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Prisoner 1082: Escape from Crumlin Road, Europe's Alcatraz

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On St Stephen's Day 1960 Donal Donnelly made his dramatic escape from the prison known as 'Europe's Alcatraz'. Using hack-saw blades, torn sheets and electric flex, Donal broke out of Crumlin Road Prison, running the gauntlet of searchlights, alarms and machine-gun nests. Three years earlier, the teenage Donal had been convicted of membership of the IRA in the first year of 'Operation Harvest'. He was sentenced to ten years. As 12,000 Ulster police and B Specials pursued him, nationalists and republicans gave him shelter and support. Here he reflects on why he came to be on top of a prison wall risking his life. He describes the penal conditions in Northern Ireland and outlines in detail how the IRA operated in that period. He charts his later involvement in business, his search for justice for the marginalised and his friendship with the republican agitator and author Peadar O'Donnell. This is the story of a man who was banned from his hometown for thirty years by a vindictive government and how he overcame the hurdles to live a successful, happy life.

206 pages, Paperback

First published March 3, 2010

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5 stars
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4 stars
19 (43%)
3 stars
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Displaying 1 - 5 of 5 reviews
Profile Image for Tony.
154 reviews44 followers
May 23, 2015
This is a remarkably engaging telling of the mostly-forgotten story of the only person ever to escape from Crumlin Road prison in Belfast, at a time when it was touted as the most secure prison in Europe.

The story divides neatly into four sections:

The first is the background to Donnelly ending up in prison in the first place. This was fascinating to me, as it's from an era of Northern Irish history that I knew absolutely nothing about — the IRA's "Operation Harvest" campaign in the late 1950s/early 1960s — and it provides an interesting take on some aspects where the author (and in the context, disclaimers shouldn't really be needed about obvious biases!) believes significant mis-steps by the British led inexorably to the events of following decades.

The second is about the prison itself — what it was like (both generally, as a piece of social history; and personally for the author, who wasn't accepted by the IRA inside the prison, so had to find his own path), and, then, how he escaped. Even though the outcome is known up-front, the telling is surprisingly suspenseful. Another follow-up, re-telling the story from the inside perspective (as a mix of later conversations with guards, with the detailed and forthright report of the inquiry into the escape) is a nice touch. And intriguingly, it was an attempt to improve the security that created the key opportunity that was needed.

The best section, however, isn't the escape itself, but the subsequent attempts to get out of, first, Belfast, and then Northern Ireland itself. At this time there was no extradition from the South to the North, so all that was needed was to find a way across the border — or, more accurately far enough across the border for Special Branch to not simply come across and grab him anyway whilst the Gardaí turned a blind eye! This was an era of frequent roadblocks and searches anyway, and those were significantly expanded following Donnelly's escape. The number of times he really should have been caught is straight out of the Keystone Cops!

The book loses its way in the final section — the "And here's what I did with the rest of my life" part. It's mildly interesting to know, but I'd have much preferred a couple of pages as an Epilogue, rather than a couple of chapters. But those are easily skipped without losing much from what's otherwise a very well told tale.
Profile Image for Lisa-Jaine.
653 reviews4 followers
December 5, 2017
Outlines the history of the troubles that Ireland has gone through over the years. How he managed to escape prison and his trials and tribulations along the way. The last part details his career and felt like reading a detailed CV so it lost a star for that reason, but an interesting read nonetheless.
Profile Image for Malin Knutsson.
39 reviews4 followers
September 13, 2020
Eftersom jag inte är så politiskt intresserad så blev det, för mig, en del ointressanta/småtråkigt partier. Det intressanta för mig var planeringen av flykten, själva flykten och delvis tiden efteråt. Men det är en välskriven bok och jag kan rekommendera att besöka Crumlin Road Gaol först och sen läsa den 👍
Profile Image for Victoria.
9 reviews2 followers
May 21, 2013
It was an excellent find at Easons. Well written and very interesting. its powerful and honest. I would recommend it.
Profile Image for ilie.
344 reviews
July 2, 2013
How a guy in the year 2000 knows what was what in 1500? Or 1600? It turned out that ira was a "company" that kept busy unemployed youth! After you had the chance to get a good job, bye bye ira...
Displaying 1 - 5 of 5 reviews

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