Taken from Chapter 4 of John McGuffin's masterful book "Internment"
"The 1956-1962 border campaign was planned well in advance. Raids at Felstead (Essex OTC school) in July 1953, Gough barracks, Armagh, in June 1954, and Arborfield on 11 August 1954, had gained guns and kudos, as well as life sentences for Donal Murphy, James Murphy and Joe Doyle, and eight years for Cathal Goulding, Sean MacStiophan and Manus Canning. By December 1955 the IRA felt it could act. In many ways they were more sophisticated than before, but the old naïveté persisted. In a directive from Oglaigh na h-Eireann to all O/Cs, dated 12 December, GHQ stated;
In view of recent pronouncements by the leader of the Twenty-six County Government and his reminder to the press of the fact that certain Acts, passed by the Leinster House regime in 1939, are still in force, it is not reasonable [sic] to assume that coercive measures against the army are under consideration by the Twenty-six County authorities.
The campaign got under way on 11 December 1956 with a series of explosions. Eleven days later internment was introduced in the North and 30 men were lifted; the figures rose to 256 (about 400 were detained at first). After signings-out, 167 remained in for the duration. On 1 January 1957, in the abortive Brookeborough barracks raid, Sean South and Fergal O'Hanlon were killed, only to become immortalized in the Republican songbook. All 12 survivors of the raid who got back over the border got six months under the Offences Against the State Act for refusing to answer questions, but massive turnouts at the funerals of South and O'Hanlon convinced many Republicans in the South that the Taoiseach, Costello, would not move against them. Nonetheless, on 8 and 12 January swoops netted virtually the entire IRA council and GHQ staff, including MacCurtain, Magan, Grogan and Russell, who all ended up in the Bridewell and later in Mountjoy with three six month sentences. The number of prisoners rose to 53, but MacBride and his party, Clan na Poblachta, forced Costello to call an election. Fianna Fail won with 78 seats. Republicans were jubilant. De Valera and Fianna Fail had condemned the arrest of the Republican prisoners, and surely they would release them as they had done in 1932.
Sinn Fein polled 65,640 votes and had O'Bradaigh, J.J. Rice, J.J. McGirl (in Mountjoy at the time) and Fergal O'Hanlon's brother elected. Now they could even claim some sort of mandate from the people.
The elation was to be short lived. Some prisoners were released. But on 4 July 1957 an RUC man, Cecil Gregg, was killed at Forkhill. Colonel W.W.B. Topping the North's Minister of Home Affairs, demanded internment in the Twenty-six Counties. The Dail had adjourned for its summer recess that day, but within the next two days 63 Republicans were arrested. Most had made no attempt to go underground, believing that quiescence in the Twenty-six Counties would guarantee immunity. They had no concept of the economic and diplomatic pressures which could be put upon the Southern Government and, despite their abhorrence for politicians and party politics, they had failed to realise how easily TD's or MP's can shelve their principles.
On 8 July the Government of the South announced that Part 2 of the Offences Against the State Act was in operation. Internment was on again. Those Fianna Fail TD's (especially in North Tipperary) who had publicly supported resolutions calling on Costello to release all Republican prisoners had to keep quiet or resign. There were no resignations. Moreover, 36 Republicans still in Mountjoy were trapped. On their release, they would go straight to the Curragh camp. On 20 July, 24 tried to escape with a large scaling ladder, but were spotted. All were soon in the Curragh camp.
Conditions this time were better, but certainly not as pleasant as T.P. Coogan paints them in The IRA. The Irish Red Cross, headed by Mrs. Tom Barry, inspected the camp and found it 'excellent'. She, however, did not have to live there. Numbers were fewer – four huts with 40 men in each hut, but the huts were still damp and dirty and the timbers were rotting. The camp authorities claimed that red tape was responsible for delays in obtaining new planks, and it was a year before the rotting timbers were replaced. The camp was surrounded by five sets of barbed-wire fencing and there was a trench, six feet deep and eight feet wide, which was booby-trapped with flares. Watch towers were manned by armed guards who also patrolled the perimeter and were equipped with ammonia grenades. Despite these precautions there were escapes. Three prisoners, Conlon, O'Toole, Kelly, climbed through the showers' window, an obvious weak spot in the defence, and made off but were recaptured a few days later. This provoked intense speculation in the camp. Official IRA policy was 'no escapes, it's too risky', but many internees were unwilling to accept the rule. On 27 September 1958, Rory O'Bradaigh and Dave O'Connell (then 18 and now a leading Provisional), escaped through the wire during a football match and, after hiding under a camouflage grass blanket, made their escape. This was an 'official' escape, made with the blessing of the O/C MacCurtain. But to the men in the Charlie Murphy group, brooding in their hut, which was known as 'Little Rock', it was not ambitious enough. Accordingly, after hearing from Sean MacBride that the International Court at Strasbourg would be unlikely to find against the Government, Murphy decided to go ahead with a mass break attempt. The military guards were accustomed to frequent alarm drills often caused by sheep springing the trip wires. They were, therefore, somewhat lethargic. On the face of it, the attempt was madness, but, on 2 December, 26 men armed with wire cutters rushed the wire in broad daylight. The guards were so astonished that the men were through the first fence before warning shots were fired. The men ignored them and ran on past the guards. Brian Boylan was shot and wounded, but the rest cleared the second and third fences. At the ditch ammonia grenades were hurled at them, flares went off and prisoners reeled about in a haze of gas while bullets flew. The guards did, however, fire high – the only man who did not was disarmed by a prison officer. Despite the wire and gas 16 men got through and only two were recaptured. A week-long police and army hunt was in vain because the local people hid most of the escapees.
