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THE ESCAPE FROM NEWBRIDGE BARRACKS

 
Leinster Leader, December 31st 1927
 
The Escape from Newbridge Barracks
 
The National movement from 1916 up to the Anglo-Irish agreement provided many instances of escape from prison, and left the general public fairly conversant with the many stratagems and devices adopted by the imprisoned prisoners, to secure their liberty, but in many respects the escape of a large number from Newbridge Military Barracks during the civil war was unique in the history of such happenings. The inner history of that escape has not been told before and it is now, without any indication to the identity of individuals.
 The escapes from Newbridge were remarkable for the fact that there was no outside co-operation. The plan originated and was carried through by certain of the prison leaders who had served long apprenticeships in prison under the British regime and were by way of being experts in such matters-and the further remarkable feature that the escapes constituted the longest subterranean effort ever made by Irish prisoners in search of liberty. Another remarkable feature of the escapes was that a large number of prisoners got away the first night and their absence was successfully covered up throughout the following day and a further batch of prisoners escaped the second night. This achievement was all the more remarkable when it is considered that the prison authorities had adopted the usual precaution of placing touts amongst the prisoners in order that “inside information” might be available to them.
 There were over a thousand prisoners in Newbridge Barracks, many having arrived there from the prison ship “Arvonia” which was at anchor a few miles off Dun Laoghaire Harbour. There over 700 prisoners were confined in half the steerage portion of the vessel. Food was lacking, one meal in twenty-four hours being a lucky chance even though the meal consisted of a small quantity of tea and dry bread. Sanitary accommodation was nil, prisoners slept where they could and altogether the experience was one which will not be easily erased from the memory of those who experienced it. Danger of an epidemic brought a transfer, some of the prisoners going to Gormanstown and some to Newbridge, and in both cases the change was a welcome one. The diet in Newbridge left much to be desired, but there was at least an absence of the rolling and tossing of the “Arvonia” the luxury of a good wash and a bed to lie upon.
 It was not long until the active minds amongst the leaders were busy with plans of escape. Many plans were discussed and rejected. It was noticed that the sewer traps ran in a line across the quadrangle by the married quarters in the direction of the Liffey which flows near the barrack. Thus, argued some of the conspirators, there must be an outlet for the river therefore if we get to the sewer we have a chance of escape. A contra argument was that the end of the sewer would be under water, but this was countered by the argument than an exit could be made earlier and an old building on the bank of the Liffey in a direct line with the sewer traps was pointed to as likely to afford cover. Of course the possibility of escape by this means might have been foreseen and precautions taken by the prison authorities, but it was decided to take the gamble in the absence of a better plan. The prisoners were housed in the buildings beneath the clock tower, a distance of about five hundred yards, from the river, and thus the magnitude of the task undertaken can well be realised.
 A start was made by the group in the ground floor of a block near the tower. Direct descent into the sewer was not possible and it was found that a tunnel of approximately 30 feet in length would have to be cut in order to connect with the sewer. The line of the sewer in the vicinity of the buildings could only be guessed at. Nothing daunted the chosen few commenced the formidable task. With a saw manufactured from a dinner knife a square of flooring was cut from beneath one of the trestle beds. Carefully trimmed and with the marks of cutting erased, the square fitted into place and defied detection. With a pointed porker as a pick and a fire shovel the work was quickly underway, a careful watch being kept on the movements of the guards. The loose earth was disposed of beneath the floor of the room. As the work progressed it was rendered less liable to detection as the loose flooring was replaced during operations. Day after day progress was made, with many narrow escapes from discovery as frequently some of the guards were in the room, whilst the “miners” were at work beneath the floor. The task was a well nigh super-human one; but nevertheless the day came when it was successfully achieved and the sewer was located and penetrated.
Troubles were far from ended, however, with the penetration of the sewer. The air was so foul that it was found impossible to explore for about a week. One hardy adventurer who entered the sewer was violently ill for some days. Then there arose the difficulty of finding the correct route in a network of sewers. One of the explorers was lost for the best part of a day in his attempt to find his way back. Difficulty after difficulty was overcome in the most marvellous way. Not alone was the correct route discovered but deep in the earth, five hundred yards from the only exit, a way out was cut from the sewer through the floor of the building on the banks of the Liffey. The National movement has been responsible for many remarkable achievements, but none more remarkable for tenacity of purpose and determination to succeed than the achievement of the men who opened the way for the escapes from Newbridge.
   One fine night there was a swift exodus and a large number of the prisoners made a successful get away. The day following was one of high tension as those in the know endeavoured to cover the absence of their comrades. Many inquiries had been made for prisoners who were amongst the absentees and towards evening it was obvious that vague suspicions were aroused. With dark it was decided to rush another batch for freedom and at this period a search party of military had actually entered the square. Soon a further batch of prisoners were on the way.
 The lifting of the flooring revealed a dark pit into which one dropped, “Feet first”, a voice whispered and guided ones foot to a hole in the side of the pit. Feet first and face upwards one wriggled along until his feet found an opening in the floor of the tunnel. “Drop your feet and turn them backwards” whispered the same voice, and one found that the feet rested in about twelve inches of water, and having successfully wriggled the rest of the body through, found that further progress had to be made on hands and knees and that broken bottles, tins etc. did not tend to make the journey easier. Holding the heel of the man in front and similarly held by the man following progress was made was slow in the pitch darkness and the journey appeared well night interminable. The “swish swish” of the water and the heavy breathing of the men broke the silence which was enjoined on all, save when some unlucky one made unexpected contact with some sharp obstacle.
   “Talk about Lough Derg,” muttered a disgruntled voice in the rear, and a titter of laughter was sharply suppressed. And so on and on. “Pass back word for silence. Passing under the grating” came from in front and was duly passed on. At last came an order, “Up here,” and one found the ground rising and the water was left behind. “Through here,” and still a further opening-this time through a floor. Then quickly came the orders-“You are in the house on the bank of the river. There is an armed guard on the bridge. When the door is opened don’t walk but roll down the slope to the river and across. Don’t make noise or you’ll be under machine gun fire. Good luck. Make your way as best you can.” The door is opened. The lights from the bridge shine faintly on the river and one catches a fleeting glimpse of figures moving about there. Behind, the barracks we have left is outlined in electric lights. A quick roll down the slope and into the water which feels very cold. Dim figures are beside you, but no one speaks. To be caught in the river would be fatal. The opposite bank at last. Quickly way is made up the slope to a fence which you grasp and pull yourself over. The fence is barbed wire, but one does not discover the fact until later the condition of your hands reminds you of it. At last-filthy from contact with the sewer-wet from the immersion in the river, bleeding from hands and knees, but free, we make our way across the fields determined to increase the distance between ourselves and our late domicile. It is about half an hour later when an outburst of gun-fire tells us the escapes have been discovered and that soon the searchers will be on our track. But at last we are free and determined to remain so.

The Leinster Leader of December 1927 recalls how a large number of Republican prisoners escaped from Newbridge Barracks during the civil war. Our thanks to Roy O'Brien


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