Myth and Legend
The Norman Invasion The O'Neills The town of Newry began to grow industrially and
commercially aided by a successful port.
The Norman Invasion
The town of Newry began to grow industrially and commercially aided by a successful port.
Hugh O'Neill became the English recognised "Earl of Tyrone". Hugh's acceptance of English ways at first earned him the nickname the "Queen's O'Neill". However Hugh O'Neill remained at heart Gaelic and was to pose the greatest threat to English rule. Henry Bagenal had succeeded Nicholas Bagenal and greatly resented Hugh O'Neill's favour with the English Queen. This resentment was exacerbated when Hugh fell in love with Henry's youngest sister Mabel. Sadly a few years after they married Mabel died.
The Queen continued to overthrow the Gaelic system and eventually this infringed upon O'Neill's lands. Conflict followed and he was declared a traitor. Hugh renounced his English title and became O'Neill Mór (the Great O'Neill). O'Neill formed an alliance of Gaelic lords and war with the English ensued between 1593 and 1603. Hugh O'Neill was also fighting on behalf of the Catholic faith which increased his support among the Irish and meant that he could enlist help from Spain which was also fighting the English. Newry was the centre for the English forces with Bagenal in command. The Irish adopted ambushing tactics to inflict the greatest possible loss. In the many battles that followed the Irish armies often defeated the English forces and forced them to retreat back to Newry. The English sensing defeat, negotiated with Hugh O'Neill who retained a Gaelic Ulster but Newry was left in the hands of the Bagenal family. Newry was under siege and Bagenal reinforced his command. In an ensuing battle Henry Bagenal was killed and the English were overcome, leaving Newry susceptible to Hugh O'Neill. News of this victory over the English spread through Ireland and rebellion increased.
Lord Mountjoy succeeded as lord deputy and pursued the battle with O'Neill. His strategy included the erection of forts to hinder the movement of the Irish, and the destruction of the Irish crops and livestock to bring famine to O'Neill's people. Mountjoy succeeded in breaking up the alliance of the Gaelic leaders. O'Neill desperately needed a Spanish landing. When this came it was at the wrong time and at the opposite side of the country at Kinsale, near Cork. O' Neill marched with other Gaelic forces to meet the invading Spanish. The battle that ensued on Christmas Eve in 1601, brought a severe defeat to the Irish and O'Neill retreated to Ulster to await his inevitable defeat.
Mountjoy's battle tactics had left much of Ulster in a state of deprivation and famine. O'Neill surrendered and eventually O'Neill and some companions sailed for Spain. This is termed the 'Flight of the Earls'.
The plantation was, however, not as successful as hoped and rather than replacing the indigenous population the new settlers were scattered throughout, since enough settlers could not be found. Differences and grievances between Catholics and Protestants about land and loyalties highlighted and increased underlying tensions and hatred. Rebellion broke out in 1641 in parallel with rebellion between parliamentarians and monarchists in England, which resulted from discontent with Charles I's rule. Charles was executed in 1649 and Oliver Cromwell sailed to Ireland to suppress rebellion.
By the 1680's peace had prevailed for a while aiding economic growth, but in 1688 William of Orange came to England to challenge James II's claim to the English throne. James sought refuge in Ireland whence William pursued him. Battles between the Williamites and Jacobites occurred which culminated in the Battle of the Boyne, which saw the defeat of James and the accession to the throne of William. The subsequent peace allowed industry and commerce to be rebuilt and thrive. These times saw the emergence of several wealthy families such as the Needhams and Corrys in Newry. They are still remembered today in street names and monuments.
Deep set fears meant that new laws were introduced by the Irish Parliament following the defeat of the Jacobites. These 'Penal Laws' prevented Catholics from practising their religion, and excluded them from politics and property ownership. Following the destruction of the town in 1689 planning and rebuilding began focused around the quays and supported by Nicholas Bagenal and the wealthy families in the town. Bagenal died in 1712 and the ownership of Newry and Mourne was then passed on to Robert Nedham who encouraged commerce and was benevolent to the religious sensibilities of the inhabitants. Needham provided sites at nominal rents for the building of churches and encouraged the construction of warehouses and bridges.
The discovery of coal at Coalisland on the shores of Lough Neagh meant an alternative source of coal for Dublin. Previously Dublin's coal had been imported from Newcastle-upon-Tyne at great expense. Transporting the coal by road to Dublin would be expensive and so it was proposed to build a 'navigatable trench' or canal from Lough Neagh to Carlingford Lough to enable transportation of coal by ship from Coalisland down the east coast to Dublin. Work began on building the British Isles first inland canal in 1731.
