Derrybeg Was Unique

WHAT was unique about the Derrybeg estate in Newry was that, for the first time, young families were up-rooted from closely-knit communities, and transplanted to a greenfield site, housed among complete strangers.

This move was seen as a bold and imaginative initiative by Newry Urban Council, to provide badly-needed homes for the growing population of newly-weds, forced to live with parents or in-laws.

And the pattern was repeated at such estates as Barcroft, Drumalane, Mourneview, Courtney Hill, the Armagh and Warrenpoint Road areas.

But, at Derrybeg, the new tenants found themselves crammed into 360 houses, devoid of social or recreational facilities, far from shops, pubs or cinemas. A bus-service was non-existence, few owned cars, and there was a dearth of taxis.

But such was the resilience of those families that, within four years, there was a flourishing community. And the week-long Derrybeg Festival was a fabulous success, setting a headline for other estates. Its launch was attended by MP’s, councillors, clergy and other dignatories.

Tribute must be paid to the leadership and dedication of men like John Duffy, Dessie McGennity, Barney Larkin, Jimmy Dalzell, Gene Magennis, Davey Morley, Bobby McAleavey, Lou Morgan, Mickey McCaul, Billy Scott, Derek O’Brien, Bernie Hughes, Oliver Markey, Frank Gallagher, Jim Morgan, Dom McCavitt and Jack McKenna.

Also the women, who forged a spirit of co-operation and neighbourliness, such as Una Cregan, Pam McCaul, Esther Blair, Dolly Kavanagh, Eilish Morley, Phyllis McAteer, Therese Magee, Esther Boyle, Lottie McKeown, Kathleen McGrath, Patsy McKeown and Lila McCormick.

The estate also had such residents as Father Ian Coulter, Seamus Mac Dhaibheid and Dr John McCavitt; company executive Colm Mathers; Jim Bagnal (Housing Executive); Hugh Mallon, vice-principal of St Joseph’s High School; Chris Coffey, Frankie Finnegan, TV engineer; Joe Fearon, bank employee; Jim Gorman, artist and author; Paddy Mallon, as well as Ernie Coulter, barman at the INF Club.

On the sporting front were Tony Bagnal, Des McGennnity, Tommy McCabe and Larry Boyle (soccer), Conrad Coffey (cycling), while St Brigid’s Boxing Club produced a galaxy of stars, such as Barry and Hugh McKeown, Paul O’Brien, David and Brendan Morgan (now in New York).

Derrybeg made world headlines in January 1972, being the setting for the historic Civil Rights March after Bloody Sunday. Over 60,000 people marched from the estate in a powerful, peaceful demonstration of opposition to the Stormont regime.

However, local residents were later plunged into a Slough of Despond, as a victim of the Troubles, being used as a battleground between the security forces and paramilitaries. An exodus of Protestants was followed by Internment, with a large number of local men imprisoned. Then came the shooting dead of schoolboy, Kevin Heatley, by a British soldier; the death of Patrick Hughes in a bomb explosion at the Customs Clearance Station; his son shot dead by soldiers on the Camlough Road; and Eddie Grant, killed in a premature bomb-blast at a pub, one Christmas Eve.

By the mid-70’s, over 100 houses were derelict and boarded up; no points were required by the Housing Executive to secure any dwelling. The estate was regarded as a “no go” area; and anyone applying for a job would give the address of a relative in another part of town.

Des McGennity commented: “Some people needed a scapegoat. Derrybeg became a knocking-shop for the critics, - just as, in the past, Linenhall Square was unfairly represented as a tough neighbourhood,”

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008