Capture, Torture, and Escape - 1971
Within a couple of days Martin was back in Ardoyne. The British war machine had pulled out all stops in their determination to capture him, and there is no doubt that they handed over 30 pieces of silver to an informer. The Ardoyne Working Men’s Club, known locally as the ‘League’, was the venue in which the informer had told his handlers that Martin could be found and cornered. On November 9th 1971, the Brits totally surrounded the club also posting an outer perimeter of soldiers to protect those involved in the raid on the club. They burst into the building, guns levelled, screaming and shouting, “No bastard move!” “Move and we will blow your fucking heads off!” On hearing the commotion Martin moved in behind the bar, picked up a towel and pretended to be a barman cleaning glasses and, as the soldiers moved through the patrons in the club looking for him, he bent down and continued to ‘work. ’
One of the soldiers had spotted him however, despite his attempts to avoid detection. Martin was still crouching behind the bar as if he was busy working when one of the soldiers launched a savage, completely unprovoked attack on him. Cliff **** slammed Martin repeatedly on the back of his head with a steel bar which he had kept secreted in his boot up until that point. Martin found himself surrounded by dozens of Brits and each one had his rifle aimed squarely at him. He knew that the situation was hopeless so he feigned unconsciousness and was dragged out of the club. However, as he was being bundled into the back of the army Saracen, although badly beaten, he made a last desperate attempt to escape, only to be over powered. The same soldier who had beaten Martin with the steel bar in the club now held a knife to his throat. The only way to describe this individual’s actions is that he seemed to be on an ’ego trip’ - as if he was determined to be recognised as the man who captured ‘Martin Meehan’. From the first blow to Martin’s head to eventually getting him into the Saracen lasted an astonishing twenty minutes.
It is worth putting the actions taken by Cliff **** into perspective; considering that Martin was unarmed and hugely out numbered by the heavily armed military squad, was the brutal treatment he received really necessary? On a television programme Cliff clearly implied that he was very keen to run the knife into Martin’s throat, knowing there would be no questions asked as to how a prisoner was murdered - such was the British Army’s apparent hatred of Martin. On the other hand, Cliff **** could have been merely terrified by the images of Martin that he had created in his own mind - something that his Lance Corporal, Nick Curtis, suggests in his book on the incident - ‘For Faith and Country‘. In Curtis’s book, Cliff is known as Chris. It is worth remembering that Martin had humiliated the regiment; he had them hiding in fear inside their barracks and, as mentioned in an earlier chapter, rumours abound of how the soldiers were negatively affected by Martin and the local Volunteers skills in guerrilla warfare. By anyone’s standard, the attack should be considered cowardly and the heavy handed attitude unnecessary in capturing an unarmed man.
Martin was taken to Flax Street Mill and tossed on the concrete yard. The British soldiers came from every part of the mill, screaming and cheering in delight, each having his kick and even kicking each other in their desperation to make contact with Martin. Some of the soldiers were so frenzied in their attack on him they punched him repeatedly and tore at his clothes, until he lay only in his shorts. A number of them even stubbed out their cigarettes on his naked body and they all whooped, cheered, and jeered when others urinated on him. In the background Martin heard someone asking another, “What’s your name”, and a voice answered “O’Neill” - then he heard the sound of punches and kicks raining down on the man Martin knew to be Dutch Doherty. The regiment responsible for these actions were the Green Howard’s. To this day they are known on the streets of Ardoyne as “The Green Cowards”. One could easily suppose that they were venting their hatred on a man who had put the fear of God in them and disgraced their regiment’s so called honour. Throughout Martin’s ordeal, two R.U.C Special Branch men stood laughing and enjoying the spectacle. Following the initial attacks, the Army Medics were forced to perform first aid to Martin’s bleeding head - he required forty seven stitches which the medics administered to him before handing him back to his tormentors.
A soldier they called ‘Click Click’ hovered around in a perverse and ghoulish manner, taking pictures of Martin lying on the blood stained concrete floor having been savagely brutalised. As he lay there semi-conscious, he heard some one being asked “What is your name?” Martin recognised the voice that answered, “O’Neill”, to be that of Anthony ‘Dutch’ Doherty; he then witnessed five or six soldiers screaming, “Lying Bastard!”, before kicking and punching Dutch to the ground. Half an hour later, Martin was strapped onto a stretcher and placed in an armoured Saracen vehicle which travelled in convoy with an armoured escort back and front. He was taken to Palace Barracks near Hollywood - what was considered to be a state of the art torture centre of those days. It is said that Martin was the only Republican prisoner to be brought INTO Palace Barracks on a stretcher, for they usually were taken OUT that way.
