Warder recalls ‘unromantic reality’ of IRA’s Maze escape

Former Maze prison officer Billy McKane
Former Maze prison officer Billy McKane

A Maze prison officer who bravely drove his own car into the path of a lorry full of escaping IRA prisoners has spoken of the “unromantic reality” of the 1983 breakout.

As a new film about the high-security jail goes on general release this weekend, former warder Billy McKane has questioned why the illegal actions of a terrorist organisation are being “romanticised” on the big screen.

Maze film poster

Maze film poster

Mr McKane was one of a number of prisoner officers who risked their lives to capture many of the escaping inmates – including six with handguns – before they were out of sight of the prison.

Two warders were shot and four others stabbed – including James Ferris who suffered a fatal heart attack – while a number of other prison officers were assaulted. Within days, 19 of the 38 escapees were recaptured.

Much of the film ‘MAZE’, starring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as IRA man Larry Marley and Barry Ward as one of the warders – was shot in and around the recently decommissioned Cork Prison.

Mr McKane said: “The unromantic reality of the Maze breakout is far displaced from the blockbuster silver screen depiction of the down trodden working-class man interned for the simple crime of being Catholic.

“All of those imprisoned in HMP Maze were cold-hearted dedicated terrorists charged and convicted with horrendous crimes, bombings, shootings and murder. Prison officers like myself were tasked with treating these inhuman killers with humanity as we cared for their welfare.”

The 77-year-old said a string of government concessions to the inmates – particularly after the 1981 hunger strike – made an escape almost inevitable.

“It wasn’t an escape in the true sense of the word. They practically walked out of the jail and the reason for that was that for months before that date, staff in H-block 7 were putting reports into the governor saying that if security was not increased in the block then there was going to be an escape,” he said.

“It was ridiculous, but they [staff] were being told that they needed prisoner cooperation and that’s why security was reduced. But it had been reduced to such a stage that they organised the escape and walked out. It was made so easy for them.”

Recalling the moment he release catastrophic security breach, Mr McKane said: “I drove my car into the gate and blocked the lorry. I went up to the door of the lorry and one of the prisoners with a gun threatened me and told me to keep quiet. The reason he told me to keep quiet was because we were only a few yards from an army watchtower. There was a soldier in there with a rifle and he didn’t want to alert him.”

“He wanted everything kept very quiet, otherwise he would probably have shot me for driving the car in and stopping the escape.”

Mr McKane added: “They all jumped out of the lorry and ran out through the gate. I went after them with another prison officer called Campbell Courtney and he was shot in the leg. I recovered the gun that he was shot with and I fired it after them.”

Responding to allegations that warders had assaulted some of the recaptured inmates, Mr McKane said: “That was absolute lies – the police and army were there at the time but we wouldn’t have done that anyway.”