Daring Escape From Crum

April 7, 2010 · Print This Article

“Accounts of many escapes from Irish jails have been written – yet more books are still eagerly sought from which to learn more of the deeds of IRA prisoners. In truth, until this book,” writes guest reviewer, Gerry O’Hare, “I had only heard verbally anything about the escape attempts made by Danny Donnelly, from Omagh, and Belfast’s John Kelly, from Crumlin Road Jail (in 1960 during ‘Operation Harvest’).” Review continues…

Eamonn Boyce’s ‘The Insider’, and its account of jail breaks of that time, was reviewed earlier.This is the definitive account of Danny Donnelly’s successful escape from the Crum in 1960 – and of the heartbreak and failure of North Belfast’s John Kelly, who didn’t quite make it. It is a story of two men’s attempts to overcome the odds against them by their jailers and – not unsurprisingly – the disapproval of some of their comrades.

Donnelly and Kelly didn’t inform the IRA’s jail council for fear permission would be refused them.

In a tribute to his comrade, Danny dedicates the book to the late John Kelly who died in 2007. The dedication also praises the Kelly family who lived in the shadow of Crumlin Road Jail, in Adela Street, which runs between the Crumlin and Antrim Roads.

When Kelly’s mother died, there was a Belfast silent tribute paid to her. It was said, “She never locked her back door”. IRA men on the run would understand and nod approval. Practically every prisoner who was ever released found their way to Mrs Kelly for breakfast and onward help home.

‘Prisoner 1082, Escape From Crumlin Road – Europe’s Alcatraz’ relives the story of the preparations and escape of Danny Donnelly, an 18-year-old student from Omagh, County Tyrone, convicted of IRA membership in 1957 and sentenced to ten years. We learn that he came from a family steeped in the Gaelic tradition and republicanism.

Born on September 8th 1939, he was the youngest of six children of Peter and Margaret Donnelly (nee Docherty) in a part of Omagh known colloquially as Gallows Hill.

His education was at the hands of the Christian Brothers, mostly from the South, and they would have appeared to install in the young student a love for his country and a yearning for its freedom from the British.

He tells us that growing up in Omagh gave him a sense of being a stranger in his own country. Discrimination was rampant. Catholics had no chance of a job in the town or even with the local county council. His brothers all emigrated except himself:  “I went to jail,” he says.

This, of course, was not uncommon for Catholics in the six northern counties.

“We grew up in an atmosphere of disengagement from the organs of the state – from the Bureau of Employment to the local council to the police force. From an early age I wondered why people accepted these unfair conditions. I felt that things must change or be made to change. Such an opportunity seemed to present itself in the early 1950s,” he writes.

Donnelly seems to have been fascinated by the results of British elections and the successes of Tom Mitchell and Philip Clarke.  He was outraged at the way the British unseated them, despite the people’s votes. It wasn’t long before he joined the IRA and came under the tutelage of Cork’s Daithi O’Connell. He learned the art of bomb-making and tells us that he became “rather adept” at it. He was also, along with the other local volunteers, taught to use Lee Enfield rifles and the Thompson sub-machine gun. It was the era of the Flying Columns around which ‘Operation Harvest’ was planned.

It began on December 12th and Donnelly’s first taste of action involved an attack on Omagh Barracks. Some of his group went off to commandeer a lorry but, as he and others lay in a ditch, they heard an explosion and, a short time later, another. The column was told that the lorry hadn’t been commandeered as planned and their anticipated element of surprise was gone. They were advised to disperse and head for home in Omagh (others headed further up the Sperrin Mountains).

The following day’s papers were full of other, more successful, operations: the blowing up of Magherafelt Courthouse in County Derry; a ‘B’ Special hall in Newry destroyed; a British Army territorial building blown up in Enniskillen and two bridges blown up in other parts of  County Fermanagh.

The young Donnelly’s activities became known to the Special Branch and eventually he was arrested and given ten years for membership of the IRA. He was charged along with ten others from the Omagh districts. The jury took five minutes to convict him and sentence was duly handed down. He had expected four or five years.

Lord Chief Justice Mc Dermot, however, singled him out from the rest of his comrades and said, in passing sentence: “It is quite clear to me that you are one of the ring leaders. Parliament has made provision that the manner in which accused like you may be punished includes, not only long terms of imprisonment and whipping, but the sentence of death”.

Danny says of this tirade: “I listened with growing incredulity as he sentenced me to ten years”.

