100th anniversary of the 'most sensational and daring' IRA rescue of Frank Carty from Derry jail

A hundred years ago on Monday one of the most remarkable incidents of the War of Independence in Derry occurred.

Friday, 12th February 2021, 3:30 pm
Frank Carty was rescued from Derry jail on February 15, 1921.
Frank Carty was rescued from Derry jail on February 15, 1921.

Frank Carty, O/C of the Tubbercurry Battalion of the IRA, was a prisoner in the city due to his involvement in the Chaffpool ambush in Sligo in September 1920 when RIC inspector James Joseph Brady was killed.

At the time Derry jail was all but impregnable. For the authorities it had the advantage of being located in the loyalist Fountain and thus republicans would have been thin-on-the ground in the event of a jailbreak attempt.

This did not deter the IRA from staging what Liam A. Brady, O/C, of the Derry Fianna from 1920 to 1922, later described as ‘one of the most sensational and daring exploits of the IRA in the city.’

Charles 'Nomad' McGuinness directed the rescue operation.

At the end of January 1921 Charlie ‘Nomad’ McGuinness was told by IRA HQ to direct a rescue. Carty was wounded in the jail hospital having been shot through the shoulder in a struggle with the RIC.

Brady later recounted at the Bureau of Military History: “He had been shot on the shoulder in a fight with Tans and RIC at Tubercurry, Co. Sligo. Carty had received, according to plan, some hacksaw blades and a ball of strong cord.

"He succeeded with the help of some other prisoners, in cutting the bars in such a way that they could be pushed out at any time. The hospital building was situated at the lower end of the jail and only five yards from the outer wall in Harden [Harding] Street, off Abercorn Road.”

McGuinness, in his autobiographical ‘Sailor of Fortune (Nomad)’ - published in 1935, painted a similar picture.

“His struggle with the police had culminated in a shot penetrating his shoulder, and he was now receiving medical attention. The hospital was located at the rear of the prison yard, overlooking the rear and outer wall, which was backed by a row of houses.

“These dwellings, with the exception of two, were occupied by residents of strong Orange sympathies. The others, one on either end of the street, and thus of the greatest strategic value, were in the possession of Catholics. When the time came to act these co-religionists gave us 100% assistance,” wrote the man who directed the operation a decade-and-a-half later.

An initial attempt to free the ‘daring, and fearless’ Carty failed. The IRA held the occupants of several houses next to the prison hospital hostage one night in early February.

A crude grappling hook was deployed to try to scale the wall from the rear of one of the houses while a silk ladder was to be used to span the distance from Carty’s hospital cell to the wall. This attempt nearly ended in disaster, as McGuinness later related.

“At four o’clock [a.m] I ascended the roof of an outhouse directly under the wall nearest to Carty’s hospital cell. I coiled the rope carefully, taking care not to offer an exposed silhouette to any vigilant eye. The streets were lined with sandbag barricades and machine-gun emplacements. Any moving shadow became an immediate target.

“Satisfied that all was clear, I heaved the rope. The hook missed the wall coping by a foot, and clattered down with a horrible din, echoes rumbling throughout the yards. Prepared for the worst, I cocked my gun and waited—one minute, five minutes, ten minutes. But nothing happened! Again I coiled the rope, measuring the distance carefully. This time my efforts were successful, and the hook gripped the top of the parapet.

“Up the rope I scrambled, the silk ladder coiled about my waist. Then came a further misfortune. I had scarcely climbed ten feet when a piece of the old coping broke loose under my weight, and the heavy stone tumbled down, missing me by a fraction of a foot.

“Surely the clatter must raise alarm. Feverishly I listened. Nothing happened. No prowling sentry or soldier came to investigate. This was providential, for I was determined to fire first and shoot it out with the military. There was no hope of escape for us from a Protestant section of the city under the bane of curfew.

"Chagrined by the failure of our rescue attempt, we waited patiently till curfew lifted, apologised to our captives, and departed. I emphasized to them the wisdom of secrecy, and no doubt our arsenal of forty-fives and Luger Parabellums helped them to agree, though actually we made no threats of reprisal if they chose to report the incident,” he wrote.

It was back to the drawing board. Communications were passed to Carty inside the jail instructing him to throw the ball of cord to the IRA Volunteers on the outside at the appointed time. The men at the back of Harding Street were to attach a rope ladder to the cord to allow the 15 stone Sligo man to make his escape.