The canal never fulfilled its purpose of transporting coal from Tyrone but became the centre of trade of Ulster. Newry became the busiest port in the north of Ireland and created many wealthy merchants.
Low lying marsh land along the river and canal was drained and reclaimed. Housing and business was built and the town expanded to Ballybot on the Armagh side of the river.
By 1770 Newry possessed 1600 houses many of elegant style and decoration. The town had its own theatre and had attracted persons of such notoriety as George Frederick Handel and Jonathan Swift. Industry grew around the canal, linen mills, breweries, saltworks, a sugar refinery and an iron foundry. All found success due to the accessibility the canal provided.
The canal thus catapulted Newry from being a small port to an international trading centre, trading with America, Jamaica, the Baltics, Poland, France and England. The commercial growth of the town increased its political influence and Newry was set to become a major city of influence in the ninteenth century.
During the late 1770's Isaac Corry was returned from Newry as MP to the Irish Parliament. This was a time of political discontent. Isaac Corry attached himself to Flood's 'Patriot Party' which was opposed to Irelands subordinate position to the British Parliament. This feeling was enforced when the American War of Independence was being fought. Irish politicians wanted more independence and an end to the 'penal laws'.
The important American market was cut off due to the war of Independence and ships began to be hijacked around the British coast due to the actions of American rebels who took refuge in France - an ally to American independence. Ireland as a subordinate to Britain was expected to field troops in America leaving Ireland exposed. It was left to the merchants to raise volunteers and equip them, to defend the ports and coast from invasion. A large number of unattached young men joined the Newry volunteers. Being a volunteer ensured instant social status. Although the volunteers were never tested in battle they showed the abilities of the wealthy merchants to organise and administer a large armed force.
During 1779 and 1780 restrictions on Irish trade to countries which were seen as a threat to English interests was removed. But the patriot party not only wanted economic freedom.
The Volunteer Convention of 1782 called for an independent legislature and freedom from English influence, religious equality and freedom of trade. The Declatory Act of George I began a series of measures to return legislative power to the Irish parliament. Some envisaged this as the redemption of Ireland - but this was not to be so in reality.
The Westminster government began to try and take the power and influence from the patriot party and did so by approaching Isaac Corry with the bribe of a new position and salary. Corry accepted and thus transferred his allegiance to British influence in Ireland.
The United Irishmen
The defeat of the United Irishmen was followed by parliamentary union between Great Britain and Ireland and to achieve this William Pitts British Government entered a campaign of bribery to gain support for this act. Issac Corry was subject to this and in return for his support for the Act of Union he was promoted to the position of Chancellor of the Irish exchequer. In Newry, Corry received support from the citizens as they thought the Act of Union would lead to full Catholic emancipation. When the act of Union failed to fulfil this the citizens ceased to support the Act of Union and Isaac Corry.
Meanwhile Newry's growth as a trade centre continued. A new customs house was built on Merchants Quay and in 1815 Newry's population was 13,500, an illustration of the attraction of this port drawing people in from the surrounding countryside. However, the port at Belfast was becoming evermore a threat to the port at Newry as a rival.
Many important events occured at this time. The last of the Nedhams, William Nedham died in 1806. His estate was passed on to Viscount Kilmorey of Shropshire, and the Kilmorey family began to exert political influence on the town. In 1819 St Mary's on Hill Street was completed, having been built to replace St Patricks (The High Church). Although this initially caused a split in the Church of Ireland worshippers in the town, this was resolved when St Patricks was fully restored in 1866. Also in 1822 Newry Gaslight Company was established in order to light the streets of the town. This was to be of great social benefit, although initially some citizens viewed it as another 'English Intrusion'.
At this time Newry still had no council or public administration to regulate public affairs. This was put to rights when the elevated Earl of Kilmorey proposed a Board of Commissioners responsible for lighting and cleaning the streets. The towns citizens were to pay rates to the Board for these services and thus the Earl of Kilmorey and others with shares in the gaslight company were to benefit directly.
The Board of Commissioners consisted of 21 members, the majority of which were appointed by the Earl. The citizens of the town vehemently opposed this and thus it was rejected from parliament.
By this time Catholics had become less restricted by the government and began to acquire wealth. This gave Catholics more influence particularly in Newry which was a predominantly Catholic town. This influence was used to build the Cathedral of Saints Patrick and Colman in Hill Street and was opened in 1829. This was the first Catholic cathedral following Catholic emancipation.
