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The Sunday Press, April 15 1951

Mountains were our safeguard

Seamus O’Connor and his Republican comrades in arms were captured in July 1922. After imprisonment in Limerick Jail they were shipped to Dun Laoghaire and then imprisoned in Newbridge, where they immediately start into tunnelling:
Everything had to be done neatly. There were periodic inspections for tunnels. All operations were kept as secret as possible in case of spying. We agreed that whichever tunnel was through first would be made available to the other teams, so that all could escape at the same time.
After a few weeks we got word that one was ready. The escape was planned for that night. Newbridge was an old cavalry barracks. There was a large manhole in the square. It was connected with an old main sewer. The authorities had shown nervousness about this, thus drawing attention to its possibilities. The sewer ran right through the centre block, into the Liffey about 300 yards away. The tunnel was dug from a ground floor room into the sewer.
Each block of four rooms was self-contained and each room held nearly twenty men. Word was passed to everybody who knew of the tunnel. No person could leave his block, by order on penalty of being fired on by the sentries. At about seven each night a whistle was blown and each man had to withdraw from the square to (presumably) his own block until morning. There was no check afterwards, however, on the occupants of each block.
The tunnel was not in our block and a few minutes before whistle time we got ready to move in silently to the escape block. A message was however passed to us that the escape had been postponed until the following night. When the whistle blew we went to our own rooms.
The following morning whilst in bed somebody whispered in my ear that 70 men had escaped. It was true. The information given to us at the critical moment the night before was wrong. We moved into the empty escape room and took it over.
The authorities knew nothing of the escape. It was in our favour that the day was Sunday. The prisoners here, as in Limerick, also looked after themselves. The soldiers merely acted as guards on the outside.
On Sunday usually, there was little or no connection between them and us. Before an hour, the escape was known to all the prisoners. It was made clear, however – with the aid of butchers’ knives from the cookhouse – that drastic measures would be taken against anybody trying to pass out information. As it happened, no information was passed out.
We knew nothing of the working of this tunnel – all who did were gone. A wiry, diminutive lad – Hussey of Killarney – was selected to make an inspection that morning. He came back, leaving his shoes outside – perhaps that he would have an excuse of going out for them again, or to prove that he had made the journey.
We decided to escape that night. We found it would be impossible to get away by day. And now we had a bit of trouble. We prisoners had our own commanding officer. He now approached us and claimed the right to take over control, as he was anxious that a batch of key Dublinmen would escape first. We very reluctantly agreed on condition that ours should be the second batch.
When the whistle blew in the evening for everybody to go to their blocks, there were up to two hundred men in the escape block. We waited. An hour passed. We wondered what was delaying the first party. They were patiently waiting in a ring round the tunnel entrance in the escape room.
At last the O/C called for attention. It was now about 8.30. The escape was called on, he said. He had definite information, he said, that there was an armoured car outside with machine guns trained on the mouth of the tunnel. Naturally and very correctly, of course, he refused to be responsible for sending unarmed men to their deaths. After the order his men fell back from round the coveted spot. We edged in and took their places. At that moment we felt responsible to no-one but to our individual selves. Turning to them I said “Are we going to drop it?” There was no doubt about their “No”. I lifted the neat square board that covered the hole, and threw it aside – the bed underneath which it was hidden had already been moved earlier that night. Hussey, the guide, went first, and each of us who had elected to come followed him.
After about a dozen feet, we got into the sewer. We were able to crawl without difficulty on our hands and knees. The distance seemed long. It seemed to take over an hour. The noise made by the crawling line – about 25 of us – seemed very loud. We passed under a sentry box. It seemed almost incredible that he could not hear us.
Tom O’Brien had a new blue suit on. Earlier in the night he had carefully wound a cloth round the legs to preserve it. He was after me, I kept asking him how his suit was. It was unnecessary to ask.The knees of our trousers were soon worn through, and then the skin began to come off at the knees and palms.
There was a disused sawmill on the bank of the river. The sewer passed beneath it. The architects of the tunnel knew their geography well and they bored right up into the mill house. The entrance to the river had been blocked with iron bars by the Free State authorities. We waited to give a helping hand until all were up. We decided that five of us should make the first attempt to cross the river – the others to wait until they were sure that everything was in order, and then come as they wished.
We crawled out in single file, turned to the right along the bank for a hundred yards, in order to avoid going too close to where we knew there was an outpost, and then struck straight across the river. The river was high enough to cleanse us after the sewer. O’Brien carried his cigarettes and matches in safety under his cap. Suddenly a light shone down on us, along the river. We froze, crouching where we were, expectantly. It slowly lifted, turned aside, and passed on. It was probably the light of a car travelling the Naas road.
We climbed a steep bank on the other side, into a large field. Then we were free.
Never again do I hope to experience the exultation I felt going up that field – the joy of being free.
When we reached the top of the field, we were together. Suddenly from behind, I heard my first name called. I waited. A young lad came running up, 15-years-old Tully O’Sullivan of Tralee. He asked me to take him with us.
Thinking he would be too great a liability to us and to himself I advised him to go back and link up with another party. He pleaded and I consented. Just then another figure loomed up. Nash from Newcastle West. He like O’Sullivan had also stolen after us, and he pleaded to be allowed accompany us. He had been wounded previously and on that account, perhaps we consented.
We were now seven. Besides Allman and Hussey, there were two Dublin lads, Tom O’Brien already mentioned, and Jimmy Kenny. Kenny was in the Fianna in Easter Week with Pearse and had been in charge of the 4th Batt., Dublin Brigade, for some time. O’Brien had seen a good deal of service. We had shared the same room, and I had previously initiated them into the