In his evidence to the BMH Brady said the unit was told to go to a house belonging to a family called Heeney [sic] .

“The Heeney family being on holidays at the time, they were to get in touch with Jim and Lizzie McLaughlin of the same street. When they arrived at McLaughlin’s they had with them some strong rope and oak rungs. They started making a long rope ladder.”

After a few missteps progress was made over the night and morning of February 14/15, 1921.

“A short time before curfew hour [10.30 p.m.] the four Volunteers landed in Harden Street, but to their great dismay they found that they had forgotten the key which was to let them in to Heeney’s still unoccupied house. They could not turn back as the Curfew Patrols were already on the streets and most people were indoors.

“Captain McGuinness broke the front room window as quickly and as quietly as he could, pushed over the snatch, opened the window and Dom Doherty climbed in. He opened the front door and let the rest of the boys in.

“They proceeded to make preparations and went to the yard where they arranged themselves waiting for the cord that was to come. One end of the ball was to be fastened securely and the rest thrown from the hospital window over the outer wall into the backyard in Harden Street.

"They waited patiently for four long hours and crawling from one Unionist Yard to another, searching for the cord, taking the greatest care not to make any noise, as one false move might spell disaster. Three members of the R.I.C. had their homes in this same street and the Volunteers did not know if the yards they were prowling through contained any dogs,” Brady recounted.

This accorded with McGuinness’ recollection.

“When the clock in the Guildhall struck 4.30 a.m. we were on the alert for the ball of twine. The minutes passed eerily, but nothing happened. I had just decided that Carty had overslept, or was under strict surveillance, when a dull thud sounded near by. The ball of twine had arrived!

“Pouncing eagerly upon it I gave the line two quick jerks, as a signal for ‘All’s well.’ Back came Carty’s assuring tug: ‘All clear. Proceed with the rescue.’ The prisoner hauled up on the line, which held the ladder. It made a slight noise clattering and scraping against the wall, but there was no disturbance from the sentries.

“Then the ladder fouled on the coping, and precious moments elapsed before it could be shaken free. Even then, the top of the wall being serrated with jagged stone, the ladder caught again.

“When the strain of Carty’s tugging threatened to sever the twine, I signalled him to slack away. We hauled the ladder down, and fastened a strong piece of rope to the top rung. I then wrote a note to Carty instructing him to make the rope fast to the cell bars and cross the gap to the wall, hand over hand.

“It was a suggestion that required the nerve of an acrobat, but Carty and his two hundred pounds made the rope journey with safety, despite his shoulder wound. They were tense moments, however.

"The weight of his body pulled the line and ladder almost to breaking point. We almost whooped for joy as the silhouette appeared on the crest of the wall. Cat-like he scaled down the long rope-ladder, and, once on terra firma, joyfully shook hands all round.”

Dominic Doherty led the unit up Abercorn Road, across Bishop Street and Barrack Street to Long Tower Street. Two Volunteers were waiting at the Church railings.

“The four Volunteers after shaking hands with their rescued friend went home. After spending a few days in the City Carty was taken to the Waterside where he was put aboard the coal boat ‘Carrick Lee’, which was ready to sail across the Channel. In a few hours Carty was safe and far from Derry on the high seas,” stated Brady.

The ‘Carrick Lee’ was a coal ship commanded by ‘Nomad’s’ father. Oskar Norrby, a Swede, and an ‘ardent republican’ was its Mate and pivotal in helping spirit Carty to safety.

“Several nights afterwards Carty and I met at an appointed rendezvous. Two other men accompanied us, carrying revolvers in readiness for any encounter with military or police. Stealthily we made our way to the river bank, where a rowboat took us rapidly across the Foyle to the collier and Oscar. Frank climbed the ladder and jumped on board.

“‘Quick,’ whispered the Swede. ‘Come with me.’ Carty followed to a little room aft, which had been used as a magazine when the ship carried a gun on her poop during the World War. With the danger of submarine attack past, the gun and mount were removed, but the magazine still remained.

"Oscar had prepared comfortable quarters for the stowaway, so, satisfied that nothing more could be done, I bade both of them adieu and rowed back to the wharf on the Derry side of the river,” wrote McGuinness.