An American man known as “Mr. Leonard” went to Irish Helicopters Ltd. and booked a helicopter flight for October 31, 1973. Ostensibly the trip was to take some aerial photographs of County Laois, so the trip took off and the pilot, Thompson Boyes, was directed to fly to a field in Stradbally, County Laois, where they would pick up the photographic equipment.
Upon landing in Stradbally Mr. Leonard exited the helicopter and two masked armed men approached the helicopter. The masked men boarded the helicopter, put the pilot at gunpoint, and told him he would be flying to Mountjoy Jail, showing him maps of railway lines the helicopter would follow to get there.
The helicopter successfully made its way to Mountjoy and landed in the courtyard. Apparently some of the prison guards believed it to be a visit from the Minister for Justice – but when the prisoners surrounded the guards and three darted towards the helicopter, the guards realized they were sorely mistaken! The three men chosen to take the helicopter escape were Séamus Twomey (IRA Chief of Staff), JB O’Hagan (IRA Quartermaster) and Kevin Mallon (an IRA activist since the 1950s campaign).
The helicopter escape provided a morale boost to the prisoners and republicans across the country, while it caused great embarrassment to the government, who launched a widespread manhunt for the three men. Eventually, the three were recaptured – Mallon in December 1973 (escaping prison again in 1974), O’Hagan in 1975, and Twomey in 1977.
The escape was one of the most unique and particularly audacious in republican history. It has also become a part of the folklore, thanks to “The Helicopter Song” by The Wolfe Tones, who sold 12,000 copies the week it was released before being banned by the government. Tonight at 9pm Irish time / 4pm NY time, the historical group Trasna na Tíre is hosting a lecture by former IRA Commander Brendan Hughes, who was a planner of the helicopter escape and has recently released a book “Up Like A Bird” reflecting on the mission and his wider involvement with the Provisional IRA. The lecture will be recorded and made available on the Trasna na Tíre Youtube page if you are not able to watch it live.