A sanctuary for Dermot
As a new film opens this week about the Maze prison jail break 34 years ago, Paul Deering speaks to escapee Dermot McNally who's lived in Sligo since
It was being planned for at least two years but Dermot McNally didn't know anything about a planned break-out from the Maze Prison until two days before it happened.
There was always a prison escape committee in place but its dealings were kept top secret. The more people that knew of the plans the more the risk of it being rumbled.
On September 25th 1983, 38 Republican or IRA prisoners escaped from what was once described as one of the most secure prisons in Western Europe through the commandeering of the prison food van.
It was a major embarrassment for the British Government led by Margaret Thatcher and came some two years after ten Republican prisoners had died on hunger strike in the prison.
Lurgan, County Armagh native, McNally serving a life sentence and a 20 year term for explosives and other offences imposed in 1977, was one of the escapees.
He was on the run for a few days, mainly hiding out in South Armagh, before heading for Sligo, where, he says, he was sheltered by several of its townspeople including some its leading business people.
"Sligo was very good to me. I love Sligo. I wouldn't say a bad word about it. I think the people of Sligo are fantastic. They kept me for years, not only me but other escapees like those who broke out from Crumlin Road prison in June 1981, all hidden here in Sligo, given beds and everything.
"Some of these people would have been very wealthy people, business people, some of them Fine Gael people, some of them Fianna Fáilers,
"Their whole lives could have been ruined if I'd have been captured in their house.
"I was able to stay under the radar because of people like that. And, there's a lot of those people still in this town today, running their businesses.
"At least I'm able to talk to them now without anyone passing any heed," he says.
He says he wasn't surprised by the fact so many were willing to provide him shelter.
"No, not in the sense because, believe it or not, it's in everybody, it just takes a certain thing to ignite it and I think the escape in itself ignited that. An Irishman loves to see people escaping from jail."
It wasn't a case of picking Sligo.
"That's not the way it works. I'd come down here, meet family, stay with people. It was a place where I could go out and have a pint without coming under suspicion.
"And, that's what I did and I met a local girl so I wasn't dependant on people like I was on putting me up all the time. We got a flat and I was able to stay with her. That broke my security right down. I was here for a few years before they even knew I was here.
"I was living openly then, I never hid then, I was married. I was on the dole at the time."
A film about the Maze prison escape starring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor of Love Hate fame, hits the cinema in Sligo this week and Dermot (60)says it was an experience that comes and goes in his mind.
"Sometimes it's very distant but most of the time....it's part of your life.
He'd been five and a half years on the blanket or dirty protest as Republican prisoners sought the reintroduction of special category status to allow them to wear their own clothes amongst other concessions such as free association and the right to refuse to do prison work.
The situation escalated to the hunger strikes of 1981 and McNally was one of those who signed up but a perforated ulcer meant he'd have died faster so he was ruled out.
"That would have been counter productive to what the hunger strikers wanted to achieve," he says.
"It was the only alternative we had. Our conditions were described as being worst that the sewers of Calcutta by Cardinal Tómas O'Fiach. Men were being brutally beaten on a daily basis at wing shifts, every time we were going on visits, every time there were cell searches.
"It was constant with different tactics being used in different blocks. The leadership within the jail made a decision that this could not continue. Bobby Sands was the OC before the Hunger Strikes. He says the Maze, formerly Long Kesh, was like a tinderbox in the weeks after Sands' death.
"It had become more than a prison issue, it was a political one and one of criminalisation," he says, adding "eventually, we got most of our concessions."
The planned escape had one draw back, no one knew the lay out of the prison. They needed a blueprint of the whole prison so they were constantly intelligence gathering.
Dermot says that the Republican movement was at a very low ebb at the time due to the impact of the Supergrass trials on the outside with "men and explosives being caught and safe houses raided."
A number of escape plans were put forward. with one in particular raising hopes.
"When you were sent to the punishment cells there was just one person in charge at night. It was also next door to the canteen which was next door to the main car park. The plan was to take over this block. That's where it all stemmed from. If we could get two men out why not forty by taking over a block?"
It took two and a half years to find out the layout of the prison. This was gathered by asking those going to the workshops, on visits, and going in and out of the hospitals outside to observe and not.
The reason H7 was picked was because it was across from H8 which was empty, there was no one even in the towers.
The escape plan involved the prison's food lorry. It was being used all the time around the prison and also for "nixers" by the prison officers so its movements wouldn't raise an eyebrow. Officers used playing cards as a form of pass from one security check to the next.
On the outside too it was one of the biggest IRA military operations they had planned for some time.
Dermot had been asked six months before would he be interested in going on an escape. That's all he knew. Then, two days before he was asked if he was ready.
"My job was to take a prison warden at the alarm bell. If he had pushed that alarm bell I'd have killed him. I've no qualms in saying that. I'd have ended his life.
"On the morning we were told specifically under no circumstances were we to harm any prison officer or degrade any officer in the way they had treated us during the blanket protest."
The IRA had smuggled in five guns while a wooden made one made up the armoury for the escape bid.
"They were smuggled in. In the soles of boots in small, different parts."
Originally the plan was to make the attempt a week earlier.
"We were going to go the week before but the All Ireland final was on and not only that but the warders went out on strike and the RUC was brought in so we couldn't go.
"We also didn't know if information had been passed into the hands of the security forces due to the Supergrass situation and whether they'd be waiting for us to come out on the other side to riddle us."
On the afternoon of the 25th the plan was put into action.
"There was no resistance whatsoever and I was delighted. I didn't use a gun. I used a chisel to this throat. I put him down on the ground and put a pillow case over his head. We then waited until we were told to bring him into where all the other warders were We tied his hands and left them sitting in a comfortable position. We took some of their uniforms."
