Newry By Gas-Light Was Not A Romantic Affair

THERE was jubilation in Newry, in 1984, at the news that natural gas from Kinsale would be piped across the border to the frontier town. This would have rescued the beleaguered local gas industry, as well as scores of employees and thousands of gas-consumers.

What also brought this subject back to mind was the recent reprieve of the McGrath Centre, due for closure at Christmas. The centre had been dedicated to union leader and community activist, the late Cllr Tommy McGrath, chairman of the councilís Gas Committee for 13 years, and author of the book, `Newry by Gas-light.í

During the 1950ís and 60ís, street-lighting and domestic use of gas had been a political football. As editor of the `Frontier Sentinel,í the late Max Keogh had urged readers to support the local gas industry, - he also being chairman of Newry Urban Council, which controlled the Gas-works.

But when out of power in the 60ís, he used the `Sentinel` to castigate the Gas Committee, capitalising on strife between the two wings of the Irish Labour Party, that was headed by party chairman Tommy McGrath, versus the breakaway group led by council chairman, Pat McMahon. Mr Keoghís aim was to retain his seat as nationalist M.P. for South Down at Stormont.

We were fortunate in having a gas lamp-post outside our home/greengrocery shop in Mary Street. Each evening and early morning, the light would be lit and extinguished by a long pole, guided by lamp-lighter and historian, the late Andy McAteer, brother of Sean and Frank, and uncle of Down G.A.Aís Sean Og McAteer.

Other lamp-lighters were James Canavan, actor/producer, - after whom a room at the Arts Centre was named; Arthur McKeown, husband of the legendary Lottie McKeown, who was closely involved with the McGrath Centre; also Hugh Grant, William Hanna and John Rooney.

Imagine having to walk through the streets and housing estates around Newry at night, with not even the flicker of a gas-lamp to lighten the darkness. Passers-by were prey to muggers and other miscreants, lurking in the lanes and alleyways at Ballybot and the `Back of the Dam`, (old North Street and Water Street.)

With the growing prosperity of the frontier town in the late 1790ís, - fourth port in Ireland, supplying most of the North with foreign and home-produced commodities such as linen and leather, butter and beer, - the urgent necessity for the lighting of factories and warehouses, as well as the residences of merchants and the upper-class, became a top priority.

The crisis was illustrated by an incident at Newry Courthouse in 1816, when James Breen had been convicted of passing forged banknotes. As he was being taken from the courthouse to the nearby jail, he slipped the manacles and, despite a military guard, escaped into the darkness.

So, when information reached the frontier town that a form of street-lighting had been invented in London, the traders and gentry decided to take action. Within 10 years, the Newry Gas Light Company had been established, - one of the first in Ireland, - its directors consisting of the upper echelons of local society, including Trevor Corry, John Boyd and Sam Reid.

In `Newry by Gas-light,` the author reported that the Gas-works site at Kilmorey Street was chosen because the land alongside the quays was owned by the Earl of Kilmorey. Coal for the manufacture of gas was transported by small ships from Warrenpoint, and conveyed across the road to the gas-works.

1841 was an historic year in the annals of local industry, being the year that gas was first produced in Newry. The Newry Town Commissioners acquired ownership in 1879, later transferred to Newry Urban Council. The Gas-works finally closed in 1986.

By 1865 there were 200 gas-lamps, lighting the streets of the town, but only during winter months. A gas-works had also been established at Warrenpoint, but it had a short and disastrous history. An explosion occurred at Marine Parade, in which three women narrowly escaped death. Meanwhile, the Newry Gas Committee built new retorts and offices, reduced the price of gas, and met all loan repayments.

Newry Urban Council set up its Gas Department in 1889; the frontier town passed to Co. Down for administrative purposes; the Town Hall was built over the Clanrye River, `in order to safeguard the interests of both sides`; and the population of Newry reached its peak of 15,000.

The gas industry gave employment to a number of plumbers and gas-fitters, such as John Donaldson of Hill Street; James McKnight and Michael Boyle at Mill Street; Richard Lucas on Merchants Quay; Michael Magill, Lower North Street; and Robert McGrath, who operated at 55, Hill Street.

For those interested in `old Newry,` the late Tommy McGrath listed the sites of gas-lamps in the town, during the early years. There were six in Kilmorey Street, - at the Gasworks gate; Flanaganís and Boyleís Corners; the Printing House and John Hillís; one each at Dublin Bridge and Mary Street; along with the widow Grantís on Mill Street.

Hill Street, of course, had the most lamp-posts. They were sited at Isaac Boydís; the New Chapel (later the cathedral); Bennís factory; the Davis Inn; Sephronís House; Art Hallidayís, the Rapella factory; George Blackburns and Morganís Corner.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008