When Newry Was Buzzing With Host Of (New) Industries

THE REGENERATION of the former Drumalane Mill, which closed in 1961, is a reminder of a traumatic period in the industrial history of the Newry region, when plants came and went with depressing rapidity. However, Bessbrook, Damolly and Drumalane Mills gave employment to about 2,500 workers, over many years.

Such industries as Alcon, Bessbrook Products, Chivers, Horrockses, - later Ulster Textiles; Seenozip, Starks (now Ballybot House); Taylors, Northern Waterproof, Wrights, Ulster Farmers Bacon Factory; F.M.C. Meats; Tools and Cans, along with Grundig, as well as some printing works, failed to survive.

Only Glen Electric, Armaghdown Creameries and Reeds, now S.C.A. Packaging at Warrenpoint, have lasted the pace. The long-established McCann’s (Victoria) Bakery at Castle Street was taken over by a major concern, and ceased its Newry operation.

Of course, the establishment of industrial estates and business parks, such as W.I.N. and Greenbank, etc, has removed the emphasis from large labour content, so that the Newry region now has the largest proportion of small industries in Northern Ireland.

First new industry to be established in the Newry region over the past half-century was Horrockses, a cotton-spinning plant on the Warrenpoint Road, which employed about 500 workers, mainly women. A new bridge was erected over the Newry to Warrenpoint Road, and the Newry Town F.C. grounds were relocated to facilitate the new enterprise, which commenced in 1951.

However, to general consternation, its closure was announced without warning, ten years later. This coincided with the closure of Drumalane Mill, and 150 pay-offs at Bessbrook Mill. Over 500 people took part in a protest march through the town, addressed by M.P.s, councillors and union leaders. The Minister of Commerce was lobbied, but without success.

Chairman of Newry Branch, ITGWU, Cllr Barney McShane, told the Annual Conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions: “We have seen so many industries set up in our town, only to disappear very quickly. The shakiest industries are sent to our area, which has been blatantly discriminated against, while the plums are reserved for Belfast and Portadown.

“When one mentions the town of Newry, what springs to mind is the vision of a once great and prosperous town, gradually allowed to decay for the want of Government action, with concentration on the city of Belfast. Such a policy has affected Newry more than any other town, as all its heavy industry, - ropeworks, tanneries, spade-mills, brickworks and the granite industry gradually found it impossible to carry on.

“There began a great exodus of people from the Newry region to England, America, Canada and Australia, where there are Newry families to this day. Some of them are still hoping for the time when their town will recapture something like prosperity, which will enable them to return to the hills and valleys they know and love so well,” added Cllr McShane.

A year after the closure of Horrockses, another cotton-spinning industry, operated by a U.S. company, Carolina-based T.J. Stevenson & Co., had set up on the same site, with the title of Ulster Textiles. It would employ 350 people, including 210 males.

A spokesman for the firm stated: “We have found the basic ingredients for a successful operation, - an attractive, modern plant; a trained workforce; and excellent co-operation from the Ministry of Commerce, the local councils and trade unions. We believe that our operations are going to be most successful from our viewpoints, and will make an important contribution to the future prosperity of the Newry region.”

M.P. for South Down, and editor of the `Frontier Sentinel,’ Joe Connellan stated: “I welcome this news, particularly for the men of Newry, some of whom have not had a job for years. However, it is not the solution to the local unemployment problem, since 550 jobs have been lost over the past few months.”

No one could have predicted that this enterprise, which was launched with such optimism and goodwill, would come to an end, ten years later, in bitter recriminations. It closed shortly after a six-weeks strike, the company reporting huge debts from the Newry operation!

At the outset, the plant operated a three-shift, six-day week. Cotton was imported from Egypt and South Carolina, cleansed, spun and woven. The company van would collect employees from the Burren and Mayobridge, returning them home. Each morning, the U.S. Confederate flag was raised at the plant, and would be saluted by the Chief Executive, Mr Stribling, a native of South Carolina.

Shift supervisors included Jackie McClelland, Hugh Finnegan, “Dollar” Duffy, Willie Carr, Oliver Boyle, Jim Fox, Jackie Moan, John Darragh, P.J. Kielty, Francie McEvoy and Joe McFerran. Personnel Officer was Arthur Ruddy, who had been Spinning Master at Bessbrook and Drumalane Mills. A founder member of Newry Mitchels GFC and a leading referee, he later joined the Postal Service, and was elected chairman of Newry and Mourne district council.

And Jackie McClelland, after whom the park at Corry Square was recently named, was Sub-officer at the Newry Fire Station, his son having been Chief Officer of the N.I. Fire Service. Jackie was also an Alliance Party member of Newry and Mourne district council.

Ulster Textiles had GAA, soccer and darts teams. The Gaelic football side included Arthur Ruddy, Teddy McCaul, Jim McCoy, Dessie Carroll, John Lynch, as well as Oliver and Larry Boyle. And in the soccer squad were Jackie McClelland, Teddy Yates, Artie, Davey and Martin Green, Dessie Carroll and the Boyle brothers, who were suspended by the GAA for playing soccer. They had helped Ballyholland win the Down Junior Championship.

Popular canteen manageress was Nancy Crimmins. Other female operatives included Winnie, Sheila and Eileen Poucher, Mary Carroll, Madge Boyle, Lily McCann, Eileen Smith, Bridie and Maura Jennings, Bernadette Woods, Molly Ruddy, Patricia McGrath, Queenie McConville, Briege Savage, Sheila Loye, Cora O’Hare and Kathleen Johns.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008