The tragic deaths of Daniel Donnelly & John Creggan in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone

Schoolboys Daniel Donnelly and John Creggan died as a result of a tragic accident involving an anti-tank grenade in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone on 14th February 1943.

Co. Tyrone schoolboys Daniel Donnelly aged 13 years old and John Creggan aged 11 years old died as a result of a tragic accident on Valentine’s Day, 14th February 1943. Donnelly had been in possession of an anti-tank grenade when it exploded. The incident took place in Killymoon Street, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone.

11-year-old John Woods was a friend of Daniel Donnelly. The boys lived on Killymoon Street, and Woods had gone to Killymoon Demesne with friends on the Sunday morning. With Woods was 12-year-old Harry Hampsey and another friend Noel Blair. Blair spotted the bomb in Sam Farley’s field, and Hampsey was first to pick it up. The military used Farley’s field in Killymoon Demesne, near the castle for bombing practice.

Tragedy unfolds in Tyrone

Blair and Hampsey found the device on a hill surrounded by barbed wire. A red flag and a War Department-issued danger notice marked the area. The barbed wire, however, was easy enough for children to get through and they often did.

Hampsey ran back towards town with the grenade accompanied by John Woods. On the way, he spoke to two soldiers at around 1800hrs and showed them the device. The soldiers were Private George Kemp and Private O’Reilly. Kemp examined the device although he did not recognise the type. He assumed it was for training purposes only. The Private attempted to remove the base plug, striking the grenade with his fist to loosen it. He also observed the blackened fuses at the top of the bomb-making it appear fired. Kemp alleged he threw the bomb into a hedge by the side of the road, telling the children not to touch it.

Hampsey claims the soldier gave him the grenade back, and he continued home clutching it. At the inquest following the explosion, Hampsey claimed the soldier told him the grenade was no good. On returning home, his mother told him to take it out of the house.

Daniel Donnelly was in the Hampsey house and told Harry to throw it into the nearby quarry hole. As they approached the quarry hole, Donnelly snatched the grenade from Hampsey and ran around the corner towards Edward Boyle’s house. Hampsey assumed Donnelly was going to throw the bomb into the quarry hole and returned home.

An explosion on Killymoon Street

Edward Boyle was a neighbour of both Daniel Donnelly and John Creggan on Killymoon Street. He gave evidence at the inquest that followed the incident. Boyle rounded the gable corner of his house at around 1825hrs and encountered Donnelly running towards him from the rear of the houses. Seconds later, Boyle heard the explosion and went to the front of the house. There he saw the two boys lying about five feet away from each other in the street.

Boyle first lifted Creggan in his arms before passing him to Patrick Smith, another neighbour. Mr. Boyle then attended Donnelly until the military arrived.

Shock spreads through the community

People across Cookstown heard the sound of the explosion. Many locals flocked to the scene. The blast damaged houses in the immediate vicinity with windows blown out of Edward Boyle’s house. A crater approximately a foot deep marked the place where the grenade detonated.

The military was first on the scene and worked at speed in an attempt to save the boys. An army medical officer by the name of Lieutenant Rennie dressed the boys’ wounds. Private Walker, Private Geary, and other military medics assisted at the scene. At the inquest, Walker recalled noticing part of the bomb when he arrived with the stretcher party.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary arrived next led by Head Constable Close. District Inspector Tease, Sergeant Greer, and Constable Roberts soon joined Close and took charge of the scene. Dr. M.R. Neilly, acting on behalf of the indisposed local Dr. Elliot, then arrived. He observed the army medics had done all they could for the boys.

Army medics at the scene

An army ambulance made the 25-mile journey across the countryside to the Tyrone County Hospital in Omagh. There was no hospital in Cookstown. They were accompanied by Constable Roberts and Reverend Captain McCullough, a Chaplain to the Forces.

Daniel Donnelly died en route to the hospital near Mountfield, around 4 miles away from Omagh. The team of medics continued to work on John Creggan in the ambulance as they advanced onward to the Tyrone County Hospital. The hospital admitted Creggan at 2045hrs but he succumbed to his critical injuries after midnight.

Death in both cases was attributed to shock and multiple injuries. Creggan suffered perforated wounds to the abdomen and stomach, a wound to the left side of his chest, a fractured left leg, a punctured right eye, and other superficial injuries. Donnelly suffered a puncture wound to the frontal bone of the skull exposing the brain, a fractured right arm, a fractured left leg, and other superficial injuries.

Reaction to the incident

Both boys’ mothers were distraught at the news. Both fathers were in England at the time. Mr. Creggan was a Private in the Army and Mr. Donnelly had recently left Cookstown to seek employment across the water.

The boys’ bodies were returned to Cookstown on Monday 15th February 1943. Parish Priest Reverend Father S. Teggart said a Solemn Requiem the following day on Tuesday 16th February 1943. Both mothers attended the funeral along with younger siblings of both Donnelly and Creggan. Schoolboys from St Mary’s Boys’ School formed a procession with masters Mr. Kelly and Mr. Leyden. Three of the boys’ closest friends flanked the hearses.

Canon Hurson P.P. officiated the burial ceremony at the Roman Catholic burial ground with local undertaker Mr. Frank Mulgrew. Travel restrictions imposed in wartime meant that neither boys’ father could return home for the funeral. The two boys’ graves are in Derryloran Chapel Hill Churchyard, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone.

Coroner Mr. A.F. Colhoun held an inquest at Tyrone County Hospital, Omagh on Tuesday 16th February 1943.

Findings of the inquest

The Mid Ulster Mail newspaper carried the report on 20th February 1943 under the headline:

Cookstown Double Tragedy – Two Boys Killed By Bomb.

Mr. J.F. Dickie appeared for the crown along with the County Hospital house surgeon Dr. William Cullen at the inquest. The outcome was a verdict of accidental death. The inquest posed questions as to the responsibility of the military for clearing their sites. Farley’s field was a popular spot with young children from the area and the military would have known this.

A ‘Leaving A Legacy’ memorial at Gortalowry, Cookstown commemorates Daniel Donnelly and John Creggan. Gortalowry runs parallel to Killymoon Street. Daniel Donnelly’s name features in the Commonwealth War Graves database as a civilian death during the Second World War.

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