This is a remarkably engaging telling of the mostly-forgotten story of the only person ever to escape from Crumlin Road prison in Belfast, at a time when it was touted as the most secure prison in Europe.
The story divides neatly into four sections:
The first is the background to Donnelly ending up in prison in the first place. This was fascinating to me, as it's from an era of Northern Irish history that I knew absolutely nothing about — the IRA's "Operation Harvest" campaign in the late 1950s/early 1960s — and it provides an interesting take on some aspects where the author (and in the context, disclaimers shouldn't really be needed about obvious biases!) believes significant mis-steps by the British led inexorably to the events of following decades.
The second is about the prison itself — what it was like (both generally, as a piece of social history; and personally for the author, who wasn't accepted by the IRA inside the prison, so had to find his own path), and, then, how he escaped. Even though the outcome is known up-front, the telling is surprisingly suspenseful. Another follow-up, re-telling the story from the inside perspective (as a mix of later conversations with guards, with the detailed and forthright report of the inquiry into the escape) is a nice touch. And intriguingly, it was an attempt to improve
the security that created the key opportunity that was needed.
The best section, however, isn't the escape itself, but the subsequent attempts to get out of, first, Belfast, and then Northern Ireland itself. At this time there was no extradition from the South to the North, so all that was needed was to find a way across the border — or, more accurately far enough
across the border for Special Branch to not simply come across and grab him anyway whilst the Gardaí turned a blind eye! This was an era of frequent roadblocks and searches anyway, and those were significantly expanded following Donnelly's escape. The number of times he really should have been caught is straight out of the Keystone Cops!
The book loses its way in the final section — the "And here's what I did with the rest of my life" part. It's mildly interesting to know, but I'd have much preferred a couple of pages as an Epilogue, rather than a couple of chapters. But those are easily skipped without losing much from what's otherwise a very well told tale.