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Portlaoise Prison 1973 to 1977

Laois Local Studies > Articles > Portlaoise Prison 1973 to 1977

by Terry Dunne

On Friday November 9 1973 in the murky darkness of a winter morning stretched out along the road from Dublin to Portlaoise prison was a military operation the likes of which had not been seen since the civil war 50 years before.[1] There were helicopters, armoured cars and scout planes, with massed at the prison itself 100 Gardaí (police) together with armed soldiers.  Hurtling westward were busloads of what the security forces called subversives, paramilitary prisoners from Mountjoy jail, in Dublin, to be joined by busloads of their cohorts from the Curragh military prison, in Kildare. Against the backdrop of confrontation in the Curragh, and a dramatic helicopter escape at Mountjoy, the state was concentrating all its republican prisoners under maximum security in Portlaoise. The helicopter had, incidentally, been hijacked in Stradbally.

Later that month Up and Away (The Helicopter Song) performed by the Wolfe Tones soared to Number One in the Irish Singles Chart despite little or no radio play, and stayed there for four weeks before being ousted by glam-rockers Slade. This comical, but inescapably pro-I.R.A. folk song in praise of the Mountjoy escape was one of a number of hit records of the 1970s extolling prison breaks-out, prison resistance and hunger strikes. Undoubtedly these activities comprised the more acceptable face of republican insurgency, but they were nonetheless a face of republican insurgency, which wasn’t at all as politically and culturally marginal in the South as it was to become in later decades.


Up and Away (The Helicopter Song) single by The Wolfe Tones

Over the next few years Portlaoise prison would become a main stage of what historian Gearóid Ó Faoleán called the “the most overlooked of all the theatres of the conflict during the ‘Troubles” namely the territory of the Republic of Ireland.[2]  Republicans would allege assaults, violent strip-searches, solitary confinement for minor infractions, and harassment of visiting relatives all part of an effort to remove political-status near-simultaneous with the similar effort going on in Long Kesh in the North; allegations which some contemporary news media found to have grounds.[3]  Meanwhile the steady attrition of I.R.A. violence sapped away at all the romantic glamour of the rebel songs and the mixture of support and tolerance that sheltered republican guerrillas in the South went into precipitous decline, even if never completely flatlining. This analysis was shared by such diverse contemporaries as Arthur Galsworthy, British Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland c. 1973-76; Tom Barry, famed Tan War guerrilla commander; and the Trotskyists of the International Socialism journal.[4]   

The key objective of republican prisoners was to escape to rejoin the fight, obviously this necessitated greater control on the part of the authorities to prevent this and that in turn created a new terrain of conflict – a struggle for power within the prison itself as the authorities degraded the prisoners’ conditions and the prisoners resisted. So there was the foundations for trouble there even without the issue of political status with which, arguably, legitimacy was conferred on the prisoners. This especially the case in a country whose most prominent twentieth-century politician was a former prisoner (and former escapee- Éamon de Valera, who retired as President in 1973) and in an era where Second World War P.O.W. camp movies were a significant part of the pop-culture diet.   

December 1973 Riot

After the prisoner transfer the next time Portlaoise hit the headlines was with a riot on Sunday December 2 1973.[5] It is testament to the temper of the times that baton charges and a burnt out squad car did not dominate the news and the events were even described as a “minor riot” by the Irish Independent.[6] It likely wasn’t experienced as something minor by people caught up in the melee. The trouble took place after a Sinn Féin (Kevin Street), aka Provisionals, demonstration – the nomenclature of the time distinguishing between the two Sinn Féins by referencing the location of their respective party headquarters, Sinn Féin (Gardiner Place), aka Officials, later renaming itself the Workers’ Party, while a breakaway became the Irish Republican Socialist Party. At the time three wings of the prison housed Provisional prisoners, with the fourth accommodating Officials and sundry mavericks. 

