Derry Jail and the IRA escape of 1943

Derry Jail pictured before its demolition in 1971.
Derry Jail pictured before its demolition in 1971.
  • Derry’s first prison was built around 1620
  • Derry jail finally closed its doors in 1953
  • Wolfe Tone is perhaps the most famous prisoner to be housed in Derry

Derry jail finally closed it’s doors on March 31, 1953. The building was demolished in 1971 with the exception of one tower to make way for the redevelopment of the Fountain district. The last jail was one of a few that had been consecutively constructed since the establishment of the city.

The first jail was in operation by 1620 at the junction of where Butcher Street and The Diamond meet today. A second jail was erected in 1676 in Ferryquay Street and a third opened at Bishop Street in 1791. In 1824, the fourth and final version of Derry Jail opened, boasting a unique horsehoe construction at a cost of £33,000.

The jail was also the scene of several executions. In 1820, for example, John Rainey, John McQuade and Robert Acheson, three highwaymen convicted of the murder of a Henry O’Hagan, escaped whilst awaiting execution, but were recaptured and and hanged in front of the third version of the prison. The last execution was on August 20, 1908 when John Berryman was hanged for the murder of his brother and sister-in-law, William Berryman and Jane Turner Berryman, near Garvagh, after the two brothers fell out over shares of a prosperous farm there, and after being convicted at the Derry Assizes.

However, down the centuries the jail has had an infamous connection to the incarceration of republicans. Both Wolfe Tone and Eamonn DeValera spent time within its walls.

In February 1921, IRA man and T.D. for Sligo, Frank Carty, escaped from the Bishop Street penitentiary. He had already escaped from Sligo Jail.

As the ‘Journal’ of that era reported: “He was imprisoned as a political prisoner. He made a daring escape, climbing the wall of the prison by means of a rope and sliding down the outside wall. He got clean away.”

Former Chief of Staff of the IRA, Derry man Hugh McAteer.

Former Chief of Staff of the IRA, Derry man Hugh McAteer.

The rescue party was led by Charles McGuinness. Carty was taken from the city in a coal boat, the ‘Carricklee’ by the first mate Oskar Norrby a Swede. Following recapture, Frank Carty was later involved in an incident in Glasgow, Scotland when on May 4, 1921, members of the IRA attempted to free him from a prison van in a failed escape attempt. One Inspector was killed by gunfire and another was wounded. Following the incident, 13 people were brought to trial, but were acquitted by the jury which accepted their plea of alibi.

At the outbreak of World War II those Irishmen deemed to be a threat to the British State were rounded up and interned. But on Christmas Day, 1939, there was an extraordinary event in the jail when 45 republicans overcame five warders in the exercise yard and barricaded themselves into a prison corridor. It took British troops, the RUC and even the fire brigade using their hoses, several hours to get them out.

However, it was in March, 1943 that the IRA staged a mass escape through a tunnel under Derry Jail. Chief of Staff of the IRA at the time was a Derry man - Hugh McAteer, who with his second in command Belfast man, Jimmy Steele, had escaped from Crumlin Road Jail two months earlier. It was to these two alone that news about plans for the escape were given.

To finance the escape, a hold-up took place in Strabane in February which netted £1,500. This was organised by the head IRA man in Tyrone, Jim Toner and his second-in-command, Joe Carlin. The outside operation was to be handled by Jimmy Steele, Liam Burke, Harry White and Louis Duffin.

We acknowledged to each other what we had long felt in our own hearts – that the possibility of our plans in the North succeeding was out of the question for the present-Hugh McAteer, former Chief of Staff of the IRA

The escape was organised for 8.30am on Saturday morning, March 20, 1943.

Planning of the escape had begun the previous October when the beginnings of a tunnel were scopped out in the cell of Harry O’Rawe and Jimmy O’Hagan. This began with the sinking of 15 foot shaft followed by burrowing an 80 foot tunnel towards a house in Harding Street. Communication in and out of Derry Jail was handled via letters between Annie Hamill and her fianceé and Officer in Command inside the prison, Paddy Adams.

The excavation was however not without its difficulties because it water-logged, and also collapsed at one point almost killing one prisoner, Billy Graham. The IRA also had to dig under a coffin at one point and soil from the digging clogged the drains but miraculously did not seem to arouse suspicion.

The number of men chosen to escape was 20 and they were picked on the basis that they would report back to the IRA for further service north of the border afterwards. Support would be provided by waiting IRA units in Derry and across the border in Donegal. Once the 20 had made good their escape any other internee had the choice of whether to follow or not, but once outside they were on their own.