He finds jail life a culture shock, but knuckles down and continues his studies which will stand by him in later life. Escape was on his mind from the beginning and increased when he heard of the escape from the Curragh by Daithi O’Connell and Ruairi O Bradaigh in December 1958.

“Since my imprisonment, I had dreamed of escaping. On smoggy days I wondered if I could climb the outer wall during periods when the warders would count and re-count, to establish if anyone was missing”.

A decision by his jailers to build a higher wall actually hastened those plans.

“The missing part of my jigsaw … was put in place when the authorities raised the low link-wall (from the administration block to the outer wall) to the same level as the outer wall”.

Having found a weak link in the system, he realized he needed a companion and, in the summer of 1960, found a Belfast man to fit the bill. John Kelly instantly warmed to the idea, and so the plan was hatched. An extra bonus was that John’s cell was immediately above his own. Their idea was to cut through the bars of the cell to access a yard where the wall was nearest to the main Crumlin Road, giving them a starting point that allowed a restricted choice of timing.

Next, they needed a rope, 70-feet long, to stretch from an anchored spot on the administration block across the new link-wall and down the outer wall, which they estimated at 30 feet high.

“The challenge here was that, at a certain spot on the link-wall, and for the last ten yards, we would be in full view of the armed police in the gun towers while crossing. Therefore we planned to be less than ten seconds on that part of the wall so that, even if we were spotted, the chances of them taking up their weapons and firing in that space of time were fairly remote”.

Christmas Eve was set as the escape date, the logic being that Belfast would be so full of shoppers it would be difficult for the police and soldiers to spot them. Also Christmas-time within the jail was a bit more relaxed, especially for the warders.

“As a 21-year old, I also had a romantic historical reason for choosing the date as it was on Christmas Eve that Red Hugh O’Donnell escaped from Dublin Castle in 1592.”

We learn how they acquired their rope and hacksaw blades. It was John’s job to get the material and Danny’s to find the hiding places. There follows a detailed account of the trials and tribulations of their attempts to prepare for the escape – nothing’s ever that easy!

Events led to them having to postpone the escape until Boxing Day. Both men got out of John’s cell and made it to the wall. Danny gets to the top – but the rope breaks, and John falls back into the prison area. They had agreed a plan in case they were separated and, in driving snow, Danny is disappointed there is no outside help. Unfamiliar with the locality, he manages to heed John’s directions and finds himself outside the Kelly home where the door is opened by a young Oliver Kelly.

“Come on in,” he says, as if escaped prisoners are the norm at their door!

Danny says, “The Kellys were highly respected within their own neighbourhood, by churchmen in Belfast and among the business community with whom they worked on a daily basis.

“Internees and released prisoners had a standing invitation to go directly to their house, where they would receive a great welcome, a meal, good advice, directions or lifts to bus and train stations and, on many occasions, money.

“The Kelly household was revered in republican circles not only throughout the North but among many in the South also.”

In excellent hands, he makes good his escape across the border.

It was not all without pain for Danny. He suffered serious injuries to his foot and vertebrae which took a long time to heal. Nevertheless, he reported back to GHQ and eventually met the then Chief of Staff, Ruairi O’Bradaigh, and Mick Ryan.

The final phase of his book concerns how he sought work and continued his business studies.

It is a remarkable tale of success leading to his selection as Honorary Secretary of the Council of the Institute of Purchasing and Materials Management in the Republic and later, on two occasions, President of the Institute.

He drifts away from his active involvement in the IRA gets married and has a family. That he took such a long time before he got down to writing the book is explained through his concern about the direction the IRA took, leading to the long, armed campaign from the ’70s to the ’90s. He blames the British for not acting earlier to promote a just society, and I leave readers with his explanation for not remaining involved.

“I avoided being personally involved in the physical conflict by chance and, to a certain extent, through having other commitments.

“Thus I never rejoined the IRA as many of my Crumlin Road comrades did at that crucial time, nor was I part of the bitter Provisional/Official split. I knew many on both sides, and still meet with some of them from time to time. However, I was, quite frankly, appalled at the ruthlessness with which those feuds were carried out and the business that informed them.

“I consider myself quite fortunate to have been outside all that.”

The book is important as this escape seemed until now to have disappeared off the map.

Historians and the ordinary reader will be grateful to the author for telling his story.