What had happened to Martin previously at the hands of the Green Howards was nothing compared to what awaited him here. Now the real torture would begin. Martin was placed in a small cubicle and before being dragged outside and ordered to dig his own grave. Whilst this was happening he was continuously kicked and beaten with rifle butts, each blow tearing the stitches out of his head. He was then made to stand at the edge of the two foot deep ‘grave,’ when a rifle was placed to his head and a blank round was fired, Martin fell to the ground - a natural reaction. The British stood laughing and making ‘fart’ noises at him and again, several of them urinated on him. He was then dragged back into the cubicle. The British used the age old torture trick of denying him sleep; indeed, if his eyes closed he was punched and shoved to wake him up. This went on for around three or four days, with the R.U.C joining in the ‘fun’ as well. Martin recalled, “Joe, do you know what helped me? I kept this mental picture of my father in my head and kept saying to myself, ‘I won’t let you down Da, I won’t let you down! ‘’ With every boot and punch I silently said, ‘I won’t let you down Da ... I won’t let you down!’ My father saw me through it, Joe.”
Eventually, still caked in blood, Martin was brought to the Crumlin Road Prison under Military escort and even at his reception, the Brits were still throwing punches at him. The Warder in charge of the reception was a man called Tug Wilson, a Protestant, and he intervened on Martin‘s behalf, saying to the British soldiers, “Hey keep your fucking hands of him! While he’s in here he is in my custody, now cut it out.” Martin had a great respect for Tug Wilson but recalled that “regretfully”, Tug was assassinated five or six years later by Republicans during a campaign to stamp out brutality by warders on Republican prisoners. He was singled out because of his job, not because they had specific knowledge of him being involved in any wrong doing. An example of the behaviour of some screws was described by Bobby Sands during his 1981 Hunker Strike. Of this screw Bobby wrote, “There is a certain Screw here (Long Kesh) who has taken it upon himself to harass me to the very end and in a very vindictive childish manner. It does not worry me, the harassment, but his attitude aggravates me occasionally. It is one thing to torture, but quite a different thing to exact enjoyment from it, that's his type.”
On his release from the prison hospital, Martin went into ‘C Wing’ with other Republican prisoners, or I should say, ‘Republican Prisoners Of War’. Like any soldier who found himself to be a prisoner of war, Martin’s mind was soon considering the possibility of escape. At this point however, the security of the prison had recently been greatly increased due to the successful escape of a whole batch of Republican prisoners. One day when Martin was walking round the exercise yard with Mickey Maguire, another Republican prisoner, discussing the possibility of an escape, Mickey said, “See this metal manhole cover we are approaching … step on the right hand side; see what you think?” Martin was puzzled but stepped on the edge of the metal cover where he felt a slight movement and knew instantly what Mickey was saying. In spite of the newly increased security precautions, they had failed to weld down the manhole cover. Martin could feel his heart beating faster, and gave one of his wry grins to Mickey. The next day a football was produced and, under Mickey’s direction, the prisoners staged a match and during the game a number of them stayed around the side of the manhole which effectively blocked the screws who were watching from seeing what was really going on. Martin had dropped to his knees and opened the manhole cover to inspect the inside. Discussing it later with Mickey he said, “There is some water at the bottom but I don’t think that altogether the hole is more that six feet deep; it’s big enough for two men to hide in!” He looked eagerly at Mickey, who seemed to read his mind. “No Martin, count me out, much as I would love to go along, but there is more value in you and Dutch Doherty escaping at this point. Can you imagine their red faces? Besides, you are looking at a long sentence. ” Martin bit his lip but had to agree, as Mickey jokingly laughed and said, “No, you go on and leave me here, ya dirty pig!” The two of them laughed, and that became a standing joke between the two men for many years after. Mickey would joke, “You’re some pal, you went over the wall and left me behind!” Coincidently, Mickey was the son of the famous Crumlin Road escapee Ned Maguire, who went over the Crumlin Road Prison wall with three other leading Republicans in the 1940’s campaign. His two sisters, Dorothy Maguire and Maura Meehan, were murdered in a car by the British Army in the Falls area on October 23rd, 1971.
