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Who fired the shots at Stewartstown village?

CONFUSION: Denis McCullough insisted that the Rising was sanctioned by Eoin McNeill CONFUSION: Denis McCullough insisted that the Rising was sanctioned by Eoin McNeill
By Liam Murphy

Few of the 130 Volunteers who travelled to Coalisland on Easter Saturday 1916 had any inkling about the forthcoming Rising. The Belfast organiser, Denis McCullough, received a message on Good Friday morning from Dr Patrick McCartan asking him to attend a meeting. He immediately set out for Tyrone and reached Carrickmore at lunchtime.

There he had discussions with Dr McCartan and two priests, Fr Coyle and Fr Daly. McCullough had been instructed earlier in the week by Sean Mac Diarmada to mobilise the Belfast Volunteers and bring them to Coalisland where they would be joined by the Tyrone Volunteers. They were then to march west to the Shannon where they would meet with Liam Mellows who had command of the west.

A hundred years on it’s difficult to understand why two priests could have a role, but they did and McCullough accepted this. The priests argued that the forthcoming Rising was engineered by James Connolly, that it was a socialist rising, not a Volunteer affair and it was not sanctioned by Eoin McNeill.

McCullough argued that this was not the case and two messengers, McCartan’s sister and a Miss Owens from Pomeroy, were sent to Dublin to see Patrick Pearse and Tom Clarke and verify the position. The priests returned the following morning, Easter Saturday, at the same time as the messengers returned from Dublin.

They reported the position broadly as McCullough had previously stated and discussions and arguments carried on until mid-afternoon. Dr McCartan decided to go to Dublin, the two priests went off to carry out their religious duties and McCullough headed to Coalisland to meet up with the men arriving from Belfast. McCullough picked up a small revolver from the cache of arms and returned to Carrickmore. He was given a lift by Hugh Rogers, who had brought the Belfast Volunteers’ arms from Hannahstown earlier in the week. He dropped McCullough at the end of the lane to McCartan’s house.

On his way up the lane he took out the revolver. He pulled the trigger to see if it was loaded. It was. He fired a shot which went through his left hand and he passed out. He was found in the ditch some time later and Dr McCartan’s sister dressed the flesh wound. It has been stated that this was the only shot fired in the operation, but there was another.

After a three-hour sleep he awoke to find that Dr McCartan had returned from Dublin. He confirmed that Tom Clarke told him the Rising was going ahead. The priests had now returned but were adamant that the men of Tyrone should not be mobilised. McCullough then decided that if that was the case he would order his men to return to Belfast.

On Easter Sunday McCullough returned to Coalisland and after discussions with some of the group leaders it was decided to march the men to Cookstown twelve miles away. Even at this stage most of the men did not know they were returning to Belfast. In his submission to the Bureau of Military History in December 1953, McCullough tells of an incident on the way to Cookstown.

“A man named Butler, who was a kind of hanger-on to the Volunteers before the split, but had no connection with us afterwards, apparently came from, or his wife came from Coalisland and was there when our men arrived. He was a drunkard and took up with the few men in our body who took intoxicating liquor and was a bad influence with them generally. On Sunday morning he was the worse of drink and tailed the column. Between Coalisland and Cookstown is the village of Stewartstown, a hotbed of Orangeism.

Passing through Stewartstown a crowd of the inhabitants attacked the column and it took all my efforts to keep them steady and from retaliating. I got them safely through Stewartstown, but Butler, who was at the rear, turned back and fired a shot or two at the Orange crowd from an old revolver he was carrying… When the men reached Cookstown they were met by the RIC and Butler was arrested. A melee followed and another man was arrested before McCullough restored order and after a parley with the RIC succeeded in getting his men to the station where they boarded a Belfast-bound train.”

In fact, the man alleged to have fired the shots was John Dillon, 49 Gibson Street, Belfast, and he appeared in a special court in Cookstown that evening where he was bailed to appear at the Quarterly Sessions in Dungannon in June. By that time McCullough and thirty other Volunteers had been arrested, brought to Richmond Barracks in Dublin and later transferred to various prisons in England and Scotland. Dillon was charged with having discharged firearms at three women.

He pleaded not guilty. Cookstown solicitor Mr Mullan defended him. He applied to the court for an adjournment on the ground that eight men he wished to call as witnesses for the defence had since been arrested and deported. He only became aware of this on Saturday night (the case was being heard on Monday morning) and had not time to give the Crown Solicitor any earlier notice. The magistrate ruled that the case should go ahead and the court set about selecting a jury.

A number on the jury list were challenged by the Crown and Mr Mullan exhausted his peremptory challenges (it was the practice to allow the Crown and/or the defence solicitor to reject a set number of jurors without giving any reason). The next juror called was John Anderson, merchant, William Street, Cookstown. Mr Mullan challenged him “on the ground that he was not indifferent as between the Crown and the prisoner.” His Honour said he had no doubt that the juror “stood indifferent” but as it was the prisoner’s right to challenge the juror he now decided that two already elected jurors should be empanelled and asked to decide.

The Crown and defence solicitors made their case and the two selected jurors retired to consider their verdict. They returned in a few minutes and declared Mr Anderson to be “indifferent”. As they had not signed the form of verdict, His Honour told them to go out again and bring in their verdict correctly. At this stage it was pointed out by Mr Mullan that Henry Gibson, a brother of one of the jurors, had accompanied them to the room and he therefore objected to the verdict.

Two more jurors were empanelled and after hearing the legal arguments they withdrew. They later returned to say they could not agree. Mr Carson, Crown Solicitor, announced that the list of jurors had now been exhausted and it was now impossible to proceed with the case. He asked for an adjournment to the October Quarterly Sessions. His Honour acquiesced.

Jeremiah Hurley, 9 Amelia Street, Belfast, was then indicted with having assaulted head Constable O’Neill in Cookstown on Easter Sunday and with having obstructed him in the course of his duty. The defendant was represented by Mr Mullan and pleaded not guilty. Again an adjournment was sought and granted. Mr Mullan ensured that the case was not called at the October court as his witnesses were still held in jails in England.

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