DEMOCRAT ARCHIVES | Report from the 1922 Bombing of Dundalk Jail

LOCAL HISTORY

Dundalk Democrat

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Dundalk Democrat

DEMOCRAT ARCHIVES | Report from the 1922 Bombing of Dundalk Jail

ARTICLE AS PRINTED IN DUNDALK DEMOCRAT, JULY 1922


Dundalk jail was damaged when a gelignite bomb exploded on Thursday morning, and practically every political prisoner dashed through the breach made.

The bomb was placed against the side wall and its explosion created much havoc, smashing every window within a wide radius.

Prominent Republicans were among those escaping. All day on Thursday and yesterday the escaped men were being pursued. It is announced that 50 have been recaptured.

Every road was blocked at the time of the jail attack and National troops were ambushed at Castletown Cross and Barrack Street Bridge. Two Free State soldiers were under treatment for bullet wounds received in these attacks. One of these died yesterday morning.

One hundred and five prisoners were liberated from the county jail at Dundalk at a quarter past seven on Thursday morning under circumstances which made the incident the most thrilling and dramatic of all the strange occurrences which have taken place in Dundalk even within recent times. Briefly the facts were that a hole was breached in the jail wall by a bomb, the prisoners filed out through the aperture and on foot made for the surrounding country. In a chase afterwards some of them were recaptured.

The sensational news came just when talk of the sensational bank raid had died down. People had expended all their pet theories, given all their vivid descriptions of Saturdays happenings, when the awful crash which shook the jail walls and the houses about made them sit up and take notice. The escape from the jail was certainly one which made a big noise. Nothing like the explosion has been heard here before - it dented the stout masonry and made a big gap in the wall, smashed the glass in the windows of the Crescent dwelling houses to smithereens, did the same with  the windows of the County Infirmary, and some of those in St. Malachy's Priory, cast huge boulders into the air as if they were pebbles from a shingly beach, reduced the door of the tuberculosis hospital to matchwood and injured a warder on the knee.

It happened at just a quarter past seven. A big contingent of men were noticed to concentrate in the vicinity of the jail. That is not an unusual sight on a road over which hundreds of railwaymen pass every day. But these were not railwaymen. Somebody placed a bomb on the ground along the jail wall just midway between the jail gate on the Ardee Road and the end of the prison. An electric wire was taken from a pole and connected to the bomb, which had been placed in position by planks. Then the bomb went off with an awful noise. Right through the thick wall went the contents of the bomb, casting the stones and cement on one side, and leaving a big hole in the wall.

People who were not engaged in the operations wandered what had happened.  People living in the Crescent felt their houses shake as if an earthquake had suddenly come to life in Vincent Avenue. Immediately glass began to crash and window frames to fly, and the very foundations of their houses seemed to shiver. Over in the hospital the patients had a terrifying experience.  Windows, front and back, went bang, and the noise was deafening. Fortunately no person was injured by the flying fragments, but the experience was dreadful, the more particular for the poor patients in the hospital.

The prisoners must have been at large from their cells at the time, because almost immediately the explosion had died away they came trooping out through the hole which had been thoughtfully provided for their escape. It is stated that before the bursting of the bomb, hand grenades were thrown into the prison yard. Darting through the breach, the prisoners ran through the streets nearby. In all 105 had escaped.

For a fortnight past Dundalk jail had been reserved for political prisoners. The ordinary civilian offenders against law and order had been removed from Dundalk some time ago and their places filled by these parties, who had been despatched, most of them, by special train, from Dublin. The place had been guarded by National troops - there was, in fact, a Thompson gun, in the front main window - and the tri-colour had been floating over the prison. It was expected that the place would be in charge of a military governor, but he had not arrived up to Thursday morning, and the old staff was on duty.

During Thursday it was rumoured that among those escaping were several very prominent Republican leaders. No confirmation could be obtained of this, but it was learned on good authority that the majority of the prisoners were natives of the County Meath.

Following the extraordinary occurrence there was great military activity in the town. Troops came along on motors, and immediately a guard was placed along the breach. People passing were held up and searched. Then a chase through the country after the escaped prisoners ensued, and in this considerable energy was displayed. Shots were heard at several points round the town, but whether this had anything to do with the chase is not established.

