Today is the 39th anniversary of the great Republican escape from Portlaoise Prison. In November 1973, all Republican POW’s in Mountjoy and the Curragh were transferred to Portlaoise. This came in the wake of the daring escape of three volunteers from Mountjoy in a helicopter. In early 1974, minds turned towards plotting an escape from Portlaoise. At the end of June an eighty foot tunnel was discovered in the prison which led to a higher number of Gardaí and Free State troops being put on duty in the vicinity. Immediately afterwards an alternative plan was formulated, with nineteen prisoners on long-term sentences selected to escape in August.
On August 18th 1974, the escapees overpowered the warders in the main cell block shortly after noon. They made their way onto a low roof before heading across the prison grounds. As the alarm was sounded, Free State troops opened fire on the escapees. They dashed to the walled residence of the Governor where an explosive charge was placed at a gate leading to the prison walls. A second charge was planted in a doorway and the escapees were soon outside the prison wall. After dashing through the fields surrounding the prison, they reached the Borris road where they commandeered cars and made their way to freedom. Within hours all of them were in safe houses scattered throughout the Free State. Despite an intensive search, none of the escapees were recaptured and all but three of them were still free at the end of the year.
The escape was a huge embarrassment for Liam Cosgrave’s Blueshirt-Labour Coalition. A judicial inquiry was launched by Free State Justice Minister Patrick Cooney which led to an increased Garda and military presence in the prison and restrictions on food parcels and free association among the POW’s. The implementation of these measures was to have far-reaching consequences, as conditions in the prison deteriorated rapidly over the following months, eventually leading to two hunger strikes in 1975 and 1977.