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Escape from Sligo Gaol June 1921

By Barry Deignan

Barry is from Ardrahan Co. Galway. Thomas Deignan was his grandfather, who fought in WWI in France in the US army and subsequently in the Irish War of Independence and Civil War. 

Photo of Tom Deignan taken at the 50th anniversary of 1916 in Markievicz Park.

(Image courtesy of Barry Deignan)


There have been a few escapes from Sligo Gaol. Notably the Frank Carty rescue in June 1920. A full 12 month later 3 IRA volunteers were also to gain early freedom from this establishment. This is their story as recalled by 2 of the participants.

In Culfadda near Ballymote, on the 1st of June 1921, while trying to meet with the local Battalion leader to plan an operation in the area Thomas Deignan (Riverstown) was shot at and apprehended by a troop of British soldiers. He was recognized as a wanted man but as luck would have it there were no RIC or Black & Tans on hand, so they were unable to associate him with any specific engagement. He was brutally interrogated for several days and then transferred to Sligo Gaol on the 5th of June.

During this transfer an attempt was made to ambush it and rescue him by a unit of local IRA volunteers however, they did not prevail and Deignan was delivered to the gaol. At this time there were about 160 prisoners incarcerated and amongst them were Frank O'Beirne and Charles Gildea.


These men had already been sentenced and knew their fate.  Fearful of recognition by one of the freed soldiers from a Ballisodare shooting of 2 RIC men. Deignan and the aforementioned O'Beirne and Gildea decided that escape was the only option. However, this was going to be perilous.

Prior to a previous escape of Frank Carty there had been a military guard of up to forty British soldiers stationed in the gaol to help prevent a recurrence.

With the help of a warder, Joseph Henry, who was sympathetic to the cause, they took impressions of the cell and some outer door keys. These were given to a local unit on the outside who were able to create copies and smuggle them back into the gaol.


The escape was carefully planned in unison with Billy Pilkington who arranged for an armed unit to cover off the front of the gaol hidden by hay carts. This was to prevent the military from getting out or any other reinforcements from getting in. Another unit was deployed to throw a rope ladder over the wall and to meet the escapees on the outside.


In the early hours of 29 June, the call to action finally came. Tom and his comrades got out of their cell, the friendly warder who was guarding the corridor that night was tied up and gagged to remove any suspicion of his involvement. They made their way between two sentry towers to the hangman's yard.

The rope ladder had already been slung over the wall. All 3 were able to climb over where they were met by comrades and furnished with bicycles.


From there they cycled to a safe house Clarkes of Tirrearagh and returned to life on the run.

Sligo Gaol Cell 57.jpg

If you have an interesting story relating to the gaol or the people who worked or were incarcerated there, we would love to hear from you.  

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