A Belfast Orangeman has told of his “blind panic” after uncovering a cache of pre-First World War weapons during a clearout of a derelict floor of Clifton Street Orange Hall in Belfast.
Ronnie McDowell, 40, found the antique rifles on December 29 last year, but news of the find was only released on Tuesday.
“At the time, when you open a door and see a cache of weapons staring back at you, and this is Northern Ireland, the first sensation is blind panic,” he said.
“I am not a guns expert but with the ammunition lying in boxes at the bottom of the lockers my first thought was I was not going to see my family for five years.”
Mr McDowell added that “now with hindsight” he can say “it was incredible”.
The Bombardier Aerospace employee said at the time he and other Eldon Lodge members were “simply doing a bit of clearing out”.
“The top floor of Clifton Street Orange Hall had become derelict and we had started to push our way back into it to use the space,” he added.
“We discovered lockers and decided to open them for more space, thinking we would find books, logs and maybe banners.
“But we were astonished when we found a weapons cache. It was incredible and it was not something I was expecting to find.”
A short time after locating the weapons the Orangemen contacted the PSNI. “When the police came in they were fantastic with us,” he said. “They knew we were nervous about it and they dealt with us fantastically.
“The police took them for a period of time and when they gave them back said they were antique. They said experts had valued the collection at around £15,000.”
The guns were part of a shipment of 25,000 rifles smuggled into Larne on board the Clyde Valley in 1914.
It is believed they were concealed in the Orange hall for just over 100 years and date from the Home Rule crisis.
A spokesman from the Orange Order said it was “tremendous” to make the discovery of 10 Austrian-made Steyr Rifles “in the decade of centenaries, creating a direct link to the events that occurred over 100 years ago in which the Orange Institution played an integral part”.
He added: “The weapons were found in a part of the hall that was rarely used and they were clearly not meant to be found. We look forward to displaying these rifles in our hall museum. They will compliment the numerous other items we have from this period in Ulster’s history.”
A PSNI spokesman said the weapons “will be retained by police until they are deactivated, appropriate licences have been issued and they are returned to the Orange Order as items of historical interest”.