DUNGANNON’S most famous medieval mystery may be about to see the light of day after centuries of speculation.
Excavation work in the Market Square, due to begin today (Monday) for the Public Realm Scheme, is expected to reveal at least a section of the labyrinth of tunnels that riddle the ground below the town centre.
Part of the £1.8m facelift will involve digging around the War Memorial statue, which was the site of a tunnel collapse more than five decades ago.
The town revamp, which has been hit by delays, will involve major digging work in the Square, and will take until the summer of 2014 to complete.
The initial work will be done at night, in a bid to minimise the disruption to the town in the run-up to Christmas.
UUP Councillor Walter Cuddy, who owns a business in the town centre, said it is very likely that the workmen will uncover part of the network of tunnels used by the O’Neill’s as emergency escapes from their fort on Castle Hill.
“Although it was before my time, I’ve heard the stories of how the area around the war memorial caved in one night in 1961, and revealed a tunnel that ran down the square”, he said.
“Nowadays the site would be excavated and explored by archeologists, but in those days there wasn’t as much interest in history, and the council covered up the hole with a lorry load of stones.
“The public realm scheme involves digging around the war memorial and moving the entire statue four or five feet, so it will be interesting to see what they discover.”
Councillor Cuddy vowed that this time any promising finds will be extensively studied by experts and documented as part of the town’s medieval heritage.
One of the eyewitnesses to the original tunnel collapse was Alex Field, from Ballynakelly, Coalisland, who told the Tyrone Times that he remembered seeing an exposed section of a medieval tunnel ‘large enough to drive a horse and cart through’.
“That night in 1961, I was standing at the old Castle Picture House, waiting for a taxi to Moygashel”, he said.
“The taxi arrived driven by the late Johnny Gallagher. As the taxi pulled up at the war memorial, the street caved in. “I wandered over and peered into the tunnel. Soon the council came with a load of stones, filled all in, and tarred over the hole.”
Alex also recalled that another tunnel running towards the square was uncovered while digging foundations for St Anne’s Parish Hall.
However, he has a different theory regarding the origin of some of the passageways.
“A lot of the tunnels were dug during sieges of Dungannon Castle. In 1517, the castle was besieged by the Earl of Kildare, who shot the castle to pieces and demolished it. At the time it was occupied by Art O’Neill. The tunnels were then dug by Kildare to undermine the castle.”
Alex has seen extensive plans for the fort that Chichester built on the hill. “The plans show underground basements, store houses, and powder magazines, etc. They were all built on open ground, and were later filled in with earth.
“The plans detail cartiers bringing earth to Castle Hill, in total listing 200 cartiers for this purpose.
“The earth was marked as being dug and loaded at Gortmerron, just off the present Ranfurly Road.”
Visit www.tyronetimes.co.uk to see the full video interview.