50 Years Ago


On Sunday morning, October 1946 at 8am Harry White was eventually arrested by RUC in his hideaway house at Altaghoney, four miles from Claudy, on the Tyrone-Derry border.

District-Inspector Corbett led the raid assisted by some very embarrassed constables from Claudy. In support were County Inspector Davidson, head of the political branch of the CID, District-Inspector C Pootes, Head-Constable Carson and Head-Constable Fannin. The latter four were all political men from Belfast.

They broke in the door and got Harry in his "cache" under the counter of the shop. Combing the house they found two dumps, one behind the fireplace and another entered through the ceiling of a built-in press. Twelve hand guns, parts of others and two thousand rounds of ammunition were seized.

Harry had returned the previous evening from one of his monthly visits to Belfast. A policeman who knew him as "Harry McHugh" saluted him near the house. When the raid took place early the following morning Harry felt the RUC man’s presence had some significance, "if only to make sure the bird had returned to the coop".

Harry felt he was tracked from information from "Killarney Pat"; he was the only one out of Belfast who had visited him in Altaghoney and then only once. He had acted as a courier between Belfast and Dublin. Arrested in Dublin there was a strong suggestion that he did a deal with Detective-Inspector Michael Gill of the Special Branch by disclosing Harry’s whereabouts.

Harry says: "Dublin then informed the RUC, stipulating in all probability that there need be no long-drawn out deportation process; just a secret handover at the Border, which is what was done."

Taken to Victoria Barracks, Strand Road, Derry he was placed in a cell. Later, during interrogation by the politicals, Davidson made a promise. "If you tell us the name of the line into the Crumlin (jail), you will not be handed over the Border." Fannin added ominously: "And you know, if the Free State get you it will be no flowers, by request." Harry was silent.

He had spent almost two-and-a-half years in Altaghoney from mid-1944. Disguised as a merchant seaman invalidated out of the navy – with discharge papers to prove it – he had had many amusing adventures.

Not alone did he cut an RUC constable’s hair on several occasions and draw gelignite from the local RUC barracks to blast rocks but he almost ran into trouble in Co Donegal on a Sunday bus outing.

Several of the company got drunk and began fighting. All were taken to the local Guards’ barracks and Harry had his name taken, although cold sober, under the "Wanted" poster for him on the wall of the day room.

On another occasion he accompanied Father Jack Thompson of Hannahstown near Belfast on the banjo while that ex-Volunteer of the early ‘30s sang rebel songs at a post-Confirmation concert.

The principal guest was Dr Neil Farren, who was according to Harry "long-term Bishop of Derry and a notorious Brit boot-licker". On the day following his arrest Harry was brought by car, heavily escorted, to Crumlin Road Prison, Belfast. Three days later, on Thursday October 24, he was released, then bundled into an RUC car, handcuffed and driven – still heavily escorted – to Tyholland on the Monaghan border.

It was the fourth anniversary to the day of his escape in Donnycarney, Dublin when Maurice O’Neill was captured and executed. The omens were not good. The RUC car stopped on the "southern" side of the bridge marking the Border. Harry states: "There was no legal authority for my deportation, but neither the RUC nor the Free State were worried by trivialities like that!"

Detective-Inspectors Gill and Weymes with "a posse of their gunmen" arrived 25 minutes late. Harry was bundled out by RUC man Gibson, Gill approached, confirmed the prisoner’s identity and then formally charged him with shooting Special Branch man Mordaunt on October 24, 1942.

Harry was handcuffed by one of Gill’s men, driven to Dublin and charged in the Dublin District Court sitting in the Grand Jury Room of Green Street Courthouse before Justice O’Grady.

No members of the public were present and the only press man was Pearse Kelly, the former IRA Chief of Staff who had been interned for three years and was now back at his trade.

Leaving Green Street Chief Supt Seàn Gantly, head of the Special Branch, walked over to the handcuffed prisoner and said: "Don’t worry, we’ll get this over quick and you’ll hang, you bastard."

Four days later on October 28 Harry was again brought before the Dublin District Court which for "security reasons" was held in the Circuit Court rooms of Chancery Place. A sister, brother-in-law and two Belfast friends were present.

George Murnaghan for the prosecution said "the interests of justice might be served . . . if the public were excluded". He also wanted the press excluded from the preliminary hearing.

O’Grady questioned this and after a strong objection by Con Lehane for the defence, pressmen and the Belfast relatives and friends were allowed to remain.

