Veteran republican Gerry O’Hare reviews the recently published book, The Escape, by Gerry Kelly, the Sinn Fein MLA for North Belfast and former hunger striker who was force-fed for over 200 days in British prisons in 1973 and 1974 after receiving two life sentences for the Old Bailey bombing.

There have been dozens of books and television documentaries detailing the hard and sometimes tragic stories of those imprisoned in the H-Blocks and Cages of Long Kesh. For republican prisoners incarcerated within its forbidding walls, however, there was always only one story.


Within the ranks, each OC would appoint an escape committee charged with bringing successful breakouts to fruition. That is every republican’s duty in jail. To get out – and get out quickly and then report back for duty outside.

Long Kesh was Britain’s answer to Colditz. London boasted each H-Block was “a prison within a prison”. And the entire prison was located inside a well-fortified British Army camp.

The psychological intention of the H-Blocks was to isolate prisoners from their comrades, with walls and razor wire to block views of any area outside each individual block.

The prison was intended to be impregnable. But every prison in the world has a weak point. Finding it is the problem. And therein lies our story.

This account of the 1983 escape has been written by Belfast man Gerry Kelly who once said that he would rather escape than be released.

Kelly’s relaxed style of writing and humour belies a mind capable of assimilating the minute and intricate detail needed to bring any escape plan to the starting block.

We learn how there was a strictly-enforced “need to know” policy to protect internal IRA security. One escapee only learned he was going within ten minutes of the break-out – and even many on the outside were only pulled together the night before.

They faced a series of problems, of course. But Kelly was shocked to the core when a prisoner with a vital role went into his cell on the day of the escape and withdrew, on the grounds that he had only a short time left to serve. With just hours to go he had to be replaced. Two others were approached and immediately volunteered to fill the gap.

In the build-up to the escape we are taken on a journey alongside the main characters. We read about their problems and frustrations and their determination to achieve their freedom.

Maps and escape routes are well-documented. We learn of the prisoners’ ingenious schemes to get weapons in for disarming the prison officers.
Kelly tells us that after the 1981 hunger strike the republican prison leadership took a crucial, strategic decision to end all aggression with prison officers so as to create a more relaxed regime. The prison officers themselves – worn out by the long battles – fell only too gladly into the trap.
A “Who’s Who” in the Kesh flows off the pages. Too many to single anyone out.

By my count there must have been at least 20 back-up prisoners whose job was to facilitate the escape. Crucially, many of the roles they played were to prevent the prison officers and others interfering. As you read the book, you will see that they unselfishly played their parts to the full. And, of course, later paid a high price.

Where to start explaining the escape? My head is already dizzy with the preparations. I think telling their story and the details have to be read by you, the reader. I would be spoiling your enjoyment and pleasure.

What is useful and gives a real sense of the escape is the dialogue, written in italics which, we must presume, are the authentic words of the escapees reproduced by Kelly.

As they burst out to liberty on the outside roads, support teams fulfilled their roles. Well, almost. The story of those who escaped well away from the walls of the Kesh unfolds and we hear about the prisoners who managed to reach the south and beyond.

Kelly breaks down each group and tells their story. One group is as large as eight although some prisoners almost immediately found themselves on their own.

One group of four decided to hide in the nearby river, cold sinking into their bones. One of them was Bobby Storey who, at six foot eight inches, was the tallest. The water came up to his chest. As the men began shivering with cold, he ordered them to stop. Naturally enough, that was something the men simply couldn’t obey and eventually the slight movement on the water surface was spotted by an RUC Reservist who opened fire.

Stripped to their underpants, the four were frog marched at gunpoint across a field. Storey, however, wasn’t wearing underpants and was marched totally naked with his hands on his head. Back in the jail, they were mercilessly beaten by the prison officers for half an hour before a prison governor began to re-establish control.