Martin and Mickey began to make plans. They gathered sheets, the legs of a metal chair to make a hook, and as much butter as they could get. Their thinking was that this being December, Martin and Dutch could grease their bodies to help withstand the tremendous cold in the sewer. First however, Martin had to ensure that his getaway was organised on the outside once they had scaled the wall. To do this he enlisted the help of a very humane man who had witnessed the brutal state that the British Army had left Martin in whilst in captivity - a man who knew the British Army had broken all international laws, not to mention the laws of God in their barbarity towards a prisoner. It had to be a man of the ‘cloth‘, and it was the very same Christian man who had administered the Last Rites to Martin following his treatment at the hands of the British Military, Fr. Martin (R.I.P), a priest from Holy Cross, Ardoyne. He passed on Martin’s wishes to his wife Mary, and they were quite specific yet simple; a car was to be parked in Cliftonpark Avenue, in front of the three storey maisonettes, at approximately 4pm, on December 9th, the key was to be left under the car mat. The rear gardens of these Maisonettes backed onto the Prison wall so it was obvious that that was the point which Martin hoped emerge from, but one must also remember there was a hugely increased risk - Cliftonpark Avenue was right in the middle of a Loyalist area.
The big day arrived, December 2nd 1971. The prisoners, including Martin, came out into the exercise yard; Martin had bent the leg of a metal chair which he had planned to use as a hook and had hidden it up the back of his jacket, while another prisoner had the sheet rope. At a prearranged time, a group of prisoners stalled in front of the manhole, giving cover to Mickey so that he could get the cover opened. Martin dropped down into the man hole, quickly followed by Dutch Doherty and finally, the knotted sheet rope was thrown in on top of them. Suddenly, an unexpected turn of events took place when a guy called Hughie McCann scrambled into the already cramped manhole, right on top of Martin and Dutch, He whispered, “ I got to go too; I am facing a life sentence!” Although they found out later that this was a lie, there was no time to argue. It was approximately 12 noon when Mickey slid the metal manhole cover into place. All this happened right under the noses of the prison guards whom, Martin recalled, it being pay day, were too busy inspecting their pay slips.
On returning from the exercise yard, the prisoners would be counted. Plans had already been made to confuse the warders completing the count to allow for Martin and Dutch being absent, however, now they had to improvise and allow for the third man, Hughie McCann, but somehow, it worked. Again at meal time there would be a further check on how many dinners had been collected, so three of the prisoners had to queue up and take a second meal without being recognised as already having had their dinner. All went well and the three prisoners were not missed.
For almost six hours the three froze in the sewer. Being winter, the dark nights fell at around five o’clock; it was now or never. Slowly they raised the manhole cover from within, slid it to one side, and one by one, climbed out. In the prison yard, the yellow beams from the security lights left dark spaces. “Down”, said Martin, “There is a Brit there in the shadows with a rifle.” In the same breath he said, “Fuck him!” and charged at the shadowy figure, which turned out to be only a cement mixer. Martin threw the hook up and couldn’t believe his luck when it caught the top of the wall first time. He started to climb the ‘rope’, but found that the butter they had used to counteract the cold had made the sheets slippery which in turn, made the climbing much harder. When all three got to the top of the wall Martin pulled the rope up behind them in order to put it over the other side of the wall so that they could climb down. He said, “Okay, Dutch go ahead,” only to be answered by Dutch already standing on the ground - he couldn’t wait for the rope and had jumped from the top of the wall. They made their way across the gardens and out past the side of the maisonettes onto Cliftonpark Avenue where they soon found the unlocked car with the keys under the front mat - it was about 5.45pm. Martin got behind the wheel and drove down Cliftonpark Avenue, across into Agnes Street, through the Loyalist Shankill, towards the Falls Road.
Parking the car in Albert Street, the three walked the short distance to 30 McDonnell Street - the Dutton home - Martin’s wife Mary’s family. Mrs Dutton was making dinner and, as the three walked in she let out a scream, “Martin!” At that moment the news on the television was just announcing that “the ‘terrorist’, Martin Meehan had escaped from Crumlin Road Prison”. Cheers could be heard in living rooms all over Ireland; at Ardoyne, the people ran out into the streets to cheer and some to jeer at the Brits in Flax Street Mill.
