James Brady, the human ferret,and his escape from the Rath Camp

This week's Time Past column by Jonathan Smyth recalls a Bailieborough man who helped a group of internees escape from the Curragh in 1921.

Historically, internment is nothing new to the British way of thinking in a war situation. The general attitude to an insurrection was ‘collar the lot!’ Examples of internment can be found throughout history from both World Wars, the Irish War of Independence, and during the troubles. In the revolutionary era, from 1916 to 1924, the Curragh Camp in Kildare was used to imprison men from all over Ireland. During the war of independence, large volumes of men from across Ireland including County Cavan were held without charge behind wire in the Curragh, Co Kildare.

Our focus for this column is the Rath Camp, located close to where some 350 United Irishmen were massacred in the 1798 Rebellion. The Rath Camp was opened to internees in 1921 and, by the time it was closed, almost 1,500 men had been imprisoned there. The wiring around it stood 10-feet high and an area known ominously referred to as no man’s land lay between it and a second row of fencing. Sentries patrolled this no man’s land and any prisoners found there would be shot for sure. Above, from the watchtowers, evil machine guns were aimed at the boundary line.

The prisoners’ living quarters consisted of wooden huts, 60 in total, where prisoners slept each night. However, the camp offered a challenge to some of the more creative internees and an escape committee was formed resulting in two tunnels being dug beneath the camp in the hope of reaching freedom beyond the wire. One of those tunnels was known as the Brady tunnel, named after an ingenious Cavanman who knew how to dig his way out of a tight situation.

According to the author James Durney, the internees held ‘an ace’ up their sleeve in the form of James Brady, a miner who worked in the Arigna coal mines in Roscommon. He was a man they could rely upon to become their ‘chief strategist’. Anna Sexton in her article on James Brady in Breffni 2008 wrote that he had a quick ability to learn. Born around 1896, Brady came from Tullywaltra, Knockbride and was the son of Terry and Anne Brady. He attended national school at Drumanspic, although not a regular attendee; Master Clarke who trained at the Model NS in Bailieborough was his teacher.

As a young man, he took the train from Cootehill railway station and after ‘several changes’ arrived in Drumshambo. He found work in the Arigna coal mines and developed a growing interest in the fight for Irish freedom. This led Brady to join an IRA flying column. While in Roscommon, he became involved in a land dispute, but when the authorities arrived, he was injured from a beating they gave him. They then arrested him and sent him to The Rath Camp on the Curragh where he was joined by over a thousand other imprisoned men.

The mining skills he had acquired as a miner did not go to loss and soon, beneath the hut which became his living quarters, Brady began to dig a tunnel using any basic implements that might be got, including a corkscrew. According to Anna Sexton, the newly-dug hole was discovered soon after and the prisoners were moved around and placed in different living quarters.

Brady had plenty of stamina and a new plan was hatched. James’s next tunnel reached a depth of 11 feet beneath the hut and was known to the men in that section as ‘Brady’s tunnel’, ‘Tullamore tunnel’, and the ‘rabbit burrow’. Perhaps the ‘rabbit burrow’ best described Brady’s digging because it resembled a narrow burrow-like hole, which was different to the wider holes made by the other would-be escapees.

Each night, excavated clay was stored in trouser pockets and pillowcases, to be unloaded around the yard later the next day. James Durney’s book, ‘Internees’, recorded that Brady did most of the tunnelling causing his fellow workers to name him ‘the human ferret’. The tunnel required air holes that were skilfully added by James Brady to release bad air. He quickly reached the far side of the outer fence, something achieved after only 18 days of working underground.

On September 9, 1921, both Brady and Joe Galvin led the way into the escape tunnel followed by 50 chosen internees who ‘waited’ in turn. However, all did not go to plan due to a thick fog that night and, to make matters worse, the tunnel opening was 20 yards short of where it should have been. They used a length of twine to run through two heavily barbed wire fences. Despite the adverse conditions, 54 men including James Brady did escape. Many of them returned to active duty.

In later years, Brady taught a generation to play traditional tunes on the fiddle, and regularly gave lessons around Bailieborough. He collected a considerable quantity of local folk songs and poetry, which are today preserved in the Folklore Commission’s offices at UCD.