There were some peculiar rumours in the town concerning the affair. One was that the bulk of the men who had been responsible for the exploding of the bomb arrived at the place on a tender and wearing uniform. Another was that there had been a trial explosion of a gelignite bomb the previous day. Certain it is that at about 8 o'clock on Wednesday afternoon a bomb was exploded very close to Dundalk.

Plans had been well laid for the coup, which was proved to be the biggest made by the Irregulers in Dundalk There was continual firing practically through the night. On Thursday morning too, an attempt was made to ambush troops coming from the Military Barracks. This attempt was made at the Barrack Street bridge, from which shots were discharged at National troops passing up town in a motor car. Many civilians were concerned in this attempt. It was also attempted to prevent the troops coming through Quay street. An engine was taken from the running shed and taken down the line a considerable distance, the object being to block the  Barrack street gates and so prevent troops coming in that way. The plan did not succeed. In a roundup of the district the military arrested nine youths and men in the timber yard of the GNR in St Alphonsus Road. Some of these were stated to be mere boys who are alleged to have prominent membership of the Fianna.

At Castletown Cross also an attempted ambush of National troops took place.

In this area there was a sustained firing from both sides of the road. There were casualties here. Those among the attackers are not known. To the Louth Infirmary subsequently two National soldiers were taken in for treatment. One was Colonel Commandant Mason, who was injured by a bullet wound in the foot, and whose condition is not serious. The other is Volunteer McCaffrey, a young man who was severely wounded in the thigh, and who expired on Friday morning at 3 o'clock.

During the shooting at Barrack street a woman fainted.

The explosion of the bomb, which was probably filled with gelignite, was heard as far away as Ravensdale on the one side and Castlebellingham on the other.

Photographers anxious to get a "snap" of the hole made in the jail wall were refused permission to do so by the soldiers on guard.

It was learned yesterday that amongst those who had escaped from the barracks and had not been re-arrested was Mr. Ridgway, an organiser for the Transport Union, who had been arrested last Monday week. In connection with the detention of Mr. Ridgway a one-day county strike was threatened for Wednesday last, this decision having been reached at a delegate labour meeting held in Kilsaran on Sunday last. The strike was to have taken place on Wednesday, if by Tuesday mid-day word was not received that the organiser was not released or brought to trial. The strike was postponed on the papers in connection with the case having been sent to military headquarters in Dublin, with a promise of an immediate investigation of the matter.

Many Belfast refugees cleared out of Dundalk early this week. 

Inquiries went to show that up to last night about 50 prisoners had been retaken. Some of appear to have got a considerable distance from the jail, for arrests are reported from Drogheda, and other districts of South Louth. The chase continues and probably will for some days to come.

In all twenty arrests have been made within the past two days of people who were alleged to be concerned in the jail release or in the ambushes on the National troops. The most notable is John M'Coy, Mullabawn, who was a brigadier in the barracks here before the National troops took command. Last night some of the prisoners were taken to the jail. They include H. Johnston, a rate collector for the County Council; - Duffy, Parnell Park; - Cunningham, John street.

Dundalk Democrat, July 29th 1922 - About Town
 

As we know nothing about explosives, we don't know whether it was necessary to make so confoundly loud a noise in blowing a hole in the jail wall big enough for one prisoner at a time to make his escape through. We have seen far more damage done in a quarry with a blasting-charge that didn't frighten the young horses in the next field. This explosion shook the town. It blew in every pane of glass in the Crescent. It did far more damage to the County Infirmary than to the jail. It frightened hundreds of timid women and children to the verge of hysterics. There are other aspects of the affair that are much discussed in town: but we will not refer to these now. Let us go on to tell of one of the "ambushes", so much commended to young lads as an easy way of downing "the enemy". This one took place close to the town. There was a woman living in the house close by who was about to give birth to a baby. The nurse was in the house when the ambushers took up their posts. She told them of the circumstances and begged them to go elsewhere and not risk two innocent lives. They refused. "Acting on orders", we suppose: the usual thing! The baby was born amidst the hellish rattle of gunfire. It lived long enough to be baptised: no longer. The poor mother lies at death's door. That is a true tale. The incident occurred close to Dundalk on Thursday morning. And that is what this "war", about which so much blatherskite is talked and written by fools, means to the civilian population who are the greatest - almost the only - sufferers by it.