It may seem strange now but a 1974 report overseen by Justice Thomas Finlay and drawing on input from the police, army and government departments came to the conclusion that:

“It is an agreed view submitted to me that the greatest long-term danger to the security of the institutions of the State comes from the activities of the Official IRA and of political groups or associations connected with it.”[7]  

The demonstration on December 2 comprised two separate marches from the Market Square meeting for a rally outside the walls of the prison. There were a large number of riot-equipped police present -seemingly two hundred.[8] As the crowd dispersed there was stone throwing, a Garda vehicle stoned and a Garda patrol car flipped over and set alight at the junction of the Dublin and Stradbally roads near St. Peter and Paul church.  This seems to have been despite the best efforts of the demonstration’s organisers and in fact one of the platform speakers was injured from being hit in the face with a brick while he attempted to disperse the crowd.

Martin Ferris, a Sinn Féin T.D. (i.e. Member of Parliament) for constituencies in the south-west of Ireland between 2002 and 2020, was imprisoned for two short stretches in Portlaoise circa 1975 to 1977 and for a much longer term between 1984 and 1994. The latter sentence for his role in a major attempt to illegally import arms from Boston, Massachusetts. During his later time in the prison he gave lectures on the situation prevailing in the 1970s and early 1980s in an attempt to maintain an institutional memory. [9] These were compiled into what is now a very rare publication.   

Ferris recounted:

 “A minor confrontation between a section of the crowd and members of the riot squad developed. Stewards of the march attempted to restore order but the vicious reaction of the riot squad turned what was a relatively minor disturbance into a full scale riot.”

The riot eventually spread from outside the prison to the centre of Portlaoise Town.

Many business premises had windows broken and cars parked in the vicinity were damaged. A garda car was overturned and burned.

The riot petered out eventually after hand to hand fighting in the centre of the town.

Consequently this riot had a negative effect on republican support in the Portlaoise town area. Republicans were unjustly blamed for all the damage to property and nothing would convince most local people otherwise.”[10]

A contemporary newspaper report refers more to families leaving the Sunday cinema matinee straight into a conflict-filled Main street than to damage to businesses.[11]

August 1974 Mass Escape

In August 1974 prisoners dressed in mock prison guard garb forced their way into a prison laundry, ran from the laundry roof into a courtyard and then blasted their way through successive gates with smuggled explosives.[12] The 19 escaped prisoners scrambled through back gardens and reached the Borris road where they commandeered two cars and a van. The grave security situation at the prison was underlined by the fact that only the previous month an 80 foot long tunnel to the prison had been discovered by Gardaí – the tunneling going on from outside the prison – and array of hacksaws, crowbars and ropes were found in the subterranean escape chute ready for a mass break-out.[13] While all this was of undoubted concern and indeed embarrassment to the government, there was far from consensus across Irish society on the situation. In September Dermot Hegarty’s 19 Men spent three weeks at Number One of the Irish Singles Chart, before being supplanted by Jamaican-born Carl Douglas’s disco-hit Kung Fu Fighting, which isn’t about the I.R.A.. Again 19 Men was deemed not suitable for broadcast by R.T.E., the state T.V. and radio broadcast company.[14]

Ferris’s history includes an amusing anecdote about the August 1974 escape:

“For one group of the escapees who were still caught within the initial security cordon it was to be an eventful, and in retrospect, humorous first night. At the request of the group of escapees a civilian, in whose house they sought shelter, made contact with a local republican.

The idea was to use the republican’s knowledge of the local area to guide them through the security cordon and to safety.

When contacted, the local republican had just returned from a night out celebrating the escape in a local hostelry. In the circumstances he was only too willing to be of assistance, even though his condition rendered him less than competent for the task that he was now called upon to undertake. A little the worse for wear, his appearance betrayed his night of revelry and did nothing to endear him to the likes of Kevin Mallon whose own temperament and lack of patience was legendary within the republican family. The guide’s standing with the escapees did not improve one whit after four hours of continuous trekking around the countryside in pitch darkness only to find themselves back where they started still within the security cordon!

