RTÉ One, Thursday, 7.00pm

Scannal - Prison Break

Helicopters & Gelignite
The Mountjoy & Portlaoise Breakouts

Prison break - whether it's the recent TV hit, Colditz or a 1970's IRA spectacular what they have in common is great drama! Secret detailed plans and conspiracy, inside and outside the prison walls. And that huge element of surprise. Today it would seem unthinkable but in the early 70's IRA prisoners broke out of Jail not once but twice!

The early seventies were a turbulent time on the island, the troubles in the North had escalated and were beginning spill over into the South. A new coalition government came into power in early 1973, with a Fine Gael, law and order Taoiseach - Liam Cosgrave promising to take a no-nonsense approach to subversives. But on 31st October 1973 he was in for a shock. 3 IRA men succeeded in pulling off a dramatic Helicopter escape from Mountjoy Jail.

At 3.30pm in afternoon, to the astonishment of prison officers, and the cheers of other prisoners, a helicopter scooped up 3 high-ranking members of the IRA: Seamus Twomey, J.B O'Hagan and Kevin Mallon, in the middle of a football game taking place in the prison yard. The chopper lifted off with the fugitives to the farcical shouts of prison guards attempting to foil the escape by shouting for the gates to be shut!

The embarrassed Cosgrave Government reacted to the fiasco, ordering nationwide searches and the transfer of remaining republican prisoners from Mountjoy and the Curragh to Portlaoise prison. The Wolfe Tones got in on the act by releasing a single called 'The Helicopter Song' which topped the Irish Charts for 4 weeks!

After weeks on the run - Kevin Mallon was the first of the escapees recaptured at a GAA Dance in the Montague Hotel in Co. Laois. A republican comrade, Marion Coyle, was charged with attempting to shoot Gardaí arresting Mallon, but she was acquitted due to lack of identification.

But if Government and security forces were embarrassed by the cheeky break-out - it seemed inspirational for the Provo's and in January 1974 a close associate of Mallon's, Eddie Gallagher along with Dr. Rose Dugdale hijacked another helicopter in Donegal to bomb the RUC station in Strabane from the air. The milk-churn bombs never exploded. Dugdale got away and went on to take part in the theft of the Beit Paintings from Russborough House in Wicklow after which she was arrested and jailed. Gallagher too was subsequently Jailed but not for long as within 10 months of the Mountjoy escape in August 1974 19 Republican prisoners blasted their way out of Portlaoise prison using old fashioned gelignite. 2 of the 19 escapees were Kevin Mallon and Eddie Gallagher.

The Coalition Government's law and order reputation was in tatters - Nationwide manhunts yielded nothing, the whereabouts of the escaped prisoners baffled the Gardaí and army.

But when Dermot Hegarty released a song called 'The Nineteen Men' it topped the Irish charts 3 weeks - just like the Helicopter song of the year before - maybe the republican movement had more support in the south than the Cosgrave Government liked to believe.

Kevin Mallon was recaptured in January 1975 and he was sent back to Portlaoise. J.B O'Hagan had also been recaptured at this point. But there was to be another twist in this bizarre tale. Later in 1975 Eddie Gallagher and Marion Coyle kidnapped Dutch industrialist Dr. Tiede Herrema in Limerick and held him captive in a house in St. Evin's Park, Monasterevin. Their demands the release of 3 prisoners in exchange for Herrema's life. Kevin Mallon, Gallagher's old ally and Coyle's mentor, Dr. Rose Dugdale who was Gallagher's girlfriend and the mother of his child, and James Hyland. They weren't successful and after one of the longest sieges in the history of the state - Dr Herrema was released unharmed. Eddie Gallagher and Marion Coyle subsequently received long prison sentences.

After 4 years on the run, the third man in the helicopter lift from Mountjoy - Seamus Twomey, was arrested in December 1977 after a high-speed chase through Dublin.

Prison Break - 1970's Irish style.

Presenter/Reporter Garry Mac Donncha
Producer/Director Seán Ó Méalóid

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