17 January 2002
The Magnificent Seven
—from An Phoblacht
1972 witnessed one of the most difficult and daring escapes by Irish republican Prisoners of War, when a group of prisoners, subsequently dubbed the 'Magnificent Seven', captured news headlines at home and abroad with their escape from the Maidstone prison ship. The Maidstone, overcrowded with hundreds of nationalist men interned without trial by the British, had been anchored for some time in Belfast Lough and was reputedly escape proof.
The men involved in the escape had been watching the tide for weeks, trying to gauge it. Tin cans were thrown into the water and their movements checked. Even the antics of a young seal were monitored.
The prisoners collected butter from food parcels and, during recreation, smeared themselves with it as a precaution against the cold. Then, daubing boot polish on their bodies for extra protection, and dressed in football shorts or pyjamas, they cut the bar on the ship's porthole using a fret saw and slipped through.
Despite the fact that armed soldiers on the deck had searchlights and the water around the ship was full of barbed wire and was too cold to survive in, the men pressed on.
They clambered down the Maidstone's steel hawser and entered the water. Several of them were cut by the barbed wire but all succeeded in struggling through it. In single file they slowly swam the 400 yards to shore through the bitterly cold water.
However, when the men eventually landed it was at the wrong spot. Moreover, a delay in their starting time caused by an extra headcount on board meant that when they finally made it to the pier on Queens Island, their comrades were nowhere to be seen.
The escapees reverted to a stand-by plan. Peter Rodgers, in his soaking underwear, emerged from cover and approached Belfast's Queen's Road bus terminus. A startled bus driver, having a cup of tea, was told that Rodgers had fallen into the lough. The driver lent Rodgers the greatcoat of his uniform and set off on his run to Belfast City Hall.
The escapees, now tired and freezing, waited until the bus returned. When the driver went into the security office the seven men broke cover. Rodgers, who had been a bus driver before internment, jumped into the cab while the others piled onto the bus, They drove towards the main gates and got through before the security guard could close them.
The bus headed for the Markets area pursued by a British Army Land Rover. The Brits, however, refrained from entering the staunchly republican area.
That night on television, the British Army claimed that the escapers [sic] were surrounded and could not get away and that the the Brits would go in the following morning and arrest them This caused some amusement to the escapees, who were by then watching the news broadcast in another area of Belfast.
The following day, the British Army ransacked houses in the Markets. No escapers [sic] were found. The British Army vented their rage on local people and 25 men were detained for interrogation. Within a week, the escapees were giving a famous press conference in Dublin.
Three of the Magnificent Seven — Jim Bryson, Thomas 'Tucker Kane' and Tommy 'Toddler' Tolan — were all subsequently killed while on active service with the IRA.
The escape from the Maidstone prison ship occurred on 17 January 1972, 30 years ago this week.