Key to go on display in Cork’s Collins Barracks

A key to an important incident in Cork’s revolutionary history has been returned to the city — 98 years after its role in a daring jailbreak.

By Niall Murray, Irish Examiner


Patrick Varian with the key which was used during the 1918 rescue of Denis McNeilus from Cork County Gaol. Picture: Denis Scannell


On the day that the guns fell silent in Europe at the end of the First World War, the rescue of Denis McNeilus from one of the British empire’s securest jails showed that Cork’s revolutionaries were willing and able to take physical force action.

The Donegal-born officer of the local Irish Volunteers brigade was sprung from Cork County Gaol before he could face trial for the attempted murder of a policeman.


The family of one of the rescue participants recently presented a key believed to have been taken in the rescue to the military museum at Cork’s Collins Barracks.



Paddy Varian was one of the team of Irish Volunteers on duty outside the prison, which was demolished in the 1950s but whose high walls still form part of the perimeter of University College Cork. The 18-year-old’s role was to climb a telegraph pole and cut the wires to disable communication to the police or military on the afternoon of November 11, 1918.


His daughter Betty recalls regularly asking her father to recount the story about the rescue.

“He told us he was the one up the telegraph pole in the gaol, because they didn’t want them sending out any messages,” said Betty.

“This man stopped and said to him: ‘What are you doing up there?’ He said: ‘If you don’t run, I’ll kill you.’ ”

As pointed out by Irish Army Company Quartermaster Sergeant Gerry White, a military historian based at Collins Barracks in Cork, the Varian family were prominent in Cork city’s War of Independence story.

Paddy and his older brother Harry were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the secret society which favoured physical force to secure Ireland’s freedom, and which was behind the plot for the Easter Rising in 1916.

Paddy was one of four Volunteers injured, along with a Cumann na mBan member, in an explosion that killed an Irish Volunteers officer at a makeshift bomb factory in the city’s Grattan St in April 1919.

The brothers were also involved in the attempt to blow up a Boer War memorial at Donovan’s Rd the same year.


Harry and Paddy Varian in the back row and to the right in a picture of volunteers in Cork, mainly from A Company from 1916-1918.

Jim Fahy, an officer of the Cork Masons Historical Society, was involved in arranging the donation of the items to the Cork Public Museum. Both Paddy and Harry Varian were masons, like their father William.

The key secreted out of Cork County Gaol was kept in Massachusetts for many years by one of Betty’s brothers, Patrick. He formally handed over the key and his father’s 1917-1921 Service Medal to the Collins Barracks museum on behalf of the family during a recent trip to Cork.

“We grew up hearing all the stories, we used to think it was like stuff from a John Wayne movie,” said Patrick.

Another artefact of the escape is the set of handcuffs taken off Denis McNeilus, which also ended up with the Varian family. They handed them back to his sons Seán and Donnchadh in Cork nine years ago.

“We were delighted to receive them from the Varians, and they now hold pride of place up here,” Donnchadh Mac Niallais from Gweedore, Co Donegal, grandson of the escaped volunteer, said.

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