Wolfe Tone-one of the more famous faces incarcerated in Derry

Wolfe Tone-one of the more famous faces incarcerated in Derry

A furniture lorry was hired on March 18 at the cost of £9. Liam Burke and Jimmy Steele travelled to Derry with the firm’s driver, who was unaware of the real intention behind the journey.

The vehicle was placed at the corner of Abercorn Place, so the escapees, who were to emerge in Harding Street could run down and jump in the back. There were three flights of steps at the top of Abercorn Place where it met with Harding Street. This prevented the lorry being placed right outside the house where the tunnel would come up but it also meant that it avoided arousing too much suspicion. Liam Burke was to be positioned at the top of the steps to guide the escaped men as they emerged.

It is estimated that 15 tons of earth were shifted in the tunnel making process and it was propped up by bits of wood salvaged from around the jail and by sandbags fashioned from pillow cases. The sound of digging had often by masked inside the prison by music practise. The tunnel had been completed before the IRA organised the getaway lorry so there was a degree of nervousness amongst the prisoners waiting for the off. The exit point was through the coal bunker of Joseph Logue’s house in Harding Street at the rear of the prison.

The day before the escape attempt, Jimmy Steele and Liam Burke were picked up by the lorry and began towards Derry. The driver wasn’t very talkative and to the alarm of his passengers stopped outside the door of Castledawson RUC, parked up and went inside. Steele was in the front seat and carrying a revolver and had no idea whether he had been recognised and was being given up to the police. The previous October, Hugh McAteer, Chief of Staff of the IRA had accepted an invitation to the home of an old school friend only to walk into a police trap and was taken by the RUC.

Moreover, as he sat in the lorry Steele found himself at eye-level beside a wanted poster highlighting the details of some of the leading players in the ongoing IRA campaign.

The poster read: “Royal Ulster Constabulary, Reward of £3,000. The above Reward, or proportionate amounts thereof, will be paid to the person or persons furnishing information to the police leading to the arrest of any one or more of the persons whose photographs and descriptions are given hereunder, and who escaped from Belfast Prison on the morning of 15th January, 1943.”

When the driver returned he explained he had got lost and had gone to seek directions. On reaching Derry, steel produced his pistol and told the driver he was commandeering it for the IRA. The driver looked at Steele at told him his action was unnecessary as he was an IRA supporter. He even volunteered to drive the escaped prisoners away.

On the morning itself, the prisoners found that the mouth of the tunnel had been blocked. As time wound down to the escape the idea began to take hold that the failure to discover it had been a ploy by the authorities and the plan was to shoot the escapees as they emerged from it. On discovering the tunnel was blocked it was assumed by the IRA men that the escape was off. Outside,Steele and Burke had no idea this was the case. However, the prisoners realise the tunnel was simply blocked by two bags of coal which were removed and the escape was on in earnest.

The shock of the Logue family as twenty prisoners began to emerge in their backyard can only be imagined. One prisoner, Kevin Kelly recalled how Joseph Logue was getting dressed in his parlour as they ran through with just one leg in his trousers. He recalled the elation he felt when he reached the street and fresh air-Derry Jail was notoriously dark and damp.

Another prisoner, Sean Hamill kept an eye on the Logue family until all of the prisoners emerged and began to get away. But, a young girl had noticed the men in street and went to the prison gates and raised the alarm. By this time however, 21 men had passed through. Fourteen jumped on the lorry whilst others set off on foot for Letterkenny. Hamill had remained in the house too long and by the time he left the lorry had gone, but knowing Derry he decided to stay until he could get across the border. Jimmy O’Rawe was the 21st and only non-official member of the escape party to go through the tunnel. He, however, did not know Derry well and was picked up the following night by the RUC during the blackout.

Those in the lorry travelled uneventfully to Carrigans in Donegal were they were to link up with another IRA unit. They travelled on to St Johnston where they were supposed to be met with another lorry. Instead, nine of them ended up surrendering to the Free State soldiers and the Gardai who had been pursuing them and were re-interned this time in the Curragh.

In 1951, Hugh McAteer said: “We acknowledged to each other what we had long felt in our own hearts – that the possibility of our plans in the North succeeding was out of the question for the present. The propaganda value of the Derry escape, as evidenced by the many popular ballads, was tremendous; the practical result very small. The mass of the people were thoroughly disillusioned by the attitude of the 26-County Government towards us in the North; hundreds of our more experienced men were imprisoned or interned. The pattern of our work was thus clear. We had first of all to preserve the spirit of the movement, even if we could achieve nothing more concrete, and, secondly, to keep ourselves out of the jails as long as possible, and even this was becoming more difficult.”