Today marks 101 years since Eamon de Valera's incredible prison break using a cake and a candle
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Today marks 101 years since Eamon de Valera's incredible prison break using a cake and a candle

76 YEARS before The Shawshank Redemption hit cinemas, a real-life and just as complicated escape took place in Lincoln Prison.

Eamon de Valera,  future Taoiseach and President of Ireland, had been imprisoned in England by British forces which, in an attempt to undermine the politician, had accused him of conspiring with the Germans.

Éamon de Valera circa 1937: (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

Desperate to escape in order to bring about the Republic which he and thousands of others had risked their lives for, de Valera had been constantly searching for a way out.

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And one day he found it-- in the form of a door.

In the exercise yard of HMP Lincoln, de Valera noticed a door which lead to the outside and to freedom, and a plan hatched in his mind.

The devout Catholic was a server in the prison chapel, and waited until the Chaplins back was turned before taking the set of keys and, using the soft wax of a candle, making a hasty impression of the key which would grant him his freedom.

With prison officers scrutinising every letter which went in and out of the prison, de Valera had to be creative when getting the impression of the key to his contacts on the outside.

Fellow prisoner, rebel and--it must be said-- talented cartoonist, Sean Milroy, managed to send an exact replica of the key to the outside world, with the impression disguised as a humorous comic of a drunk man attempting to unlock a door.

(UCD Archives / deValera Papers )
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Outside, rebel forces recreated the key using Milroy's illustration and sent it back to deValera by hiding it in a cake.

But despite getting the cake-covered key past prison inspections, the plan was foiled-- for now-- when de Valera realised the key did not fit in the lock.

Another impression of the key was made, another cartoon sent outside, another cake made and succesfully smuggled into the prison-- and again the key did not work.

Rebel forces decided it was time to change tactic: another cake was sent to the prison, this time containing a blank key and a set of files in order for de Valera to shape the key himself.

Finally, on the evening of 3 February 1919, de Valera and two other rebels, including the cartoonist Milroy, snuck across the prison yard under the cover of darkness.

Outside the door, high-ranking rebels including Michael Collins himself were waiting for the daring escapees. As deValera and his fellow prisoners approached, Collins attempted to unlock the door using his own key, but it snapped in the lock.

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Michael Collins shortly before his death in 1922 (Picture: John O'Byrne)

Just as the plan appeared to be doomed, de Valera produced his own, accurately filed key-- and the men were out. The first ever escape from Lincoln prison had occured.

DeValera, dressed in a woman's fur coat to avoid detection, strolled casually past the off-duty prison guards who were too busy attempting to impress the girls they were with to notice some of the highest-ranking Republicans escape from right under their nose.

By the time the escape was noticed, deValera and his men were miles away and safe, having been smuggled into a safehouse in Manchester.

And eventually, after much bloodshed and the atrocity of brother fighting against brother, the first escapee of Lincoln Prison went on to form the Republic of Ireland that we know today.

Eamon de Valera would serve as Irish President and Taoiseach after his escape
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