As the three men sat down to a hastily prepared fry up, the Brits were carrying out a routine door to door search at the far end of the street. From Mrs Dutton’s house it was over to her daughter’s home in Divis Flats, for a bath and change of clothes which were waiting there for them. All over Belfast a huge man hunt was set up; hardly a major road was without a stop and search security barrier, buses were boarded and every male passenger screened. The local television companies descended on Martin’s house to interview his wife, Mary, and I have an interesting piece of film of one such interview. Incredibly, the foolish interviewer asked Mary if she knew where Martin was or if she would be going to meet him. It is amusing to watch as Mary struggled to keep from laughing in his face but she gave a slight smile as she said, “I have no idea where he is!” The poor wee man thought he was onto a scoop, as if Mary was going to say, “Well he is down at my mother’s house at the moment at 30 McDonnell Street, having a fry, and then he is going over after that to my sister’s place at Divis Flats to have a bath change his clothes which I left down earlier for him. Then he will probably drive down to Dundalk where me and the kids will be joining him shortly for a wee break. I’ll give him your regards and those of Cliff **** and Nick Curtis. Bye Bye now, I have to go and get my hair done!”
Martin, Dutch, and Hughie split up. Martin set off for Dundalk with a borrowed ‘wife and child’ accompanying him in the car as a cover. As he drove through Banbridge, a big oul lump of a peeler with a head like a turnip stopped him at a road block.
“Some thing wrong officer?” asked Martin.
“Ah, it is these cowboys who got out of the prison,” said the peeler looking in at the woman and infant child in her arms.
“Oh yes,” said Martin, “that was a bad case.”
“What is the point of us catching them if they just let them walk out?”
Martin was tempted to say, ‘Go on ya oul half wit, you couldn’t catch a cold!’
“Well, anyhow sir, I won’t hold you back. Get that window closed before the child gets a cold.”
Martin drove on and in less than an hour he was across the British border and into Dundalk. Later, Martin and Dutch appeared before a press conference, stripped down to their underpants to show the scars and cigarette burns, etc that were inflicted on them whilst in captivity at Flax Street Mill and in Martin’s case, Palace Barracks, Holywood.
Just before we leave this chapter and the exploits of Cliff ****, I hope the reader will allow me to share a part of the book “ Faith & Duty” written by the British soldier, Nick Curtis, that has personal interest for me. In the book “Chris” is the cover name for Cliff. On page 73, Curtis writes...........
“Sometimes things went just as badly wrong for us as we tried to arrest them. On the next action, Chris took out my unit to arrest ‘Cleeky’ Clarke, the bodyguard of Gerry Adams. It was an afternoon lift rather than an early morning one, but it was pretty routine so I stayed behind. Clarke’s house which was in Jamaica Street, a stone’s throw from the mill. I watched the op from up on the roof. They went in, but by the time they came out rioters were assembling.
They knew who Clarke was and didn’t want to give him up without a fight. The unit got back and everything seemed fine until I asked Chris where Blakesy and Nigger were. His face froze.
‘Oh shit! I stationed them at the back of the house but we came out the front. We’ve forgotten them!’ We ran up to the roof (of Flax Street Mill) in time to see Nigger and Blakesy belting down the back of Jamaica Street with a mob of fifty rioters pounding after them. The boys ran for their lives, discarding their helmets, their webbing and practically everything but their rifles to try to lighten their load and keep ahead. There was a trail of army-issue equipment littered behind them. The rest of the unit joined us at the wall to shout encouragement. Nigger was sprinting so hard in blind panic that his knees were nearly hitting his chin. As they got close enough for us to be pretty sure they were going to make it, we started taking bets on who’d get in first.”
What Curtis didn’t mention was that among the equipment ‘Nigger’ and ‘Blakesy’ discarded were the booklets each soldier carried containing photo montages and information on every man and woman in the area whom they were to stop and detain. I was very amused to see my own picture there with the description “Transport Officer.” A more interesting and perhaps sinister insight was gleaned from those booklets as certain names within had a curious mark alongside them, but what this meant, I will leave for the reader to make his own mind up.