The First Ever Mass Escape From Long Kesh

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There has been no shortage of articles and documentaries chronicling the various escapes from prisons by Republican prisoners, however, there has been little written about the INLA escape from Cage 5 in 1976, which ranks as the very first mass escape from Long Kesh prison camp. The first mass escape from Long Kesh in 1976, occurred on the 5th of May, a date that ironically doubly ties it to Irish Republican penal history, as by grim coincidence Bobby Sands died on Hunger Strike some 5 years later, in 1981. The Irish Republican Socialist POW’s who successfully made that first mass escape from the infamous Long Kesh concentration camp were:

1.Seamus O’Kane,
2.Cahir O’Doherty,
3.John-Eddy McNicholl,
4.Harry Flynn,
5.Gerry Clancy,
6.Hen Doherty,
7.Jake McManus,
8.Joe Kelly
9.Gerard Steenson.

The Red Moles

The Republican Socialist prison-breakers chose tunnelling as their means of escape and brought new meaning to the term ‘Red Moles! ‘ An even more remarkable fact, about the 1976 Republican Socialist mass escape, was that the Irish Republican Socialist Movement had only been formed 2 years earlier, at the IRSM’s inaugural convention at the Spa hotel, Lucan, near Dublin. Unlike the Provisionals, who have made a cottage industry and travelling roadshow, based around the second mass escape from Long Kesh in 1983, Republican Socialists have been relatively reticent about their successful jail-breaking methodology. In contrast to others, they have been quietly modest about being the sole authors of the very first spectacular mass escape from Long Kesh.

The Cages Of Long Kesh

The Long Kesh prison of 1976 was very different from the prison of the H-Blocks era, which the general public would be more familiar with.  Following a Hunger Strike by Billy McKee, by the time of the first mass escape, the British Government had given de jure POW status to Republican and Loyalist prisoners and the prison regime was reminiscent of a World War 2 camp for captured combatants, which conjures up images of the regime seen in the Hollywood movie, The Great Escape. The similarities did not end there, as like any other era in Irish Republican penal history, the POWs spent much of their time devising ways to go under, over and indeed through the perimeter fence.  Like the POW camps depicted in movies, the Republican prisoners were allowed to, more or less, control their own time, with the command structures of the various organisations being officially and legally recognised by their ‘opposites’ within the prison guards and indeed by the state itself.

Cage 5

There were in fact 10 Red Moles who emerged at the end of the Cage 5 tunnel, but the tenth tunneller, Dessie Grew, injured his leg at the final wall-scaling stage of the escape and had to return via the subterranean passage to his Nissan hut. The Republican Socialist escapees had to morph into Communist Kangaroos to successfully clear all the rolls of barbed-wire, chain-link fences and the formidable perimeter wall, despite it being bathed in the glare of searchlights every few seconds!Unfortunately, two of the Irp escapees were captured some 10 miles away, later the following day by the British Army and RUC. The remaining seven Republican Socialist prisoners made good their escape, by a variety of ingenious methods.

SAS Death-squad Deployed To Murder The INLA Escapees!

As an interesting postscript to the Great Irp Escape from Long Kesh, several SAS death-squads were dispatched to track down and kill the Republican Socialist escapees. Their deployment had allegedly been authorised at cabinet level by the British government of the time and the death-squads were armed with a variety of irregular weapons, including pump action shotguns and Ingram Sub-machine pistols. Their use of ‘unconventional’ weaponry added weight to the widely held belief that, if the SAS had made good on their heinous manhunt, the escapees would have been murdered in cold blood, MRF-style . One of the SAS death-squads, travelling in an unmarked van, were stopped at a joint Gardai-Free State Army checkpoint, 2 days later on the 7th of May. In contrast to the immediate imprisonment Republicans routinely received at the hands of the Gardai, the 8 man SAS death-squad were quickly flown back to their lairs, following a brief court appearance.

Hopefully, in the not too distant future, the story of the great Long Kesh escape of 1976 will be told in greater detail and to a wider audience. It is a fascinating story and a very important piece of Irish Republican penal history.  Unfortunately, partly due to a degree of historical revisionism from various quarters hostile to the Republican Socialist Movement, the significant role played by INLA POW’s is often glossed over, especially overseas.  The bravery of Republican Socialist POW’s such as in the 1976 Great Escape, can never be understated, as despite being a much smaller Irish Republican organisation, 3 members of the INLA, Patsy O’hara, Kevin Lynch and Mickey Devine, laid down their lives during the H-Block Hunger Strike of 1981.  In 1997, a spectacular INLA operation, within the restrictive confines of Long Kesh’s H-Block’s, executed Billy ‘King Rat’ Wright, an extreme right wing Loyalist renegade who was personally directing a campaign of sectarian murder against working-class Catholic civilians.

A much more in depth account of the 1976 Great Irp escape, including a personal account by veteran Irish Republican Socialist, Willie Gallagher who was imprisoned in Cage 5 at the time is available to read on the IRSM History section of the IRSP website

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Alex McGuigan,
(Edited July 2013)
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One Response to “The First Ever Mass Escape From Long Kesh”

  1. […] The First Ever Mass Escape From Long Kesh (irishredstar.wordpress.com) […]

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