by ehistoryadmin on October 27, 2022

The Greatest Escape. Newbridge Barracks 14/15 October 1922

James Durney

As the Civil War entered a new phase more space was needed to house the growing number of republican prisoners. The Kildare Observer of 12 August 1922 announced that the former British cavalry barracks at Newbridge was to be evacuated by the Civic Guard and was to be used as an internment camp. Seán Hayes, a pro-Treaty T.D. from Cork, was appointed Military Governor of Newbridge internment camp with Lt. Comdt. Seán Kavanagh as Deputy Military Governor.

Newbridge Barracks had been designed to hold up to 1,000 horses and 700 men, but was soon overcrowded with prisoners and guards. A special train with 250 prisoners from the converted prison ship Arvonia arrived at Newbridge railway station on the evening of 7 September. The prisoners were marched to the military barracks under a heavy escort. Another 870 men arrived by rail by 15 September, bringing the total up to 1,120 prisoners. Governor Hayes, wrote in his notebook on 7 October: ‘we cannot take any more prisoners …’

However, many of the prisoners held in Newbridge had no intention of staying and as soon as some of them arrived, they began plotting to leave by any means possible. Patrick O’Keefe and his brother, Jim, arrived in Newbridge from the Arvonia. Patrick said, ‘An escape plan got under way, to tunnel from the room to the sewer. It took a few weeks to complete, from the old Barracks into the sewer and then under the field to the Liffey.’

They were not the only prisoners intending on escape. Neil Plunkett O’Boyle, from Leac Eineach, Burtonport, Co. Donegal, lost no time in starting work on a tunnel from G Block. This ‘project’ was abandoned when one of the group was given a Board of Works map of the sewerage system from a friendly National soldier. Nellie Kearns, of Eyre Street, Newbridge, Officer Commanding Newbridge Cumann na mBan, provided the map, which made the escape possible. She said, ‘I had Free state soldiers taking messages to and from prisoners in Newbridge barracks. Dr. Liam Clark and Dr. Bracken from Dublin and T. J. Williams, Naas, received messages from me and sent a request for a plan of the sewage system of the barracks which I obtained from Dublin and which they received. On this plan was marked the man holes which were no longer used for sewage and through which they could and did escape several days after.’ With the help of another Donegal man, who was an experienced miner, O’Boyle constructed a tunnel from R Block into the sewerage drain.

Veteran escape artists noticed that the sewer traps ran in a line across the quadrangle by the married quarters in the direction of the Liffey which flowed near the barrack. A disused sawmill on the bank of the Liffey in a direct line with the sewer traps was noted to as likely to afford cover to potential escapees. The prisoners were housed in two three-storey buildings in the centre of the barracks beneath the clock tower, known as the ‘Cupola’ building. It was about 500 yards to the river, so the magnitude of the task undertaken can be well realised.

A start was made by the O’Boyle group in the ground floor of a block near the clock tower. Direct descent into the sewer was not possible and it was found that a tunnel of around 30 feet in length would have to be cut to connect with the sewer. With a saw manufactured from a dinner knife a square of flooring was cut from beneath one of the trestle beds. Carefully trimmed and with the marks of cutting erased, the square fitted into place and defied detection. Using a pointed poker as a pick and a fire shovel the work was quickly underway, as lookouts kept a careful watch on the movements of the guards. The loose earth was disposed of beneath the floor of the room. Day after day progress was made, with many narrow escapes from discovery when some of the guards arrived in the room, while the tunnellers were at work beneath the floor.

At the same time another group led by Seamus O’Connor, from Meenahila, Co. Kerry, were working on their tunnel. O’Connor had made several escape bids since his capture and along with his comrades smuggled tools – screwdrivers, knives and odd bits of iron – which they had used digging a tunnel in Limerick Prison. ‘We immediately set to work on a tunnel. Underneath the floor boards there was a high air space – perhaps two feet – an ideal place to hide the excavated earth. Everything had to be done neatly. There were periodic inspections for tunnels. All operations were kept as secret as possible for fear of spying.’