The failure of the Earl of Kilmorey's attempts to set up a board of commisioners increased efforts to set up a municipal government for the town. In 1828 an act was passed establishing a board of 21 commissioners of police. Commissioners were elected and levied rates. They were responsible for the lighting and patrolling of the streets, and eventually the paving and sweeping of the streets.
In 1830 the fever hospital and dispensary was extended and reduced the number of cases of typhoid and cholera. This then led to the construction of a large hospital on the Rathfriland Road capable of treating 10,000 out-patients.
The Great Famine
Other parts of Ireland suffered more, for in Ulster there had grown up what was known as 'Ulster Custom'. Under this a little fairness prevailed with some fixrue of rent and lease, thereby encouraging land improvements in other parts, once a tenant had made improvements to his land he was liable to be evicted on the grounds that the property was more valuable and a new tenant would be prepared to pay a higher rent.
Newry too was less affected by the famine due to the fact that its wealth was based on commerce, however, people who had been evicted were forced to leave their land due to starvation, and these people congregated in Newry while en route to England or on the 'coffin ships' to America.
Passenger lists and ship details were recorded for ships leaving from Newry and Warrenpoint and are held in the public records office (PRONI) Balmoral Avenue, Belfast.
During this time of social deprivation, two Newry citizens came to prominence as influential political thinkers. These were John Mitchel and John Martin.
John Mitchel was the son of a Presbyterian minister and as such was well educated, he met John Martin at school and the two became friends. At this time Daniel O'Connell was seeking to achieve a repeal of the Act Of Union. Mitchel often traveled to Dublin and with his radical views soon became a member of a group calling themselves, 'Young Ireland'. He started writing and editing for newspapers with a unique and passionate tone set in radical nationalism. Mitchel was very angry at the tragedies which had been imposed upon the Irish and soon called for an active violent campaign to drive out the British. He found support all over Ireland and especially in Newry. Revolution didn't come about and for his views Mitchel was condemned of Treason and sentenced to Penal Transportation. The rest of his life was one of long, frustrating exile in Bermuda and Australia. John Martin was also sentenced and sent into exile but later returned to play a part in the Home Rule party.
Newry continued to prosper as a commercial centre and in 1845 the Richardson family of linen manufactures established the model town of Bessbrook. Bessbrook was the first planned 'model village' in the British Isles. John Cribb Richardson was a strict Quaker and deliberately left the village without a public house, a pawn shop or a police barracks. The village remains intact to this day but is now home to a British Army heliport, the largest in Europe.
During the 1850's a large scale improvement programme was conducted on the canal in order that it could compete more effectively with the port at Belfast and utilise the new steam engines. The cargoes carried on the canal continued to grow and consisted of linen, coal, butter, meat and bricks. Quays were built at Warrenpoint in order to let larger ships dock there, and Warrenpoint also became a lively holiday resort.
The next revolution to strike in Ireland was the development of the railways. Acts of parliament were passed in the 1840's to construct lines to link Newry to Enniskillen, Newry to Rostrevor and Portadown to Drogheda via Newry. The link to the railroad provided new means for prosperity and the transport of goods, and ultimately saved Newry when the decline of the canal set in.
In 1875 John Michel returned to Ireland after escaping exile in America. He stood for election in County Tipperary and was returned twice after this election was nullified due to his being a felon. He returned home to Newry but died on the 20th of March 1875, due to ill health. He was buried with his parents at the Old Meeting House on High Street. At his funeral an old friend John Martin caught a chill and died a few days later.
By this time several acts had been passed which improved quality of life in the town. These were the Towns Improvement (Ireland) Act 1854, and the Impovement and Water Act. The Towns Improvement Act allowed a new local authority of elected town commissioners to levy rates and improve the town. They commissioned the building of Newry Town Hall in 1893.
Unfortunately neither the canal improvements nor the
railway development were enough to save Newry from decline, as Belfast
continued to boom due to its deep water port with its ability to
accommodate larger ships. By 1880 Newry had reached the peak of its
growth, it still remained a busy port and market town, but was
overshadowed by Belfast. It retained its obsession with political events
and was soon to be a frontier town once again.
This set the stage for Unionist opposition to Home Rule squarely in Ulster, with Newry at the frontier. Unionist shows of strength and parades were numerous especially in Newry, a predominately nationalist town. A few years later the Irish Volunteers were formed to protect the Irish interest in Home Rule, and defend against the Unionists. The Irish Volunteers were composed of Home Rulers and Republicans influenced by the IRB.