*** … with a view of our going to Dublin. In return they were to supply us with arms there

***… picked out a star which we thought lay over Dublin, and

*** … us glowed the huge wall of light, forming a ring of death in the barbed wire around the camp.
We didn’t bless the whitethorn hedges – favoured by the farmers in Kildare and Dublin – through we had to force our way.
After about an hour we heard continuous bursts of gunfire coming from the direction of the camp. We knew the escape had been discovered. We later learned that one party of escapees – not the one that came with us – had been caught under fire. We heard afterwards that some were killed and wounded. One wounded man, swept down the river, got into a friendly house and escaped. Some went back through the sewer again. We heard also that one went astray in a smaller offshoot and got stuck there.
There were Free State posts at Naas and Blessington. It was important that we go between them. Our star carried us right through. When daylight came we approached a house for food. The poor woman had no bread. She baked us a cake on the griddle. We ate and rested in a nearby wood until nightfall.

*** … the village of Brittas. Somebody had a half crown. We bought a few bottles of stout and set out again by road.
Shortly after leaving the village, we met four officers on a sidecar – probably from the aerodrome at Tallaght!  They looked at us, and we looked at them. They said nothing and passed on. We thought they must suspect us and might organise a search party. We took to the fields again.
Then Allman hurt his knee crossing a fence. We could go no further. We looked for the light of a house, but could see none. We came on a field of hay left out to feed sheep or cattle for the winter. We made a bed in a dry dyke and slept until morning.
That day we got into Rathfarnham. The two Dublin lads and I slept for a week in a loft of a cow byre. The other four found refuge – through the help of a friendly priest in a barn. The gardener supplied food. They were closeted at hand for a week, as they had to remain, as they had to remain there until Allman’s knee was better.
Then one bright Thursday afternoon, armed with one service rifle, three Webley revolvers, a bottle of iodine and some bandages and a very good map of Ireland we turned our faces to the South, out by the Hell Fire Club, down across the Dublin Mountains on our journey home. There were five of us: Allman, Hussey, Nash, O’Sullivan and myself (four Kerrymen, one from Limerick).
As we came off the mountains on the road near Glencree we heard the sound of a bugle call. We immediately took cover in a ditch, and sent young O’Sullivan forward to investigate. Being young he was not likely to be suspected. He reported back that it was a Reformatory, run by a religious order – on semi-military lines, I presume, hence the bugle.
We knocked at the door and asked for our dinner. The Superior was called and we could see that he did not like our appearance. We had to certify that our arms were for defence only (like all great nations do).
He admitted us and provided us with a very fine dinner. He didn’t seem to like our side. It was dusk when we left Glencree, and followed a grass grown road made to subjugate Michael O’Dwyer, many miles long and wide, running through a huge glen. We were tired and there was no house except the broken-down block houses sight. That night we slept under a large overhanging rock. The night was cold and there were showers of sleet. It was the end of October.
We had no overcoats and our summer clothing was thin and scanty. (We from Kerry had no connection with our homes since capture). Some of us had no shirts. They had worn out in prison, and we had made ourselves instead a sort of long undergarment, from army blankets. We slept fitfully through a very long night, huddled on top of each other, for warmth.
At daybreak, we found we were only a short distance from a house surrounded by trees. It looked big, and we suspected a military post, as we had one marked on our map in the locality. We spread out and closed in cautiously.

