Progress And Prosperity In `The Town I Love So Well`

GAZING down on the modern city of Newry, one can only marvel at the panorama of ever-expanding private housing developments, thriving shopping centres and industrial estates, schools and restaurants, social and recreational facilities, with the accompanying traffic gridlock.

What a contrast to the dire wartime and post-war situation in the frontier town, when massive unemployment, primitive living conditions and elementary schooling contradicted the image of the `good old days.` It was a choice between the dole and `the boat’ for the majority of local men, who would spent many years in Britain, Canada or the United States.

As the world war ended in 1945, there had been euphoria at first. As former printer from the Chapel Street area, Tom McKeown explained: “The war was over and everyone was delighted, except for the families who had lost their sons. Peter Harte was killed at Arnhem; Austin Finnerty’s plane was shot down over Germany; and Jimmy Carr was lost on `the Privet,` one of Fishers colliers.

“Familiar faces returned to the area. Those who had gone to work in England had come home; while army and navy uniforms of the demobbed were commonplace in the town. Older people predicted that “things will soon return to normal.” One day I noticed people lining up outside Francie McClelland’s greengrocers, then coming out, clutching oranges and bananas. I never saw such delicacies before.”

But the `Brave new world,` promised by Winston Churchill in the wake of Germany’s surrender, failed to materialise. And the new Labour government’s `hair-shirt’ budget, ensured that ration coupons would still be needed for food and clothing, while there would be no chance of any progress in housing, employment, health care, social welfare or education.

Indeed, the situation was recaptured by Phil Coulter in `The Town I Love So Well,` describing how the menfolk would `play a mother’s role`, as well as `walking the dog.` Meanwhile, wives and mothers were employed in shirt factories.

Tom McKeown recalled a similar scenario in the frontier town, stating that “since work wasn’t plentiful, it was often the woman of the house who had the task of supplementing the family income. One of the most popular jobs was `the strawberries,` - employment at the Chivers jam factory, where housewives from all over the Newry area would find summer jobs.

“A lot of girls from the Chapel Street area also worked for the Damolly Spinning Company, where shift-work prevailed, usually from 6 am to 2 pm, 2 pm to 10 pm, as well as a night shift. An after-school shift was created, in order to entice many of our mothers to earn a few extra pounds. The bus service to Belfast was used; getting on at the Mall. But sometimes no bus would be available for the return journey, - and `shank’s mare` would be the only option.

“Works canteens were a rarity, so employees would carry `a piece`, which would be the main meal of the working day. Sometimes, when hurrying out, the `piece’ would be left behind on the kitchen table. If you were off school, you were despatched on the long walk to Damolly, hoping to arrive before the mill-horn sounded. Dromalane mill-horn sounded five times each morning, - the last being at five to 8 a.m., by which time the workers had to be standing by their machines.”

Describing his school-days, Tom McKeown stated: “When I and Genie McKevitt left the Senior Infants Class at St Clare’s Convent School, following Willie Carr up to the Abbey primary school, little did I know what was in front of us. Bro Hennessy placed me in one class, while Genie and Willie were in another. We never sat in the same class again.

“However, my sojourn at the Abbey was a very happy time, except for Bro Hickey’s class, when I found it difficult to absorb the intricacies of subtraction. Corporal punishment was the in-thing, so I would often come home with sore hands. Eventually, I got to grips with it, and tied for first place with Pat Guinane.

“After that, school held little fear for men until after the 11-plus in 1949, when I encountered Bro Rehill, a hard-taskmaster. It was no wonder that, when I reached the age of 14, I escaped and went to work.

“In those days, there were no factories on the `Greenbank’, just football pitches and two dog-tracks. Greyhound owners, bookmakers and punters would travel to the races on Wednesdays and Sundays, leaving Jack Mullan’s track after the first meeting, then heading for Matt O’Hare’s.

“Greyhounds were always in my blood. Indeed, I have a photo of me on my mother’s knee, about six months old, holding a greyhound by the lead. And I when I would get home from school, it was to walk my uncle Willie John’s dog, called Cloghoge Bridge, up the road. Myself and Tomas Malocca would bring the dog to his uncle Jack Mullan’s track.

“One day, since the bitch was a bit boisterous, we decided to kennel it in one of the boxes, and go up to where Paddy `Oxo` McAteer, the hare-driver, was based. Next thing we knew was that the greyhounds had been put in the traps, and the hare was going around the track. Our bitch won by a distance!

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008