Life Learning

Friday 19 September 2014

Rolling back the years: October 1973

Damian Corless

Published 30/10/2013 | 21:30

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Plotting: Israeli army Major-General Ariel Sharon (right with bandaged head) confers with fellow general Haim Bar-Lev on October 17, 1973, over a map of the Sinai Desert during the Egyptian campaign of the Yom Kippur War

Tensions in the Middle East exploded on October 6 1973, when an alliance of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria launched an invasion of the Israeli-held Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Judaic calendar. A short war by any measure, the conflict ended with a ceasefire on October 25, with both sides resigned to stalemate and the need to sign up reluctantly to peace talks.

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For the Irish public, the knock-on effect of the war in the Middle East was the oil crisis, which began in mid-October when the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) declared an embargo of oil exports to countries which supported the state of Israel.

While Ireland had taken no stance on the conflict, this island was at the end of a very long supply line which suffered collateral damage.

The oil crisis hit hard and fast, putting a full stop on a decade of Irish economic boom. The Government drew-up plans for a three-day working week to conserve energy. Motorists queued for rationed petrol. RTE curtailed its nightly schedule to encourage people to go to bed early. Austerity was the order of the day.

The big news story of October 1973 was the audacious escape of three Republican prisoners from Dublin's Mountjoy Prison. At the end of the month a man giving his name as Paul Leonard, who claimed to be a movie producer, hired a whirlybird from Irish Helicopters based at Dublin Airport. He asked the pilot to land in a field at Stradbally, in County Laois, where two armed men emerged from some trees and told the pilot there was a change of plan. One of the hijackers instructed the pilot to fly to Mountjoy Prison. It was still bright when the helicopter set down in the exercise compound, where three Republican inmates were stretching their legs. Seamus Toomey, JP O'Hagan and Kevin Mallon hopped on board as the other prisoners formed a protective cordon around the aircraft, giving a loud cheer when it took off.

The prison staff seemed mesmerised by the whirring blades. One man visiting at the time reported: "Some of them shouted to the wardens to lock the main gate."

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