Irish Volunteers: Courageous jailbreak proves fight in Rebels

Niall Murray explores the brave and co-ordinated activities in the 1918 escape from Cork County Goal
Irish Volunteers: Courageous jailbreak proves fight in Rebels
Patrick Varian with the key which was used during the 1918 rescue of Denis McNeilus from Cork County Gaol. Picture: Denis Scannell

IT was on Leitrim St in Cork’s north inner city that Irish Volunteer officer Denis McNeilus was arrested in the first Monday of November, 1918.

In a raid on the house where he was lodging, members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) found guns, ammunition, Irish Volunteer equipment and literature, and other illicit material.

During the early morning raid, McNeilus shot Head Constable Clarke, who survived severe wounds to the head at the nearby North Infirmary.

The local story was that McNeilus’s gun went off when he was wrestled to the ground after trying to escape. However, police affidavits in the case of McNeilus’s landlord Denis Kelleher stated that he fired at the policemen as the head constable was about to arrest him, rather than shots going off in the struggle.

The eventual outcome was that Kelleher was given a six-month sentence by a district court martial a month later for trying to help McNeilus resist arrest.

In the meantime, however, Donegal-born McNeilus was due to face trial for attempted murder of a policeman and was in line for a death sentence.

By the end of 1918, there had been numerous attacks on police by the Irish Volunteers, including an attack on two RIC members near Ballyvourney in July that led West Cork to be treated as a special military area.

But the operation to rescue McNeilus was probably the first fully sanctioned by the local brigade, under the temporary command of Sean O’Hegarty at the time.

An intricate plan that involved six Volunteers getting into Cork County Gaol as visitors also required a team of men to patrol the surrounding area, ready to be called into action if military or police were alerted.

Four hours earlier, the truce that ended the First World War came into effect across Europe.

But by early afternoon of November 11 in Cork City, Paddy Varian and others were among a cohort of Irish Volunteers carrying concealed weapons in the vicinity of the prison between Western Rd and College Rd.

Events inside the prison wall required two Volunteers to gain access to a visiting room with McNeilus prisoner, who had been forewarned to expect a rescue attempt.

Two other pairs were sent in on the pretence of visiting other prisoners, but timing was everything in the plot. Their role would be to assist in disarming the warders at the waiting area between the front gate and the inner areas of the Victorian jail complex.

Harry and Paddy Varian in the back row and to the right in a picture of volunteers in Cork, mainly from A Company from 1916-1918.
Harry and Paddy Varian in the back row and to the right in a picture of volunteers in Cork, mainly from A Company from 1916-1918.

When their visit with McNeilus was ending, Martin Donovan and Joe Murphy waited until the prison warder had the key in the visiting room door before striking him a blow. If they had done so sooner, it might have taken too long to establish which of the keys on his chain they needed to begin the escape.

Locking the door behind them, and with the warder knocked unconscious inside the visiting cell, the visitors and McNeilus made their way through the prison complex to the front entrance.

There, meanwhile, their four accomplices had attacked and tied up the warder in the waiting room inside the main gate. Using his keys, they admitted McNeilus and his rescuers into the waiting room before unlocking the main gates and fleeing the scene unaccosted.

The excitement and the adrenalin saw everybody make off at haste, leaving the rescued officer standing alone outside the prison walls and wondering where he was to go.

Seeing a bicycle leaning against a wall, he took off and pedalled non-stop for several miles; but then doubled back to the prison in case there was somebody there waiting to escort him to a pre-decided hideaway.

Patrick Varian with the key which was used during the 1918 rescue of Denis McNeilus from Cork County Gaol. Picture: Denis Scannell
Patrick Varian with the key which was used during the 1918 rescue of Denis McNeilus from Cork County Gaol. Picture: Denis Scannell

The escape caused a huge stir in Cork and beyond, demonstrating that even the most intimidating prison walls could be penetrated and escaped from with the right level of planning.

McNeilus spent the next few years hiding out in the countryside of mid-Cork near Macroom, initially in Clondrohid and later in Ballingeary, one of the country’s most wanted men. He was involved in republican fundraising in the US in 1920 before returning home to Donegal, where he became a leading anti-Treaty IRA figure in the Civil War.

Military historian Gerry White said the McNeilus rescue in November 1918 was a very dangerous operation conducted in accordance with a very detailed plan.

“These guys could have been shot if it went wrong,” he said. “But it proved that the fight hadn’t gone out of the Cork Brigade, who did not take part in the Easter Rising owing to confusion and contradictory orders.

“This event set down a marker and let people in Dublin know, even though nothing happened in 1916, that the Cork Volunteers were still here and willing to continue the fight.”

One of the main rescuers, Martin Donovan, was said later by a comrade to have held on to one of the keys from Cork County Gaol. But as well as being “the most valuable souvenir he possessed”, it could also have bought him some hefty jail time or worse if it was ever found by the RIC or British military in Cork.

“He had securely cemented [it] into a wall at the back of his home in Blarney St, Cork. It was carefully wrapped in oil cloth and secured between two bricks,” Sean Healy, former captain of one of the city’s IRA companies, told the Bureau of Military History in 1956.

While that key might still lie wrapped in cement, one of the others taken in the daring rade will be on display from early 2017 in the museum at Collins Barracks, a reminder of events in the city almost a century earlier.

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