Keepers of Dungannon’s medieval secrets

Terry McQuaid visits the entrance to O'Neill's network of secret tunnels for the first time in 50 years
Terry McQuaid visits the entrance to O'Neill's network of secret tunnels for the first time in 50 years

By Anthony Quinn

CALLS are mounting to have one of Dungannon’s most enduring medieval mysteries finally revealed.

Local legend holds that a network of secret tunnels built in the Middle Ages lie under the town, running from Castle Hill in the centre of town to various sites in the surrounding hinterland including Benburb, Castlecaulfield and even Galbally.

The entrances to the tunnels have been closed for decades and one by one a small handful of people who claimed to have explored the tunnels in their childhood are passing away.

Terry McQuaid, one of the few remaining tunnel veterans, has revealed to the Tyrone Times the medieval secrets he discovered as a child, including an ancient sword of which he is now the guardian.

A Facebook campaign has been launched to have the tunnels opened and properly investigated by archaeologists.

Numerous visitors to the site have added their call to have one of Dungannon’s most famous legends brought to life and the sights and sounds of the passageways recreated in some form of exhibition.

Terry, now 68, recalled how as a boy he climbed into the tunnels with a gang of his friends with only a candle and matches to guide the way.

He gave a vivid testimony of his adventures.

He remembers travelling deep into the tunnel, which had been dug out of the bare earth without any form of support.

“We would get as far as about the middle of Scotch Street, about several hundred yards, before fear would get the better of us.

“We were only children and had no idea of the dangers. You had to crouch most of the way, although there were parts where you could stand up. We would go down to Paddy Keogh’s on Irish Street and buy the candles and matches.

“It was understood that the tunnel ran the whole way to the windmill in Beechvalley. Sometime in the 50s, road-workers were digging up Scotch Street and one of their machines fell into the hole. After that it was blocked off.”

Terry described how there were two entrances to the tunnel both at the top of Castle Hill, one of which was to the back of the Orange Hall building, the other directly south towards the old police station.

“There was a large tunnel joining the two entrances. There was more room in that tunnel, but the secret passageway was only large enough to carry one person at a time. There were alcoves every now and again built into the tunnel wall which would have allowed two people to pass each other.

“I still remember how dark and damp it was. It wasn’t bravery, we had no sense.

“We would go down for five minutes, come back up again and then go down for ten. We built it up to twenty minutes or so at a time before we got too frightened.

“I remember a new TA building was built on Castle Hill in the 1950s and the day before it was due to be opened by some lord, it was blown up, A popular poem of the day went: “Into our town one Friday night, came three men from God knows where. Up to the Castle Hill they went, via the Market Square, then suddenly a loud blast was heard in the ancient town, the sirens blew, and the B-men flew, but the TA was blew.”

Terry also pointed out a number of other tunnels that lie under the town, including one that ran under Lord Ranfurly’s estate.

“Travelling out towards Dungannon park, where the old Inn on the Park used to be, you can see two gates built into the wall at both sides of the road.

“Close by them are the entrances to the tunnel which was built when they were constructing the road through the Ranfurly estate.

“Unlike the O’Neill’s tunnel, this one was wide enough to accommodate a horse and carriage.”

On one of his journeys into the tunnel, Terry retrieved an ancient broken sword, which had been kept by his family.

The sword had a handle of yellowish metal and an unrusted blade.

However, he is unsure of the sword’s current whereabouts.