Chapter 14: Frank Carty Escapes From Derry Jail

FOR several weeks after the battle in west Donegal my column laid low in Derry City, secretly drilling and improving their knowledge of military tactics through the intricacies of the British Army Drill Manual.

Then, quite suddenly, I received a summons from headquarters. The divisional commandant requested that I reconnoitre Derry Jail, and make plans for the rescue of Frank Carty, a huge, daring, and fearless fellow who had commanded a brigade in County Sligo. He was held for trial, charged with murdering two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Carty’s ability to do this was unquestionable, but why his superior marksmanship in an enemy engagement should be classed as murder was difficult to comprehend. We, at any rate, considered him innocent of such a base accusation—hence the order to release him, Sligo Jail, where first he had been incarcerated awaiting trial, could not hold him. So, upon recapture, he was sent to Derry, the authorities assuming escape from that stronghold impossible. Unlike Sligo, Derry Jail is a medieval fortress built on the side of a steep hill in the city. The rear wall, at the base of the hill, is fifty feet high— a formidable cliff of stone rising sheer from the street.

Our information told us that Carty was in the hospital block. His struggle with the police had culminated in a shot penetrating his shoulder, and he was now receiving medical attention. The hospital was located at the rear of the prison yard, overlooking the rear and outer wall, which was backed by a row of houses. These dwellings, with the exception of two, were occupied by residents of strong Orange sympathies. The others, one on either end of the street, and thus of the greatest strategic value, were in the possession of Catholics. When the time came to act these co-religionists gave us one hundred per cent assistance.

Through the aid of a confederate in the prison we acquainted Carty with our plans, sent him a hack-saw and blades, and a quantity of black soap with which to deaden the sound of sawing and repair the cracks.

On the night of the attempted rescue we adopted a daring course, holding up the occupants of four houses that backed the wall under the hospital. Six men assisted me, and the residents were crowded under one roof under strict guard. From the time of curfew, 10:30 P. M., to the hour set for the rescue, 4:30 A. M., they spent a tense period of duress. The people were more curious than indignant, but they could obtain no enlightenment from their guards.

The coil of rope, fastened to a steel hook to grip the top of the wall, was in readiness—also the silk ladder to bridge the gap between cell window and wall. The tedious interim of waiting through the night was a test of nerves, but it was necessary to choose 4:30 A.M. because of a lunar handicap. We had to wait until the moon fell below the horizon, giving us the maximum darkness.

At four o’clock I ascended the roof of an outhouse directly under the wall nearest to Carty’s hospital cell. I coiled the rope carefully, taking care not to offer an exposed silhouette to any vigilant eye. The streets were lined with sandbag barricades and machine-gun emplacements. Any moving shadow became an immediate target.

Satisfied that all was clear, I heaved the rope. The hook missed the wall coping by a foot, and clattered down with a horrible din, echoes rumbling throughout the yards. Prepared for the worst, I cocked my gun and waited—one minute, five minutes, ten minutes. But nothing happened! Again I coiled the rope, measuring the distance carefully. This time my efforts were successful, and the hook gripped the top of the parapet.

Up the rope I scrambled, the silk ladder coiled about my waist. Then came a further misfortune. I had scarcely climbed ten feet when a piece of the old coping broke loose under my weight, and the heavy stone tumbled down, missing me by a fraction of a foot.

Surely the clatter must raise alarm. Feverishly I listened. Nothing happened. No prowling sentry or soldier came to investigate. This was providential, for I was determined to fire first and shoot it out with the military. There was mo hope of escape for us from a Protestant section of the city under the bane of curfew.

Chagrined by the failure of our rescue attempt, we waited patiently till curfew lifted, apologized to our captives, and departed. I emphasized to them the wisdom of secrecy, and no doubt our arsenal of forty-fives and Luger Parabellums helped them to agree, though actually we made no threats of reprisal if they chose to report the incident.

The following day a brief note appeared in a Derry paper that a band of Sinn Feiners had made an abortive attempt to blow up the prison. I was happy that no surmise was made of pur real plan. . .

A counsel of war was called to adopt fresh plans for the rescue, and finally we agreed to send a ball of twine in to Carty. At the appointed hour he could throw it over the wall to where I should be waiting with the rope-ladder. This ladder would be fastened to the twine, Carty would haul it up over the wall to his cell window, make it fast to the bars, and thereby create a bridge over the chasm to the wall. The rest would be easy.

