Sunday 17 March 2019


This is Lincoln Jail. The castellated walls and gateway create an image of state authority but once they proved powerless.

Russian inmates at Lincoln Prison frightened to death by ...But where does one begin the story: with the candles or the cakes or the audacity of the plot? 

Or just the persistence of those involved?

The year was 1919. The prisoner, a revolutionary, was a devout Catholic. He attended Mass each Sunday, and acted as a server. He lit the candles on the altar, helped the priest into his vestments, assisted with the familiar rituals and joined in the Latin responses.

The prisoner also noticed that, when the priest arrived to prepare for Mass, he left some items, including the key to rear gate, on the same place on a desk, collecting them up afterwards.

From then on, drop by drop, scrap by scrap, the man collected up melted candle-wax until he had enough gathered to form into a small block. When he got the chance, he secretly took the prison key, pressed it quickly and firmly into the soft wax block he had kept warm against his body, and then returned it to its usual place.

As the Mass ended, the priest gathered up the items and key, put them back in his pocket and left. The devout server returned to his cell, taking the image of the key to the rear gate with him.

The prisoner studied the mould and measured the key’s imprint carefully. Then, even though the prison staff examined all outgoing and incoming mail, he sent the information out to his contacts in almost clear view. On one postcard, he drew a jokey, cartoon showing a drunken man fumbling with an enormous key and, as if in a speech bubble, the words “I can’t get in!” That comically large key had been drawn to show the exact dimensions and pattern marked in the mould.

Before long, a cake arrived at Lincoln Jail, addressed to the prisoner, with a duplicate key hidden away inside. The guards did not detect the key but the attempt failed. The prisoner soon discovered why. As the block cooled and hardened, the candle-wax had shrunk and distorted. The measurements for the replica key were not quite accurate enough. The prisoner studied his original drawings, allowed for the warping, and sent out another postcard.

This one was a drawing of a prisoner andThe Key To Freedom”, a large, ornate key of Celtic design which secretly replicated the key to the prison back-gate. Written across the card were the words “I can’t get out”. After a while, a second cake was delivered, concealing another key. This, too, was faulty.

After a while, another parcel arrived, containing a slab of fruit cake, together with a layer of white plaster, as was often used to replicate wedding-cake icing during the sugar-rationing then in force. The guards poked the slab with a skewer, but the essential ingredients were not detected.

This time, when the prisoner opened up the cake, he found no key. The plan had moved on. This time the cake held a suitably-sized iron bar - an uncut key - and a small metal file: materials and tools to make an exact key there within Lincoln Jail itself, with the help of a fellow-prisoner trained as a master-locksmith.

Castle | Historic Lincoln Trust

Meanwhile, guards and prisoners heard the sounds of singing from outside, where men worked the allotments on the open ground then around Lincoln Jail. They might have noticed the songs were often in some foreign tongue. Within, the prisoner and his two friends had noticed and were listening carefully. The songs were in Gaelic, and the words brought them details of the escape plans.

Finally, on February 3rd 1919, at an arranged hour, the prisoner unlocked the back gate of Lincoln Jail with the replica key and escaped with his two friends. Once outside, the man shut the gate, slid the key back into the lock and turned it. Then he snapped the key off inside the lock, fixing the gate shut.

The three men walked across the rough open ground and met up with three others. On the way, they strolled past some soldiers stationed there on sentry duty. The soldiers, drinking and enjoying the company of a group of friendly Irish girls, ignored their passing. They entered the city and mingled with the crowds as they made  their way up Lindum Hill to the Adam and Eve pub, close by Lincoln's great cathedral.

Lincoln Cathedral - Wikipedia 

From there, the prisoner escaped in a series of cars, travelling from Lincoln to Worksop, on to Sheffield and north to Manchester, arriving at Liverpool. From there, dressed as a priest, the man sailed back to Ireland and the cause he believed in.

The prisoner’s name was Eamon de Valera. Eventually he became The Taoiseach - the Irish Prime Minister - and then the President of the Republic of Ireland.

Éamon de Valera - Wikiquote 

A quick timeline:
In 1882, de Valera was born in New York to an Irish mother and Cuban father, giving him American nationality.
In 1885, aged two, his mother brought him to Ireland after his father’s death.
In 1916, he was one of the leaders in the failed anti-British Easter Rising in Dublin. Arrested, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment because of his nationality. He was later released under a general amnesty.
In 1917, he won an election, becoming MP for East Clare on a single ticket “One Ireland”, in defiance of Asquith’s Home Rule amendment on behalf of the Protestant counties in the north. He was also elected president of the revolutionary Sinn Fein party.
In 1918, during the post-Armistice General Election, his party won a large majority of the parliamentary seats in Ireland. The country was still ruled from Westminster by the Westminster parliamentarians, who often acted as if Ireland was a colony of little importance.
In 1918, on a trip to England, he was accused of a “German” plot, and imprisoned on a Defence of the Realm charge within Lincoln Jail.
In 1919, Eamon de Valera, escaped, along with McGilroy and McGarry, escaped. Outside to meet them was Michael Collins, the revolutionary strategist, who had arranged much of the escape, and became a leading figure in Irish history and the fighting during the initial "Bloody Sunday" that followed. (This, as they say, is a whole other story too complicated for this post.)
Additionally, 1919, during de Valera's absence, Ireland had convened its first Parliament: the Dail Eireann. This revolutionary, one-chamber parliament was created by the 73 Sinn Fein MP’s who refused to recognise the British Parliament in Westminster and demanded independence for Ireland.

The response, between 1919 and 1921, was war -  the War of Irish Independence - during which the British Army combined with the Royal Irish Constabulary and its paramilitary forces: the Auxiliaries and Ulster Special Constabulary against the Irish Republican Army. In 1921, the first Parliament failed, and a border was established between the North and South: the Irish Partition.

There are two Irish centenaries in the air, one now and one soon to come.
During this year, 2019, Ireland is celebrating that first Parliament. Then in 1921, in two years time, will come the centenary of the Partition.

Right now, independence is still a very living issue, and it is certainly a time when people in power should know – or be better informed - about the long shadow of history.

To end this post, I’ll add that, in 1950 - thirty years after his escape - Eamon de Valera returned to Lincoln Jail as a guest, to speak at a campaign to re-unify Ireland by peaceful, democratic means.

The abolition of the Irish Partition would, he said, “combine good principles and good business.” A point of view rather relevant at the moment, I fear.

Shamrock - Wikipedia, den frie encyklopædi

Have a good Saint Patrick’s Day!

Penny Dolan

nb. This story came from various easy-to-discover sources, but I would like to mention the author Jane Stanford for her article, which I discovered in the Irish Post of 20th August 2013. Thank you!
During his time in prison, De Valera had studied "The Prince" by Machiavelli, a work he is reported as taking to heart.


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Penny - I especially loved the Gaelic singers outside the walls passing on information about the escape plan!

Susan Price said...

Amazing! Is this the origin of all the jokes about files hidden in cakes?

Penny Dolan said...

I'm not sure, Sue. As I was typing the story, I couldn't help thinking that it had more than a touch of traditional well-worn story about it.

Especially those singers, Joan, as if they were a choir of Gaelic Blondels, armed with shovels rather than lutes.

And always, if in doubt, bring on the beguiling, alluring colleens.

abigail brieson said...

Wonderful story, although parts are rather does strike me as holdin' a bit o' the blarney. Would make for a hollywood script, though.

Penny Dolan said...

Abigail,I would not disagree with that. Thanks for the comment.

Sue Purkiss said...

What a wonderful story! It's so good, I actually don't care if not every detail is true!