The mass escape of 20 IRA prisoners from Derry Jail in March, 1943 is a tale that is still well-known in the city and beyond.
Organised by the then Chief-of-Staff of the organisation, Derryman Hugh McAteer and his second-in-command, Belfast man Jimmy Steele, the initial escape succeeded in getting the prisoners through a tunnel under the infamous prison to emerge in the backyard of a family home at Harding Street. But despite the best efforts of the escapees the vast majority of them were rounded up within hours and found themselves imprisoned yet again.
The attitude towards to IRA north and south of the border at the time was later summed up by Hugh McAteer who, in 1951 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 of the Derry escape, as evidenced by the many popular ballads, was tremendous; the practical result very small. The mass of the people were disillusioned by the attitude of the 26-County Government towards us in the North; hundreds of our more experienced men were imprisoned and interned. The pattern of our work was thus very 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.”
Whilst the tale of the 1943 escape is known and the individual tales of characters such as Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele are also recorded, the stories of the other escapees are perhaps not so widely known.
One of the escapees was Alphonus White, known as Alfie ‘Shuffles’ White who hailed from Rockmore Road just off the Falls Road in Belfast. Mystery still surrounds the origin of the nickname ‘Shuffles’. According to his daughter Margaret White it was probably because of his distinctive walk coming from the fact that he was a very tall man. Another possible explanation she says, is that during the escape from Derry Jail he had to ‘shuffle’ through the tunnel because of his height and his strong physical build.
Alfie White was born on August 16, 1921 and passed away from cancer in 1973 in his early 50s. He spent a substantial proportion of his short life incarcerated because of his activity in the republican movement. He was just 19 when he was imprisoned in Derry.
Daughter Margaret White recently made a trip to Derry in an effort to trace the steps of her father on the day the escape from Derry Jail took place now over 70 years ago.
“My father was one of the few escapees that remained on the run for around six weeks after the escape. I never got the chance before to come to Derry and explore the area and see where it happened. Largely people down south either didn’t know or care what went on in the north. That’s why I made the trip to Derry. To walk in his footsteps and see how he escaped,” she told the ‘Journal’.
Margaret White says that her father did not come from what would be considered to be a ‘traditional’ republican family. Before he became involved in the IRA there is no trace of other family members being like-minded.
Overall, Alfie White spent a total of 14 years in prison
“The story goes that his father never spoke to him again. It split the family. To me it shows he was strong his beliefs-staunch and loyal,” Margaret said.
A story in the Glasgow Herald in May, 1943, just weeks after the Derry Jail seems to indicate that he had been in a ‘safe house’ there. Nevertheless he was captured and returned to Belfast where he was sentenced to a period of 12 years ‘penal servitude’ by the Belfast City Commission for the possession of weapons. So, from Derry Jail, Alfie White now found himself in Crumlin Road Jail. In all it is believed he spent 14 years in prison at various times.
Margaret White told the ‘Journal’: “One story is that whilst he was in Crumlin Road he was kicked down a stairway by warders and his leg was broken and for a period of time used a floor brush as a crutch because of a lack of medical treatment. He was eventually taken to hospital.
“When his mother came to see him they wouldn’t let her in and he was chained to his bed as well.
“On the other hand, there were also stories of nice prison warders who brought him in food like apple tarts. He told these stories to my mother.”
Alfie White was released from jail in 1956, the year in which the IRA launched its Border Campaign which would eventually end in 1962. However, Alfie upon his release, made his way to Dublin and returned to Belfast veru occasionally despite the inherents dangers or rearrest.
Margaret’s mother was Doris Howell who came from Mount Street on the city’s south side. She had no connections to the republican movement, although her sister and brother-in-law did and that is how it is believed Alfie was introduced to his future wife.
“He met my mother in Dublin and they had four children. He loved us very much and was a great father. The kids in our street ran to him when they saw him coming. He worked as a painter and decorator for Dublin Corporation. I don’t think he liked it very much but he had a family to raise,” she said.
An indication that years of incarceration bred a desire to feel free, says Margaret, came when her father would take them to the seaside town of Bray, Co Wicklow and hire a rowing boat into which the family would pile.
She told the ‘Journal’: “He was big and strong and would row for miles and miles out sea until we were just bobbing there. There were no life-jackets or health and safety rules then. It was as if he wanted to feel a sense of freedom. He always remained very tuned into a sense of social justice. He always stuck by his ideals.”
Speaking again of her recent trip to Derry, Margaret continued: “As time moved on I wanted to come to Derry because I was curious to see where the jail was.
“It was absolutely fantastic. My husband did a lot of research and we found the jail after speaking to some people and we were sent to Harding Street and saw the house he came out of and the steps they went down. It was quite moving and emotional. It was almost as if we witnessed how it happened. It gave us a real sense of the story, because before that it was just a story, not actually real.
“When I spent my first time in Derry and looked at young people of just 18 or 19 years old, I thought to myself, my dad was that age when he was in prison here. It gave my a sense that in Derry, only people who were born here could understand that.”
Margaret also recalls that in the early 1970s as he father was approaching his death that the earlier mentioned Liam Burke, who with Jimmy Steele drove the van in which the Derry escapee’s made their getaway, visited her home and offered to assist the White family as best he could.
When Alfie White passed away in 1973, editor of An Phoblacht, Éamonn MacThomáis wrote an oration in the paper noting the Belfast native’s “lifetime of dedication to Ireland.”
Margaret White said: “I was just 12 when my father died, so I’ve been longer without out him than I was with him. He was a real person, who was at heart a family man. He was a people’s person. A tall and handsome man.
“Like so many people in the North, his life took a different path through no fault of his own. He was standing up for justice. He married late in life and then a short time later he was taken away from us.
“He was 51-years-old when he died and he’d spent the best part of his life locked up. It was a sad life in some ways as he didn’t have much enjoyment in his younger years and never had his older years either. I suppose the stress of the situations he found himself in contributed to his early death as did the conditions in places like Derry Jail as well as having bad food and little or no health care.”
“I am glad he was my father, although I didn’t know him very well, but his principles still stay with us, and I’m proud he took part in whatever way he did. I am happy about that. Our trip to Derry was made even more special by the people we met, by chance. They in their own way encouraged us and enlightened us in our quest to rediscover my father.
“If they read the story they will be aware of who they are. The interest that they showed and the assistance that they gave us was invaluable.”