'Jail escaper had outside assistance", said a headline on page one of The Irish Times on Saturday, February 14th, 1959. James Murphy (24) had escaped from Wakefield prison in Yorkshire two days earlier. He had been serving a life sentence for a raid on an army camp in Berkshire, four years earlier.
“Particular attention was being paid to steamers for Belfast and Dublin”, the report continued, as the escaped prisoner was from Co Kildare, and might be making for home.
The next day the Sunday Press had an "interview" with Murphy, safe and sound, back in Ireland. He wasn't. The IRA splinter group which sent the rescue party, was playing the "fake news" card to confuse British police.
Murphy was hiding out in a flat in Manchester.
It was – at a superficial level – a ripping yarn better suited to the boys’ comics of the day. Unfortunately, the staid Irish newspapers of the time weren’t up to the task. That has now been remedied. Earlier this year, Murphy’s own account of those forgotten events, which flowed from the IRA’s doomed “Operation Harvest” campaign in Britain in the 1950s, was published.
Murphy was 20 years old when he was arrested for the IRA raid on an arms depot in Berkshire. Most of the raiding party, including Ruairí Ó Brádaigh got away, but Seamus Murphy, who had joined the IRA while boarding at Terenure College, Dublin, Joe Doyle and Donal Murphy were caught, and given life sentences.
At Wakefield they were held with what passed for “royalty” among prisoners. Cathal Goulding, IRA chief of staff was there along with a future chief of staff Seán Mac Stiofáin. There too were 10 EOKA members, fighters for Cypriot independence. None were easy men to keep locked up, as the prison authorities discovered.
In prison Seamus Murphy played chess with Klaus Fuchs, a German scientist jailed for disclosing atomic secrets to the Russians.
To give Seamus a chance to win, Fuchs played without his queen.
A Cypriot prisoner George Ioannau translated the writings of James Connolly into Greek. His brother Nicos was killed in a hit-and-run accident in July 1958 in England having just returned from meeting IRA leaders in Dublin. Republicans blamed British dirty tricks for his death.
An earlier attempt to get Goulding out of Wakefield had failed. The Seamus Murphy escape was the work of a splinter republican group led by Joe Christle, with support from EOKA sympathisers. One Katerina Pilina, an idealistic or unfortunate young woman (take your pick) a Greek Cypriot living in London, even donated her wedding dowry of £500 to finance the air tickets, car hire and flat rental costs of the escape attempt.
Joe Christle, a champion cyclist and brilliant strategist who exemplified Brendan Behan’s maxim that the first item on any republican organisation’s agenda was the split, simply could not be contained within IRA structures. However, split or no split, if republican comrades were rotting in a British prison, he’d get them out.
Some say Christle was behind blowing up Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. There’s a Hollywood movie to be made about Joe Christle’s exploits, real or imagined.
At around 7pm on a muggy February evening in 1959, a young couple lingering outside Wakefield prison for what was known as “a bit of a court” provided some light relief for the bored guards on duty. Nearby and unnoticed, two other members of Christle’s republican splinter group were throwing a rope over the prison wall, and Seamus Murphy came scrambling over. Four others were caught in the act of escape.
“There were five men that had been earmarked for the escape. Two of them were EOKA men (George Skotinos and Nicos Sampson), another two were IRA, myself and Joe Doyle, while there was also a fifth with us, Tony Martin, who had deserted the British army in Cyprus and fought on the side of EOKA before he was arrested,” Seamus Murphy said afterwards.
Yes, that Nicos Sampson, the former EOKA soldier turned Cypriot MP who became president of Cyprus, succeeding Archbishop Makarios following a coup for eight days in 1974. Having been released by Britain when Cyprus became independent, Sampson was jailed again, this time by the Cypriot regime for his part in the overthrowing of Makarios.
Klaus Fuchs had also been offered a place on the escape party but declined, knowing that his release was imminent. He went to live in East Germany later in 1959.
Seamus Murphy died three years ago, on November 2nd, 2015.
His memoir Having It Away – that's prison slang for escaping, though it has a cruder meaning in the outside world – is available from the Townhall bookshop, Bray; Woodbine books in Kilcullen, Co Kildare; and Connolly books, Dublin; and on Amazon.