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  • Writer's pictureFriends of Sinn Féin USA

The Greatest Escape

Long Kesh prisoners who took part in the 1983 escape SUNDAY 25th August 1983 thirty-eight IRA prisoners broke out of Long Kesh Prison. It remains one of the greatest prison breaks of all time. It is even more remarkable as it took place two years after the hunger strikes that left 10 prisoners dead. At that time PM Margaret Thatcher said that the IRA had played its last card in the most secure prison in Europe. She was wrong and the prisoners were determined to demonstrate that they remained unbowed and unbroken. At 2:15pm on the 25th of September, three IRA prisoners, carrying concealed pistols fitted with silencers and which had been smuggled into the prison, moved into the central administration area of H-Block 7 on the pretext of cleaning out a store. They were joined by four others who took up key positions covering prison officers (or ‘Screws’, as the prisoners called them) stationed beside alarm buttons. Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane (IRA Officer Commanding in the H-Blocks during the Hunger Strike) was allowed through two locked gates on cleaning duties; his job was to arrest the prison officer there.

When a signal was given, the IRA prisoners overpowered and arrested all the Screws, whose uniforms were then donned by a number of the prisoners. Complete control of H-Block 7 was gained when ‘Bik’ McFarlane, with two prisoners dressed as Screws, arrested the officer on duty at the front gate enclosure. When the food lorry arrived, 37 prisoners climbed into the back while the 38th lay on the floor of the cab, covering the driver with a gun. The food lorry was then driven through a series of security gates in full view of prison guards and British Army watchtowers. (The use of the food lorry led to the most memorable wall slogan celebrating the escape: “Open up the Long Kesh gate – Meals on wheels for 38!”)

The lorry arrived at a first ‘tally hut’, where the plan was to take control, arrest all the Screws, leave prisoners in charge and drive the lorry on to the front gate ‘tally hut’ and then out of the prison to freedom. However, there was a larger number of Screws than anticipated at the first hut, where others were coming on and off duty; the escapers could not control them all and the alarm was raised.

Unfortunately a prisoner officer would later die of a heart attack following the struggle to escape. Now unable to use the lorry, the prisoners made a dash for freedom across the fields, some of them commandeering vehicles. Of the 38 prisoners who broke out, 19 were recaptured but 19 got clean away.

A number of the 19 escapees later died on active service with the IRA. Some made it to the US while others were extradited back to prison in the Six Counties. The escape remains one of the most significant IRA operations of the entire conflict. Thatcher described it as “the gravest in our prison history”.

Lord Colville, a senior British judicial figure, had to admit: “One cannot fail to admire the competence of an organization which enables the prisoners of war to bring to fruition an escape plan which, apart from last-minute calamities, was largely successful.”

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