The First Mass Escape from Long Kesh

Comrade Willie Gallagher from Strabane gives an account of his part played in digging the tunnel for the lads to escape.

The tunnel in Cage 5 resembled nothing like what you would see in the movies and was indeed quite narrow in parts which required literally for us to wriggle through in parts. Looking back now it was quite dangerous and on a number of occasions we had a number of cave-ins when various degrees of parts of the ceiling of the tunnel collapsed and a number of times diggers had to be pulled out by the feet. The majority of us who dug the tunnel were all fairly young and had no sense of danger. I had just turned 18 at that time and in the interview I done I described that escape as an amazing experience and one of the best experiences I ever had whilst in prison.

The previous May five Irps from Cage 14 escaped from Town Hall Street when appearing for a remand hearing. There were at least two other near successful attempts from Cage 14 that same year and towards the end of ’75 we were moved to Cage 6 and then to Cage 5 by the screws in an attempt to frustrate escapes. I’m sure some of us, who took part in the escape, have different recollections. For example in the interview I done I said I thought the tunnel took three week, four at most to dig whereas Micky Smith thought it took six weeks. Even though I covered this in the visual/audio interview I’ll give some of my memories on this event which has been practically air-brushed out of republican history.

The tunnel in Cage 5 actually began in my pad/cell/cubicle as it was the second last pad from the end of the hut which was nearest the fence which surrounded our Cage. Each living hut was divided in two with a narrow corridor in the middle of the hut. This was partitioned off into what we called pads, others called them cells or cubicles. They were in effect wooden cells with a curtain covering the entrance of each pad. The hut were Nissan huts made up of sheetings of corrugated paper-thin metal. At the entrance of each hut was a boiler and a small ring like cooker for making toast and cooking. At the other end was a TV and small toilet.

I can recall Frank Gallagher from Beechmount who was the OC of the Cage convening a meeting of those selected to take part in the escape. Some prisoners were moved out of our hut and others who were selected moved in. Escape plans were nothing unusual for the Irps but this one had a greater sense of excitement as it was the first tunnel plan as this Cage was closer to the perimeter wall than the other Cages we were previously in. Materials such chisels and the ingredients for making a small concrete block were smuggled in. Light bulbs were stolen from the hospital quarters which was in a different place in the camp. Blow heaters which were in the huts were converted into pumps for putting oxygen down the tunnel though this was used in the latter stages. Cooking utensils and food trays were converted into digging equipment. Much of this was done by Cahir O ‘Doherty from the Bone who was one of the eldest prisoners in the Cage. I think he was only 40 then though he looked about 70 to us at the time. Cahir was a genius in improvising and played a crucial role in the escape.

We got into action immediately after the next big search with the first part of the operation being the entrance of the tunnel which would be located under my bed. Four floor tiles were removed intact which measured, give or take a few inches, 18 square inches. This area was chiseled out and was, I think, maybe 8 inches deep. During this loud music was played from record players playing LPs which wasn’t unusual with look outs were placed strategically throughout the Cage to spot any unusual activity from the screws. The screws were not allowed into the Cage except at night time, 9pm, to do the head counts and lock us in the huts and in the morning to unlock and do head counts. The only other times they were allowed in was during big searches and what they called tunnel searches. Tunnel searches consisted of two screws being accompanied by a member of the Cage staff who would do a bit of tapping on floors with hammers listening for an echo which would indicate a tunnel. I’m not sure how long this took to complete but it wasn’t long. If I had have brought you into my pad and said there’s a tunnel in here, there’sno way you’d pinpoint it. The entrance was visually perfect and was a work of art. Basically you flipped a corner of the tile, pulled it back and there was a handle made of rope like material imbedded into a constructed concrete block and it was just a matter of lifting the whole lot up intact. It literally fitted like a glove.

We dug about 6 foot down and headed towards the perimeter wall. We divided up into teams and worked almost 24/7 in the digging. We would stop an hour before lock up/head-count at night and an hour before unlock/head-count in the morning. Each team throughout the day and night got breaks for food and sleep with smaller breaks for cups of tea and a smoke. As the tunnel progressed a stick with a white hankie would be poked up through the ceiling of the tunnel to gauge the distance and direction of the tunnel itself. We normally went down the tunnel wearing just football shorts as it was quite warm despite the wetness and flooding at times from rain falls. A number of photographs were taken but I never ever seen any of them and the camera may well have been taken by one of the escapees.

