Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Mixed Status In Newry Area

CATHOLIC ex-servicemen have had an ambivalent position in the mainly nationalist town of Newry and its environs, over the past century.

Research has shown that over 60 per cent of Newry Post Office volunteered to serve in the British armed forces during the First World War. And the Town Hall was packed for the presentation of a Distinguished Conduct Medal to Sapper Anthony Brannigan from Boat Street.

Meanwhile, a Roll of Honour was displayed in the Head Post Office at Hill Street, containing the names of those Post Office employees from the Newry area, who had fought in the `Great War.` Council chairman, Hugh John McConville praised those who had “given up their positions, and left comfortable homes in order to get involved in the cataclysm of war.”

But, during the War of Independence, with the emergence of the Fourth Northern Division, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Thousands of people attended the funeral at Newry Cathedral of two IRA men, Peter Shields and John O’Hare, fatally wounded in the Egyptian Arch ambush. Also, Newry urban and rural councils were abolished, when the majority refused to accept the authority of the Stormont government.

However, with the advent of the `hungry 30’s’, followed by the Second World War, mass unemployment and emigration, many young men from the Newry region joined the British Army. Some were later employed by the Post Office, including Dessie McAllister, Billy Rodgers, Raymond Crossey, Paddy Crilly, Joe McCartan, - whose son Terry is a popular member of the counter staff, - and Tommy Markey, later chairman of Newry Urban Council.

Some, including Mr Markey, joined the Catholic Ex-servicemen’s Association, assisting in defending nationalist housing estates from attack by loyalists and `B’ Specials. They also engaged in discussions with Captain James Kelly of Irish Army Intelligence. And a few became active in the Republican Movement.

With the outbreak of the 1914/18 conflict, there had been divided opinions among Catholics and nationalists in the Newry area. For some it was a choice between fighting for an Irish Republic, or for `brave little Catholic Belgium` and the freedom of small nations. Many followed the advice of nationalist leader John Redmond to enlist in the British Army, having been promised that Home Rule would be delivered at the end of the war.

Welcoming the recruitment of so many Post Office personnel, at the unveiling of the Roll of Honour, council chairman Hugh John McConville stated: “Newry has been notable for its fine recruiting record, representing all the citizens, regardless of religion or politics. They are determined that the people of small nations shall be freed from cruel and unscrupulous tyrants.

“And the fact that Newry’s Ulster and National Volunteers are taking it in turn to defend the Head Post Office demonstrates that, without sacrificing their religious faith or political opinions, these local boys are united in defending hearth and homes from sedition, conspiracy and rebellion by misguided men, who are vainly attempting to assist our enemies.”

Those on the Roll of Honour were J.J McGuigan, P.J. Donnelly, CF McCoy, J. Short, A Dougan, P Hannigan, J Boyle, W. O’Brien, P McCreanor, E Mullan, LB Grant, J Moorehead, P Rice, A Hill and J P Donnelly, fatally wounded by a shell.

The only fatality, Sapper PJ (Jim) Donnelly from Needham (Patrick) Street, died on July 11, 1916, after a poison-gas shell had shattered his left leg, which was amputated. His mother had received a message that her 24-year old son, said to be of a “genial disposition,” was dangerously ill at a French hospital.

One of his friends, Tom Donohue wrote: “I had been in his company ever since we met a year ago. We had worked in the Corps Telegraph Unit, but later Jim was picked for more dangerous duties. He came back sometimes for a rest. But on the last occasion he had presentiment that something would happen, and so was reluctant to return.“

Mrs Donnelly got a message from her son, stating: “I have improved considerably over the past few days. The wound on my leg is healing well. A few more days should see me on the high seas for Blighty (London). Don’t worry; I’m OK. Fond love to all.”

The victim’s father, John Donnelly, a plate-layer with the Great Northern Railway, died a few weeks later. Tom Donohoe had sent the parents a photograph of his chum’s grave at Boulogne, which had the inscription: “He died a hero’s death, and lies sleeping in foreign soil.” Jim’s brother, Michael John Donnelly, who had also joined up, was re-admitted to Cambridge Hospital with enteric fever.

Among those who were present at the unveiling of the Roll of Honour had been postmen Matt Lavery, John Golding, Felix O’Hare, Hugh Baird, Michael Norton, Jim McMahon, Hugh Mallon Joe McCann, MF Gallagher, JP Boyle, JH Smith and P Burnett, as well as Misses Hardy, Kirwan, McGovern and O’Hare.

Matt Lavery was a legendary figure, - actor, producer, stage-manager and skilled craftsman, who became Head Postman in 1915, on the retirement of Felix O’Hare from Mary Street. Serving under 8 Head Postmasters, he had walked the circumference of the earth several times, during over 40 years delivering mail. He and his brother, Pat, founded the Fag a Bealach hurling club.

Pat Lavery was chairman of Newry Urban Council, supporting the nationalist cause, being imprisoned for long periods. Manager of the Newry Mineral Water Company, he died at an early age, the graveside oration given by Michael Murney of Sinn Fein. Messages of sympathy came from Mary McSwiney, Austin Stack, Sean Lemass and Gerry Boland. His three sisters were members of Cumann na m-Ban.

Next Page >

© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008