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Derry pupils 'trained with guns' on school grounds after Easter Rising

Bishop Street in Derry, currently home to Lumen Christi College but formerly the site of St Columb's College. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

STUDENTS at St Columb’s College in Derry were threatened with arrest after holding drilling sessions in the school grounds following the Easter Rising, according to historical interviews.

Former pupil Thomas J.Kelly said: "The Dean of the College, Reverend James McGlinchey, and one member of the staff, Reverend Dr McShane, were both very interested in Irish politics, and by implication in talks about Ireland, instilled patriotism amongst the senior boys."

He added: "Soon after 1916 some of the boys discovered 50 old wooden guns somewhere in the college. ... the Dean allowed us to take them to the grounds where we used them in drill. This we did until a message came from the RIC barracks in Bishop Street, that if this drilling did not stop the college would be raided and the senior boys would be arrested."

Mr Kelly also described how veteran republican Dan Breen, one of the most wanted men in Ireland in the period, visited a training camp at Sperrin and "paraded" through Draperstown.

He said: "It was arranged that Dan would come to Draperstown ... He flauntingly paraded through Draperstown with a short RIC carbine rifle slung from his shoulder, and the butt of a parabellum revolver sticking ominously from the right-hand pocket of his trench coat, and not one dared interfere."

Mr Kelly added: "A patrol of RIC that had been earlier parading through the town hurriedly withdrew to the safety of their local fortress."

By 1918 the Irish Volunteers were depleted in south Derry, and two volunteers, Patrick and James McQuillan, from Ballymulderg, said a series of raids took place throughout 1918 to "augment their meagre supply of arms."

A former British major in the First World War, Moneymore man Tom Morris, described how he brought home British rifles from the front without being searched or questioned, arms which he handed over to the IRA in Bellagherty in 1918.

Mr Morris said: "They were the first arms of the Bellagherty company. ... There’s no doubt about that. And ammunition for everyone of them too. No doubt about that because I had plenty of ammunition as well."

However, for many republicans in south Derry, the greatest fear of violence during partition and civil war came not from the RIC or B Specials, but from members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, according to several interviewees.

A long-running feud between Sinn Féin and the AOH in south Derry often spilled into violence, including a brawl outside Mass on one occasion.

As the years of violence drew to an end, aborted border attacks planned for May 1922 saw several 'on the runs' almost drowning after taking boats out in Ardboe in Co Tyrone.

Fr O’Kane recalled: "When the police would come near the district, many of these men 'on the run' would get in boats and go out on the lough to avoid being captured. Many of these had never been in a boat in their lives, and there were many narrow escapes from drowning."

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