Surprisingly, there were no reprisals in the camp and life continued as boring as ever for most of the prisoners, the oldest of whom, Padraig O'Ceallaigh of Mayo, was 68; the youngest, 17-year-old Michael Kelly of Galway.
The huts were open at 7.00 a.m., and recreation included football and darts as well as handicrafts; the usual plethora of crosses and handkerchiefs was produced. Frank McGlade, who had experienced internment in Derry, Crumlin, and on the Al Rawdah, was in the Curragh during 1958-1959 (he had been on the run since 1956) and described it as his 'favourite'. He liked the open countryside, but found it ironic that the tricolour flew and the huts were named after men like Pearse, McDonagh and Brugha.
This time the campaign to release the internees was more active. It was costing the Prisoners Dependants Fund £400 a month to keep up the payments, inadequate though they were, and money was scarce. The imaginative suggestion of internee Frank Driver that a wife of an internee with ten children should take them to the palace of the late Most Reverend Dr. John C. McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin, and deposit them there for safekeeping until her husband was released, was not put into operation. Nor was his scheme for a band of women relatives to march on the camp armed with wire cutters and cut their way in. More practical steps were taken. Sean MacBride took up the case of Gerry Lawless. Lawless and eight others had been interned in July 1957 but were given a separate hut to themselves because they were ostracized by the rest of the camp. Eight were released upon signing an undertaking, but Lawless, who was not in the IRA, having sided with Joe Christle in the split, refused to do so. After the appeal to the High Court failed, MacBride took the case to the Human Rights Commission at Strasbourg, where it was entered in November 1957 and ruled admissible on 30 August 1958. On advice of his lawyers, Lawless signed out on 10 December 1958. It was not until 1 July 1961 that the verdict was eventually given, long after the last internee was released. It went against Lawless (as Unionists such as Brian McRoberts were to gleefully point out whenever internment was challenged) but mainly on technicalities. It did establish that the 'undertaking' given by internees who sign out has no legal status since it was not included in the Offences Against the State Act. Even more importantly, the court ruled that it was for them to judge whether a state of emergency existed in the country in question and that in future they need not merely accept the assurances of whatever government chose to opt out of the provisions against detention without charge or trial – as Greece was to discover in 1970.
The IRA border campaign of 1956-1962 was an almost unmitigated disaster. The IRA could claim that about 200 militants had taken on 5,000 TA men, 3,000 RUC men, 12,000 B men, 1,500 specially trained commandos plus a large number of security guards – close on 30,000 men. There had been, in the five-year campaign, 300 major incidents. And several hundred minor ones. Six members of the RUC had been killed, 19 wounded. Eleven B specials and two soldiers had been wounded also. Several million pounds of damage had been caused – the overtime bill for the police alone was £10m. But in the last analysis the campaign was an abysmal failure. Two IRA men had been killed in action by the police and five had accidentally blown themselves up. The people had not rallied, as anticipated, behind the IRA. The Six Counties had not been 'won back'. The Unionist Government had, indeed, been strengthened. "If the IRA had not existed, they would have been invented," as many a Unionist politician said to his friends. And so the campaign petered out. By 15 March 1959 the last internee in the South had been released. The North was not to follow suit until April 1961. A forthcoming visit of the Irish President, Sean T. O'Kelly, to the USA probably had something to do with the Southern Government's decision, but by then it was clear that the campaign was sputtering out. Moreover, there were always the military courts to sentence recalcitrants. Accordingly the Curragh was closed.