*** … carded slings were scattered in the open hall. The soldiers had been there and had gone.
We knocked up the caretaker – it was a shooting lodge. He lit a fire and we thawed out. He made a huge container of tea and gave us all the bread he had - not much. He said he had to bring the flour six miles from Laragh on his back.
After a few hours we set out again, keeping as far as possible to the mountains. It was safer that way. To us, mountains were a natural safeguard. They had always been our main chance of survival. We made straight for Mount Leinster, up a sheep track, over the top and down near Borris-in–Ossory.
From there straight to Slievenamon and then to the Galtees. Rivers were a difficulty – bridges are usually on or near town, and they were occupied. We forded the Slaney, and crossed the Barrow by boat. We approached the Nore about a mile underneath Thomastown and were shown a ford. It was in flood and looked high and wide.
As we sought a place to cross, we saw a party of soldiers on the other side. They saw us and retreated towards Thomastown – we guessed for reinforcements.
We had no alternative now. We got into the water and crossed. Here young O’Sullivan was nearly drowned. He was being carried off when somebody pulled him out by the hair.
We slept in outhouses, stables, in the kitchens of farm labourers’ houses. Somehow, they understood human needs and frailties better than their richer neighbours. We developed an amazing brand of lice. Their quantity and quality in such a comparatively short time was truly phenomenal.
Once (in Carlow), we approached a very large residence for our dinner. The owner had a title of some sort, and we wanted to give him a chance to atone for some of the sins of his ancestors by contributing something to the Republic. He took us into a parlour, and produced a bottle of whiskey. He probably suspected who we were, because he showed us a newspaper which gave account of the big Newbridge escape.
His good lady assisted the maids to wait on us, and presented us with a towel and soap on our departure. We found the offer slightly embarrassing.
So far we hadn’t met any of our own, and when we did it nearly proved our undoing. We went astray on the Galtees, and instead of going west we turned north into the glen of Aherlow. We struck on a Republican doing sentry duty for a Column, east of Galbally. We met the members of the Column (McCormack’s) in nearby farm-houses and were entertained royally.
A horse and cart was provided to take us to some place near Ballylanders, where we slept in real beds. There was a Free State post in Galbally who must have heard of our location. The following morning we were forced to flee our bed by news of an approaching Free State party. We lay all that day in a

*** …We made a vow that we would not rest in bed again till we reached home in Kerry.
It was Saturday night at 7 o’clock when we started out again on the last lap. We met a rabbit trapper and we pressed him into our service. He took us out of the mountains and put us on the road.
We went on by Milford, Broadford, skirted around Charleville, which was occupied. Travelling all night, we arrived in Tullylease in County Cork about 11 o’clock, and we met the people as they were coming out from Mass.We parted with Nash at Rockchapel.
At Brosna (Kerry), we said good-bye to Hussey and Pat Allman. We were to meet again. In Pat I was reminded of what I had read was not yet 20, and was then of Red Hugh O’Donnell. He was not yet 20, and was then a Battalion Commander. He had already shown before his capture, and was later to prove himself a born leader and a very brave man.
Even his fine physique could not save him, however. In four years he was dead from much hardship and many wounds.
Now young O’Sullivan and I were alone. We had about eight miles to go. Towards the end it was becoming difficult to bring him along. At every fence he stopped and wanted as he said , “to lie down and die.”
At about one o’clock on Monday morning we reached home – Knocknagoshel, a little hill-top village beyond the Cork-Kerry-Limerick border. I knocked on the house of a friend, Charlie O’Donoghue. He got up, opened the door. He passed no remark, motioned us to sit down. He put the fire together and hung an oven. He sliced the bacon. He made the tea. We ate and went to bed.
To-morrow was another day. If we had only known it, what had happened was but a very little episode of what was to come- all part of the uneasy pangs of a nation being born.


In an article from The Sunday Press of April 15 1951 Seamus O’Connor recounts the 1922 escape from Newbridge Barracks. Retyped by Aisling Dermody

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