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 Release of the Birmingham Six

birmingham-sixThe Birmingham Six – Paddy Joe Hill, Hugh Callaghan, Richard McIlkenny, Gerry Hunter, Billy Power and Johnny Walker – are released from jail on March 14, 1991 after their convictions for the murder of 21 people in two pubs are quashed by the Court of Appeal.

The Birmingham pub bombings take place on November 21, 1974 and are attributed to the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Explosive devices are placed in two central Birmingham pubs – the Mulberry Bush at the foot of the Rotunda and the Tavern in the Town, a basement pub in New Street. Up until this point, the resulting explosions collectively are the most injurious attacks in Great Britain since World War II. Ten people at the Mulberry Bush and eleven at the Tavern in the Town are killed and 182 people are injured. A third device, outside a bank in Hagley Road, fails to detonate.

Five of the six are taken into custody on the evening of November 21. The men agree to be taken to Morecambe police station for forensic tests.The following morning, after the forensic tests and questioning at the hands of the Morecambe police, the men are transferred to the custody of West Midlands Serious Crime Squad police unit. Hugh Callaghan is taken into custody on the evening of November 22.

On May 12, 1975 the six men are charged with murder and conspiracy to cause explosions. The trial begins on June 9, 1975 at the Crown Court sitting at Lancaster Castle. After legal arguments the statements made in November are deemed admissible as evidence. The unreliability of these statements is later established. Forensic scientist Dr. Frank Skuse uses positive Griess test results to claim that Hill and Power had handled explosives. Callaghan, Hunter, McIlkenny and Walker all had tested negative. The jury finds the six men guilty of murder. On August 15, 1975, they are each sentenced to 21 life sentences.

In March 1976 their first application for leave to appeal is dismissed by the Court of Appeal. Their second full appeal, in 1991, is allowed. New evidence of police fabrication and suppression of evidence, the successful attacks on both the confessions and the 1975 forensic evidence causes the Crown to decide not to resist the appeals. The Court of Appeal states that “in the light of the fresh scientific evidence, which at least throws grave doubt on Dr. Skuse’s evidence, if it does not destroy it altogether, these convictions are both unsafe and unsatisfactory.” On March 14, 1991 the six walk free.

In 2001, a decade after their release, the six men are awarded compensation ranging from £840,000 to £1.2 million.

The success of the appeals and other miscarriages of justice cause the Home Secretary to set up a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in 1991. The commission reports in 1993 and leads to the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 which establishes the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 1997. Superintendent George Reade and two other police officers are charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice but are never prosecuted. During the inquest into the bombings in 2016, Hill states that he knows the identities of three of the bombers who are still “free men” in Ireland.