Legendary Pioneers Of Bus Transport In Newry Area

WHEN residing in the British capital, precisely 50 years ago, I applied for the post of bus-conductor with London Transport. During the interview at the headquarters in Hendon, the chief inspector noticed my birthplace of Newry, Co. Down on the application form. He enquired: “Do you know Jack Bannon?”

Big Jack, who later became chairman of Newry Urban Council, was a legendary figure in the world of bus transport, not just in the north of Ireland, but obviously in Britain as well. Also his wife, Margaret (Cissie) Brady, had lived just a few doors from our home in Mary Street.

A native of William Street in the frontier town, Jack Bannon had been a horse and van driver for McAreavey’s furniture removals on Hill Street. At the outbreak of the First World War, he joined the East Africa Rifles, promoted to Battalion Sergeant Major, and bestowed with the Distinguished Service Medal.

The Belfast Telegraph reported in 1948: “One of the most important rulers in Africa, the Kabaka of Uganda, yesterday met a Newryman, who had been at the wedding of his father over 30 years ago. Jack Bannon, traffic manager of the UTA for the Newry district, met the Kaboka in a Belfast hotel.”

When Mr Bannon was demobbed, he received training as a mechanic, and later formed the Newry Bus Company. His first vehicles, the Wasp and the Bee were familiar on the streets of Newry. But though he realised the potential of bus transport, did not have the resources to expand the service, and so merged with the Frontier Service. He later joined the Belfast Omnibus Company, which became the Ulster UTA (Ulster Transport Authority).

What a variety of personalities have been inspectors, bus-drivers and conductors in the Newry region over the past half-century. They have included Inspectors Paddy Golding, John Kearns, Jimmy Harvey, Pat O’Callaghan and Stanley McGladdery; also Hugh Golding, Mickey Cunningham, Neily McCann, Leonard Gibney, Jackie Reed, Sean Hillen, David Garey, Eamon Southwell, Owen Morgan, Alec McKay, John Grant, Jack Hughes, Jimmy Andrews, Charlie Norris, Dixie Dean, Harry Nesbitt, Vincent O’Neill, Arthur Quinn and Joe Kinney, as well as the three Connor brothers, - Cyril, Frank and Benny.

The Warrenpoint and Rostrevor contingent included Norman McKinley, Barney Carr, John Hillen, Owen Morgan, Eamonn Farrell, Justin Phillips, Pat Marron, Jimmy McGivern and Owen Watters; the Forkhill trio consisted of Mickey Boyle, Danny Hollywood and Mickey Doran, while Dan Mussen represented Hilltown. (But more about those anon).

Meanwhile, another bus pioneer had emerged in Bernard (Barney) Cregan, born in Boat Street, and involved in the business just before world war one. In 1929, he had three buses on the roads, - two carrying 14 passengers each, and the new Guy vehicle with 20 seats.

The route he served, according to Cuisle na Gael, was from St Mary’s Church at John Mitchel Place, then via Mill Street to Felix Larkin’s public house at Queen (now Dominic) Street, and up the Dublin Road to Meigh and Forkhill.

When buses were commandeered for the second world war, Barney Cregan concentrated on a taxi service, but this proved unprofitable. Finally, he and his son, Bernard (Junior) started a unique industry, - repairing prams! New perambulators had been scarce during the war, so the Cregans converted part of their garage as a showroom.

A major trail-blazer in bus transport had also been the McAnulty’s of Warrenpoint, whose Yellow Line Service had originated as far back as 1829, ferrying passengers between Rostrevor and the `Point. Horse-drawn charabancs had been the first mode of transport, but safety standards were poor, operators could charge whatever fare they liked, and checks on vehicles were non-existent.

One charabanc left the Quay at Rostrevor to connect with a train from Warrenpoint to Newry. The vehicle went out of control when a tyre burst, careered into a wall at Lodge Demense, and over-turned. One passenger was on board, a Ms Twomey receiving treatment at the nearby Great Northern Hotel.

The Carstands at Margaret Square in Newry could once accommodate almost 100 horse-drawn passenger and goods vehicles. Indeed, the area from Margaret Street to Mill Street was thriving with coach-builders, farriers, smiths, wheel-wrights, and posting companies.

But the end of the 1914/1918 war resulted in many ex-servicemen with driving experience being available; and there were more vehicles on the road. Motor-cars were mainly used by the wealthy, while charabancs were regarded as `the poor man’s car.` Though many could rival cars for speed, the fact that they were long, often unwieldy and accident-prone, counted against them.

The 1924 Act invested local councils with the power to control the movement of charabancs, determine fares over long and short distances, as well as prevent over-crowding. Drivers convicted of speeding were fined 10 shillings; and a charabanc stand at a railway station could only be established with the permission of the rail company.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008