The Freemen – The Flight From Mountjoy
For most Irish people it’s probably difficult, in 2013, to listen to a song with a chorus proclaiming “Glory, Glory to the Provos” without a sense of unease, but 1973 was a very different world in many ways. The Northern Irish civil rights movement had led to a confrontation between the local Unionist government and factions of the republican movement who saw their role as defenders of an oppressed minority, and the polarising effect of this was to stir the patriotic sentiments of very many nationalist Irish people. The gruesome and traumatic events of 1974 would serve to undermine the heroic image of the competing Northern armed groups to a large extent but before all that there was one particular attention-grabbing stunt staged on 31 October 1973 which captured the imagination of the nationalist community.
In September Seamus Twomey, Chief of Staff of the Provisional (‘Provo’) faction of the IRA had been jailed by the Irish Republic’s government in Mountjoy Prison, where he joined senior republicans J.B. O’Hagan and Kevin Mallon. Plans immediately went into action to break all three men out and a man with an American accent hired a helicopter at Dublin Airport, ostensibly for an aerial photo shoot in County Laois. The helicopter and pilot were hijacked and forced to land in the exercise yard of the prison where Twomey, Mallon and O’Hagan boarded the helicopter and escaped to safe houses. The daring escape made headlines around the world and was hugely embarrassing for the government. Mallon was recaptured in December 1973 (he escaped again in August 1974), O’Hagan was recaptured in early 1975, and Twomey in December 1977, but the audacious nature of the escape prompted republican folk group The Wolfe Tones to release a single called ‘The Helicopter Song’ which managed to top the Irish charts in spite of a government ban.
Meanwhile, lesser-known folk band The Freemen issued their own vinyl tribute to the episode, titled ‘The Flight From Mountjoy’. As can be guessed from the chorus, the song is unequivocal in its support for the Provisionals, and the Beal Feirste label (Belfast, as geailge) seems to have released just four singles, three of them by The Freemen, and all militantly republican. That this song was not a hit when The Wolfe Tones’ was can only be put down to bad luck or lack of promotion considering the content and style of both were much the same. The song was written by McGinley/Freeman and both sides were produced by The Freemen.
The ‘B’-side was ‘The Ballad of Billy Reid‘, a cover of a fairly well-known republican song written by Brian Lyons (and also recorded by The Wolfe Tones, among others). Billy Reid was another member of the Provisional IRA, and is believed to have shot dead the first on-duty British soldier to be killed in Ireland since the 1920s, in Belfast on 6 February 1971, and in so doing provoked an all-out war between the Provos and previously (officially) neutral British army. A few months later, in May 1971, an army patrol was ambushed in Belfast and Billy Reid was killed in the subsequent shoot-out. Lyons’ ballad emphasises the view that Reid was an heroic victim, thus earning a place on the list of martyrs to the republican cause.
The enigmatic Freemen left behind a number of singles that will be offensive to some, patriotic to others, but they offer us a glimpse of one of the more bloody and divisive periods in Ireland’s turbulent history.
- The Flight From Mountjoy
- The Ballad Of Billy Reid