The Tunnel Escape from Kilkenny Gaol 1921
Eamonn Kiely (2015)
The Kilkenny People, commenting on the escape of IRA prisoners from Kilkenny Gaol on 22nd November 1921, advised on the possibility of a future Channel Tunnel that the contractor should get in touch with Larry Condon of Fermoy and Martin Kealy of Kilkenny and their comrades. What they do not know about constructing tunnels is not worth knowing, and they will refuse to be hampered by consideration of an eight hour day.
Jim Maher, our local Kilkenny historian has described in great detail the preparations for and the execution of a daring escape by prisoners, two of whom were under death sentences. They were Edward Punch and Timothy Murphy of Limerick. The fact that the Truce was signed in July was no guarantee of their lives being saved. It could break down at any time. The Treaty when signed in December resulted in the fall of the British Government and a Civil War in Ireland.
A friendly warder named Power was privy to the prisoner’s plan of escape. When he was on duty a considerable amount of tunnelling was done. A cellar existed below the recreation room. The prisoners cut a manhole through the floor to gain access and of course covered the hole with timber. From the cellar they managed to get to the soft earth and began tunnelling. The work was done mostly at night. Knives and pointed fire irons were used to loosen the earth. The soil was then removed in sacks made of the prisoners’ blankets. Later on the loose earth was taken from the tunnel in a large flat pan attached to a rope. About 8 tons of earth was removed in the process. It was deposited in the disused cellar.
The tunnel was 50 yds in length and almost 6 feet deep under the ground. It exited alongside the foundation of the outer wall. The tunnel had to have props or it would collapse. Bed boards fulfilled this function. The exit to the tunnel was about 3 feet wide and came up in St Rioch’s Street. When completed it was decided the escape should happen on Warden Power’s watch. To cover his collusion in the matter he was trussed and gagged and left in a cell.
Larry Condon, although leader of the escape party offered first position to the patriot priest Fr Delahunty. He declined saying he would only go after the men who were sentenced to death and the lifers. Larry Condon entered the tunnel at 6.40 pm on 22 November and successfully negotiated the tunnel. He remained outside the gaol and helped each succeeding escapee up out of the hole. They were all muddied and wearing very little clothing – their boots draped by their laces round their neck. Maurice Walsh of Limerick was last into the tunnel and unfortunately it collapsed ahead of him causing him to retreat into the prison. When he got back he was faced with armed soldiers sounding the alarm. Warden Power had been discovered.
In Rioch Street two locals helped the escapees. They were Paddy Donoughue and Matty Power – both either current or future Kilkenny hurling stars. Power’s daughter has spoken of what she learned of the escape in relatively recent times on Sunday Miscellany.
Aly Luttrell of Garryricken and Cumann Na mBan had previously been thrown a letter tied around a stone from the prison giving day and time of the proposed escape. Dunamaggin IRA arranged six ponies and traps to transport escapees. They were present on time . The escapees were taken South muddied but unbowed.
The heroic gaol breakers not already mentioned were Gerard Kenealy, Sean Power, James O’Hanrahan, Patrick Power, Thomas Brennan, William O’Leary, Michael Kirwan, Sean Quilter, Henry Meany, Edward Punch, Thomas McCarrick, Edward Balfe, W OMeara, Michael Burke, Sean O’Kelly, J Keogh, L Fraher, D Connolly, M Kearns, T Pine, Timothy Murphy, M Bourke, J J Keane, T Leonard, Jerry Ryan ( my sister’s god father). (E Kiely)
Since I delivered the above talk on KCLR on 27 February 2013 it has emerged that as many as forty seven prisoners may have escaped from Kilkenny Jail on the occasion. The first to raise the matter with me was Dan Lenehan who said his mother’s father Jim Pollock was one of the escapees. I checked this with historian Jim Maher, whose book The Kilkenny Flying Column, was the source of most of my information. Jim says that subsequent to his publishing the book someone from Cork, had raised the matter of Mr Pollock’s not being mentioned, with him. Jim informed me that he had spoken to a number of escapees and it was from them he compiled his list. If, as believed as many as forty seven escaped it is understandable that his list was not exhaustive. An article in an Eniscorthy newspaper of 29 January 2013 under the heading Ireland’s greatest ever Jail Break adverts to four men of that town who escaped; -E Balfe, M Kirwan, J Whelan and W O Leary. As you can see only J Whelan was not mentioned above. Other names mentioned in the article and not shown above are Joe O’Connor of Dublin, Bill Donoghue Carlow, Dave Gibbons Armagh, Willie Mac Namara of Clare, Tom Hyland of Laois and Mick Meaney of Down. It is possible the last named may be the Henry Meany mentioned above.
I regret that my talk did not include all the names of those who escaped and their contribution to the freedom of Ireland. Newspapers of the period that I have examined did not mention a complete list. Those of a nationalist bent would be afraid such publicity might have caused the men to be re-arrested especially if, as was likely, the Treaty negotiations broke down.