We learn the prisoners’ names and their successes and failures. The length of time some prisoners were at freedom, sadly, was short-lived, while other prisoners were at liberty for weeks and several indefinitely.

Kelly himself, along with seven others, holed up in Lurgan under the floorboards in a specially constructed but by then disused arms dump for two weeks, before being taken over the border.

Bik McFarlane’s group crossed rivers and found some rest in the home of a Born Again Christian family.

Escapee Kevin Barry Artt from Ardoyne was actually picked up by the RUC and taken to Lisburn police station where he was kept in a waiting room for over an hour before they decided he was of no interest to them and was returned to freedom again.

Only one of the escapees never appeared in the public eye again. Intriguingly, the book says Tony McAllister left the country soon after the escape and has since died from natural causes after building a new life and family in a mystery location. Other stories of what happened to the escapers are mind-boggling.

Tony Kelly, for example, in a half-dressed state, fled the Gardai in County Donegal, hiding overnight and the following day in a frozen ditch as the snow fell. Half-dead from frostbite and hypothermia, he somehow managed to make a phone call for help and took over a month to recover from the ordeal.

Another escapee, Peter ‘Skeet’ Hamilton, died when Gerry Adams was elected as TD for Louth. Dying of cancer, Hamilton presented himself to vote for the Sinn Féin leader in the constituency, passing away the same day Adams was declared elected.

Kelly himself points to the fact that on becoming a junior minister in the Office of First and Deputy First Minister one of his responsibilities was the Maze/Long Kesh site and that he had gone from tenant to landlord.

The book’s appendices include a list of every one of the escapees and their ultimate fate, whether that was recapture, death on active service or total disappearance. They also include a list of those prisoners who assisted in the escape, while not escaping themselves, and who have since died (such as Larry Marley from Ardoyne and Pat McGeown from Beechmount).

Kelly has told his story well. Where there is a will there is a way. This book is a ‘must buy’ for friends this coming Christmas and is available £12.50/€15 at Sinn Fein Art Shop, 55 Falls Road, Belfast; Culturlann, Falls Road; Culturlann Derry; Shipquay Books, Derry; Sinn Fein bookshop, 44 Parnell Square, Dublin; various Easons shops

Another Prize for Bobby’s Diary

An Italian translation of ‘The Diary of Bobby Sands’, Il diario di Bobby Sands. Storia di un ragazzo irlandese, by Silvia Calamati, Laurence McKeown and Denis O’Hearn has won yet another prize, this time in Cassino, Italy, on October 19th last. Young students made up the majority of jurors of the award which was made by the Italian Cultural Association LETTERATURE DAL FRONTE (Cassino). The association was set up in 2006 to continue the activities carried out by the ‘Committee to remember the Battle of Monte Cassino,’ a famous battle during WWII.*

Present for the award ceremony were Silvia Calamati (third from left in front page photo) and former hunger striker and writer Laurence McKeown (second from left). The aim of the prize, beyond the purely literary, is to involve young people in the reading of texts by European writers who are regarded as ‘carriers of testimonies of crises of humanity, wars, disease, persecution, and violence. Each year the award focuses on a different country and the literature from that country. In 2013 the chosen country was Ireland.

The selection process to decide the winner of the award is unique in that students from high schools in four Italian cities (Rome, Trieste, Cassino and Pico), together with a scientific panel consisting of representatives of the world of information and culture (including two public libraries and a jury presided by the Trieste Association ‘Radici e Futuro’), have the opportunity to vote for the book of their choice.

Seamus Heaney’s Fuori campo was second place in the vote with Roddy Doyle’s The Dead Republic and Joseph O’Connor’s The Star of the Sea coming third and fourth respectively.

The ‘MOTIVAZIONE UFFICIALE’, written and agreed by all the Award jury members, formally explained why they decided to give the award to the book on Bobby Sands.

