Michael Collins and the great escape

The Big Fellow broke six men out of Strangeways prison 100 years ago. The priority was Sinn Féin’s Austin Stack, but the two men would fall out bitterly, says Ryle Dwyer.

Michael Collins and the great escape

The Big Fellow broke six men out of Strangeways prison 100 years ago. The priority was Sinn Féin’s Austin Stack, but the two men would fall out bitterly, says Ryle Dwyer.

FRIDAY, October 25, marks the centenary of the escape of six people from Strangeways Jail in Manchester. The six included two high-profile members of Sinn Féin, Austin Stack and Piaras Beaslaí, both of whom had been elected to the British parliament as members of Sinn Féin in December 1918.

Their escape, like some earlier escapes, had been organised with the help of Michael Collins, but, this time, without the help of prison staff. Collins went into the prison as a visitor, using a false name, to finalise arrangements. The same method of escape — from a prison yard, over the high outside wall — had been successfully used at Mountjoy, in Dublin, the previous March.

It was the founder of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, who first described Collins as “the man who won the war”. He was referring to the War of Independence. Of course, no one individual ever won any war, but Collins was one of the principal organisers of that conflict, even though he had nothing to do with the initial action — the ambush at Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary, on the day Dáil Éireann was established, on January 21, 1919.

Collins was not even in the country that day. He was in England, supervising the springing of Éamon de Valera from Lincoln Jail. His aim, as he explained in a letter to Austin Stack, was to get de Valera to lead a war of independence against the British.

“As for us on the outside, all ordinary, peaceful means are ended and we shall be taking the only alternative actions in a short while now,” he wrote to Stack, who was in prison. “We mean to make a public declaration before starting.”

In effect, Collins was suggesting that they were about to declare war on the British. He did not realise that de Valera had other ideas. While de Valera was still in hiding in England, Robert Barton was arrested and sent to Mountjoy Jail, where Collins made contact with him through a friendly prison warder.

“I devised the means of escape,” Barton later explained in a witness statement to the Bureau of Military History. Patrick J. Berry, from Kilkenny, a plumber, and a warder on the prison staff since 1906, had begun to act as a kind of intelligence officer for republican prisoners within the jail.

“I was with Collins day and night, carrying dispatches from, and to, prisoners,” Berry later told the Bureau of Military History.

If I had a saw with which to cut one of the bars,” Barton said in a note to Collins, “I could get out of my cell, they could throw over a rope ladder, and I could climb up the ladder, over the wall, and get away.

Collins arranged to have a saw smuggled into Barton. The latter cut the bar of his cell and made his way to the outer wall, on the night of March 16, 1919. He threw a bar of soap over the wall at a prearranged spot and volunteers outside threw a rope over the wall. Barton was able to use it to pull a rope ladder over. This rope ladder was being held by those outside.

Barton then scaled the 20ft wall. The rope ladder was withdrawn when he reached the top, as plans were already afoot to use it in another escape. Barton then dropped into a strong blanket that colleagues were holding on the outside.

“Mick Collins was in a street nearby, waiting to congratulate me,” he said. For the next three weeks, Barton stayed at the home of Batt O’Connor, in Donnybrook. Collins visited him on his first night there.

“This is only the beginning,” Collins told Barton. Plans were already afoot to spring a number of men, using the same tactics, in a mass escape attempt from Mountjoy.

Those running the jail had no idea how Barton escaped. As he was from a wealthy Protestant family — educated in Rugby and Oxford, and had served as an officer in the British Army in the First World War — the prison authorities suspected he might have deceived the guards and just walked out “through the front gate, dressed in the uniform of either a prison officer or a military officer”.

While Barton was still in hiding, the same kind of rope-ladder escape was used for a much more ambitious break. The plan was to spring Piaras Beaslaí, JJ Walsh, along with Paddy Fleming, Thomas Malone, and whoever else could get out with them. Paddy O’Daly, one of the future leaders of the famous Squad, was involved from the inside, though he had no intention of trying to escaping himself.