‘After a while, there were four separate tunnels being made by four different gangs. We came together and agreed that whichever tunnel came through first would be made available to the other teams, so that all could escape at the same time…There was a large manhole in the barrack square. This was the manhole of the main sewer, which ran right through the centre of the building into the Liffey, perhaps 300 yards away. The authorities had shown nervousness about the manhole previously, thus drawing attention to its possibilities. Now the gang in this centre block had only to sink a shaft in the appropriate room on the ground floor, and run a short tunnel to connect with the sewer which passed underneath.’

When the sewer was located and penetrated the escapees’ troubles were far from over. As the tunnellers entered the sewer they found the air was so foul it was impossible to explore for a few days. One man who got into the sewer was violently ill for some time. Then there arose the difficulty of finding the correct route in a network of sewers, with one of the explorers getting lost for several hours in his attempt to find his way back. All these difficulties were overcome by the dedication of men intent on leaving their involuntary confinement. Not alone was the correct route discovered but a way out was cut from the sewer through the floor of the sawmill on the banks of the Liffey.

On the night of Saturday 14 October 1922 there was a swift exodus as many prisoners, among them Neil Plunkett O’Boyle and a large contingent from Co. Kildare, made a successful escape. The following day was one of high tension as those in the know endeavoured to cover the absence of their comrades. Many inquiries had been made for prisoners who were amongst the absentees and towards evening it was obvious that vague suspicions were aroused. With dark it was decided to rush another batch for freedom.

Seamus O’Connor said, ‘We were ready for escape that night … There were four rooms, twenty men in each room and each block was self-contained. At 8 o’clock each night the guards blew a whistle. This was the signal for all prisoners to get into their block for the night. Once you were in your own block you could not enter any other block, except by coming out in the square, which was all lit up and under surveillance of the sentries, who were all around, in raised sentry posts. This meant that all those who were to escape should move into the four rooms of the escape block, instead of their own, when the whistle blew. After this, there was never any inspection of these rooms each night, because there was nowhere else the prisoners could go, once the square was vacated.’

On the Saturday night, O’Connor and his group got ready to move into the escape block, but a few minutes before the whistle went, they received word that the escape was called off until the following night. The following morning O’Connor was told that the escape had taken place and that over seventy men had got away. He said it was a mix up of information.

O’Connor said, ‘Ours were the only tunnel-diggers left. We moved into the escape block, which was mostly empty, and took over possession and control of the tunnel. The authorities knew nothing of the escape. It was in our favour that this day was Sunday… the prisoners here looked after themselves and on Sundays especially, the soldiers never made their appearance amongst us, except to man the sentry posts. As far as I know, the news spread inside, and everybody must have known of the escape.’

‘We knew nothing of the working of the tunnel or where it led – all who did were gone. A wiry diminutive lad – [William] Hussey from Killarney – was selected to go and make an inspection. He did so, and came back. He found that the Free Staters had blocked the entrance into the Liffey with inch-thick iron bars, but that the tunnellers had struck upwards and made their exit into the inside of a disused sawmill. They knew their geography because some were local fellows. The mill, however, was on the wrong side of the river for us, and between the mill and the river any escape would be under view of the sentries; this made a successful day escape unlikely, so we decided to take the chance and wait until night.’

A Dublin Brigade officer approached O’Connor’s group and claimed that because of his position he was in command of the escape attempt. He insisted that some important Dublin men should escape first and O’Connor’s group would be in the second batch. The O’Connor group reluctantly agreed. When the whistle blew at 8 pm for all prisoners to go to their blocks, about 200 moved into the escape block. The first group to go into the tunnel were the key men from the Dublin Brigade. The cover of the shaft leading into the tunnel was under a bed and the O’Connor group were next gathered around the bed. However, after the sighting of an armoured car on patrol duty outside the walls of the barracks, the escape was called off. Finally, after an anxious hour, O’Connor decided his group were going out. He said, ‘I bent over and lifted the neat square board that covered the hole and placed it aside – the bed underneath which it was hidden had already been pushed aside. I signaled to Hussey, who jumped in first, and each of us who wished to come, followed him. After about a dozen feet of tunnel we got into the sewer proper. We were able to crawl without difficulty on our hands and knees. The distance seemed long. I think it took over half an hour. The noise made by crawling seemed very loud. We knew we had to pass under a sentry-box outside. It seemed incredible that the sentry could not hear us.’