Both the UVF and the Irish Volunteers recruited and drilled in Newry, both realising the importance of the town. However, these groups always sought to avoid open confrontation until such a time as a war was declared. The Home Rule bill continued through parliament to become law in August 1914- Unionists threatened rebellion and civil war seemed inevitable. However, with the outbreak of World War I, the British Government decided not to continue with the Home Rule Act while the country was at war. Many people on the Nationalist and Unionist sides enlisted in the army to fight in France. Those who did not enlist benefitted from increased trade. In 1917 to prepare for an election constituencies were changed and Newry was submerged into the larger South Down constituency.
During the war the situation in Ireland was changing, culminating in the Easter Rising in 1916, led by Patrick Pearce. The people of Ireland were now demanding full independence. This increased support for Sinn Féin throughout Ireland, and in Newry campaigning between the Nationalist party and Sinn Féin for a by-election in 1918 culminated in a public rally with Eamon De Valera as a speaker. Although Sinn Féin did not win this by-election they saw huge increases in support.
Resistence in Newry increased but a truce occured when the war ended in Nov 1918, to be followed by an election in December. Sinn Féin wanted to win as many seats as possible for the Irish Parliamentary Party. The Sinn Féin candidate for South Down was Eamon De Valera. However in certain areas there was a fear that the nationalist vote could be split allowing a Unionist candidate to win. South Down and South Armagh were such constituencies. Following bargaining Sinn Féin decided to withdraw its candidates allowing the nationalists a free run. The result of the election was Sinn Féin 73 seats, Unionists 26 seats, Nationalists 6 seats.
Sinn Féin gathered in Dublin in January 1919 declaring themselves as Dáil Éireann - the Irish Parliament. A government and constitution was formed to create an Irish Republic as proclaimed in the Easter Rising of 1916. Open conflict followed. The Republican forces were now called the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who began a war of ambush and assasination. The custom house on Merchants Quay was the first target of the IRA in Newry. Further ambushes by the IRA were answered by the retaliatary measures of the RIC and British army. In November 1920 an RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) officer was shot dead in Newry, reprisal consisted of the arrests of suspects and destruction of Republican property. This 'ambush and reprisal' became the pattern of things to come throughout Ireland. In December the IRA attacked the RIC barracks in Camlough and ambushed police reinforcements. In reprisal houses facing the barracks were demolished and a pub and house were burned. This house was owned by Frank Aiken the local IRA commander.
Conflict and casualties increased, and a nine-o'clock curfew was imposed. An election was to be held in May 1921 and for the first time incorporated separate parliaments of 'Northern Ireland' and 'Southern Ireland'. Northern Ireland consisted of the six more Northeastern counties. In the other 26 counties Sinn Féin stood unopposed, but in Northern Ireland they met opposition. Eamon De Valera again stood in South Down and was returned. Having nothing to do with the Northern Ireland parliament, he represented the South Down constituency in the Dáil, in Dublin.
The establishment of the Northern Ireland parliament
led to a more determined IRA campaign. Increased attacks during June and
July included the derailment of a troop train at Adavoyle. Negotiations
between the republican and British governments led to a truce in July
1921 while discussions took place in London. Michael Collins led these
negotiations on behalf of the Irish. These negotiations led to
the signing of 'the articles of agreement for a treaty between Great
Britain and Ireland'. A bitter debate and vote followed with the
articles being accepted 64 votes to 57, in the Dáil. Northern Ireland
was given the option of withdrawing from the Irish Free State and the
border was to be decided by a Boundary Commission. With the onset of the
war which followed this vote the Boundary Commission decision was
1924. The bitter Irish Civil War which divided families and friends
between the pro- and anti-treaty factions caused much death and
destruction around the island. Michael Collins led the pro-treaty lobby
and became Commander-in-Chief of the Free State Army. In one of the
darkest days in Irish history Collins was killed by Republican forces in
his home county of Cork on 22 August 1922.
The Boundary Commission reconvened in 1924 to review the border situation and listen to arguments which would affect the position of the new border. The problem was weighing up arguments between the wishes of the people and economic conditions. The commission accepted that the citizens of Newry, South Down and South Armagh favoured inclusion in the Irish Free State.
The argument on economic grounds was that Newry was a
self-contained economic unit which was dependant on and depended on by
large areas around it including portions of the Free State and that it
and the surrounding areas should be transferred to the Free State.
This meant South Down had to remain in Northern
Ireland, requiring Newry to also form part of Northern Ireland, and if
Newry were to lie in Northern Ireland then so too would South Armagh as
these areas were significantly interconnected.