Five nights later, all arrangements complete, we assembled in the house at the opposite end of the street from where we were to operate. For hours we worked steadily, making additional ladders from rope, broom handles, and curtain-rods; then at three o’clock in the morning, just five days after our last rescue attempt, I left the house, and climbed over innumerable walls to reach the yard nearest the hospital.

I entered the now deserted house (the inhabitants having left after our last attempt) by the back, and opened the front window to ensure a swift entrance for my confederates. A little later the boys came down the street in their stockinged feet, climbed in noiselessly, and took up their positions in the yard.

When the clock in the Guildhall struck 4:30 we were on the alert for the ball of twine. The minutes passed eerily, but nothing happened. I had just decided that Carty had overslept, or was under strict surveillance, when a dull thud sounded near by. The ball of twine had arrived!

Pouncing eagerly upon it I gave the line two quick jerks, as a signal for “All’s well.” Back came Carty’s assuring tug: “All clear. Proceed with the rescue.”

The prisoner hauled up on the line, which held the ladder. It made a slight noise clattering and scraping against the wall, but there was no disturbance from the sentries.

Then the ladder fouled on the coping, and precious moments elapsed before it could be shaken free. Even then, the top of the wall being serrated with jagged stone, the ladder caught again.

When the strain of Carty’s tugging threatened to sever the twine, I signalled him to slack away. We hauled the ladder down, and fastened a strong piece of rope to the top rung. I then wrote a note to Carty instructing him to make the rope fast to the cell bars and cross the gap to the wall, hand over hand.

It was a suggestion that required the nerve of an acrobat, but Carty and his two hundred pounds made the rope journey with safety, despite his shoulder wound. They were tense moments, however. The weight of his body pulled the line and ladder almost to breaking point.

We almost whooped for joy as the silhouette appeared on the crest of the wall. Cat-like he scaled down the long rope-ladder, and, once on terra firma, joyfully shook hands all round.

Leaving the damning evidence suspended from the wall, we hurried into the house to await the end of the curfew at 6:30 A. M.

Every moment we expected to hear the gun boom and bells clang, to announce the escape of a prisoner—but the hour to curfew passed in silence. Shortly after seven, when people were again abroad, we slipped out of the house in pairs, so as not to attract attention in a hostile neighborhood.

I had provided myself with a large canister of cayenne pepper, the contents of which I scattered behind Carty and myself, at intervals, to baffle the bloodhounds when put on our trail.

Taking Carty for shelter to the home of a friend, I left him awaiting orders and hurried off to my own retreat.

Just as I crawled into bed for a brief nap the old gun boomed in the jail yard. The clangor of bells followed, and I fell asleep wondering how on earth we could get Carty out of Ireland before the enemy caught the scent.

The next morning brought inspiration. It so happened that during my activities in Derry my father was captain of a steamer in the coal trade, operating between Derry and the ports of Scotland and England. While sympathetic to the Republican ideal, he was ignorant of operations in his own bailiwick. I still clung to the name of Hennessey, and all the posters of the Royal Irish, and the Scotland Yard Hue and Cry used that name under the “Rewards for Capture! ” which were posted throughout Ireland and Scotland.

I decided that Frank Carty must leave the country in the collier which my father commanded. The mate of the ship was a Swede named Oscar, a man we all liked and trusted. He had settled in Derry and was an ardent Republican. I broached the subject to him, and he became a willing conspirator, despite the threat of England to all people abetting political prisoners—particularly a man under sentence of death.

The police and military literally ransacked the city from cellar to garret. Catholic homes were pillaged during the search, and the only satisfaction for the occupants was the knowledge that Carty’s escape was the first to be recorded in Derry Prison—a fact that deeply wounded the pride of the police.

The authorities, I must admit, were indefatigably determined in their search for Carty, and on many occasions they were so close to his place of refuge that capture seemed inevitable. Yet miraculously he remained a free man.

Several nights afterwards Carty and I met at an appointed rendezvous. Two other men accompanied us, carrying revolvers in readiness for any encounter with military or police. Stealthily we made our way to the river bank, where a rowboat took us rapidly across the Foyle to the collier and Oscar.

Frank climbed the ladder and jumped on board.

“Quick,” whispered the Swede. “Come with me.”

