Recalling Happy Days Of Youth In Homely Newry Streets

“GOLDEN days, in the sunshine of our happy youth,” sang Mario Lanza, in the film `The Student Prince.` And those sentiments would be re-echoed by former residents of the Chapel Street area, as well as the rest of the frontier town.

Popular printer and sportsman, Tom McKeown has recalled “halcyon days of summer, when we explored, fished for spricks in Lizzie Walsh’s quarry, played in the graveyard, or watched the big black horses, pulling Ned Murphy and the hearse with mourners.”

Long-time Newry Reporter employee, later proprietor of Clanrye Press, now retired, Tom described how he and his pals, - Paddy Smith, Tony McLaughlin, Eugene McKevitt, Jim Bannon, the `Muskie` Cunninghams and McCanns, etc, - would “gather at the rocks above the High Walk at Chapel Street, see who could climb to the `black hole` and get into the castle.

“The boys from Chapel Street and Boat Street were always at war. There would be a confrontation, in which the Boat Street gang would appear like Apaches from the Courtney Hill end, while the Chapel Street contingent would swarm from the castle, their ganseys filled with stones. Whichever side retreated was deemed to have lost, until the next time!”

Of course, the girls had more decorum, as Mary and Teresa McParland, Frances and Winnie Duffy, Sally McManus, Yvonne and Sheila Smith, Madge and Ena Keenan were engaged in hop-skotch, swinging on poles, playing rounders, etc. A few years later they would attend ceili dances in the old St Colman’s Hall at Castle Street, or modern dances in the Town Hall.

Tom McKeown described how “the people of the area made their own entertainment, with the help of Niall McAteer. John Sweeney played the accordion, as dances were held at the gas-works’ gates. Everyone looked forward to such events, - those who could dance being down on the lower deck, while those who couldn’t would throng the High Walk wall.

“During the summer evenings, when all the meals would be completed, and the toddlers put down on straw mattresses, the womenfolk and older children would pull the kitchen chairs outside, and craic until the stars came out.

“The local menfolk were mostly working in England. Some had joined Fishers’ fleet, while a few were lucky to get jobs as Air Raid Wardens, were employed at the nearby gasworks, or in the various army barracks in the locality.

“My Da was helping to build aerodromes in England, or on the docks near London. Money could be slow in reaching home. So I would be sent to the St Vincent de Paul box at the back of the cathedral to drop in an appeal. Next day, I would sit on the top step of the cathedral, watching out for the St Vincent de Paul man. If we were lucky, a ticket would be left for a quantity of coke, or a note to O’Hare’s grocery store for provisions.

“But things were not always bad. If a neighbour had `a bit of roughness’, it was sent around the doors, to be shared out. And on Saturday nights, another neighbour’s son, who worked as a message-boy in Whitten’s shop at Sugar Island, would bring home some of the bacon and sausages which had been left over, and this would be divided out.”

The influence of `Lord Haw-haw` and the German bombers was recounted by Tom McKeown, who recalled how “if you had a wireless, you were considered well-off, a swank. One neighbour had a black Philco, so most of us made our way to her house, in order to listen to Winston Churchill or Lord Haw-Haw (William Joyce, an Irish propagandist for the German cause).

“Much to the consternation of the listeners, Lord Haw-Haw was able to report exactly the number of steps at Lindsay Hill in Newry, as well as the number of vessels which had anchored at the Albert Basin. Next morning there was much speculation as to who was the German spy. No outsider escaped suspicion, including the vagrants, Mickey and Barney.

“A tall mast had been erected at the gas-works, and an air raid siren housed there. When German bombers were believed to be approaching the North, the siren would scream out a warning. All the local population would gather up their children, and whatever else was precious to them, and head for the hills.

“My aunts Patsy and Chrissie would run over to Chapel Street, in order to help their mother and Maggie Rafferty; the mother of evacuees. Prams would be loaded with young children, and everybody would hasten to the `Guttery Gap,` about half-a mile away. People would congregate under the hawthorn trees, in the hope that Hitler’s Luftwaffe wouldn’t find them. When the all-clear would sound, everyone trudged back to their homes, and headed for bed.

“Every area of Newry had its own bolt-hole when the siren sounded, and many were the yarns told afterwards. Like the woman who saved her shillings in the gas-mater, which she always took with her to the air-raid shelter. And the baker, who would go missing when the premises were evacuated. Later he would explain that he had been captured by the Germans, who had taken dozens of loaves. There were many opportunists in those days!”

The former Newry printer also related how, when he arose one morning and went out into the street, he was “confronted by a mass of men in khaki uniforms, sitting on the ground with their backs against the Bridewell wall. Some were sleeping and others just resting their weary bones, munching chocolate, apples or slices of army bread, speaking in a strange accent.

“One day a family of four arrived at our front door, looking for somewhere to stay. My mother had known the father and aunts, before they left our town for Belfast. Now they were back, because the `Gerries` were bombing Belfast. We made room, even though my mother, me and three sisters dwelt in a pokey place with one small yard, sharing an outside toilet with the next-door family.”

Finally, Tom McKeown took me on a verbal tour of the Chapel Street in his boyhood days, starting at Neilly Harte’s on the left-hand side, coming out of Boat Street. “Next we had Danny, Lizzie, and Mary Downey, where Noel Mathers, Lizzie’s grandson was reared. Then we had the Hogans, - a large, respected family, - followed by Sarah and Jamesie Carroll.

“Sarah was my financial saviour in the pre-teen years. Their house had no tap-water, and when `broke` I would rap Sarah’s door and enquire: `Do you need any water?` An aluminium bucket would be passed out, which I would take to the High Walk and fill it, then back to Sarah’s. Upon delivery, the hand would exchange the bucket for fourpence, - and I was away to the Frontier picture palace.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008