His wife was dying in a Dublin hospice, and the prison authorities had been allowing him parole to visit her. He was only serving a six-month sentence, but if he escaped from prison, he would have to go on the run, and would no longer be able to see his wife. While on parole, O’Daly consulted with republican leaders on the escape arrangements.

The afternoon of March 29, 1919 was the date. It was a Saturday, and the political prisoners had more freedom than regular prisoners on that afternoon. There were only three prison officers in the yard, and all were secretly sympathetic.

A white handkerchief from a specific prison window was the signal for those outside the prison to throw over the wall the rope that was attached to the rope-ladder, as in the Barton escape.MEANWHILE, most of the men in the prison yard engaged in a noisy game as a diversion. They jumped the three warders and pretended to hold them on the ground. While this was going on, Fleming used the rope to pull the ladder over the wall.

“Everything went according to plan,” O’Daly said. “As the last man stood at the end of the ladder, he asked: ‘Any more of you coming?’ ”

All of them could have escaped, O’Daly believed, but several were busy pretending to hold down the warders, so those men would not get into trouble, in case their help would be needed in future.

Notifications of executions posted on the gate of Strangeways prison, in Manchester, in 1915
Notifications of executions posted on the gate of Strangeways prison, in Manchester, in 1915

“Damn it, Joe,” a warder named Kelly said to Joe Leonard, “that’s no way to hold a man on the ground. Tear my coat a bit.”

Leonard duly ripped the buttons from Kelly’s uniform to suggest he had really struggled.

“I think, Paddy, that you had better sit on me,” warder Murphy said to O’Daly. “Get another man to hold me as well.”

One warder wanted them to hit him and essentially forced them todo so. The ploy worked, because none of the officers got into trouble, even though 20 prisoners escaped over the wall. An important consequence of this escape was the British decision to transfer the more important republican prisoners from Irish to British jails.

De Valera returned to Dublin shortly before the mass escape, but he had no intention of leading a war against the British. He thought the best chance of republican success was in enlisting American help, in view of then US president, Woodrow Wilson’s eloquent pronouncements about fighting for the rights of small nations, on leading the US into the First World War almost two years earlier.

“My own idea is that I should be allowed to go to America, where I could come out in the open,” deValera later said. “You know what it is to argue with Dev,” Collins wrote to Stack. “He says he thought it out while in prison, and he feels that the one place where he can be useful to Ireland is in America.

“I used my influence the other way, and was in a practical minority of one. It may be that all arguments were sound, but it seems to me that they have put up a challenge which strikes at the fundamentals of our policy and our attitude.”

Some Sinn Féin politicians began making things “intolerable” for militants like Collins.

“The policy now seems to be to squeeze out anyone who is tainted with strong fighting ideas, or, should I say, the utility of fighting,” Collins said. “We have too many of the bargaining type already,” he said in another letter to Stack, on May 17, 1919. I am not sure that our movement, or part of it, is alive to the developing situation.”

THE British administration at Dublin Castle had begun to overreact and thus played directly into Collins’ hands. Ian Macpherson, the chief secretary for Ireland, tried to ban Sinn Féin, the IRA, the Gaelic League, and Cumann na mBan, but he ran into strong opposition from Andrew Bonar Law and Edward Carson, two of the staunchest unionist ministers in the British cabinet.

They warned that proclaiming Sinn Féin would undermine political life in southern Ireland.

“To proclaim Sinn Féin means putting an end to the whole political life of southern Ireland and that could not be effectively done,” said Bonar Law, the leader of the Conservative Party in Lloyd George’s coalition government.

After de Valera went to the US, the following month, Collins was authorised to kill Detective Sergeant Patrick Smyth of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, for his part in arresting Piaras Beaslaí in April 1919. The Squad was set up, and it targeted Smyth, wounding him on July 30, 1919, but he did not die for five weeks.

When Smyth eventually died in early September, Dublin Castle implemented those drastic measures that the chief secretary had earlier predicted would amount to “open war”. Sinn Féin, the Gaelic League, and Cumann na mBan were all banned. Warren Fisher, the head of the British civil service, was appalled by those actions.

