Gripping Galbally gun battle to altar boys smuggling weapons: Dungannon’s war secrets revealed

Dungannon's Irish volunteers in the War of Independence
Dungannon's Irish volunteers in the War of Independence

Secret eyewitness accounts of the Irish War of Independence in the Dungannon District have been released for the first time on the internet by the Irish Army military archives.

The interviews, photographs and documents were collected over 11 years from 1947, and include graphic accounts of police station attacks in Donaghmore and Dungannon, fraught gun-fights in the hills of Galbally, a military round-up of all the young men in local parishes, and altar boys smuggling weapons from the vestry of St Patrick’s Church, Dungannon.

An account of the grim gun battle between Irish volunteers and the British Army at Altmore, Cappagh was given by William J Kelly, Junior, from the Donaghmore Road.

In May 1921 William was an Irish volunteer, and had been living with his comrades as an irregular in the hills of Galbally, when the gun fight broke out between 12 volunteers and a lorry load of armed police officers.

After a subsequent gun attack on a police inspector, the volunteers attended a religious retreat at St Patrick’s Church, during which the weapons were secretly hidden in the church vestry.

William’s account describes in matter-of-fact detail the gripping battle.

“We had barely time to take up position at a place called Altmore when we heard a lorry approaching”, he wrote.

“The usual preparations for taking up an ambush position had to be dispensed with and the rapid approach of the lorry forced us into the nearest position available.

“Our force numbered about 12 men: I do not know whether all our men had got into position when the shooting started. Our weapons were one rifle, 4 or 5 shotguns and the remainder were armed with revolvers. The firing lasted about 10 minutes.

“As soon as we opened fire, the police got out of the lorry and took up positions in reply to our fire. Seeing that we were in rather a poor defensive position and that our inferior weapons put us at a great disadvantage, we were compelled to retreat. One of the R.I.C. received a head wound: none of our men were hit.

“In connection with this affair, on our way to Cappagh we met two local members of the ‘B’ Special constabulary. Both these men knew me very well and we could not take the chance of letting them go about their business after they had seen us, as it would certainly give an alarm of our

presence in the locality, so we took them prisoner. In order to keep them quiet we had to place two of our men on guard over them until the attack was over.

“On the following evening, around 6 p.m., we proceeded to attend a retreat in St. Patrick’s Church. Earlier on this particular day, the Dungannon Company had burned two Belfast bread vans as part of the campaign against the selling of Belfast goods.

“I mixed up with the people going to the retreat and went along with them to the church. On arrival there I went into the vestry and hid my revolver there. I told some of the altarboys where it was hidden and

I gave them instructions to take it out to me at Galbally. Later on they did this.”

William also describes a British Army round-up of all the young men in Galbally in an attempt to net the irregulars.

“The British military arrived in that district and. surrounded the whole area. The force involved in this round-up was about 200 military and a large number of police. They cordoned off the whole district, surrounding the area where we were.

“All the young men of the district were brought from their houses to a point near Cappagh where they were inspected and checked over by R.I.C. men.

“One of the men arrested in this round-up was a stranger to the district: he was apparently on the run from Belfast and, being a stranger, he was arrested and detained. Accompanying me at the time of this roundup was my brother, Tom, Archie McDonald and John Ogle.

“We were not able to penetrate the cordon which surrounded the district but we evaded arrest by watching out and getting to houses that we knew the military had already raided.”

Later in the war, William was involved in a daring sabotage bid on the Belfast to Derry train.

“Early in July, 1921, we made plans to burn a train carrying Belfast goods between Belfast, Omagh and Derry.

“On the night of the 14th July we mobilised the Galbally and Aughnagar Companies for this operation. We held the train up at a place called Gortavoy by lifting one rail of the railway line. At the back of this train was a box van of horses going to a show at Omagh.

We had to disconnect this van and push it back some distance from the train before we burned the train before we burned the train: the train was then completely burned out. The wreckage blocked the line for a few days.”

The accounts, which include several more by Dungannon’s Irish Volunteers were collected by the specially-formed Bureau of Military History after it realised that historically-valuable information was being lost as combatants and eyewitnesses grew old and died.

The collection, which contained material regarded as highly sensitive, was kept locked away for many years.

The once-secret files were digitised by the bureau and have now been made freely available on the internet.