Carty followed to a little room aft, which had been used as a magazine when the ship carried a gun on her poop during the World War. With the danger of submarine attack past, the gun and mount were removed, but the magazine still remained. Oscar had prepared comfortable quarters for the stowaway, so, satisfied that nothing more could be done, I bade both of them adieu and rowed back to the wharf on the Derry side of the river.

Three hours later the Carricklee sailed out of the Foyle for Glasgow, where staunch friends awaited Carty’s arrival. The search in Derry continued relentlessly for several weeks, while the Republican sympathizers of Carty engaged in a grim laugh at the vexation of the foe.

Recruiting fresh blood into my column, I returned to the west of Ireland and continued my guerrilla warfare. This new campaign was marked with more gusto than my previous “mosquito attacks” on the enemy. We had the sting of a hornet now, and our efforts quickly began to demoralize the police and paralyze normal business.

Roads were rendered impassable; mails were held up and rifled of all military communications; banks were raided and police and military pay-rolls seized. Nothing weakens the morale of a soldier more than the loss of his “stipend ” at the end of the month. If the bugle fails to blow at pay-day, Tommy is ready for a mutiny—so is the policeman with his hungry brood to fill at home.

Our depredations resulted in a terrible hue and cry. The west of Donegal is a rugged and desolate country, with mountains and ravines to provide a haven for Irish rebels.

The harassing policy had resulted in many resignations from the Royal Irish Constabulary. And indeed the lot of the policeman was not a happy one. He joined the constabulary as a law-enforcement officer, only to find himself a soldier, spy, and persecutor in his own land.

There is no need to catalogue our ambushes, raids, and night attacks on barracks. Lettermacaward, Finntown, Pettigo, Arran, Ardara, and Donegal are names to bring back vivid memories of our guerrilla activities in the years 1920 and 1921.

The same tactics were pursued by other flying columns throughout Ireland. Commandant Dan Breen, of the Third Tipperary Brigade, was raiding the barracks of the police, capturing munitions, and even plotting the capture of Lord French. The older soldier must have borne a charmed life or he would never have survived the raking fire upon his railway carriage near Ashtown. Dan himself was the most wounded man in the I. R. A. and one of the most daring.

Early in the summer of 1920 the astute Liam Lynch, afterwards General, had captured General Lucas and his staff at Fermoy. Lynch was one of the most brilliant men in the Army, and his loss in the subsequent Civil War was irreparable.

In an effort to offset the moral gains of the Republicans, achieved through the “hornet tactics ” of the flying columns, the British commenced their virulent Black and Tan campaign. This specially recruited army was manned by mercenaries and real tough hombres. If the English Tommy does not agree with you politically, at least he has the elements of decency. But the Black and Tans, so labelled because of their uniforms of black tunics and tan trousers, were above all moral persuasion and thoroughly detested.

Directed by such men as Sir Hamar Greenwood, these mercenaries of the Crown began a deliberate reign of terror. While our efforts were aimed at the finance and economics of the British, the Black and Tans raided homes and pillaged innocent people. Old men and young boys were murdered as reprisals, and frequently a woman fell during a fusillade on a house. The nervous fingers of the soldiery added their weekly toll to the list of non-combatants.

The I. R. A. quickly engineered ways and means of bringing checkmate to the Black and Tans, and after the first flush of their attack they began to fall back on the defensive. The British themselves were annoyed at the use of the Black and Tans, and the Government was scored severely by the Press at home for employing such a vicious crowd.

As might have been foreseen, the use of the Black and Tans proved a boomerang. Their activities incensed thousands of people who had never entertained a hope for the Republic. Every house sacked and burned sent scores of recruits into the I. R. A. and helped considerably the gathering of funds in America for the prosecution of the war.

By this time the British had realized the folly of listening to Carson’s bluff, and were willing to give more than Home Rule to end the conflict. But the I. R. A. was in no mood to temporize with freedom. If their fathers were willing to fight for a bone and lose it, the youth of Ireland would fight for the whole carcass or die in the attempt.

That we did not fight the Anglo-Irish war to a successful conclusion can only be attributed to the pacific policy of our leaders in Dublin.

Now that the war is over and the battle for the Republic lost, many of us suspect that our leaders in Dublin were secretly dealing with British officials in Dublin Castle -while posing as extreme revolutionaries. It has always been so in Irish victory-“we breed patriots and traitors” in equal numbers!

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