‘Back in the Minutes’ :Offaly in the Grand Canal Company minutes, 1900-1950 with special reference to the 1911-23 period. By James Scully
Growing up on Clontarf Road, Tullamore, on the banks of the Grand Canal in the…
On the 29th March 1919, 20 IRA Volunteers escaped from Mountjoy jail in broad day light. This escape was planned by Michael Collins on the outside and Piaras Béaslaí on the inside. A prison strike had been taking place in the jail in support of four prisoners who were not being afforded political status. In the lead up to the escape this strike was halted because the escape plan had a better chance of success with a quieter atmosphere in the prison.
The plan was to get Piaras Béaslaí and JJ Murphy both MPs and Padraig Fleming a volunteer from the Swan, Co. Laois out, followed by the four prisoners not being afforded political status. A list of men with long sentences was created and it was decided that men serving short sentences or who had sentences close to completion would not escape. Padraig Fleming had conducted an extraordinary fight for treatment as a political prisoner in Maryborough (Portlaoise) jail, enduring hunger strike, torture and physical mistreatment for months. In Mountjoy he was the Officer Commanding the political prisoners.
The escape was planned for 3 p.m. on Saturday March 29th. On the previous Monday the four prisoners being denied political status broke away from the warders in charge of them and led them on a big chase around the field before being recaptured. As a result, they were kept in a metal cage for exercise and guarded by no less than eleven warders. If these precautions were continued their chances of escape were slight, while the presence of so many warders also presented a serious obstacle to the escape plan. On Fleming’s orders the four prisoners caused no more problems for the warders and the prison authorities were lulled into a false sense of security.
On the afternoon of the 29th the day of the escape the prisoners were locked in their cells as usual at 1p.m. At 2.30p.m. they were normally let out for exercise. On that day a snowstorm started and for a while it looked like they might not get out for exercise. Luck was on the volunteers’ side and the snow cleared off in time for them to be let out for exercise. The volunteers had a second bit of luck when the number of warders guarding the four prisoners in the cage was reduced from eleven to three. This meant that in total there were seven unarmed warders to deal with, the armed military and police guard were stationed in front of the jail and it would take them a bit of time to get around to the exercise yard. At 2.30 p.m. a signal was sent from a window to a volunteer outside to let them know all was ready.
The prisoners exercised in three groups, JJ Murphy and Piaras Béalsaí were in front of the prison hospital, the bulk of the political prisoners under Fleming in a field just inside the wall, and the four prisoners in the iron cage. The rules did not allow the different groups to associate with one another. But the prison authorities had long given up all hope of compelling Fleming to submit to rules. Fleming had joined JJ Murphy and Piaras Béalsaí at a position where they had a view of both the wall and the iron cage. Minutes before the escape commenced the deputy governor came by and passed a comment to the three about being out of bounds. Fleming replied in jest and the deputy governor passed on. He was hardly out of sight when a whistle sounded from outside the prison, the signal that the escape was starting. The prisoners rushed to the selected point on the wall for the escape…….
In an account published in the Midland Tribune Saturday, January 28th 1950 following Martin Fleming’s death and signed *By a Comrade in Arms* and almost definitely written by Sean Robbins, he describes how a party of men under his command controlled the warders.
“It worked our simple in the end. Everyday clothes and dummy revolvers were smuggled in and on the appointed day, during our rest hour after dinner, Martin and three or four others got into the smuggled clothes, and armed with the dummy revolvers, rushed on the warders as if they had broken in from outside. There was no resistance. The terrified warders, thinking another rising had broken out threw up their hands and begged for mercy. They were quickly hustled together behind the prison hospital and then, in broad day light over the wall went twenty of us.”
(Continuing Piaras Béalsaí’s account) …… A volunteer outside the jail, Paddy Clancy, threw a weight with a rope attached over the wall and a rope ladder was pulled up. Paddy Daly called out the names of the men with Piaras Béaslaí first followed by Padraig Fleming and JJ Murphy. In all twenty men went over the wall, exceeding all expectations and leaving only seven prisoners under the command of Paddy Daly inside. Just as the last man cleared the wall the military guard rushed up with fixed bayonets, Paddy Daly lined up the remaining men and they greeted the soldiers with a derisive cheer.
All the men who escaped got away safely. Some on bicycles and some by tram. Among them was Sean Robbins, Erryarmstrong, Clara and Martin Fleming, Grogan, Ballycumber.
Robert Brennan O/C Sinn Fein Press Bureau described that day in a statement to the Bureau of Military History.
Glasses smuggled into Mountjoy as part of a disguise used by Sean Robbins during the escape. The glasses are in the possession of members of the Bracken family.
