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17/10/2021

The school-house raid that ended in tragedy a century ago

An RIC raid on the dance left a 16-year-old boy dead.

The school-house raid that ended in tragedy a century ago

Joseph Doherty's grave at St Columba's, Ballerin.

On the night of December 28, 1920, a group of young people defied an 8pm curfew to hold a dance in a Ballerin school-house in County Derry. Liam Tunney tells the story of how the tip-off from a local insurance man, led to an RIC raid that had tragic consequences for one of the area's families.

Sixteen-year-old Joseph Doherty was attending his first dance. He hadn't gone far, just about half a mile up the road to the local school-house in Ballerin.

He had been working on the farm with his father, Patrick, since leaving school, and the moment marked a coming-of-age for the youngster.

His proud mother had even journeyed to Garvagh to buy him a brand new tie for the occasion, and would have watched Joseph and his 15-year-old sister Lil leave the house in excitement.

In just a matter of hours, the tie hung blood stained from his body in a field opposite the school-house.

Joseph Doherty had been shot dead.

Joseph, front-left, alongside his sister Lil, who joined him at the dance.

December 1920 was a tumultuous time in Irish history. The War of Independence had intensified throughout the year, and there was no indication it would subside.

Just over a month earlier, a dramatic day of bloodshed in Dublin, which became known as 'Bloody Sunday', saw over 30 people lose their lives.

Locally, 24-year-old postal worker John McSwiggan was shot dead in Magherafelt in the early hours of that morning. An inquest found the military responsible.

On December 23, the Government of Ireland Act, which would lead to partition, received royal assent.

Amid the palpable tension of the era, the people in rural Derry got on with life as best they could.

Despite Patrick Doherty telling his son he would be 'better off in his bed', he didn't object to Joseph heading off to the school-house.

The local authorities, however, did.

An insurance man for the area had tipped off police that the event may have been held to raise funds for Sinn Féin, declared an illegal organisation two years earlier by Lord Lieutenant, Viscount French.

As the post-Christmas revelry began at the hall, four police vehicles made their way up the Coolnasillagh Road.

They carried 20 men and were led by James Fletcher, an RIC Sergeant originally from Banbridge, County Down.

The school-house was situated at the top of a long hill, and a constable travelling in the furthest car from the front of the cavalcade reported shots being fired on the cars.

He was of the opinion that scouts had been placed around the school-house to give warning of the police's approach, and that the first shots were fired by civilians outside the school.

“As they were approaching Boleran School he observed some person at a house on the roadside with a brilliant light, which was moved about as if signalling,” stated a Chronicle report from the inquest.

“The car had only gone about forty yards past the light when three or four shots rang out from the direction of the school. Something – thought to be a bullet – struck the door of the car.”

Sergeant Fletcher had been travelling in the second vehicle that reached the hall.

“The first lorry had just drawn up at the school when three shots were fired from the hall side of the road in the direction of the police lorries,” reported the Chronicle.

“While going up the rising ground to the school, the police could see the silhouetted figures of persons running away.

“A police sergeant who was in charge of the first lorry, on which were seven RIC men and two special constables, stated that on alighting at the school he saw four men standing facing him on the road and ordered them to put their hands up.

“They did so, and he was searching a second man when the word 'Halt' was shouted. Immediately several shots were fired by whom he could not say, nor could he tell who called 'Halt.”

Among the silhouetted figures was young Joseph Doherty. On seeing the cars approaching, or possibly on hearing shots ringing out, he had darted across the road across the field on the opposite side.

Police then surged into the hall, ordering the females outside and searching the men who were present. Joseph was then located on the ground outside using the light of a bicycle lamp.

He had been shot through his temple. Death had been instantaneous.

The school-house building is still standing 100 years later in Ballerin.

Sergeant Fletcher commandeered a car that was sitting outside the hall. It belonged to Matthew McKeefrey of Swatragh and had been driven to the dance by Joseph Reid.

A curfew was in place at the time, and Reid was subsequently arrested for using the motor car after 8pm without a permit.

No arms were found on Joseph, or any of the men searched at the school-house that December evening.

An inquest into Joseph's death was held the following day in Garvagh, with Coroner Dr HS Morrison leading the investigation.

His father Patrick was represented by Mr R O'Neill from Macauley, O'Neill and Martin Solicitors, Coleraine.

In order to pay for both legal representation and the costs of Joseph's funeral, the family had to sell one of their cows.

A post-mortem examination had revealed a small punctured bullet wound, around three inches in diameter, on the left side of Joseph's neck, behind his ear.

Both the family solicitor and the Coroner offered sympathy to the family at the inquest. So too did the police, but they insisted they were acting in accordance with their duty.

“A police officer said their information was that this was a Sinn Féin ball, and their duty was to go and search the parties attending,” wrote the Chronicle.

“Unfortunately, the police lorries were fired on, and they were compelled to return fire, with the result that the unfortunate young man Doherty was killed, possibly, he could not say probably, by police fire.

“They were there in the execution of their duties and in the interests of the restoration of law and order - a duty they would endeavour to carry out as long as they were members of the RIC.

“At the same time, they were very sorry that this life should have been lost and send their sympathies to the relatives of the deceased.”

The family's solicitor said the fact Joseph attended the dance with his sister showed his innocence, and the Coroner agreed, but warned others against attending such gatherings.

“They should be careful to avoid everything that was likely to bring them under suspicion,” he told the inquest.

Before the jury retired to consider their verdict, the police officer giving evidence made a final plea for them to make clear the police were acting as part of their duty when Joseph Doherty was killed.

“That is a matter for the jury. They are the men who determine these things,” replied the Coroner.

In the face of overwhelming evidence, the jury did not need long to confer.

Tendering sympathy to the relatives, they found the 16-year-old's death was caused by shock and haemorrhage, following a gunshot wound to the head.

They were also of the opinion that police were justified in firing that night.

The site of the old barracks in Garvagh, where Joseph was taken in Joseph Reid's car.

Two days after the teenager's death, Sergeant James Fletcher was shot in the leg on Garvagh's Main Street in an attempt on his life.

Fletcher transferred to the newly-formed RUC in 1922 and was stationed in Dungiven until his retirement.

The Doherty family's future was not nearly as straightforward.

“The only one that stayed at home was Tommy Doherty, my granda,” said Terry McIlvar, grand-nephew of Joseph Doherty.

“They all left for America and ended up around the New York area. I had a good chat with Joseph's brother Mick when we went on a trip there back as far as 1999.”

Even 100 years on, there are tangible links to the events of that evening.

Dr Kerlin, after whom Derry GAA's Dr Kerlin Cup is named, noted the details of the incident on an old clock that remains in a house in Glenullin.

The school-house, which later became an Ancient Order of Hibernians hall, still sits at the top of the hill where the Coolnasillagh Road meets Boleran Park.

Joseph's tie, bought for him by his mother a century ago, has settled further afield.

It remains with the family on the far side of the Atlantic, a stark reminder of another young life needlessly cut short by the turmoil and tensions that still linger today.

FEATURE: The day six members of one family tragically drowned in Kilrea

On the anniversary of a tragedy which is hard to comprehend, Liam Tunney looks back at the heartbreaking day which devastated a local community.

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