elected vice-chairman of the party and stands in Dáil elections for them unsuccessfully on two occasions in 1973 and 1977 in the Cavan-Monaghan constituency. Aontacht Éireann meets with little success at the polls and by 1980 he has joined Fianna Fáil, becoming a member of its national executive. Following the first applications of the 1987 Extradition (European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism) Act, he resigns from the party in 1989 in opposition to the extradition of Provisional IRA prisoners to the United Kingdom. He also serves twice as President of the “1916-1921” Club.
Kelly is heavily involved in the Northern Ireland peace process. In 1989 he publishes his own draft on how a peace process could proceed. His document called The Courage of the Brave is launched in Conway Mill, Belfast on August 24, 1989. Present on the platform party at the launch of the document are Fianna Fáil Councillor Macarten McCormack, Ernest Cowan, Chairman of Kentstown Fianna Fáil who had served with Captain Kelly on the Fianna Fáil National Executive, Robert C. Linnon, National President, Irish American Unity Conference, Kate Lavery, representing John J. Finucane, National President, American Irish Political Education Committee and Father Des Wilson of Belfast.
Kelly is a central figure in the Arms Crisis, having traveled to Hamburg to arrange the purchase of arms. It emerges later that Neil Blaney had ordered him to do so outside normal legal channels, but before the weapons arrive the Gards Special Detective Unit hears of the plan and informs the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, aborting the importation and resulting in criminal charges for the plotters. Although in his summation the judge says it is no defence for Kelly to say that he believes that the government authorised the importation of arms, Kelly is acquitted.
Despite his acquittal, Kelly suffers financially because he had felt compelled to resign from the Army even before the prosecution was brought. He prints and publishes a personal memoir in paperback format called Orders for the Captain? in 1971.
Kelly never denies his involvement in extra-legal arms purchase talks, but contends that he had been ordered to do so by some ministers. A typical version of the events is found in a 1993 hostile biography of Charles Haughey, claiming: “As early as October 1969, to the certain knowledge of Charles Haughey, James Gibbons, the Department of Justice, the Special Branch and Army Intelligence, there were meetings with leading members of the IRA, when they were promised money and arms. The critical encounter took place in Bailieborough, County Cavan, on Saturday, 4 October 1969. It had been arranged by Captain James Kelly, an army intelligence officer, and Cathal Goulding. Kelly, at that stage, was already the subject of several security reports to the Secretary of the Department of Justice, Peter Berry, from the Special Branch, implicating Kelly with subversives and with promises of money and of arms.” Kelly never objected to such versions of the events of 1969.
Kelly is elected vice-chairman of Aontacht Éireann. Aontacht Éireann meets with little success at the polls and by 1980 he has joined Fianna Fáil, becoming a member of its national executive. Following the first applications of the 1987 Extradition (European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism) Act, he resigns from the party in 1989 in opposition to the extradition of Provisional IRA prisoners to the United Kingdom. He also serves twice as President of the 1916-1921 Club. He launches a successful defamation case against Garret FitzGerald over an article in The Irish Times.
James Kelly dies on July 16, 2003 and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. The epitaph on his grave is “Put not your trust in princes,” a quote from Psalm 146.
Doherty’s brother-in-law, Garda Thomas Nangle, is charged with assaulting James McGovern, a native of County Fermanagh, in a public house in December 1981. On September 27, 1982, hours before the case is due to be heard in District Court in the small village of Dowra, County Cavan, McGovern is arrested by the Special Branch of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) on the basis of entirely false Garda intelligence that he is involved in terrorism. The case against Nangle is dismissed because the principal witness, McGovern, fails to appear in court. The solicitor representing Nangle is Kevin Doherty, Seán Doherty’s brother. This questionable use of Garda/RUC Special Branch liaison, set up under the 1985 Hillsborough Anglo-Irish Agreement, prevents meetings between the Garda commissioner and the RUC chief constable for almost three years.
After Doherty leaves office it is revealed in The Irish Times that he ordered the tapping of three journalists home telephones. The newspaper also discloses that he has been interfering in the workings of the Garda and the administration of justice for both political and personal reasons. He immediately resigns from the party only to rejoin it in 1984.
In January 1992 the phone tapping scandal returns to haunt Fianna Fáil. Doherty announces in a television interview that he had shown transcripts of the conversations to Charles Haughey while Haughey was Taoiseach in 1982 although he had previously denied this. Haughey denies the claim also, but is forced to resign from the government, and then resigns as leader of Fianna Fáil. Doherty then regains his seat at the 1992 general election and holds it until his retirement at the 2002 general election.