TWO Londonderry men have told how they secretly began excavating ancient underground tunnels in the city centre - using the Apprentice Boys' parade to cover up the noise.
As a result of over three weeks' work under Pump Street, an underground network of 129 yards of red-brick and ancient stone tunnels which could pre-date the Siege by many lifetimes saw the light of day for the first time in hundreds of years.
The opening of the tunnel brought to an end a 20-year search for the elusive underground network for Londonderry man Brian McCarthy, who said he has burned with the desire to locate them since an acquaintance alterted him to a poem containing cryptic clues on how to find them.
In an exclusive interview, Mr McCarthy said he made his breakthrough discovery at the start of the month while cleaning out the coal bunker below his basement flat on Pump Street. Although he had his suspicions, it wasn't until a small lump of concrete came away on the surface of the wall revealing a red brick structure beneath that he knew he might have struck paydirt.
Further investigation made his heart pump: Mr McCarthy had indeed found his personal 'Holy Grail'. For the past three weeks, in almost total secrecy, he has indulged himself in an Indiana Jones-esque adventure which has led to the discovery of two underground chambers known as 'The Brothers'.
His tunnelling has, however, attracted attention from the Roads Service and Northern Ireland Environment Agency, and the latter 'strongly advised' him to cease any excavations, citing the "potential for collapse, explosion or damage to services" such as the electricity supply, and the "potential for serious injury".
Way down - the Indiana Joneses of Pump Street!
ONE of the most bizarre stories ever to surface in Londonderry is the unofficial excavation which began on Lundy's Day of a network of tunnels and chambers stretching the length of Pump Street - which only came to light last week.
Two friends, Brian McCarthy and Brian McMichael, toiled like two Victorian miners to open a small hole in the ancient structure which they suspected they may have discovered while clearing out the coal bunker of the basement flat on the corner of Pump Street. Their discovery co-incided with the Lundy Day parades, and while the bands and Apprentice Boys marched overhead the two men, using primitive means, knocked a small hole though the outer skein of the render covering the tunnel, revealing red brick.
Like schoolboys who had discovered the bath taps were running different flavours of ice-cream, the two Indiana Joneses of Pump Street, energised with excitement, knocked through into the tunnel itself revealing a stone sided, red-brick arched tunnel.
Despite the urge to 'break on through', they left the excavation for a few days to allow any stale air in the tunnel to clear, before they created a hole large enough to allow them to squeeze into the tunnel.
Brian McCarthy's quest to unearth the truth about rumours of an ancient tunnel and chamber network under the road at London Street and Pump Street has burned in his mind for nearly two decades.
In an exclusive interview with The Sentinel, Brian, who lived on Clarendon Street before moving into Pump Street five weeks ago, revealed that an acquaintance had piqued his interest in the tunnels when he alerted him to a cryptic poem. That was 17 or 18 years ago and it hinted at a possible means of entry into the filled-in structure beneath the City's streets.
Curious to know more and armed with just an industrial drill with masonry hammer action, an iron pole and a sledgehammer, Mr McCarthy and his friend, Brian McMichael, from the Waterside, have now added their story to the Londonderry tunnel legends. As the photographs show, there is an amazing 'underworld' running beneath the two streets, and at either end of the construction is a chamber, both of which are known as 'The Brothers'.
Little did bemused workers on Pump Street and London Street know as they gathered in clutches on Wednesday evening to wonder what the PSNI and Fire and Rescue Service were doing in such numbers in the streets, that for the past three weeks the two men and selected family and friends were crawling around on their stomachs 20 to 30 feet below the traffic, as they levelled out the soil. At the time it had been feared there was a gas leak, but the truth has now been uncovered and a 'Temple of Doom' style story is beginning to emerge of the subterranean dig that went undetected for the better part of a month.
Brian now believes that, given the different building materials used in the construction of the tunnels, that the original tunnels could actually stretch back to the time of the Kings of Ireland or beyond in the mists of pre-Christian Celtic Ireland.
The manner in which the tunnel and chambers were found is the stuff that legends are made of, as Brian McCarthy explains, adding that since the tunnel was opened those who have braved the cold have seen smoky apparitions and orbs.
