"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
This is Halliday Sutherland’s account of his second meeting with Eamon de Valera in 1955 and in which de Valera told of his escape from Lincoln Jail on 3rd February 1919.
After lunch I had half an hour with Mr. de Valera in his private room. He is now Leader of the Opposition. It was nearly thirty years since we had met. His hair was white but he was still lean, tall and erect. He was in his 73rd year, and his eyesight had failed. As we sat he could only see my hands. He had six operations for detachment of the retina, but is still able to write. I asked him to tell me the story of his escape from Lincoln Jail on February 3rd, 1919. With other Irish political offenders Eamon de Valera was imprisoned in Lincoln Jail. In prison he was sacristan to the Catholic Chapel. He thought that the priest as a prison official must have a master key. This became apparent when the priest left his keys in the sacristy while officiating in the chapel. How was an impression to be made? With stumps from the altar candles. These de Valera placed in a tobacco box which he put in his pocket until the wax softened and formed a homogeneous surface. The prisoners, unlike ordinary convicts, were not searched. Thus he got an impression of the master key. How was a duplicate to be made? One of the Irishmen was an artist, and he drew a double Christmas card. One side showed a tipsy man trying to get a large key into the door of his house. This bore the title “He wants to get in”. The other side showed a convict trying to get a large key into into the lock of his cell. It bore the title “He wants to get out”. Both keys were drawn to scale. This card was sent to a sympathiser outside. In due course a Christmas cake arrived for de Valera. Inside the cake was a duplicate key.
The shaft of this key broke in the lock the first time de Valera tried to use it. Fortunately the business end had not turned in the lock and he was able to push it out on the other side. By this time the Irish prisoners were joined by a man who said that if they could unscrew the front of the lock he could make a key that would fit. With his typewriter de Valera had a small screw-driver. The man made two keys because it had been agreed that the others should escape as soon as de Valera was out of the country.
On a dark night de Valera left the prison by a side gate that opened on to a field. At the other end of the field was a sentry box which a sentry was supposed to guard that side of the prison. The gate had corrugated iron attached to the foot, and this made a great noise when being dragged over the stones. He closed and locked the gate behind him. All round the gate was barbed wire. Within the wire he saw Michael Collins and Harry Boland. They were rebuked by de Valera. It would be a triumph enough for the British Government if he were recaptured. It would be a greater triumph if they captured the three Irish leaders. He had only asked that a responsible man be there as a guide. Then they had cut the barbed wire. That would show prison authorities how he had escaped.
All three went undetected from Lincoln to Manchester. From Manchester de Valera went to Liverpool, where a steward put him on board a liner as a stowaway. In a week he was free in new York.
“Publishers must have offered you a lot for your autobiography?”
“They have, but I won’t write it. You see, many of the people are dead, and I would not care to write against them.”
“Then you will leave it to history.”
“Well, when Miss O’Connell (his secretary) gets better I might dictate something.”
Miss Kathleen O’Connell did not get better. She died, age 67, on 17th April, 1956.
From Irish Journey by Halliday Sutherland.
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