“After reading the book the students were asked to answer the question, ‘What idea comes out of this book?’ Their response was, ‘the belief in values’. And when asked, ‘To whom would you recommend it?’, the unanimous answer was, ‘anybody’. These two answers are symptomatic to understand to what extent the reading of this book had such an emotional impact on the students and why they awarded the editors with the “Premio Internazionale Letterature dal Fronte – Conoscere le Crisi dell’Umanità per Costruire la Pace”.

“Northern Ireland’s history is marked with the sacrifice of young lives such as, amongst many, those of Bobby Sands and his comrades in his sadly infamous jail of Long Kesh: the conflict consumed their youth; Bobby Sands and his comrades their lives.

“Many of the students have confessed they did not know the history of Northern Ireland and we must credit Silvia Calamati, Laurence McKeown and Denis O’Hearn for having uncovered for us this sad chapter of our European history and having done so with a freshness in the language spoken by young people, and in a narrative style which is meaningful and clear at the same time. Their merit lies also in having reported the facts, using their pen as a scalpel to cut into the open wound of the contrast between British institutions and politics and the consequences of those policies on a people. If it is true that we build our freedom remembering how much it has cost, then Silvia, Laurence and Denis have given a meaningful contribution to the freedom of us all. We thank them gratefully for having transmitted with this book that ‘belief in values’ that our students so heartily have highlighted.”

Speaking at the ceremony Silvia Calamati said: “In spite of the strong attempt which is now taking place in the Six Counties to cancel the historical memory of the sacrifice of Bobby Sands and of his young comrades during the period of the hunger strikes, this award, the second award in Italy in three years, and the heartfelt interest for this book shown by hundreds of Italian students, indicates that Bobby Sands’ ideals and values that he believed in are still alive and strong all over the world. The decision taken by the Florence City Council to name a street after Bobby Sands is just one of the many examples that show how his ideals, values, and desire for a free Ireland cannot be quenched.”

Laurence McKeown, in his address to the assembled students and Scientific Committee, concluded by saying, “Bobby used to write under the pen-name ‘An Fhuiseog’, ‘The Lark’. I like to think of him as a lark, flying high over Montecassino today, feeling the heat of the sun on his body, the sun that he did not see when incarcerated in a concrete tomb in the H Blocks of Long Kesh; and looking down on this gathering of young students who thirty-two years after his death are inspired by his words. Bobby once wrote, ‘let our revenge be the laughter of our children’, and I can ensure you that today our children, a new generation, are laughing, are proud, are confident.”

On Friday 18th October, H – the feature film co-written by Laurence McKeown – was screened (with Italian subtitles) in a nearby college and followed by a Q & A event with the students, professors, and journalists.

*The Battle of Monte Cassino, 17th  January – 18th  May 1944 (also known as the Battle for Rome and the Battle for Cassino) was a costly series of four assaults by the Allies against ‘the Winter Line’ in Italy held by the Germans and Italians during the Italian Campaign of World War II. At the beginning of 1944 the western half of the Winter Line was being anchored by Germans holding the Rapido, Liri, and Garigliano valleys and some of the surrounding peaks and ridges. Together, these features formed the Gustave Line.

Monte Cassino, an historic hilltop abbey founded in AD 529 by Benedict of Nursia, dominated the nearby town of Cassino and the entrances to the Liri and Rapido valleys but had been left unoccupied by the German defenders. The Germans had, however, manned some positions set into the steep slopes below the abbey’s walls. Fearing that the abbey formed part of the Germans’ defensive line, primarily as a lookout post, the Allies sanctioned its bombing on 15th February and American bombers proceeded to drop 1,400 tons of bombs onto their target.

The destruction and rubble left by the bombing raid now provided better protection from aerial and artillery attacks, so, two days later, German paratroopers took up positions in the abbey’s ruins. Between 17th January and 18th May, Monte Cassino and the Gustav defences were assaulted four times by Allied troops, the last involving twenty divisions attacking along a twenty-mile front. The German defenders were finally driven from their positions, but at a high cost.