Sinn Fein And Nationalists Clashed Over Conscription

`VOTE McCartan and stop conscription` was the slogan on Sinn Fein election posters, aimed at preventing people in the Newry region from compulsory enlistment, to fight for the British forces in the First World War.

But no coercion was necessary, as the frontier town and its hinterland produced the highest rate of recruits per capita in Ireland. This was not surprising, since the local Catholic clergy and nationalist politicians were united in urging all young men in the region to `join the colours.`

The Sinn Fein election poster is one of the artefacts on display at the fascinating exhibition in Newry Museum, entitled `Co. Down at War.` It is devoted to those from the Newry region, who participated in the `Great War.` Such has been the public response that the exhibition continued into 2005.

In recent years, Sinn Fein’s Lord Mayor Belfast, Alex Maskey, laid a wreath at the Belfast Cenotaph; President Mary McAleese and Queen Elizabeth jointly unveiled a War Memorial in Belgium, while Remembrance Day ceremonies are now officially recognised in the Irish Republic.

When in 1915 the chairman of Newry Urban Council, Hugh John McConville, unveiled Newry’s Roll of Honour, - containing almost 900 names of those from the area who had joined up, - he told the crowded Town Hall: “This will be treasured as the most interesting record in the annals of our town.”

The `Frontier Sentinel,` two of whose editors would become nationalist MP’s for South Down, described the occasion as “one of immense importance, cordiality and enthusiasm, with every class and creed represented at that inspiring function.”

And Fr F. J. O’Hare, CC, declared: “We are all deeply indebted to our soldiers and sailors, who are forming a ring of steel that guards our lives and liberties. It is satisfactory to know that the frontier town has won some prominence, having sent to the colours a larger proportion of its sons than any other town. We cannot take our place in the firing-line, but we can do service at home.

The Vicar of St Mary’s parish, Rev Swanzy stated: “As a native of Newry, I am proud that my town holds the premier place in the whole of Ireland, for the number of its sons who have gone out to face the foe. What magnetic power has brought together North and South? What has inspired our soldiers and sailors to seal it with their blood?”

A Belgian priest, Fr Timmerman thanked the people of Ireland for their support, and hoped that “my country will be cleared of all Germans, after the great battle.”

St Patrick’s Flute Band played a selection of martial airs, while St Joseph’s Brass ands Reed Band, under its legendary conductor Terry Ruddy, provided the climax with a rendering of `A nation once again` and `God save the king.”

However, the euphoria which surrounded the early stages of the `Great War` was soon dissipated, as reports came back about the “slaughter of the Somme` and other horrific battles. Bessbrook Presbyterian minister, Rev Alex Stuart, who was killed when a shell his trench, just two weeks after his arrival at the front, had described “walking with the water up to your waist.”

The forebodings were summed up by Miss Crawford of the prominent Warrenpoint family, whose brother John had enlisted in the British Navy. “Our sailor boy soon got his marching orders. This awful war has broken out, and how it will end is uncertain. What will another year bring, for this terrible warfare is dragging on in a heart-breaking way.”

Maybe the Newry family which suffered the most was the Dorans of 16, Chapel Street. Three brothers, Hugh (aged 19), Felix (23) and Francis (26) all members of the Royal Ulster Rifles, were killed. One was buried in a Belgian cemetery, and the other two interred in France.

From the same street came WF Cunningham, member of Newry Urban Council and the Board of Guardians; James Feeley, husband of Fanny; and Michael Fearon from the adjoining Boat Street.

And two Mallaghan brothers from Stream Street in Newry were killed, while two survived. The victims were John (aged 19) and Samuel (21), both of the Dublin Fusiliers. They had been involved in the disastrous assault on the V Beach at Tripoli in 1915. Their sister received a request from the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1923, for payment towards a personal inscription on John’s headstone at the V Beach Halles Cemetery.

King George had earlier contacted the quartet’s parents, stating: “ We much appreciate your family’s spirit of patriotism, which has prompted this example of loyalty and devotion to the sovereign and empire.”

Meanwhile, some seamen from the Newry area were drowned, when the US ocean liner, `Lusitania’ was sunk by a German torpedo in 1915. The action provoked international outrage, since America had not entered the war. However, the German government claimed that the ship was not just carrying passengers but also ammunition, and was `a legitimate target.` They struck a special medal.

The local fatalities were Patrick Loughran, Michael McGuigan, Bernard Cassidy and Michael McCoy from Newry; Patrick Campbell, Clontygora; Frank McAteer of Warrenpoint; Edward Ryan (Burren); and Peter McAnulty from Jonesboro. Only survivors were Andrew McKendry and Patrick McKenna from Newry.

Finding himself in the water, Andrew McKendry used the skills which he had learned as a boy, swimming along the Fathom Line. After floating for a time, he grabbed a piece of wreck, then succeeded in getting into a collapsible boat. After landing at Queenstown (Cobh), he visited the morgue and scanned the dead bodies, to try and identify some of his former shipmates.

Chief bed-steward on the liner, William O’Hagan of Warrenpoint, had been due to sail, but on his wife’s advice did not embark on that fateful voyage. And the captain of the Lusitania, Captain Dow of the `Point, had been on leave at the time of the disaster.

And there was the intriguing tale of four soldiers, including David Martin from Newry, who were executed by the Germans at Asisne in France in 1916, on the charge of spying. Finding themselves behind enemy lines, they chose to live among the villagers, dressing as peasants, being sheltered by local people, even going with them on work-parties for the German Army.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008