How Donal Donnelly escaped prison and escaped capture for 36 years

When Donal Donnelly escaped from a Belfast prison, 12,000 men were sent to capture him but despite their efforts he remained free for 36 years writes Jonathan deBurca Butler.

As sleet and wind slashed across the Belfast sky and Wren Boy revellers donned their ghoulish wicker hats and masks, Donal Donnelly cut his way through the last remaining iron bars of his prison cell window.

At the age of 16 Donal was secretary of the Omagh branch of Sinn Féin and after being  arrested and interned without trial he was then jailed for 10 years.

Because he refused to recognise the authority of the British Crown Court the judge needed no trial to sentence him.

His sentence was for membership of an illegal organisation (Sinn Fein/the IRA).

After serving three years he had had enough.

“I escaped on St Stephen’s Day 1960,” says the 76-year-old. “It was actually my intention to emulate the great traditions of those who had gone before me, Red Hugh O’Donnell escaped from prison on Christmas Eve 1592, but we couldn’t manage that.” The story of the Omagh man’s escape is told in a new documentary to be aired on RTÉ 1 tomorrow entitled The Invisible Man.

It is the stuff of legend involving what Donnely describes as “traditional fare” - hacksaws, bed sheets and electric cord that he had collected during a general lighting upgrade throughout the prison.

The escape had been planned in great detail with a fellow IRA inmate, John Kelly. There were routes, times and all sorts of contigencies in case things went awry. Inevitably, they couldn’t plan for everything.

“When I reached the outer wall I took the end of the rope from John who was going to hold it while I dropped,” he explains. “John lay flat on the wall holding the rope but it broke, sending me down to the tarmac outside with an almighty thud.”

Donnelly had broken his ankle and as he waited for Kelly to join him in the outside world he winced with pain. But the sudden loss of tension in the rope had resulted in Kelly falling back into the prison flower bed, leaving him with a broken finger and a longer term in prison.

How Donal Donnelly escaped prison and escaped capture for 36 years

Though he was badly injured, Donnelly managed to make it to a safe house in Belfast. Between them the RUC and B Specials, dispatched 12,000 men to hunt Donnelly down. It was, he says somewhat proudly, the “biggest manhunt of the time”. The newspapers lapped it up and gave the young fugitive the nickname ‘The Invisible Man’. A week later, as families and friends linked arms to bid farewell to 1960, Donnelly hobbled across the border and into the Republic.

“I went to live in Rebel Cork,” he says. “I lived on Blarney Street. The authorities in Ireland knew who I was and they ensured that my landlady and my employers knew who I was too. There was no extradition agreement between the two countries so I stayed put, but I couldn’t go back. Even when my father took ill, I had to stay put and when he died I couldn’t go to his funeral.”

How Donal Donnelly escaped prison and escaped capture for 36 years

Years later Donnelly went on to work in the purchasing department of Unilever Foods Ireland in Dublin. His work would often take him abroad, but travel to Northern Ireland and Britain, where he was responsible for several contracts, was out of the question. Did they understand?

“As far as they were concerned I was the Purchasing Manager and that was that,” says Donnelly.

On occasion, Donnelly submitted requests to travel to Britain. He was denied until 1986 when he was eventually given leave to travel to the North.

“They only gave me a right to travel,” he is keen to point out. “They didn’t actually give me a pardon.”

For years this larger than life septuagenarian thought he was still at large and it was only by chance that he later discovered that he had in fact been pardoned by Thatcher when his daughter was travelling on the Tube.

“I picked up the Metro and saw Dad’s picture,” recalls his daughter. “There was Dad’s picture and a small piece saying that he had been pardoned, but for years we didn’t know.”


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