“All Ireland roared laughing a few days later when, in broad daylight, no fewer than twenty prisoners escaped over the twenty-foot-high wall of the same jail.
It had been borne in on me that something big was afoot that morning. Sean Nunan had asked if he might get off for a couple of hours and, a little later, his brother Michael, did likewise. Then Frank Kelly went off. I went downstairs to find the offices almost deserted. Fitz, as everyone called Miss Anna Fitzsimons, the chief stenographer, was walking about restlessly. “It must be something very big,” she said, “when they are all called out like that.” She said she was going out to see what was up and went off. A few hours later, I met Fitz in Grafton Street and she was chuckling with delight. “Twenty prisoners got over the wall out of Mountjoy! Can you beat that” The news had spread quickly. Everyone we met was smiling joyously and perfect strangers were shaking hands with one another.”
Sean Robbins, composition for court martial at Curragh Camp.
Sean and Martin were making their way down Clonliffe Road when they were stopped by an RIC patrol, however word of the escape had not yet reached the patrol, Martin Fleming was carrying an injury and the RIC assumed he was an Ex-service man injured fighting in World War 1 and let them pass. They were brought to a safe house on the Quays in Dublin and got back to Rahan by canal on a Pullough boat. Both Sean Robbins and Martin Fleming were on the run for the remainder of the War of Independence and both played prominent roles in the campaign in Offaly, despite repeated attempts by Crown Forces to capture them.
Picking up Sean Robbins account from the Midland Tribune again.
“On the Run.
We were free again – free to be together, and together we were for all the terrible days that lay ahead. But we knew nothing of that then. We were full of the excitement and the fun of the escape. There was still a lot of excitement and laughter in Ireland in those days, but shortly now it would change to hard calculated planning and grim resolve. Being on the run may have been a bit of a lark to begin with, but there wasn’t “larking” about it before it was finished. In a few short months we were campaigning in earnest –Ballycommon, the Coal Gap, Blue Ball and so on – the pace getting hotter all the time. We had our successes but we had our failures too and one of these almost cost Martin his life (Attack on Clara RIC Barracks). There is no doubt that the wounds he got that night brought him to this early grave.”
Cartoon postcard on the subject of the 1919 Mountjoy Prison escape. Published following the daytime escape of 20 prisoners from Mountjoy Jail on 29th March, 1919. Courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland
Sean Robbins had been arrested on the 29th November 1918 in an RIC raid on M H Whyte’s house Main Street, Clara. He was found to have documents on him including messages and instructions for making hand grenades. In a follow up search of his home documents found included engineering notes on “Railway Demolition”. He was held in Maryborough and Court martialled in January 1919 and sentenced to two years imprisonment. He was transferred to Mountjoy to serve his sentence.
Martin Fleming was arrested in October 1918. During a raid on his house, he was found with a formula for making gun powder in his pocket. He was court martialled and sentenced to six months imprisonment, he was transferred to Mountjoy in January 1919. Sean and Martin were transferred from Maryborough to Mountjoy together.
Both men took part in the prison strike organised by Padraig Fleming in support of the four prisoners being denied political status. As part of this strike, they were in handcuffs night and day for three weeks, they did a 5 or 6-day hunger strike and Martin Fleming was one of four men hosed by prison authorities during the strike an incident that but for the quick action of Martin almost cost a comrade his life.
Wooden model of an automatic pistol used in escape from Mountjoy c.1920- 1921. HE:EW.1283. Courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland.This carved wooden model of an automatic pistol was used in one of the escapes from Mountjoy between 1919 and 1921. It was found after one such escape outside the jail by a prison guard. It is not known which of the many Mountjoy jailbreaks this was used in.
This story is significant for a number of reasons. At one level it is interesting to recall the involvement of Offaly men in an event that was one of the early successes of the War of Independence. It is also worth considering that the first shots in the War of Independence were fired on 21st January 1919. However, Sean Robbins was arrested in May 1918 and held in Belfast jail until October 1918 for “Drilling Men”. He was rearrested on 29th November 1918, Martin Fleming was arrested in October 1918 was serving a six-month sentence. The RIC at local level were targeting volunteers long before the volunteers fired a shot at them. Republican prisoners including Robbins, Fleming and indeed Padraig Fleming were subjected to harsh, reckless and degrading treatment in Maryborough and Mountjoy. Should it be a surprise that the RIC were the first in the firing line when the war started.
IRA Jailbreaks 1918-1921 by Florence O’Donoghue
BMH.WS0779 Section 3
MSP34REF11307 Sean Robbins
MSP34REF7770 Martin Fleming
Our thanks to Pat McLoughlin. See you in Clara on Friday 27 Jan.