‘Prisoner 1082 – Escape From Crumlin Road’ by Dónal Donnelly, published by The Collins Press, Price: £11.99/€12.99

Comments

9 Responses to “Daring Escape From Crum”

  1. patricia mcveigh on April 23rd, 2010 5:29 pm

    i am a grandaughter of one of the families that helped Donal , this has been a eye opening story for me. thankyou

  2. keen observere on April 30th, 2010 7:50 am

    i am an follower of your site danny, but i have noticed that the site contains a wide range of issues from around the world, but ther is an issue closer to home that is affecting republicans, here in the occupied six, republican pows are being striped searched , under 23 hour lock up, held in degrading conditions, denied family an legal visits, all of which bobby sands had protested against, an which led to the hunger strike, so why dont you do an article on the pows issues to highlight their plight, after all we dont want to see another hunger strike, were irish men die for ther pows rights. its time to speak up, do your bit.

  3. Donal Donnelly on May 5th, 2010 7:12 am

    I am delighted to read Patricia McVeigh’s comment on my book “Prisoner 1082″ . The book is dedicated to Belfast’s John Kelly and also to ” those brave and often nameless people who at great personal risk …assisted me in my escape”. It is a pleasure to read Patricia’ s comments as her own family, especially her grand mother and grandfather are included in that dedication . Fifty years later they still rank supreme in my memory and in my appreciation.
    le meas mor , Donal ( Danny) Donnelly, Dublin

  4. Colleen Ridley (Donnelly) on October 2nd, 2010 12:34 pm

    Thank you uncle Dan,
    I remember my father’s struggle with “what he left behind” and the family he so loved. I know he regretted leaving Ireland, yet “shaking the dust from his shoes” he was reluctant to share family history. It was very healing to meet you, hear your story, and to connect with you. Your book has been a great blessing. I am grateful you delivered on your memoir, as our family would have lost this precious personal history. In my prayers,
    Colleen

  5. Donal ( Danny) Donnelly on October 13th, 2010 8:25 am

    Colleen Ridley’s note is very welcome and reassuruing. Colleen is the daughter of an Irishman from Omagh, Tyrone who emigrated like so many thousands of other nationalists and republicans to foreign parts ( in his case to Canada) during the 1950’s. Collen speaks of her father’s reluctance to speak of his family history and I am glad that she enjoyed my memoir in which her father Peadar, my brother is mentioned. The Six Counties was a cold house for Nationalists and discrimination in jobs and housing was a form of ethnic cleansing which caused so much saddness and suffering to so many families . If the British Government did then what they were subsequently forced to do and dealt with the injustices Ireland would have had a more happy second half of the last century . Thank you Colleen for your comment and I will mention it at the Peadar O’Donnell Literary weekend in Dungloe , County Donegal on Otober 22nd to which I have been invited to speak about my book ” PRISONER 1082″
    LE GACH DEA GHUI , Donal

  6. andi davidson on September 18th, 2013 2:00 pm

    i have just read prisoner 1082 and found it facinating! my parents hail from ardoyne and andersonstown but setteled in antrim where i still live. i have just turned 30 and was diagnosed with MS almost 7 years ago, to raise much needed funds for the MS Society i will be spending a sponsored night in one of the cells at crumlin road on 1st nov, this has encouraged my thirst for knoweledge on the history of the gaol and its previous residents and their experiences, it would mean a lot if mr donnelly would make personal contact with me to share stories as he may have known late members of my family!

  7. Daibhidh Mc Ardle on September 24th, 2015 7:18 am

    Just wondering if anyone would know if this Dan Donnelly has/had Donnelly relations in Armagh, Tyranny Road? My mum is a Donnelly and I have heard of a Dan/ Danny Donnelly in our family. Thanks

  8. Donal Donnelly on September 24th, 2015 6:35 pm

    Daibhidh, I would love to claim relations in Armagh BUT I am from Omagh originally. Naturally ,like everyone, I have many friends in Armagh and visit there from time to time- including last September with a group of “Operation Harvest Veterans”. RTE 1 showed a documentary based on my book last Tuesday 15/9/2015 entitled “The Invisible Man”. It was co-directed ( with Georg Misch )and edited by Úna Ní Dhonghaile . Thank you for your interest.
    Slán agus beannacht,
    Danny ( Dónal) Donnelly

  9. tom on July 14th, 2016 4:54 am

    hi i have a brain injury and found a book dan donnelly prisoner1082 and is signed there is a lot of books forsale on amazon for over 300and are not signed can you help me and tell me why it is so high a price and is the one i have worth more because it is signed thanks tom higgins with a brain injury by the way its not for sale

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