An Irishman’s Diary about two escapees from Crumlin Road Gaol

A break from the norm

C Wing of Crumlin Road Gaol. Photograph: crumlinroadgaol.com

C Wing of Crumlin Road Gaol. Photograph: crumlinroadgaol.com

 

My dentist has spent some time in jail, as he admitted recently while we were waiting for my jaw to freeze. In fact he showed me a picture of himself and fellow inmates, posing in their striped uniforms. They looked remarkably relaxed in the circumstances, no doubt cheered by the knowledge that they would be escaping within hours. 

I hasten to add, as he did, that they were only there for charity. The jail in question, Belfast’s Crumlin Road, ceased to be a correctional facility some years ago. Its guests these days are all voluntary, usually on guided tours or attending conferences.     

But groups can also have themselves committed overnight for charitable purposes, with liberation contingent on raising “bail”. £3,000 a head is the going rate, for which escapees and their co-conspirators also get a gala dinner on the premises before completing their getaways.

Jailbreak

By way of demonstrating, he played me a phone recording of his rendition of The Auld Triangle, performed at 1 am in the otherwise deserted former loyalist wing. I suspect that was a first for the song. It sounded rather haunting.

The dentist’s story reminded me that I knew somebody else who had broken out of Crumlin Road, except that in this other person’s case, it was not for charity.  

He did it 55 years ago when, far from being a visitor attraction, the gaol was one of the most secure fortresses in Europe. And rather than fundraising, it involved the more traditional means of escape – a hacksaw, a rope, and a lot of nerve.

The man’s name is Danny Donnelly. He’s now 76, better known as Dónal, and enjoying retirement in the south Dublin suburb of Dundrum, where he’s spent most of the intervening half century as a highly respected businessman and community activist. But back in 1960, when barely out of his teens, he was already 3½ years into a 10-year sentence for IRA membership, earned during the Border Campaign.

Even in jail, he had progressive tendencies. He campaigned to have the prison designated an official examination centre by London University and sat six GCE exams while there.  

But his main ambition was to escape. Inspired by the precedent of Red Hugh O’Neill, he did so at Christmas.

Three years of meagre rations helped. You had to be thin to get through the window that was part of the chosen route.

So he and his accomplice, John Kelly, practised under cell beds, with a bed leg as one window “frame” and a propped-up copy of Paris Match magazine (then printed on very stiff paper) as the other.

Donnelly spent Christmas Day of 1960 making a 70ft rope from bed-sheets and a “surreptitiously acquired” extension flex. Then, on the 26th, the would-be escapees cut the window bars and wriggled out, before abseiling down into the yard.

The key to their escape was an office building, on which the window grids served as a ladder, and a newly raised link wall that was supposed to increase security but actually undermined it.

Taking advantage of a blind spot between the jail’s gun turrets, the prisoners reached the outer wall, where Donnelly was to go over first while Kelly anchored the rope.

Alas, that was the bit that didn’t quite work. Donnelly made it over, but when he was still in mid air, the rope snapped. So did some of his smaller bones when he landed. But he was able to limp to freedom anyway, while Kelly had to stay behind.

Once in the Republic, Omagh-born Donnelly took no further part in the Border Campaign, nor in the later Troubles. For many years, however, he couldn’t risk going north for anything else, including even his father’s funeral. Finally, in 1986, he was officially pardoned. After 3½ decades, he was no longer on the run.

His story as “Prisoner 1082” was told in a 2010 memoir and, more recently, in a documentary made by his daughter, Una Ní Dhonghaile.  

 And although he didn’t qualify for the gala dinner accorded to modern escapees, he has nevertheless enjoyed the gaol’s much-improved catering. Two years ago, the visiting Sons of the American Revolution (an organisation for descendants of the USA’s founding fathers) held a banquet there. Dónal was guest speaker.