However, this first night’s mishap was quickly forgotten as the escapees eventually found their way through the cordon.”[15]

Martin Mallon

The aforementioned Kevin Mallon had been one of the three men whose Mountjoy helicopter escape in October 1973 was one of the reasons for the concentration of paramilitary prisoners in Portlaoise. Mallon was re-captured after less than two months at large as he attended a Fork Supper Dance held by Nurney G.A.A. club in the Montague Motel.[16] There is some speculation that he deliberately let himself be re-captured to co-ordinate a further escape. Mallon had been an insurgent in his native Tyrone in the I.R.A.’s short-lived Border Campaign of the 1950s before becoming a civil rights activist in the latter half of the 1960s. On the occasion of the 1974 escape he hid out in woods near Emo before getting further away.[17]

It is notable that Dermot Hegarty’s chart success with 19 Men came after the killing of Senator Billy Fox in a bungled Provisional I.R.A. operation in March 1974 – the first member of the Oireachtas (legislature) to die in political violence since the assassination of Kevin O’Higgins in 1927. Likewise it was after the loyalist carnage of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of May 1974. In this respect the Birmingham pub bombings of November 1974 seems to have been the seminal event in dissipating support for the Provisional campaign. If indeed any particular event was key.

For a lot of residents of the Twenty-Six Counties ties of personal connections and lived experience forged by emigration made them in effect closer to Birmingham than Belfast. Indeed among those injured in the bombing were people with surnames such as Farrell, O’Brien, O’Connor, O’Connell, Twomey and O’Gorman, while among the dead were two young brothers of Donegal extraction who had been celebrating the imminent fatherhood of one of them.[18]  The extent of support for a militant nationalism in the early 1970s seems strange to later generations – at least to anyone who remembers the 1990s – it didn’t exist of course in a context-less vacuum but strongly related to the situation of the beleaguered minority in the Northern statelet. But what is also very different between then and now was the depth then of what would later be called east-west relations. Tens of thousands of Irish people made their home in late-industrial Britain, seeking work, as nominal independence left untouched the underlying structures of economic dependency.     

March 1975 Attempted Escape

In the wake of the August 1974 break-out security at the prison intensified and the pendulum swung back to resistance over the conditions of imprisonment. Late 1974 saw a riot coupled with hostage taking in the gaol as prisoners took over one of the wings while in early 1975 there was a hunger strike. In the riot 27 prison guards were held hostage, and it took two attempts to re-take the wing, the second involving 200 troops in riot gear firing rubber bullets before the prisoners were subdued.[19] The 1975 hunger strike won concessions, but as we shall see there would be another hunger strike within two years.  There was in fact so much going on in and around the prison in these years that considerations of time and space simply do not allow a full consideration of all the events.

The attempted escape on the evening of St. Patricks Day, March 1975, was to be effected by an explosive charge blowing open the door from the recreation hall to the exercise yard, and then a further explosive charge to sunder open the gate of the exercise yard. Eighty prisoners were in the recreation hall watching a movie, without one imagines taking in much of the story as they all knew the action that was planned before the final reel. The main gate, the final barrier between them and freedom, was to be breached by being rammed by an armour plated dumper truck driven in from the outside. Presumably the modified truck was also to gather up the would be escapers. The bombs went off and the prisoners got as far as the final wall around the gaol, but the truck stalled and the armed troops patrolling the prison perimeter held the prisoners back with a hail of bullets. 

In the gunfire several prisoners were injured and one slain – Tom Smith of the Dublin I.R.A.. Smith was from Donore Avenue in the Liberties and had worked in Jacobs Biscuit Factory, though he was living in Harolds Cross, and working in a warehouse on North Wall, when he was convicted of the murder of James Farrell.[20] Farrell was a Walkinstown resident in his early 50s and an employee of British Leyland who drove a payroll car delivering wages.  British Leyland were the parent company of the Jaguar, Rover and Mini brands of motor vehicle and had a plant in Crumlin. Payroll robberies were an important source of income for the infant Provisional I.R.A.. Regardless of what one thinks of convictions in the Special Criminal Court – though one of Smith’s co-accused was found not guilty –  nonetheless the ability of the authorities to tie prisoners to the less savoury aspects of the P.I.R.A. campaign was to have important political ramifications.  Smith, incidentally, wasn’t the only Provisional Volunteer who died in Laois – in 1971 Tony Henderson from Belfast died in an accidental discharge at a training camp in the county.[21]

March 1977 Hunger Strike

Aside from the deaths of non-combatants in robberies and bombings a further political challenge for insurgents was posed by the fact the nationalist water they swam in south of the border had a tendency to drain away when it came to confrontation with the Southern state. That state wasn’t engulfed in a legitimacy crisis and there was nothing like the alienation from its institutions as existed north of border vis-à-vis the minority community and the British state. If anything the songs and stories of struggle, the proud memory of pikemen and Penal Laws, which bequeathed a sense of legitimacy to guerrillas north of the border, did likewise south of the border to an Irish policeforce, an Irish army, and an Irish government. 

