41 years ago on Halloween a mysterious American man named “Mr. Leonard” pulled off a serious trick. He hired a helicopter for an ‘Aerial Photo shoot’ in Ireland. It was thought to be a scouting mission for a movie or a book of photography – at least that is what Mr. Leonard told Captain Thompson Boyes, the pilot. Captain Boyes was instructed to fly to a field in Stradbelly in order to grab the photography equipment but when he landed, he was met with armed gunmen instead. “Mr. Leonard” vanished from the scene while Captain Boyes got to know his new masked passengers, much to his own distress. He was informed that he would not be hurt as long as he followed instructions and he wasn’t but he wasn’t given a choice about being involved in a daring prison break either. If he wanted to live, he was going to aid in the escape of Irish Republican prisoners Seamus Twomey, JB O’Hagan, and Kevin Mallon from Mountjoy Prison.
At first, when the helicopter landed in the yard at Mountjoy the guards did nothing. Since the Minister of Defence at the time was overly fond of travel by helicopter, the guards assumed it was him paying the prison a surprise visit. By the time they figured out this was an escape, it was too late. One confused guard yelled out “Close the Fucking Gates!”, as if a helicopter had to go through them. The helicopter landed safely miles away at an abandoned racetrack where the former prisoners were met by the Dublin Brigade and spirited away to safe houses in a taxi that had also been hijacked.
Despite a huge manhunt that was mobilized to hunt for the prisoners, it took months and years for them to be recaptured. Mallon was first to be caught roughly six weeks after his escape. O’Hagan was a free man until 1975 and it took nearly four years for the authorities to catch Sean Twomey again. In the meantime, the news of their escape resulted in a world-wide, front page disaster for the Crown, and was a massive boost for Republican morale. The Wolfe Tones recorded a smash hit about the escape called “the Helicopter Song” that sold twelve thousand copies in the first week of its release, despite being immediately banned by the government. The escape was celebrated for months. And one Halloween mystery remains to this day – one that we may never know the real answer to – who was Mr. Leonard???