Illuminations: The Escape from Lincoln Jail

By J. Michael Finn

At the end of the Easter Rebellion in May 1916, hundreds of Irish were imprisoned by the British. In December 1916, due to pressure from Irish-America, most of the imprisoned Republicans were granted amnesty and sent back to Ireland.

Republican political structures in Ireland after the Rising were in disarray. The only viable political organization at the time was Sinn Féin, the political party, founded by Arthur Griffith.

The returning prisoners were dedicated to the concept of achieving an independent republic and they began to join Sinn Féin. Meanwhile, Michael Collins reorganized the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood and reconstituted the armed Irish Volunteers, who now became known as the Irish Republican Army.

In 1917, Eamon de Valera was elected president of Sinn Féin (Shinn Fane), with Arthur Griffith serving as vice president. By early 1918, Sinn Féin became the visible moral force political division of republicanism, while the IRA became the physical force division.

The “German Plot” was a bogus conspiracy that the British administration claimed existed between Sinn Féin and the German Empire in May 1918. According to the government, the two were conspiring to start an armed insurrection in Ireland during World War I, which would have diverted the British war effort. The British used these claims to order the internment without trial of Sinn Féin leaders.

The British never produced any credible evidence of the made-up “German Plot.” Irish nationalists generally view the “German Plot” as a black propaganda project to discredit the Sinn Féin movement.

Harry Boland to Michael Collins
One of Collins’s spies gave the information about the pending arrests to Harry Boland. Boland passed the information along to Michael Collins, who told the cabinet. Éamon de Valera, the president of Sinn Féin, advised that the members should all remain at home that night.

The arrests that followed on May 17-18, 1918 included 73 Sinn Féin leaders, among them Éamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith, Maud Gonne MacBride, Countess de Markievicz, and Darrell Figgis. Those arrested were interned without trial in various jails in England. Many of those arrested ran for Parliamentary office in the election of 1918, despite being in prison.

The all-Ireland election was held December 14, 1918. When the votes were counted, Sinn Féin had won 73 of the 105 seats in Parliament. As they had pledged, the Sinn Féin candidates all refused to take their seats in Parliament and instead established an all-Ireland government, recognized as the first Dáil Éireann (Doil Erin).

When the First Dáil convened on January 21, 1919, thirty-four of its members were in British prisons. Someone answered the roll as “present” for two members who were not there. Michael Collins and Harry Boland were on a boat headed to England to plan a prison break that would free Éamon de Valera from Lincoln Jail.

Lincoln Jail was an English prison, built in 1872 and located in Lincoln, England. Up until 1919 was considered “escape proof.” Collins and Boland were tasked with freeing three men from the imposing Lincoln Jail:  Éamon de Valera, then president of Sinn Féin; Séan Milroy, a journalist and IRA member; and Séan McGarry, president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. All three were important to the Irish cause, particularly De Valera, who Collins saw as the potential leader of the coming War of Independence.

De Valera
The plan of escape was sung to de Valera through a window in his cell by a fellow Irish inmate (it was sung in Irish to confuse the guards). The first song told him of the route of escape, and a second gave him instructions to obtain a copy of the master-key for the prison. De Valera used his position as an altar server at Masses in the prison chapel to make a mold of the Chaplain’s key using candle wax. The mold was smuggled out of the prison and brought to Collins, who had a duplicate key made and smuggled back into prison baked in a cake.

The first and second attempt failed to produce a workable key. Finally, a blank key and files were smuggled in baked in a fruit cake. An inmate, Peter de Loughry, had worked as a locksmith and was able to make exact copies of the prison master key.

At approximately 7:40 pm on February 3, 1919, De Valera, McGarry and Milroy freed themselves from their cells using the keys. The escapees then covertly made their way to the prison exercise yard, dodging the spotlights.

Oddly enough, there was an unused back gate to the prison. On the other side of the gate were Michael Collins and Harry Boland. They had arrived after cutting through barbed wire in a nearby field.

Michael Collins tried to open the lock on the gate with his own key but it snapped off in the lock. Luckily, De Valera was able to use his key to push out the broken key and unlock it.  The rusted gate many a horrible noise, but, fortunately, the guards were not alerted. The prisoners closed the gate behind them and the five men hurried down the street.

After a short walk, they arrived at the Adam and Eve pub, where a taxi was waiting to whisk the five men on to Worksop in Nottinghamshire. Collins and Boland left the group at Worksop and went on to London. Another friendly cab took the three former prisoners to Sheffield and then on to safe houses in Manchester.

The prison authorities were perplexed as to how the escape happened and despite issuing detailed descriptions of the escaped men, there were no clues as to their whereabouts. After the escape, De Valera was reportedly spotted in a number of false locations, including Scotland, Paris, London, and Ireland.  He actually remained in Manchester until his return to Ireland.

De Valera was smuggled back to Dublin on February 20, 1919, and secretly hidden in the gate lodge of Archbishop William Walsh’s house in Drumcondra with the cooperation of the archbishop’s secretary, Monsignor Michael Curran.

De Valera suddenly left around March 3, 1919. His stay was not detected by the authorities (or the archbishop) and he managed to carry out his duties and business with relative ease. On March 10, 1919, all remaining Sinn Féin members interned in England since May 1918 were released by the British, having served 10 months without trial.

On April 1, 1919, De Valera was elected President of the First Dáil. He then made the controversial decision to visit the United States. His 19 month visit lasted from June 1919 until December 1920, where he set out the Irish War of Independence and managed to generate serious division within the Irish-American community.

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also past Chairman and Life Member of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected]


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