Northern Ireland

Jim 'Jaz' McCann book reveals how pictures taken by IRA prisoners of the 1983 Maze escape never saw the light of day

Ex-prisoner and author of 6000 Days Jim 'Jaz' McCann. Picture by Hugh Russell
Ex-prisoner and author of 6000 Days Jim 'Jaz' McCann. Picture by Hugh Russell

IRA PRISONERS took photographs of the audacious 1983 escape from the Maze prison but the pictures were never published because the camera and film were lost, it has been revealed for the first time.

In his recently published memoir of prison life, Jim 'Jaz' McCann tells how he was given the camera, measuring approximately 10 cm x 4 cm, as he and 37 inmates boarded a hijacked food supplies lorry that would take the escapees as far as the prison's main gate.

Fellow escapee Joe Simpson had taken the pictures, which are thought to have included images of up to a dozen prison officers tied-up and wearing ponchos and with pillow cases over their heads, alongside prisoners who'd taken control of the H7 block wearing the prison officers' uniforms and brandishing the captured keys to their cells.

"It was entrusted to me because of my experience on the blanket but there were quite a few others who would have been more than qualified and, had the right person been chosen, those photographs would have hit the newspapers and made very interesting viewing," recalls McCann in 6000 Days.

The Maze escapees
The Maze escapees

Masterminded by the late Bobby Storey, what republicans refer to the 'Great Escape' saw 38 IRA inmates breakout of what was then regarded as Europe's most secure prison. Around half were recaptured in a matter of days.

Prison officer James Ferris died of a heart attack during the escape, which was dramatised in the 2017 film Maze, while 20 of his colleagues were injured, including two who were shot with guns that had been smuggled into the prison.

The author, who throughout the ordeal had the camera concealed in his back passage, recalls the hand-to-hand fighting that took place when the prisoners arrived at the gatehouse and sought to take control of it, taking more prison officers hostage in the process.

The book details the violence and chaos that ensued and how McCann eventually made it out of the prison gates in a hijacked car driven by a fellow inmate.

However, after abandoning the car and attempting to escape on foot, he was apprehended at gunpoint by a prison officer and a British soldier not far from the prison.

McCann and fellow inmates who'd been recaptured were taken into solitary confinement – or the 'boards' – where he expected to be held for months.

Maze escape masterminds Robert Russell, Bobby Storey and Gerry Kelly. Picture by Hugh Russell
Maze escape masterminds Robert Russell, Bobby Storey and Gerry Kelly. Picture by Hugh Russell

"I still had the camera inside my back passage but the cling film which protected it, keeping it dry, was degrading fast and, expecting to be in for the long haul, I decided, as a temporary measure until I could get more cling film, and in an attempt to extend its lifespan, to hide it behind a small grille in the wall over lock-up periods when it was safe," he writes.

"Or so I thought – with no warning the door suddenly opened one day and I was told I was moving. I thought I was just going to another cell, but the door was shut behind me and I was escorted out of the building to make my way to H7. So the camera was gone."

What became of the camera and the film capturing images that would have seen around the world and regarded as a major propaganda coup for republicans is not known.

"There was never another word about it," the author recalls.

"I don’t know if it is still there behind that grille or more than likely the screws got it and, realising how embarrassing the photographs were, simply destroyed them."