Lehane also made a statement, which Gantly attempted to deny, that White was illegally before the court, that he had been kidnapped as a result of a conspiracy and brought there.

Lehane boldly reasserted this "much to the annoyance of Gantly and Murnaghan, whose forebears from Omagh made their living in the service of the Crown".

The Branch men gave their versions of the shooting at the rear of 14 Holly Park, Donnycarney, Dublin on the date in question.

Harry’s account continues: "On the third day Gill made a long plaintive complaint to the court, ‘of which I am only a very humble servant,’ on the charge of conspiracy and kidnapping twice made against him by Con Lehane.

"He requested the court to put an end to this conduct ‘until I am charged and proven guilty’, adding ‘even a criminal has his rights’.

"Lehane was not to be put off: ‘I am satisfied,’ he said ‘that the manner in which Henry White was brought from Belfast to Tyholland was not a legal manner; that he was in fact abducted and kidnapped.

" ‘I say that the presence of officers of the Special Branch at Tyholland to meet Henry White and his kidnappers fixes Inspector Gill and his superiors with previous knowledge that he was going to be so kidnapped by Sir Basil Brooke’s RUC.

" ‘On the last day the Court sat,’ added Lehane, ‘there was an attempt at intimidation by Chief Supt Gantly, but I will not be intimidated or deterred by threats.’ Lehane had to make the most of this, but it was only a curtain raiser for the serious business to come."

Gantly in evidence denied that he had colluded with Gill to meet the RUC at Tyholland. The instructions came from someone higher up, he said. Harry supposes it was someone at the level of Peter Berry, later Secretary of the Department of Justice, but he doubted very much that Gantly was not a party to it . . .

áWe continue with another instalment of the Labour Party report, which became its official policy, on conditions in Portlaoise jail in 1946:

"Certain features of prison routine are inevitable. For instance, there must be regular meal hours, regular hours for exercise and recreation, regular hours for rising and retiring. It does not follow, however, that the prisoners in Portlaoise should all take exercise at 4pm, or that they should all take a meal at 12.40 as they are required to do now.

"The most impressionable features of the regulation routine are:

  1. the depressing effect of the prison dress;
  2. the aimless parading of men in single file around the prison building;
  3. the unrelieved monotony of the food.

"Some reference must now be made to each of those matters.
Food – The food is plain but wholesome. Complaint was made to us by some younger men, especially those working on the farm, that it is not adequate. Breakfast is at 8.40am and the last meal is at 4.30pm. In recent years an addition was made to the issue of food served at this meal to enable prisoners to have a light meal at 7.30pm before their cells are locked for the night. If, however, the men are sufficiently hungry the entire issue is consumed at 4.30pm. No meal is served after this hour.
Recreation – For the usual run of prisoners there are two spells of work on weekdays, one in the morning and one in the evening. For some this involves working on the farm, for others work of a skilled character in the workshops; others chop wood, attend the boilers or look after farm animals etc. Those employed in the workshop are given some time off for recreation in the open air. The recreation, except for the younger men, who use the ball-alley, takes the form of walking aimlessly backward and forward around the prison building and it is hardly possible to imagine anything that looks so foolish or purposeless, as the sight of a number of adult men walking in single file from one point to another seemingly bereft of interest or intelligence.
After the evening meal, the prisoners (with the exceptions mentioned later) are permitted another form of recreation in association in the main hall, ie they play games such as draughts, until 7.30pm or they, may listen to music provided by a radiogram. This must be the most pleasant interval in the whole 24 hours of the prison day for those who are permitted to share in it.
Clothes – The stupidity of the promenading which prisoners are required to perform when taking exercise in the prison is aggravated by the appearance of the clothes they are obliged to wear. The rough, crude material one can understand and accept, but the shape, fitting and colour of the traditional prison garb are too ludicrous to bear explanation.

"If the original purpose of the convict dress was to render identification easy in the event of a prisoner escaping from custody, it surely can be dispensed with in a prison like Portlaoise, where there is little likelihood that a prisoner will escape unaided. If prisoners cannot provide their own clothes, they should be issued with ordinary civilian clothes without distinctive marks of any kind.

"The beds and bed-clothing are reasonably comfortable. Therefore our criticism under this heading refers only to the outdoor dress, and concerning it, we urge strongly that the convict uniform should be abolished for all prisoners; those who desire to do so should be allowed to wear their own clothes if suitable; where this is impracticable, ie where the clothes are in poor condition, the prisoners should be issued with an ordinary civilian suit of a kind which he might be normally expected to wear at work.

