Top 5 Irish prison breakouts of all time, RANKED

Prison breakouts have always fascinated people everywhere, and the Irish have gone down in history with some of the most spectacular ones. Read our top five Irish prison breakouts of all time below. 

Smuggled guns and knives, false uniforms, rescue helicopters, and boats paddling around half the planet to free a bunch of prisoners: Irish inmates have proven to be exceptionally creative in finding ways to freedom.

And one of the most famous escapees, Eamon de Valera, even went on to become the prime minister of Ireland. 

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that stories of our prisoners fleeing the law and order have been fascinating people around the globe for decades. Curious how they did it and if they succeeded? Check out our list of the top five Irish prison breakouts of all time below. 

5. The HMS Maidstone breakout – a bunch of IRA members jumped off the prison ship and swam to freedom


On the 17 January 1972, seven Republican prisoners escaped the prison ship HMS Maidstone in the Belfast docks by roping down with the help of wires and jumping into the icy water, followed by a 20-minute-swim to the harbour.

There, they hijacked a bus and went straight to a pub to toast their escape – one of the most memorable Irish prison breakouts of all time.

Days later, they appeared at an IRA press conference in Dublin. However, things didn’t go too well for the so-called “Magnificent Seven”. They were captured at their first public appearance and returned behind bars. 

4. The Lincoln Prison escape – Eamon de Valera later went on to become PM of Ireland


Eamon de Valera made history as one of Ireland’s most influential statesmen of the 20th-century. However, he also earned his place by escaping the Lincoln Prison in England in a highly creative way.

After serving time for his involvement in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, a series of violent clashes between Irish rebels and British forces over independence, he was sent to jail on allegations of conspiring with Germany.

One day, he spotted a door in an exercise yard, used wax to measure it, and drew its size and shape up in a series of cartoons sent to the IRA. On the outside, keys were cut to the dimensions on the card and smuggled into the prison inside of cakes. 

After three attempts, the plan worked out, and Eamon de Valera quietly left the prison through the door on the 3 February 1919. 

3. The Catalpa rescue – a paddle around half the globe to free six independence fighters


One of the most spectacular Irish prison breakouts of all time happened in Australia.

In 1876, a team of exiled Irish Fenians set out in a small whaleboat from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to rescue six of their Fenian brothers from one of the most hostile and remote prisons on earth, Fremantle in Western Australia. The inmates had been arrested for joining Ireland’s struggle for independence.

The operation took two years to accomplish and involved massive financial assistance of over 7,000 Irish Americans, a wild storm that almost caused the whaleboat to sink right before reaching the prison, and a water race with the Australian police. 

The Catalpa rescue is considered the greatest propaganda coup in Fenian history to date.

2. The Mountjoy Prison helicopter escape – the most stylish way to flee a jail of all times


On the 31 October 1973, three leading Republicans, Séamus Twomey, Kevin Mallon, and J. B. O’Hagan, escaped Mountjoy Prison in Dublin aboard a hijacked helicopter – making headlines internationally as one of the most unusual Irish prison breakouts of all time. 

The helicopter had initially been hired by a man posing as an American film producer, but an IRA team then ordered the pilot to fly to Mountjoy.

A prison officer on duty believed the Minister of Defence, Paddy Donegan, had come for a surprise visit, leaving the inmates valuable time to board the helicopter undetected while the rest of the jail was watching a football match.

The escape resulted in an emergency security meeting by the government and all IRA prisoners being transferred to the maximum-security Portlaoise Prison. The three escapees were later captured and returned to jail. 

1. The Maze Prison escape – the biggest prison breakout in Irish and UK history 

Credit: Flickr / Still Burning

On 25 September 1983, 38 IRA members escaped what was supposed to be the most secure prison in Europe, marking the top of the most spectacular Irish prison breakouts of all time. 

The inmates of HM Prison Maze, 12 miles away from Belfast, used smuggled guns and knives to take over H-Block Seven and take the guards hostage in order to prevent them from triggering the alarm.

Some dressed up in uniforms to flee the building. Outside, there was supposed to be a transport waiting, but due to a miscalculation of five minutes, they missed it and were forced to run off across the fields surrounding the prison. 

19 escapees were captured on the day, including four who were hiding underwater in a river close by using reeds to breathe. One prison officer died of a heart attack after being stabbed, 20 more were injured.