Fisher said:

Imagine the result on public opinion in Great Britain of a similar act by the executive towards a political party, or the women’s suffrage movement

When the DMP raided Sinn Féin headquarters on September 11, 1919, Collins responded by having The Squad kill Detective Constable Daniel Hoey. (Hoey had been one of the detectives involved in the raid, from which Collins had narrowly escaped). Meanwhile, Collins had become intimately involved in another escape plan.

This time, the main aim was to spring Austin Stack from Strangeways prison in Manchester. Like Collins, Stack’s initial involvement in republican politics was largely connected with the Gaelic Athletic Association. Stack was a member of the first two Kerry football teams to win the all-Irelandsenior football championships of 1903 and 1904, captaining his county in the latter.

Collins had developed enormous respect for Stack and had been trying to spring him from jail for months, but before plans could be finalised, Stack was transferred to another prison.

He was moved from Dundalk to Belfast, and then, in April 1919 — in the wake of the mass escape from Mountjoy Jail — he was moved to England. He was jailed in Strangeways, where he joined Fionán Lynch, who had been elected to the British parliament, as one of the Sinn Féin representatives, in December 1918. Lynch was released, having completed his sentence in August 1919, and he was then able to assist greatly in planning the escape.

Meanwhile, the prisoners were joined by Piaras Beaslaí, who was able to provide valuable inside information to his colleagues about the mass escape from Mountjoy, as he was one of the escapees. The same tactics were being used in Strangeways.

Paddy O’Donoghue and Liam MacMahon, who been involved with de Valera’s escape from Lincoln, set the plan in motion. Messages and maps were sent into the prison baked in cakes, or buried in butter and jam.

Collins followed the plans closely and wrote to Beaslaí several times using a code. Rory O’Connor was sent over to Manchester to examine the plans, followed, soon after, by Collins himself, who actually visited Stack in Strangeways, to finalise plans.

THE escape took place on Saturday, October 25, 1919. A dummy pistol had been smuggled into the prison and the prisoners had got hold of handcuffs from a sympathetic Irish policeman in Manchester.

They overcame the prison warder on duty, gagged, and handcuffed him, and placed him in a cell, while they rushed into the prison yard, where a rope was thrown over the wall. The prisoners used it to drag over a rope-ladder, and each, in turn, climbed up and over the wall.

About 20 Irishmen, based in the Manchester area, held up the street and prevented any traffic passing, as six prisoners were scaling the outer wall. Stack and Beaslaí were taken by George Lodge to his residence in a remote suburb, where they remained for a week. Collins visited them, making final arrangements for their transfer to Dublin.

A few days later, they were taken to Liverpool, and smuggled to Ireland on board a B&I steamer by a member of the crew, who put them up in crew quarters. They were picked up at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, Dublin, by Joe O’Reilly, who took them to the home of a colleague. O’Reilly then went to tell Collins of their safe return.

“He came back, later, in a state of consternation,” Beaslaí said. Collins was in a building surrounded by Crown forces.

“Our anxiety at the news may be readily conceived, but it was speedily allayed by the arrival of Mick himself, carrying an attaché case, his clothes somewhat dusty and slightly torn, but all his wonted cheerfulness and energy radiating from him. He had had another of his wonderful escapes.”

After the raid on Sinn Féin headquarters, at 6 Harcourt St, in September, Collins had opened a new office at 76 Harcourt St. He was upstairs and managed to escape out a skylight, as the raid began. He moved a couple of doors down to the Standard Hotel, where a skylight was left open for such an eventuality.

It was ironic that Stack and Collins would later become bitterly estranged, because the Big Fellow’s correspondence with Stack in 1919 provided great insights into his thinking. This was evidence of the high esteem in which Collins held Stack at the time. Indeed, Collins thought so highly of him that he promptly had him appointed deputy chief of staff of the IRA, under Richard Mulcahy.

It was obviously another aspect of the overall plan to trigger the War of Independence, but from the day of his appointment, until the truce in July 1921, Stack did not attend even one meeting of the IRA headquarters’ staff. By then, a bitter enmity had developed between them.

Ryle Dwyer is author of Michael Collins: The Man Who Won the War, published in paperback by Mercier Press.

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