"In a number of cases we asked prisoners whether they desired to complain of any matter relating to the conditions of their imprisonment, eg food, punishment, behaviour of prison officers, etc. The majority of those interrogated intimated that so far as they were personally concerned there were no complaints. On the other hand, we received from certain prisoners detailed complaints which we noted in the presence of the Governor and to which we consider it proper to refer here.

"It was complained (as noted above) that the food is inadequate. The basis of this complaint seems to be that the quantity of food supplied at 4.30pm is not sufficient where the men spend several hours working outdoor, to satisfy the long period between 4.30 in the afternoon and 8.30 the next morning. We believe this contention is well-founded, but the cause of complaint can be removed only by the Minister for Justice prescribing a new dietary scale – the remedy does not lie with the prison authorities. The new scale should provide for a light meal being served, say, before 8.30pm.

"Complaint was also made that the lights in the cells are switched off too early during minter months, ie at 8.30pm. During mid-winter the cells are in darkness for a stretch of twelve hours, so that reading or any form of recreation likely to break the monotony of prison existence is out of the question. We are of the opinion that the cell lights should not be switched off before 10pm and that they should be readjusted so that prisoners confined to bed for any reason may be able to read until 'lights out' if they wish to do so.

"Another source of complaint is the absence of tobacco or cigarettes. One prisoners, who appeared to be familiar with conditions in British Convict Prisons, pointed out that in Great Britain prisoners are permitted to smoke in their cells – but not elsewhere – and to purchase with money earned in the prison by themselves, whatever tobacco or cigarettes they require so far as the money lying to their credit permits. Recognising that in most cases it is a great and unnecessary hardship to deprive men of tobacco or cigarettes, we are of opinion that smoking should be permitted subject to proper safeguards.

"It was stated to us that on occasions men were beaten up in their cells and that they were otherwise ill-treated by prison officers. Some of these complaints were obviously fantastic, as, for instance, the statement made by one prisoner that a warder struck another prisoner (not the complainant) in the mouth with the handle of a 14lb sledge.

"In another case the incident mentioned – an alleged assault – was said to have occurred last year. Evidently there was some foundation for the latter complaint as the Governor stated the matter had been reported to him and that disciplinary action had been taken with regard to it. It will be understood that one is usually at a disadvantage in dealing with these allegations because of the condition of the complainant – very often he is mentally subnormal. Indeed one impression we took away from Portlaoise is that many of those undergoing long terms of imprisonment in respect of serious crimes are mentally deficient, requiring the attention of a pathologist or psychiatrist rather than a jailer.

"One serious complaint brought to out notice calls for special attention. The complaint in the first instance was made not by the aggrieved person, but by a prisoner-workmate in the shoemakers’ shop. However we checked up on the statement by questioning, in the presence of the Governor, the aggrieved person (by the way, he was reluctant to make any charge in relation to the case) who stated that in March, 1943, he attempted to escape, was brought back and ordered punishment by the Visiting Committee, was then taken to his cell, which was entered by seven prison warders, including two Principal Warders, that he was beaten, kicked and severely manhandled. He admitted that he had not previously reported the incident to the Governor, but asserted that he had reported it to the Prison Doctor (Dr Dwane) and to the Prison Chaplain (Fr Harris). Asked why he did not report the matter to the Governor, the prisoner alleged he had been threatened by the warders and was afraid to tell the Governor what they had done to him. The names of the warders concerned in the affair were supplied to us in the hearing of the Governor. It may be added, however, that in the meantime, three of them have retired from the Prison Service, two are said to be serving in Mountjoy Prison and the others in Portlaoise. We consider that the whole circumstances surrounding this complaint should be officially investigated.

"Arising out of certain statements communicated to us prior to our visit to Portlaoise, we made a number of inquiries regarding the prison dungeon or 'the digger' as we understand it is called. We did not meet any prisoner who from his own knowledge could describe it or indicate its location. None of those whom we interviewed had knowledge or experience of it. The Governor, however, showed us certain underground cells which he said were, in fact, the prison dungeons. One of these is a padded cell, dark, musty and forbidding, and used, we were informed, for the temporary detention of prisoners who became insane. There are four adjacent cells, similar to the padded cell, but a trifle less forbidding. They are practically without light, admit little air and appear dark and overpowering. The Governor assured us these cells have not been used in any circumstances since 1930."
(More next month. Refs. Harry by Harry White, published by Argenta Publications 1985.)
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