It is hard to imagine a scintilla of popular support for the booby-trap bomb which took the life of Garda Michael Clerkin, left Detective Garda Tom Peters with permanent disabilities and wounded three of their colleagues in Garryhinch on October 16 1976. In the same year police authorities believed they had prevented a bomb attack on the Governor of Portlaoise prison.[22] The P.I.R.A. in practice, if not on paper, were getting close to rescinding their own General Order No.8 which precluded attacks on the Southern security forces. Indeed they had in June 1976 announced that Southern officials implementing the Criminal Law (Jurisdiction) Act, which allowed trials in the South for offences committed in the North, would be regarded as legitimate targets within the Six Counties.[23] The Garryhinch bombing, occurring as it did on the night the Emergency Powers Act (1976) was signed into law, has to be seen in that context.   

On a similar note, the kidnapping of Tiede Herrema, manager of the plant which was Limerick’s biggest employer, and which culminated in a two-week siege in Monasterevin in October 1975, must have seemed an incongruous expression of patriotism to many. Eddie Gallagher, the key activist in the kidnapping, was one of the 19 Men who blasted their way to freedom in August 1974.    

The 1977 Hunger Strike ran from March 7 to April 22, 47 days in all. It started with 20 prisoners, most of whom were, unlike the escapees of 1974, from the Twenty-Six Counties. They included among their number Kevin Mallon and Martin Ferris as well as Liam O’Mahony, a Dubliner who made Portarlington his home.[24] The initial demand was for an inquiry into conditions in the prison and they later made eight specific demands for free association, craftwork, educational and exercise facilities, open visits and communication with legal advisors of their choice and opposing strip searches and solitary confinement.[25] The strike ended with episcopal intervention and no concessions on the part of the authorities.  

The strike brought what the Irish Independent called a “brutally violent confrontation” to the streets of Portlaoise in early April 1977.[26] Quite the contrast with the “minor riot” of four years before. The veracity of the newspaper’s description is demonstrated by the photo chosen to illustrate the article: that of a figure in denim flares lying prostrate on the ground – an unconscious demonstrator after a Garda baton charge. On this occasion multiple fracas took place on the hospital grounds and along the Dublin road at either ends of a Garda cordon preventing access to the front of the prison.  

Of the impact, or rather non-impact, of the hunger strike in general current affairs magazine Hibernia opined:

“The Provisional organisation was left in no doubt that their measure of public support in the south has declined appreciably even over the past couple of years. Their protest demonstrations were poorly attended; the media, both editorially and in selective presentation of news and letters, was almost universally against them … The failure of the Portlaoise hungerstrike was a failure to gain popular support for what were, after all, quite reasonable demands …”[27]

Patrick Mulroe makes a similar point in his study of the Irish state’s security policy:

 “The failure of the hunger strike to attract mass support is particularly interesting. As part of its public relations strategy, government publicity highlighted the offences committed by the striking prisoners. That one of those on hunger strike was convicted of the killing of Senator Billy Fox was seen as especially significant.”[28]

How this manifested itself locally is worth examining. A Portlaoise Town Commission meeting passed a resolution commending the Gardaí and the Army for how they managed the Sunday April 3 1977 riot and heard one county councillor exclaim:

 “The people of Portlaoise don’t want those undesirables coming down from the North to cause trouble in the town. We just don’t want them and that’s that.” [29]

Just five years previous the Town Commission adjourned its February meeting as a mark of sympathy to the dead of Bloody Sunday and heard its chairman remark:

“Any Irish man or woman with a drop of blood in their veins would resist to the full the action of the British troops who had so brutally murdered Irish men.”[30]

In 1977 an opinion columnist in the local newspaper held forth:  

“The result of the Portlaoise hunger-strike points to some change in the national mood, perhaps the turning of a tide. This could be one of the most important things that have happened since all the trouble started in 1969.”[31]

It certainly seems to have marked the end of a period when the eruption in the North seemed poised to inflict an island-wide crisis, at least in the minds of governing circles in Dublin. But there may have been unintended ramifications to the government’s resolute, or perhaps hardline, stance. It may have influenced the approach of the British state to protesting prisoners in Long Kesh and Armagh gaols, where in 1981 the same stare them down tactic in a very different political context would produce very different results. All of this may have also contributed to the drastic electoral defeat of the 1973 to 1977 coalition government in June 1977. While the Provisionals’ campaign had progressively whittled away the patriotic groundswell of the early 1970s there was still a considerable civil liberty-inflected opposition to government security policy.

