On November 11th, 1918, the Great War ended. On December 14th, the people of Ireland (along with the rest of the UK) went to the polls in a general election which saw Sinn Féin sweep to victory, winning 73 of the 105 Irish seats. On January 21st, 1921, the First Dáil met for the first time, reaffirming the Republic and appealing for international recognition, while on the same day an ambush at Soloheadbeg in Tipperary signalled the first stirrings of the War of Independence.
And Éamon de Valera, the leading political figure in Ireland, missed it all.
Along with most of the Sinn Féin leadership, he had been arrested in May 1918 on trumped up charges of conspiring with Germany, and he remained in Lincoln Prison even after the surrender of the enemy he had supposedly been plotting with.
Not having been sentenced, the prisoners enjoyed a relatively relaxed regime in Lincoln – de Valera managed to get a typewriter and a gramophone for his cell. But he became restless, fearing one thing above everything else: that the British would release him before he had a chance to stage a dramatic propaganda coup by escaping.
The Christmas card
De Valera had volunteered to act as an altar boy, and noticed that the priest was rather careless with his keys; he took the opportunity to take a wax impression of the master key, and then arranged for a cartoon Christmas card to be sent back to Dublin.
This showed an inebriated fellow prisoner holding a large key corresponding to the wax impression of the master key, with the slogan 1917: He can't get in! along with a picture of him in his cell, with a large keyhole, again with the exact dimensions of the locks in Lincoln, with the caption 1918: He can’t get out!
Once the meaning was deciphered in Dublin, a number of keys were cut and smuggled into Lincoln inside cakes. None of them worked, because the cartoon dimensions were slightly off. Finally a cake was sent with a blank key and files, and fellow prisoner, Peter de Loughrey, a locksmith, managed to fashion a key that opened every door in the prison.
On the night of 3 February, Michael Collins and Harry Boland waited outside Lincoln Prison for de Valera and two fellow prisoners to appear. They managed to sneak as far as the final door, where Collins managed to break his own key in the lock. Luckily, de Valera managed to push the broken part out and open the door. A relay of taxis took the fugitives to Manchester.
And then the rumours began to pour in: he was spotted in a Catholic church in Scotland; he was on a train in France, dressed as a priest; he was on his way to Spain; he was even reported to be dead.
Where's De Valera?
In a forerunner of the popular Where’s Wally? puzzles of later years, The Shamrock magazine invited readers to find de Valera amidst the squiggles on a map of the British Isles and France. Once the manhunt had subsided a week later, he was brought to Liverpool and smuggled aboard a ship, arriving back in Dublin at 1 a.m. on February 20th.
De Valera’s jailbreak became the stuff of legend, and was a massive propaganda coup for Irish republicans. Once the rest of the German Plot prisoners were released, and he was under no danger of rearrest, he appeared in public in Dublin, was elected President of the Dáil, and named a Government.
But it wasn’t long before he was on his travels again, to once again bring the Irish message to a wider audience – this time in America.