Escape from the Crum

From the grisly past that hangs over the walls of Crumlin Road Jail like a winter fog to a future that has yet to be decided – Crumlin Road prison has had its fair share of dramas.
Enough to script a dozen Hollywood blockbusters, except this is not the work of the scriptwriter – the experiences of the men both on remand and interned in the prison during the present phase of the North’s conflict are very real.
Every man has a story to tell, each one fascinating, heartbreaking, humorous, horrendous, awe-inspiring and infuriating in its own very unique and personal way.
Having witnessed at first hand the living conditions inside the ageing Victorian prison, listening to the former prisoners’ stories has taken on a new significance.
Republican Terence ‘Cleaky’ Clarke, who later died of cancer, described the Crum as, “the dirtiest prison in Europe” adding, “The Crum’s so bad it would put you off going to jail.”
On close inspection I have to agree with him. The jail was built in such a way that very little natural light gets through to the main building.
The sun never shines in Crumlin Road jail.
Narrow corridors, with cells so small that the feeling of claustrophobia is intense, protrude from the centre circle. You can stand in a cell and touch both facing walls – but during the height of the troubles the jail was so over-crowded that the men were doubled up two and sometimes three to a cell.
Each of the four wings – A,B,C and D – is more or less identical apart from being painted in slightly different insipid shades of paint. The three-tier landings are divided by what is known as anti-suicide wire to stop anyone jumping – or being pushed – from the top tier to the concrete floor below.
The prison hospital, a slightly later addition, opened in 1898, is perhaps one of the vilest places I have ever set foot in. More of an asylum than a place where you could expect to receive any type of care or attention.
Over the years the hospital was home to some of the conflict’s most famous prisoners. Tom Williams spent time there in the 40s before his execution and his remains were buried at the rear of the hospital building.
The ‘Padded Cell’, a place where prisoners deemed to be ‘a danger to themselves’ were kept, is still there, albeit in a dilapidated state. For anyone like myself who’s not all that comfortable with small spaces, this is probably one of the worst places I can ever imagine being locked in. The cell is absolutely tiny and completely lined in leather-type fabric with only a tiny slit at roof level for light.
A dead bird lies on the floor of one of the hospital cells, a cupboard in a former medics room contains lice lotion and ointment for scabies – essential tools of the hospital doctor’s trade.
Veteran republican Martin Meehan is just one of the prisoners whose time in Crumlin Road jail is now a part of history and folklore.
The 1971-72 period of internment became noted for the number of successful escapes from the Crum. This was a source of great anger and embarrassment for the then unionist Stormont government.
For the republican internees, of course, this had the opposite effect and morale on the wings was at an all-time high.
Just weeks after the ‘Crumlin Kangaroo’ escape, when nine republican prisoners went over the wall on rope ladders, Martin Meehan, Tony Doherty and Hugh McCann also made a successful bid for freedom.
The escape was the final straw for then Prime Minister Brian Faulkner. Security at the jail had been tightened after the first escape and unionists were reassured that the jail was infallible.
Martin Meehan spent several periods of imprisonment in Crumlin Road during the early Troubles. He recalls: “For republicans, it was our duty to escape.
“Republican prisoners were always plotting new ways to escape, and as well as the successful escapes there were numerous attempted escape plans hatched.
“I was first sent to Crumlin Road Jail in 1969 following the Ardoyne Pogroms. I was sentenced to two months for orchestrating a riot.
“You did your time hard. We wore brown suits with a yellow star on the arm, it was like a concentration camp and it was hard labour. When I was released I swore I would never set foot inside a jail again. I lived to eat those words.
“In 1971 I was remanded in the Crum on a trumped-up weapons charge and planned an escape with my cellmate. He wasn’t a republican but a radical student who was arrested for causing disturbances at some student demonstration. We sawed through the bars on our windows.
“Just before the date we planned to escape Billy McKee came to me and said, you can beat this charge and you are mad to escape. My cellmate went as planned and got away, that was June 10, 1971.
“I went to court on June 29 and sure enough I did beat the charge, not that it did me much good as by November 9 I was interned and back inside Crumlin Road Jail.”
Martin Meehan was interned with Tony Doherty. The two were arrested by the Green Howards and taken to Palace Barracks, where they were beaten and tortured to within an inch of their lives. When Martin Meehan was eventually transferred to Crumlin Road Jail he had 47 stitches in his head.
“I can remember very little about being taken to the Crum, I was totally out of it. We had been given a serious beating. They carried me in laughing and joking. They had put a British army uniform on me, the blood was dripping from my face.