"What actually happened was when I was cleaning out my coal bunker a bit of iron bar I was using to remove plaster went through the wall and into the tunnel. If it had have been an inch either way it wouldn't have gone into the tunnel," he said.
Admitting that only he had hit a weakness in the wall of the tunnel the structure would have remained discovered.
With eyes twinkling with excitement, Mr McCarthy says: "It is 129 yards long, it leads to a chamber, which we believe is close to the Siege Heroes Mound at one end and another at the other end.
"We were very, very lucky with finding this. It was just one wee, wee hole and the bar just went through," he said.
"I believe it was originally a Celtic tunnel because the sides of the tunnel are bone dry. We have had an archaeologist in to look at it. In the beginning when the tunnel was built we believe it was a 'clan' tunnel. These were made from slabs of stone," he says pointing to the huge stones in the foreground of one picture.
"At the start it would have had a flat roof and was used as a bolt-hole, I would say that was about 2,100 years ago," he said, adding that he had been researching the tunnels for 17 or 18 years.
"I knew it was there somewhere. I was told a long time ago by a guy who had a poem about it. It was a Presbyterian poem and it was in England. I was over in London for four or five years and I studied the tunnels in the British Museum to find out where this was, but I was going to come back and do this anyway," he said.
Asked what his fascination with the tunnels was, he says: "Well, you see I believe that tunnel will collapse in about two years time. Do you see all that stuff in the tunnel, it is coming in from the sides from the dry stone, so I was going to take the chance and do this.
"I knew about the chamber at the top of the tunnel and the chamber at the bottom of the tunnel on Ferryquay Street. We have been able to crawl though it, right up to the top of it, and to crawl down it is 192 yards in the other direction, and the honest truth is, if we don't do this now, we are not going to get another chance in a few years time.
"The red bricks are Tudor," says Brian, before his friend Brian McMichael chimes in: "We believe the tunnels have been altered and had various uses at various times by the inhabitants of the City, and we think the rounded roof isn't in character and keeping with the walls. The walls are earlier," he says.
Pointing out the differences in the masonry, Mr McMichael says: "We believe this is a different build."
The men and a small number of others have spent three, going on four weeks excavating the structure, which is a narrow, soil-filled space that is dark, cramped and cold. There is only one way in, through a small aperture which the two men have opened up.
"You have to go in on your belly," says Mr McMichael, "And the thickness of the wall is about three feet deep. The floor is stone slabs."
Asked when the excavations started and what was used to make the breakthrough, Mr McCarthy said that as luck would have it, the Lundy Day parade was taking place. His eyes twinkle as he is asked if it is true that a jackhammer was one of the pieces of equipment used to find the tunnel.
The two chambers are also known as 'The Brothers', and Mr McCarthy and Mr McMichael believe one may exist under the Siege Heroes' Mound.
"The word mound, I believe means booty which would have been robbed during Parliamentary sieges and things like that.
"The Paymaster General's house, his name was Smeddin but later changed to Smith and he was put out for his lack of allegiance, and it was his house that the poem relates to about how to find the tunnel.
"I had the poem sent over from New England about 17 years ago, and I read it, and that added to my fascination about this guy, who was one of the first Scottish parliamentary people who came over. He moved into this house, and it backed onto the clan tunnels.
Although Brian cannot remember line for line the poem, he recalled that it was three pages long and it started 'In view of the Temple', which, he says refers to the old name for Pump Street, and it speaks of a corner house with two sides.
In it he says the reader is directed to go to the bottom of the house and look for a red brick close to the ground.
"And that's as true," he says.
"As far as we know it was a Celtic chamber to start with, and a Celtic tunnel, and the Presbyterians took it over," he said, adding that there was no sign of the tunnel on the old maps that he had seen in Londonderry.
"The thing is, the Celtic tunnels were only a few feet long, but this tunnel had to be a clan because it runs into a chamber and protects whoever was in it because they could block it and protect themselves whenever they got into the chamber," he said.
For Mr McMichael, the tunnels never really interested him until that fateful day in his friend's coal bunker.
Although he had helped Brian move into the flat he had had no real interest in tunnel lore: "I know Brian had had an interest in the tunnels.