‘The disused saw mill, underneath which the sewer passed, was on the bank of the river. The architects of the tunnel knew the location well, for they bored right up into the mill house. The sewer entrance to the river was blocked, as already stated, with iron bars. When the first few of us got out of the sewer into the mill room, we waited to give a helping hand until all were pulled up.’

‘About 25 had elected to follow us. Anyone who wished was free to follow or otherwise… We decided that five of us should make the first attempt to leave the mill and cross the river; the others to wait until they were sure everything was all right and then come as they wished.’

‘We crawled out in single file. All was quiet. When outside we turned to the right, along the river bank for perhaps a hundred yards, in order to avoid going too close to where we knew there was an outpost on our left, and then struck straight across the river. The river was not deep and was quite fordable at the point, and helped to cleanse us after the sewer.’

‘On the other side of the river was a steep bank. We climbed it and into a large field. Then we were free. Never have I experienced such delight which that sense of freedom gave me when going up that field.’ With O’Connor were six others, including William O’Sullivan, a fifteen-year-old Fianna scout from Tralee. ‘I picked out the North Polar Star,’ O’Connor said, ‘and from it selected one bright star which I calculated should lie directly over Dublin, and we struck neither to right nor left but straight towards the star… After about half an hour we heard continuous bursts of gunfire from the direction of the Camp. We knew then that the escape had been discovered. We learned later that a party of escapees – not the one which came with us – had been caught under fire… One wounded man was swept down the river, got into a friendly house and escaped. Some went back through the sewer again. One going through went astray in a smaller offshoot and got stuck there.’

‘There were Free State posts at Naas and Blessington. It was important that we went between them. Our star carried us right through.’ The seven escapees were treated to a bread cake at a friendly house and then went on to Brittas, Co. Wicklow, where they had a bottle of stout each, and then proceeded on to Rathfarnham, where they arrived on Tuesday morning. O’Connor and four others later made their way back home to the south travelling across country through Wicklow, Carlow and Tipperary.

The breakout from Newbridge Barracks was the largest escape of prisoners in Irish penal history. All told 112 men escaped successfully, a further thirty-seven were captured in the tunnel. Some historians point to the release in August 1922 of over 300 republicans held in Dundalk Jail as the greatest escape, but this was a release of prisoners who had no part in their escape, while the men in Newbridge dug tunnels and crawled through a sewer to gain their freedom.

In total 35 men from Co. Kildare escaped from Newbridge Barracks. It was the largest group by county. Carlow was next with 12 escapees from the county, followed by Dublin with 10 and Wicklow with 9. Three of the Kildare escapees, James Dempsey (Celbridge), Jimmy Whyte (Naas) and Paddy Bagnall (Kildare Town) had been released from Dundalk Jail in August when Frank Aiken’s men had captured the town from the National Army. They had been subsequently recaptured and interned in Newbridge Barracks. After escaping from Newbridge Patrick Bagnall joined the Rathbride Column and on 12 December was recaptured in a dugout at Mooresbridge, outside Kildare Town. Tragically, Paddy Bagnall was executed by firing squad on 19 December 1922.

The engineer of the successful tunnel, Neil Plunkett O’Boyle, led a group of escapees in the Wicklow mountains who became a thorn in the side of the National forces. They were responsible for several fatal attacks on National troops and the burning of Senator Bryan Mahon’s mansion at Mulloboden, near Ballymore Eustace. On 8 May 1923 the column was finally cornered at a cottage at Knocknadruce, Valleymount, where Neil Plunkett O’Boyle was shot dead after surrendering.

William ‘Squires’ Gannon, then only twenty-one, made a successful escape and was not recaptured. His son, Paul, recalled hearing the story of Squires washing off the dirt from the sewer before entering the homeplace after his escape.  Squires Gannon was later winner of two All-Ireland medals (1927 and 1928) and was the first captain to raise the Sam Maguire Cup. On 25 September 2022 a statue of William ‘Squires’ Gannon was officially unveiled at Market Square, Kildare.


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