How 38 IRA Members Pulled Off the UK’s Biggest Prison Escape


During the height of Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” in the 1970s and ‘80s, the British government incarcerated hundreds of Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) paramilitaries inside the notorious Maze Prison. Touted as Europe’s most secure penitentiary, the Maze was thought to be escape-proof—that is, until 38 IRA prisoners staged the biggest jailbreak in British history in September 1983.

Built on a former Royal Air Force Base 10 miles outside Northern Ireland’s capital of Belfast, the maximum-security prison featured eight jail blocks shaped like the capital letter H. These H-Blocks became battlegrounds for IRA prisoners who had waged a violent campaign to end British rule in Northern Ireland. After the British government stripped convicted paramilitaries of their special status as political prisoners in 1976, IRA inmates wore blankets instead of prison-issued uniforms and refused to shower or empty their chamber pots. The protest culminated in a 1981 hunger strike in which 10 republican prisoners—including the IRA’s leader in the Maze Prison, Bobby Sands—died.


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