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Triumph and tragedy: Lessons of  Republican prison escape

Seamus Murphy, Having it Away, An Epic Story of Freedom, Friendship and IRA jailbreak, Bray, Co. Wicklow

Reviewed by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght.

28 September 2018

Seamus Murphy escaped from Wakefield Jail on 12 February 1959. He was the only Irish Republican prisoner to escape from a British jail since de Valera in 1919.  Unlike Dev, he was not liberated to become President of the Irish Republic, nor was his freedom achieved by the IRA, but by the breakaway group Saor Uladh in partnership with the Cypriot revolutionary nationalists of Eoka. It is probably because of this that this escape has not become as famous as that of Dev or the Fenians’ Manchester rescue and its martyrs.

Seamus himself was determined to rectify this, not only for his reputation but for the reputations of those who had helped or tried to help spring him. This book reads as if it had been written within days of his return to Ireland. Its characters are exposed vividly from a political prisoner’s viewpoint. The narrative moves quickly through its reporter’s vicissitudes to its triumphant finish. It must be added that this is despite it being printed with little or no editing.

It should be considered as having two themes. The dominant one is that of the traditional Republican jail narrative culminating in Seamus Murphy’s triumphant escape. The other is the undercurrent to be recognized by anyone who knows the history of the subsequent years: the background to the tragic record of failures by successive attempts to defeat British imperialism in the second half of the twentieth century.

The major narrative is one well known to any reader of Republican prison literature. Wakefield is portrayed as being in the middle of the prison chart, less brutal than Durham, Parkhurst or the ‘Moor, but worse than Strangeways. However, all the usual items are here: the claustrophobia, the slopping out, the disgusting (and drugged) food, the chokey, and, over all, the shadow of two deterrents, the cat and the noose. The stock characters are the same: the cons, the warden with his military background finding a new enemy in his prisoners, the brutal screws. (‘Is there no limit to the badness of the bastards?’ Seamus asked Cathal Goulding. ‘None,’ was the reply.) There is also a new addition to the cast list, unknown to Rossa or Tom Clarke: the prison doctor with psychiatric experience whose extra knowledge causes him to take interest in his patients in so far as he can certify them as insane. Only the library tempered Seamus’ ordeal.

How far matters have changed since then the writer can tell only from repute. The cat and the gallows have gone. Gays are not knocked up for what they are (officially). It is possible that the majority of cons would be less tolerant of those who brutalise women (some of Seamus’ mates’ actions appear to have been horrific), but this is doubtful. More certainly, new draconian laws have caused major overcrowding. Seamus had a cell to himself; he would not have one today. Above all, the snout barons who ruled the roost among the cons seem to have been toppled from their pre-eminence by drug barons, far more predatory and with rival gangs that threaten the common unity that existed among the cons of Seamus Murphy’s time.

The smallness and confused nature of these changes is the result of the overall political development that is the implicit secondary theme of this book, the tragic counterpart to Seamus Murphy’s comparatively triumphant escape. As for many others, prison was his school for political education. Three names stand out among his mentors: those of Klaus Fuchs, Cathal Goulding and Nicos Sampson (tho’ Sampson’s three comrades, George Ioannu, Vias Livadas and George Skotinos deserve mention, too). Of these, Fuchs, the Communist ‘atom spy’ played a relatively indirect role. The other two were, in their strengths and weaknesses, harbingers of the political future.

Clearly, Seamus admired Cathal Goulding. There was much to admire. He was ‘very highly regarded’ in the republican movement. His  ‘politics were solidly left wing’. He was ‘a decent man very full of humanity.’  ‘An avid reader’, he ‘had been working his way through the prison library for years.’   Yet he ‘was in the habit of doing a load of pushups in his peter every night after lock up’. With all that, he was ‘a fine chess player’, Klaus Fuchs’ worthiest opponent.

None of this prevented Seamus from coming to sense his comrade’s weakness, his doglike loyalty, beyond the necessary discipline, to the I.R.A. that was failing consistently to spring its soldiers and his quixotic refusal to give the promise that he knew he would not keep to refrain from any further escape attempts. It is probable that Goulding’s transfer from Wakefield prevented any open political breach between the two, almost certain that without the transfer or a breach, Murphy would have done the same extra five years as his fellow lifer Joe Doyle.

The Cypriots did more than fill the gap. Their leader, Sampson, was at least as remarkable as Goulding, and was not inhibited by his membership of a century old movement. Seamus Murphy describes a pragmatic revolutionary, without Goulding’s scruples about keeping his word to the governor, ‘a very hard man indeed’. This hardness appeared as a weakness in his desire to have a gun for the escape and after, as a weak defence against the British state’s armed gangs.

The book ends with Seamus and his rescuer, Hughie Farrell landing safely at Dublin Airport. There is no epilogue such as might have explained the subsequent failures of his remarkable comrades. Perhaps he did not understand fully himself, being bound by their assumptions. In so far as he had an answer for Ireland, it was of unity on a simple republican programme. In practice, he could only mourn his friends’ failures to defeat regimes dominated by far less able individuals.

Goulding’s attempt to turn the organized movement to a socialist perspective was coloured by his nationalism. He was seduced by the stalinites’ power and their idea that a bourgeois republic could and should be established as a base for ‘actually achieved socialism’ in a possibly isolated Ireland. His initiative ended, as such initiatives ended before and after, in a series of splits as sections of his supporters discovered that he was protecting his movement by shedding its revolutionary credentials. In the end, a final split came from the other side, those deserting his rump being more reformist than he had become.

As a revolutionary nationalist, Sampson came nearer to success, being President of Cyprus for a few days. It was only in a revisionist’s caricature of Ireland’s Easter Rising and the subsequent Anglo-Irish War. His elevation was the result of a putsch aided by a reactionary Greek military dictatorship unprepared to maintain it against imperialism. The result was that Cyprus is now as partitioned as Ireland. Sampson had trusted too much to a cross class revolutionary national spirit in Greece and Cyprus..

In the end each of Murphy’s themes contains a lesson. The overall prison escape narrative shows the impossibility of an enlightened system of criminal reformation under capitalism. The tragic underlying theme and that of its aftermath shows how even enlightened revolutionary nationalism cannot defeat the system and that national questions are too important to be left even to revolutionary nationalists.

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