The food lorry was late coming on its rounds but matters proceeded.
"Thirty eight of us got into the back of it and there was just silence. You could literally hear the grass growing. Your heart stopped at every point we went through. It was waved through all the time but you were just waiting on the back of the lorry to come up.
The lateness of the lorry meant they ran into a change of prison officer shift.
"I'll always remember us all running out the back and all the warders were there. They were stunned by the amount of us. Our OC said 'lean ar aghaidh' which means go ahead, it was every man for himself."
There was a car at the main gate and they were able to get past it. It wasn't an escape that wasn't without violence. One officer was stabbed and he later died of a heart attack while another was shot in the head but from which he recovered.
At that stage there was no plan. A British soldier opened fire as they headed for the fields.
Dermot says he was thrown right over a 30 foot perimeter fence. There no waiting cars as planned. He and seven others got out on to the road where they hijacked a car and van. They subsequently took over a house in Dromore about a quarter of a mile away from the prison.
They drove later to an isolated farm, the fog came down so helicopters couldn't go up.
"We then walked for five days, all eight of us. We went through mostly protestant areas and we walked all the way to South Armagh along train tracks, back roads, rivers., drinking water out of cow throughs.
They called to a house in South Armagh, explained they were escapees and were taken in. Later, cars came and brought them away.
"We went across the border that night and came back again to South Armagh and were sitting in the ditch when a helicopter landed nearby. We saw them get out and we had armed guards guarding us. They were casual saying, don't be worried about them. That's how confident they were."
And, soon life was to be in Sligo for Dermot. Some fifteen escapees were recaptured on the first day, and four over the following two days. In 1996 he was arrested in Sligo and fought his extradition to the North and eventually the case was dropped with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 taking hold.
He hasn't totted up the time he has spent in various prisons but says it was worth it "because of the sacrifice he and others made with thousands alive today because of it."
"People mightn't agree and say I'm this or that but I was born into the conflict, participated in that conflict and I make no apologies for that and I'm able to sit here today at sixty years of age and I want to see my ideas come to fruition. But, I also want to see it resolved in a peaceful and democratic way in which no one has to lose their life."
Long jail terms he never focused on.
"You don't think abut it. It's not in your head. You were always thinking about how to get out to rejoin the conflict.
"All the time on the run, when I went to bed at night I would say well, if I get caught in the morning I've had a good run."
The youngest in a family of nine, Dermot was married at 17 but the marriage didn't last long after he received his life sentence.
"You walk into jail and you close the door, she's not there. I know that sounds cold hearted but you forget about that. His first child was just two months old when his marriage broke down.
"The biggest casualty of the conflict is family and any man involved in it will tell you that."His first wife was also jailed along with a brother and a sister.
"Being a married man and being involved in the conflict believe me is a disaster. Family suffer. Most of the marriages wouldn't have lasted. You can understand it,. They're rearing the children while you're never there. You can't ask you're husband where were you. When you're leaving the house you say, sorry have to go. That's the sad part of it."
Despite his time in prison he has no regrets about his involvement inside or outside of prison in what he terms was the conflict.
"If I was asked if I would do it all again, then I would answer, yes, no bother. I felt it was an awful sacrifice made by the hunger strikers. It will take another 20 years for ordinary people of today to realise what that sacrifice was all about in terms of changing this country.
“I do believe that very strongly. When I got out of jail I had one objective and that was to continue on with the struggle to which they gave their life to. And, I will continue it on to the day I die, in a peaceful and democratic manner.”
Was it worth it? “My parents had no vote. I was attacked going to school every day. I know others didn’t get involved but nine of ten people I went to school with ended up in jail.
“What I’d like to see today is an island of equals where everyone is given the same opportunity. Brexit enhances the argument for a united Ireland in my view.”
The hunger strike, he says, was a peaceful protest. And it was one the prisoners had control of with no outside pressure, he insists.
“It was the beginning of a journey that hasn’t ended yet,” he says.
The twice married father of six is out on licence from his life sentence and while he says he never received any letter of comfort from the British he is no longer wanted over the 1983 escape and he regularly visits Northern Ireland.
His mother died last year. At the time, the PSNI contacted him about a death threat and the family home also had to be cleared after a bomb threat. The funeral route was also changed after a similar warning. A helicopter flew overhead and armed police were ever present.
“I seen a lot of changes (in Lurgan) but not enough..... it’s still back in time. It is moving in the right direction It’ s being held back by dissident republican activity. Can that achieve anything? In my eyes, no.
“Not in the slightest can it achieve anything. Armed struggle in relation to any conflict in Western Europe is finished. 9/11 killed all that. It’s going nowhere.”
He describes himself a reactionary in his teenage years as regards his involved in Republicanism and that he hadn’t become politically aware until a couple of years into his early sentences. And conflict resolution he says has a vital part to play in the coming years.
“Of course there were victims. There were victims on all sides. But, there has to be equal rights for everybody. The only way to deal with that is to deal with the legacy of the past. It can’t be one sided.”
He’d like to see the legacy of the past dealt with through a truth commission style set up. “There are a lot of people out there who have a right to know why their loved ones died.”
And, he distinguishes this from those whom he describes as wearing “a uniform representing the crown.”
“There were people shot in the wrong. Those people deserve an answer.
“The IRA inflicted too, no doubt about that, a lot of pain on a lot of people. And some people were innocent. That, in itself has to be addressed as well. It’s the same with the disappeared. It’s only right that the bodies be found and handed over. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”
And, he disagrees that the Troubles could have been ended sooner. “The will just wasn’t there, the Brits just wanted to conquer,” he says