[1] Evening Echo, November 9, 1973. 

[2] Gearóid Ó Faoleán, A Broad Church: The Provisional IRA in the Republic of Ireland, 1969–1980 (Irish Academic Press, 2019), p.12.

[3] Brian Hanley, The impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland, 1968–79, Boiling Volcano? (Manchester University Press, 2018), p. 108.

[4] ‘Ireland: The republican hunger strike’, International Socialism 98, May 1977, online at; Brian Hanley, The impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland, 1968–79, Boiling Volcano? (Manchester University Press, 2018), p.  178; Patrick Mulroe, Bombs, Bullets and the Border: Policing Ireland’s Frontier: Irish Security Policy, 1969–1978 (Irish Academic Press, 2017).

[5] Irish Press, December 3, 1973; Leinster Express, December 8, 1973.

[6] Irish Independent, December 3, 1973.

[7] Quoted in Brian Hanley, The impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland, 1968–79, Boiling Volcano? (Manchester University Press, 2018), p. 61. 

[8] Irish Times, December 3, 1973.

[9] Martin Ferris, Prison struggle: Portlaoise Gaol 1917-1985 (Heartbreak Hotel Publishing Company Ltd, 1994).

[10] Martin Ferris, Prison struggle: Portlaoise Gaol 1917-1985 (Heartbreak Hotel Publishing Company Ltd, 1994), p. 26.

[11] Nationalist and Leinster Times, December 7, 1973.

[12] Irish Times, August 19, 1974; Martin Ferris, Prison struggle: Portlaoise Gaol 1917-1985 (Heartbreak Hotel Publishing Company Ltd, 1994), p. 27.

[13] Irish Times, July 1, 1974.

[14]  Irish Times, September 20, 1974.

[15] Martin Ferris, Prison struggle: Portlaoise Gaol 1917-1985 (Heartbreak Hotel Publishing Company Ltd, 1994), p. 28.

[16] Leinster Express, December 15, 1973; Nationalist and Leinster Times, December 14, 1973.

[17] Gearóid Ó Faoleán, A Broad Church: The Provisional IRA in the Republic of Ireland, 1969–1980 (Irish Academic Press, 2019). 

[18] Brian Hanley, The impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland, 1968–79, Boiling Volcano? (Manchester University Press, 2018), p. 217; ‘Pub bombings: Brothers killed celebrating pregnancy’ BBC News 27 February 2019, online at:

[19] Irish Times, December 30, 1974.

[20] Evening Herald, December 6, 1973; Cork Examiner, August 4, 1973; An Phoblacht, March 15, 2017 online at

[21] Brian Hanley, The impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland, 1968–79, Boiling Volcano? (Manchester University Press, 2018), p. 57.

[22] Brian Hanley, The impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland, 1968–79, Boiling Volcano? (Manchester University Press, 2018), p. 55.

[23] Irish Times, June 1, 1976.

[24] An Phoblacht, December 16, 2004, online at:

[25] Dieter Reinisch, ‘The Fight for Political Status in Portlaoise Prison, 1973-7: Prologue to the

H-Blocks Struggle’ in War & Society 40(2), (2021), pp. 12-3.

[26] Irish Independent, April 4, 1977.

[27] Quoted in Gearóid Ó Faoleán, A Broad Church: The Provisional IRA in the Republic of Ireland, 1969–1980 (Irish Academic Press, 2019).

[28] Patrick Mulroe, Bombs, Bullets and the Border: Policing Ireland’s Frontier: Irish Security Policy, 1969–1978 (Irish Academic Press, 2017), p.171.

[29] Nationalist and Leinster Times, April 8, 1977.

[30] Nationalist and Leinster Times, February 11, 1972.

[31] Nationalist and Leinster Times, April 29, 1977.