"At that stage when we found the wee hole, then it really caught the both of us and we really went to town on it. Obviously we had to leave it for a wee while to let the air outside go in and mingle with the air inside.
"So when we found the hold we left it for quite some time - three days or so, before we went in. Whenever we saw the structure so deep down and the curve of the brick over the top of the chamber that just really caught it," he said, adding that his children, Mary and Simon, also became fascinated, as did others.
"People have been very keen to look at it and everybody who has had their head in that hole has said 'I don't believe what I am looking at'. It is mindblowing. I found a grapeshot down there. They were used in a bag instead of a cannonball and caused a huge amount of damage when fired as they ripped through everything and they disintegrated."
Picking out a series of three photographs with swirls of 'mist' getting progressively more dense, Mr McCarthy explains that what they show is a 'Pooka' is materialising from the atmosphere. It is a common experience for all those brave enough to enter the tunnels.
A 'Pooka' is a spirit from ancient folklore relating to Ireland. Its physical form is a white horse and it is widely held that the 'pooka' protected or was the spiritual guardian of a sacred space or burial ground.
He goes on to explain how tunnellers have also seen a banshee and a white lady, while photographs have also picked out copious numbers of orbs and mist forms wrapping themselves.
"We have a couple of pictures of that. It's great, you can actually see it," he says, adding: "If you look carefully you can actually see the horse's head appearing. We have a picture with a lady in it too."
Asked if he is sure what we are looking at is not just disturbed dust, Mr McCarthy maintains it is smoke.
"That's how they start to appear, and we have one of a white lady too," he said.
Going back to the 'pooka' he shows on the first photograph how it starts as a "small materialisation" of smoke.
The apparitions have played havoc with photographic equipment, says Mr McMichael.
"We had two cameras that packed up which were supposed to be working perfectly fine, but when we took pictures they just didn't work, and his flat," he says of Mr McCarthy's home, "is like a fridge."
Concern and consternation
THE dogged determination to dig in and realise his dreams has brought Mr McCarthy to the attention of not only the DoE Roads Service, and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, but also the PSNI and the Fire and Rescue Service, who descended in force on Pump Street on Wednesday last week.
At one stage a swarm of uniformed men traipsed in and out of the flat at Pump Street, while outside the flashing lights and reflective surfaces on the emergency vehicles and their uniforms rivalled the neon Christmas lighting overhead. Two fire tenders and police vehicles dominated the road on Pump Street, while three Fire trucks and two Fire Service cars lined up along the far reaches of London Street.
While the rumour mill ground out stories of a man trapped underground and phantom gas leaks, the PSNI later commented: "Police attended an incident at a property in Pump Street on Wednesday afternoon, December 16. At this stage no offences have been disclosed."
However, the fog of confusion began to clear when, contacted by The Sentinel, A DRD spokesperson said Roads Service were informed by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) that an individual was carrying out tunnelling work in the vicinity of an address in Pump Street on 14th December. "The information available at the time indicated that there had been no consultation with any statutory or regulatory body to authorise this work. Roads Service has no enforcement power in circumstances such as this, other than to ensure the safe passage of road users.
"As some of this tunnelling work may have been under the public road Roads Service naturally had concerns as to how the work was being carried out, and its possible effects on the road and other services. Attempts were made on a number of occasions over the following days to contact the person who was allegedly carrying out the work but without success.
"The resident... has now been served with a letter requesting that all tunnelling work ceases and discussions with all interested bodies are on-going."
Indeed the letter dated December 16 from the Roads Service stressed concern at the "potential to cause a collapse in road surfaces" and the potential for damage to utility services like the watermains and sewerage systems.
Citing Article 82 in the Roads (NI) Order 1993, the Roads Service asked for details of the location of the tunnel stressing tunnelling "should not take place until approval has been issued by this Agency along with any other approval or licences required for this type of work".
Meanwhile, the NIEA demanded Mr McCarthy to stop tunnelling as they had "serious concerns about the potential for collapse, explosion, or damage to services" highlighting he also needed an archaeological excavation licence.
The Agency strongly advised Mr McCarthy to not carry out any further work and stressed that "excavation works should stop immediately".
Mr McCarthy has since claimed that the excavations have been inspected by the relevant authorities and no action taken to stop them.