“I remember a screw called William Wilson tried to help me. He told the British army and the RUC to stand back and helped me to the bath.
“He was killed by the IRA in 1979 as he walked from the Crum to the Royal Ancient Order of Buffaloes Club in Century Street. His son went on to become a governor in Long Kesh.”
By December a plan to escape had already been hatched.
Martin remembers it all clearly: “Just after the so-called Kangaroo escape, security at the jail was supposed to be at its height. It was just the second day that we were allowed back on to the football pitch that we escaped.
“The three of us covered ourselves in butter to protect us from the water and during half-time climbed down a manhole. It was a Thursday afternoon and the screws got paid so they were more interested in counting their money than counting heads – they never even noticed we were gone.
“We stayed down there up to our necks in freezing water for six hours. We had made a rope out of sheets with a hook made from the leg of a chair with more sheets wrapped around it so it wouldn’t clink when it hit the wall. By this time a thick fog had fallen.
“I remember we thought there was a Brit with a gun pointing at us through the fog, it turned out to be a cement mixer with a brush pole sticking out.
“We got to the wall and tried to climb up the rope, but we were covered in butter, and kept slipping back down again.
“When we eventually got over the wall there was an old green Avenger car waiting for us in Cliftonpark Avenue with the keys under the mat. But because it was winter the car wouldn’t start. After 10 minutes we got it going and drove down Agnes Street and through the Shankill on to the Falls to a house in O’Donnell Street.
“From there we were taken to another house. I remember the man of the house gave me a pair of shoes to put on. I was to walk to a house in Beechmount and on the way the sole fell off the shoes.
“The escape was a source of great embarrassment for the government at the time. Ian Paisley demanded an inquiry.
“You see, the prison authorities only realised we had escaped after the British army phoned to tell them that people were lighting bonfires in Ardoyne because Meehan and Doherty had escaped.
“That was at about eight in the evening, they weren’t able to do a head count until 9.30 – that was when they discovered we were missing.
“My cellmate at the time, Tommy Muldoon, told me when they came in to search the cell they lifted the piss pot and looked underneath.”
When Martin Meehan was finally recaptured and charged with unlawful escape from Crumlin Road Jail he managed to turn the historic escape into a landmark court case.
He had initially been arrested and interned by the British Army, but the Special Powers Act at the time stated that only the RUC had the authority to charge anyone. Martin Meehan argued in court that his arrest was unlawful, therefore his escape was lawful.
Justice McGonagle conceded the argument and Martin Meehan was released.
“I had no defence lawyers and argued my own case. The judgement was unprecedented and within two days the government rushed through emergency legislation to prevent the other detainees from using the loophole.
“In fact I was awarded £800 compensation for being held illegally. So not only did I escape but I also set a precedent and was compensated into the bargain, not a bad day’s work!”
Falls Road republican Fra McCann’s memories of the imposing Victorian jail are different but no less vivid.
Along with three other republicans – Gerard Murray, Jimmy Duffy and Joe Maguire – Fra was on the blanket protest in Crumlin Road Jail for 16 months.
The four men became known as the ‘Forgotten Blanketmen.’
At the time, what were termed short-term prisoners – those sentenced to less than four years – were left to serve out their sentence in Crumlin Road Jail.
After the removal of Special Category Status, the four men were ordered to put on a prison uniform and conform – make themselves available for prison work. The four refused and joined the blanket protest.
They went on to endure appalling treatment. In fact so much so that the ‘number one diet’ issued to all the men as punishment for not conforming was deemed illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.
Without the camaraderie the other blanket men had within the H-Blocks, Fra and his colleagues found the going tough. “The isolation was one of the worst parts of our time in the Crum – when we were moved to the Kesh it was almost a relief.
“The four of us were kept in solitary, an empty cell between us so we couldn’t talk to each other. Billy Moore and Basher Bates – the Shankill Butchers – were our orderlies.
“Every 14 days we were given three days punishment for not conforming. They would come in to your cell and remove your bed and blankets and leave you naked in the freezing cell for 12 hours.
“You were also issued with what was called the number one diet – black tea and bread in the morning, strained soup at lunch, and black tea and bread for dinner.
“It was a severe regime, but to put on a prison uniform would have been unthinkable.
“A screw once said to a blanketman, ‘I wouldn’t live like you for a million pounds.’ The blanketman replied, ‘Neither would I.’
“That sort of sums it up.”
• Don’t miss Thursday’s Andersonstown News for the conclusion of our three-part series on the Crum.

Journalist:: Allison Morris

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