The ceiling and sides of the tunnel was shored up at various points which we thought were weak with bits of wood and sheets from the wooden pads. It was a patch work job and lengthy parts of the tunnel had no protection at all with nothing shoring up the walls and ceiling. There were a number of cave-ins of various degrees some freaky enough with a few being dragged out by the feet from underneath a pile of soil. The gases from the soil had a sickly impact as well as giving ones headaches and this became more intense as the tunnel progressed so this restricted the time each of us would be digging at the face of the tunnel. Some parts were very narrow which only required one person digging at the face with other parts wider allowing two to dig. We used improvised trowels for digging, the food trays for putting the soil in which would be relayed back up the tunnel by prisoners strategically placed along the length of the tunnel where a team at the entrance would bag the soil and hide the bags between the corrugated sheets of the hut itself. The amount of soil was unbelievable and eventually every hut was filled with soil between those corrugated sheets. In the last days of the tunnel there was no more room for the soil and we had no other choice but store the bags inside clothes lockers which meant a search would uncover them.

We were both lucky and unlucky during this period. For example I can recall the floors not being properly dried after a clean up in the morning which would be hugely suspicious. Also I recall a mucky handprint on a mug beside the boiler at the entrance of the hut which would have given the tunnel away if spotted by the screws. We never got the usual bed linen change which I think was every three weeks. Many of the bed sheets were used for bagging the soil and so many could not have been accounted for. We also got at least one tunnel search during that period but again luck was on our side.

The original plan was to empty the whole Cage of those doing or facing big sentences but our luck had run out. The night before the escape there was a heavy rain fall which caused quite a bit of flooding in the tunnel. The next day however was like a summer day and a few of us were out the back taking a break. Some of the other lads actually took some mattresses out doing some sun-bathing. I can’t remember who spotted a small hole appearing in the yard directly above the tunnel which caused great concern. The talk was the tunnel was fucked, it had fallen short of it’s objective, was flooded and at the point of collapse from the yard. Some bright spark, whose name I can’t recall, had the idea of putting one of the mattresses over the hole and hoping for the best. The hole wasn’t too big but was very noticeable and would have definitely been discovered. It was the practice of the screws to walk around the yard just before the night time head-count and lock up. Up until that point we thought we needed at least another week maybe longer to complete the tunnel but the hole in the yard had changed those plans. It had to be that night or else it was fucked.

The screws that night just walked around the mattress barely looking at it and then the head count was completed and we were locked up for the night. I’m not sure exactly what time the batch of 11 prisoners went at, 11pm perhaps midnight. Bags of clothes were prepared as you couldn’t get through the tunnel without getting soaked due to flooding which was quite deep in parts and also money was distributed. Lookouts were strategically placed keeping an eye out for Brits patrolling the perimeter and watching the two Brit watch towers. We were all very conscience of the mass escape attempt from, I think, Cage 4, by PIRA at the end of ’74 which resulted in Hugh Cooney being shot dead. The tunnel fell short of reaching the perimeter but I can’t recall how far. We watched the first escapee pop his head up and crawl towards the wall. Grappling hooks were made from the tubular framework of the chairs and ropes from sheets. Dessie Grew fell from the wall on the inside of the perimeter badly hurting himself and another prisoner, whose name I can’t recall either, brought him back through the tunnel which was caving in in parts.

We waited up all night watching and listening for any indications of the escape being rumbled but nothing untoward happened. Next morning the screws had came in for their usual unlock and head-count and no doubt were curious as they pulled each curtain back seeing prisoners fully clothed with big smiles. You could hear the odd snigger and when they got to my pad, which i obviously wasn’t in, they would have seen a pile of soil and a hole in the floor. There was a scream of “f*ck” and I think a shout of “escape” which was drowned out by the running of feet and all us laughing and cheering.

Two of the lads were caught the following night, Cahir O’Doherty and Gerard Steenson. I think all of us were shattered for Cahir in particular as he put his heart and soul into escape plus he was the brains behind the improvised tools, lighting and supplying oxygen into the tunnel.

About half an hour later the Cage was full of screws like a big black blanket of the cunts. They took us out one at a time, each of us refusing to give our names hoping to frustrate them getting the identities of the escapees for as long as possible. Each of us had to walk down to the canteen between a gauntlet of screws who were hissing and the usual remarks of scumbag etc. We were locked in the canteen for I think two days whilst they done a search and sealed the tunnel with all our possessions threw down it and sealed with concrete.

I think the above account is much more detailed that the one I gave in the interview and no doubt other recollections will come to me when seeing/hearing other accounts of that escape.

 

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