Ballykelly (Baile Uí Cheallaigh) translates to ‘Town of Kelly’ or Kelly’s Town’. The village which has views across the Folye to Donegal was developed by the Fishmonger's Company during the Plantation of Ulster at the beginning of the 1600s and contains some fabulous period architecture. Its history as a settlement though, goes back much further in time.
The present day Tamlaghtfinlagan Church of Ireland which was built in 1795 with funds from the Bishop of Derry and the Hon. John Beresford, traces its name back through a series of ecclesiastical buildings to the foundation of an Abbey in the locality in 580 AD. This was located not far from the present church, the first Abbot here was Findluganus, a follower of St. Columba.
The present church is the final resting place of Blind John McCurry, the itinerant fiddler whom Jane Ross heard playing outside the Burns & Laird Shipping office in Limavady. The melody he was playing so captivated her that she noted it down and later passed it with her song collection to George Petrie, he subsequently published it with the name ‘Londonderry Air’ which is the melody we all know as ‘Danny Boy’ Its origins are believed to come from ‘O’Cahan's Lament’
On the Main Street opposite the Model Farm which is now an Independent Hospital, stands the Presbyterian Church which built in 1827. Designed by the English architect Richard Suter (1797-1883) it was extremely contemporary for its time. He was employed as a surveyor for the Fishmonger's Guild and also designed Banagher Church, the Model Farm, the Lancastrian School, The Company Agents House, a range of houses on the Main Street, the lodge in the Presbyterain churchyard and the Dispensary.
The architecture of the Presbyterian Church so impressed William Makepeace Thackery that he commented on it while passing through the village during his Tour of Ireland in 1842 : "In Ballykelly, besides numerous simple, stout, brick-built dwellings for the peasantry, with their shining windows and trim garden-plots, is a Presbyterian meeting-house, so well-built, substantial, and handsome, so different from the lean, pretentious, sham-Gothic ecclesiastical edifices which have been erected in late years in Ireland, that it can't fail to strike the tourist who has made architecture his study or his pleasure. The gentleman's seats in the district are numerous and handsome; and the whole movement along the road betokened cheerfulness and prosperous activity".
Another connection to Ballykelly comes through the ancestry of the Noble Peace Prize winner for Literature, John Steinbeck (1902-1968), one of America’s best known authors who wrote such classics as 'East of Eden', 'Of Mice and Men' and The Grapes of Wrath' for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. He came here in 1952 to trace his ancestors.
Steinbeck's maternal grandfather was Samuel Hamilton who was born in Ballykelly in 1830 and baptized in the Presybyterian Church. The family farm (now gone) was at Mullkeeragh just off the Tully Road on the edge of the village. Samuel Hamilton emigrated to America during the famine years, he met and married Elizabeth Fagan in New York in 1849 and they moved to California and lived in the Salina Valley.
John Steinbeck and his wife Elaine visited Ballykelly on 18th August,1952 to discover where his ancestors had come from and to try and find any surviving members locally. At first they went to the Presbyterian church graveyard where his grandfather had been baptized. Eventually they discovered the Hamilton headstones in Tamlaghtfinlagan Parish Church and one marking Elizabeth (Minnie) Hamilton, who had passed away on February 11th, 1951, aged 84, two years before his visit. Minnie was the daughter of Samuel Hamilton's brother, William John Hamilton and Jane Ritchie. In his article ‘I go back to Ireland’ which was published in 1953 in Colliers Magazine, a photograph shows John Steinbeck crouching beside the two Hamilton headstones.
Lining the wall at the far end of the church grounds, a row of military headstones tell their own stories of young men who lost their lives and were associated with the airbase which was operational during WW2. Young men like G.W. Gerring and W.G. Wallace who were returning from a long maritime patrol over the north western approaches, on arriving at Ballykelly they found the base and area hidden in thick mist. The Liberator running low on fuel was heard circling overhead, on the third pass it crashed in bad visibilty on Binevenagh mountain with the loss of all the crew (Captained by Pilot Officer I B Jenkins, 2nd Pilot: Warrant Officer G.F. Logan; Navigator: W/O R.R.J. Revell; Sgts W.H. Wilson, H.G. Lewis; W/Os G.W. Geering, W.G. Wallace; Flt Sgt H.G. Coombes).
The base was opened in 1941 to provide long range reconnaissance, crews from Ballykelly patrolled the north Atlantic locating German U-Boats and also provided air support for convoys crossing the Atlantic. The first active operations were by 220 Squadron which flew Boeing B17 Flying Fortresses. They were later joined by 120 Squadron flying Consolidated Liberators. The range covered by these anti submarine and convoy support units extended from Norway to the Bay of Biscay and flights could last up to 15 hours. The main runway was extended in 1943 and crossed the railway line from Derry to Belfast. An unusual rule applied which gave trains the right of way if a plane was on approach. The base closed after the war and reopened in 1947, it became fully operational again in 1952 for Avro Shackeltons again in a coastal command role. In 1955 three squadrons of Avro Shackletons were based here.
The runway was further enlarged in 1963 to act as a dispersal base for Valiant, Vulcan and Victor ‘V’ Bombers. The last flight left the based in 1971, it was then handed over to the British Army who renamed it Shackleton Barracks. A humorous event took place here in 2006, though not for the Ryan Air flight crew who landed their Airbus on the main runway by mistake, the pilot had been on visual approach and mistook Ballykelly for Eglington Airport (City of Derry) a couple of miles further down the Foyle.
Some excellent walks can be found nearby in Ballykelly Forest which was the first state forest in Northern Ireland. The land was purchased in 1910 and planted with over eleven acres of Douglas Fir, prior to this enlargement the area was known as Camman Wood which was predominantly Ash, this was said to have provided the wood to make local hurling sticks.
Explore the roads running to the shore between Ballykelly and Limavady and you will discover the exceptional Ballykelly and Ballymacran Banks, here you can find miles of excellent walking, stunning views and wildlife. A canal exists from the Foyle Estuary near Ballykelly and runs for two miles towards Limavady. Known as the Broharris canal, it was created in 1820 with the purpose of acting as both a drainage channel and a canal. It was navigable by barges and took goods from Londonderry and kelp and sand from the shore to Limavady, the town had lobbied for a canal right up to the town but this was never created.