100 YEARS AGO: Seán Mac Eoin escape attempts

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2021), Volume 29

By Joseph E.A. Connell

 

Above: Seán Mac Eoin on his wedding day, 21 June 1922.

Seán Mac Eoin, commander of the Longford ‘flying column’, one of the IRA’s most effective, was imprisoned in Mountjoy Prison in March 1921 and thereafter Michael Collins devised several attempts to free him. The first was when Collins had a friendly priest see Mac Eoin, and in the middle of an anti-IRA tirade the priest surreptitiously informed Mac Eoin that Collins had sent him. A plan was passed to have Mac Eoin escape with help from IRA Volunteers dressed as British warders but he was transferred before the plan could be executed. Next, Collins sent a female doctor, Brighid Lyons, to see Mac Eoin, and she passed him plans of the prison’s layout:

‘A warder—sometimes an armed Auxiliary—was present all during the meeting. We had to talk double-talk or pass the odd vital word very quietly. I usually had a handwritten note between my fingers and I managed to slip that to him, and collect his note, when I first went in or was about to leave.’

The most ambitious was on 14 May 1921, when Emmet Dalton, in his British Army uniform, commandeered an armoured car and attempted to break Mac Eoin out. The ‘schedule’ at Mountjoy had Mac Eoin in the warden’s office at the appointed time on a daily basis, but on that day the schedule was changed and he was in the infirmary. Paddy Daly outlined the plan:

‘Some time in April 1921 word came to us from Mick Lynch, OC of the Fingal Brigade and superintendent of the Corporation abattoir on the North Circular Road, that an armoured car called at the abattoir every morning. … Michael Collins was endeavouring to get Seán Mac Eoin out of Mountjoy, and probably held up the capture of the car until plans were complete to bring off the double. Emmet Dalton and myself were to be dressed as British officers and would be in possession of a release or transfer order for Seán Mac Eoin. Emmet Dalton was to do all the talking as he had good experience, being an ex-British army officer. Arrangements were made for Mac Eoin to find some cause to have an interview with the governor every morning at ten o’clock and to delay over the interview and in the passage as much as possible. We hoped Mac Eoin would actually be in the office when the car would arrive. As we waited outside, time seemed to be hanging on our hands … I saw Joe Leonard and Emmet Dalton coming out of the prison into the yard and Joe Leonard picked up a rifle. I then saw Joe going down on one knee, taking a shot … Then he stood up quite coolly and vaulted into the back of the armoured car and we drove out of Mountjoy, Joe shouting to me “No luck”.’

All attempts to rescue Mac Eoin failed. When the truce came in July 1921 he was still a prisoner. On the night of 13 July, two days after the truce went into effect, Collins visited him with Dr Lyons, who had requested a visit for herself and ‘James Gill’. Collins told Mac Eoin that he would be out before any negotiations proceeded. He was eventually released in August 1921.

Joseph E.A. Connell Jr is the author of The shadow war: Michael Collins and the politics of violence (Eastwood Books).

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