Tuesday, May 22, 2018

'Having it Away' by Seamus Murphy

‘Published by Castledermot Press’ was what caught my eye as I perused the books in the Connolly book shop located next to Dolphin House Court at the rear of the Clarence Hotel in Dublin. My immediate thoughts were that the well known Castledermot born writer John MacKenna had escaped from his mainstream publishers to start his own publishing house. But no, the address of the Castledermot Press was given as Bray, Co. Wicklow and the book ‘Having it Away – a story of freedom, friendship and I.R.A. jailbreak’ was authored by Seamus Murphy. The juxtaposition of the name and the words ‘I.R.A. jailbreak’ brought immediate recognition for I had intended a few years ago to write an ‘Eye’ on the young Castledermot man who was involved in the I.R.A. raids on a British army depot at Arborfield near London in August 1955. I made some enquiries at the time but never met Seamus Murphy and the intended article never materialised. Now the book I had taken from the shelves of the Dublin book shop gave me the opportunity of reading a first-hand account of the raid, the subsequent imprisonment of three of those involved and the escape of Seamus Murphy from Wakefield Prison in February 1959. Accounts of prison escapes have been a frequent enough source of material for books published by I.R.A. members, whether veterans of the War of Independence or members of the various splinter groups which emerged in more recent years. One of the earliest publications of that type was written by Fr. Patrick Doyle, later Parish Priest of Naas, while he was Rector of Knockbeg College in Carlow. ‘The escape from Mountjoy – and other prison experiences of an Irish Volunteer – Padraic Fleming’ told the story of the imprisonment of the man from the Swan and his escape from Mountjoy Jail. His story was retold in the 1971 Anvil book publication ‘Sworn to be free – the complete book of I.R.A. jailbreaks 1918-1921’. The chapter on Fleming was written by Lochlinn MacGlynn and he recounted in depressing detail the privations and hardships endured by the Laois man before he finally escaped on 29th March 1919. As Ireland emerged from the Second World War, Noel Hartnett edited a series of talks first broadcast from Radio Eireann and published under the title ‘Prison Escapes’. Amongst the stories was that of Piarais Beaslaoi’s escape from Strangeways Prison Manchester in October 1919 and Eamon de Valera’s escape from Lincoln Jail in February of the same year. The story of Irish republicans imprisoned in English jails and post 1916 Welsh detention camps have been well documented and Dr. Ruan O’Donnell of Limerick University has brought the story up to date with his two recent volumes on I.R.A. members in English prisons from 1968 to 1985. Seamus Murphy’s book is a valuable addition to the growing literary output dealing with the incarceration of Irish republicans in English prisons. The three most famous personal accounts of this genre were of course O’Donovan Rossa’s ‘Prison Life – Six years in English prisons’, Tom Clarke’s account of his 15 years behind bars in ‘Glimpses of an Irish felon’s prison life’ and Michael Davitt’s ‘Leaves from a prison diary’. In ‘Having it Away’ Seamus Murphy tells us of his involvement in the I.R.A. raid on the arms depot in Arborfield in 1955 when he was just 20 years old. The I.R.A. raiding party of ten men, led by Ruairi O’Bradaigh, seized a large amount of guns and ammunition, all of which were subsequently recovered and three of the raiders were captured. Seamus Murphy, Donal Murphy (no relation) and Joe Doyle were later tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. It was from Wakefield Prison that Seamus Murphy escaped, where one of his fellow prisoners was the I.R.A. Chief of Staff, Cathal Goulding. His escape was facilitated by an I.R.A. splinter group associated with Joe Christle, working with Cyprian rebel sympathisers living in London. Seamus Murphy died aged 80 years on 2nd November 2015, survived by his wife Betty, his son Pearse and his two sisters. I end with the opening lines of his book which are a beautifully worded description of his prison cell. ‘It measured little bigger than a tomb. In the whitewashed walls the pattern of the brickwork stood out, irregular lines of staggered rectangles, ridged edges black and grimy with the dust of years. At one end was a long narrow window, set high in the wall, it’s small squares of cracked glass were coated in grime, and stoutly encased in a lattice work of flaking rusted metal. Generations of spiders had found quiet refuge in the holes and fissures that scarred the plasterwork about the window frame, adding their webbed traceries and mummified flies to the accumulation.’

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