Newry By Gas-Light Was Not A Romantic Affair
(Part 2)

Records show that High Street, described as “notorious,” required ten gaslights. Indeed, a total of 13 shoemakers plied their trade there, along with shops of various description. Incidentally, there were over 50 shoemakers in other parts of the town, which also possessed a number of tanneries.

The select part of Newry, where the `well-off` lived, was at Castle Street, Boat Street and Abbey Yard. A slated house belonging to Sir Isaac Corry later became part of the Abbey Secondary School. The gas lamp-posts were at John Feran’s, the Meal Market House, Mrs Corry’s and Peter Burns in Castle Street; John Derry’s, Hugh Skeffington’s and John Cummings at Boat Street, as well as at Stephen Burns’s house in Abbey Yard. The Ballybot and Church Street areas were not lit until the 1830’s.

A controversial action was the placing of a steam-horn at the Gas-works, to assist the local fire service, because of the supply of steam, and the fact that stokers were on duty around the clock. However, the horn had a short life. When it sounded late one night the population nearly went mad. Such was the wailing that one old lady in Chapel Street died of a heart-attack.

The first World War in 1914 caused a shortage of coal, higher transport costs and deteriorating plant so that, by 1918, the price of gas had almost doubled. And the Newry Urban Council faced a dilemma over the introduction of electric lighting of the streets. Many employees of the Urban Council or Gas Department could not afford to use the fuel, and trade unions were seeking a substantial wage increase for the workers.

Gas was used to light the Town Hall and St Patrick’s Church clocks, for gas fires, smoothing irons, cooking rings and plates. And gas mantles were replacing oil lamps and candles in even the poorest households. Success of the Gasworks permitted the Council to donate £1,700 towards the cost of building 42 houses above Chapel Street, named O’Neill Avenue after a bishop of Dromore.

When Newry Urban Council was suspended in 1923, because it refused to recognise the newly-elected government at Stormont, a new council was elected under a previous system of voting. The gas versus electricity problem was accentuated by an application from W. and S. Magowan, printers of Hill Street, to erect electric cables across the Mall from their printing works to the Town Hall, and to supply concert parties with electricity. A decision was deferred.

Meanwhile, the situation at the Gasworks continued to improve. The new manager, Mr M.V. Mearns, had lowered the cost of gas, due to more efficient methods of production. A new cooker rental system, where cookers costing £12 were rented for three shillings per quarter, and those costing £8 would be two shillings a quarter. And a new chairman of the Gas Committee, the legendary conductor, Terry Ruddy, who guided the St Joseph’s and Independent Band to British and Irish Championship triumph, took over.

In 1927, the council embarked on an electric lighting scheme, having been given permission to “generate, supply and sell electric current.” Site of the generator would be at Francis Street, now part of the Buttercrane shopping centre. Town Clerk, William Cronin confirmed in 1930 that the introduction of electricity had not affected the Gasworks at all.

Expectations were pinned on the council houses being built in the town, as prospective customers, - first at Erskine Street, James Connolly Park and Michael Mallin Park. Then came the 50’s, with the Housing Trust estate at Rooney’s Meadow, followed by Daisyhill Gardens, Barcroft Park, Monaghan Row, Drumalane Park and Murphy Crescent.

But by the early 50’s, electric lighting was having an adverse effect on the sale of gas, which dropped sharply. Increased coal prices made gas too expensive for many families. Conversion to gas by Butane and Propane offered a solution, but a steep rise in price off-set any benefits.

The `Frontier Sentinel` declared: “The gas undertaking is our largest employer of labour, and practically all of its employees are Newry people. In a town which has had an immense unemployment problem, an issue such as this should weigh heavily with everybody, who has the public weal at heart.”

A crucial boost came with the establishment of the Bessbrook Products factory beside the Egyptian Arch in 1961. Not only did the gas pipeline serve the new factory, but it could also feed gas to the new Derrybeg Park estate, containing 350 houses. Then came the important conversion to Butane Gas in 1967, which could provide consumers with gas at a more economic price.

At this stage, Tommy McGrath became a member of the council’s Gas Committee, being elected chairman in 1973. Coinciding with the election of Newry and Mourne district council came news of a deteriorating financial situation at the Gasworks, which was now in the red. Immediate increases in the price of gas were announced.

But the real body-blow came in 1976, with the news that Bessbrook Products would close. They had employed 250 workers, using over 3 million cubic feet of gas per month. And residents at the Greenfield Park estate protested that the cost of the gas-fired central heating in their homes was more than they could afford.

The Northern Ireland Gas Employers Board lobbied the Minister for Commerce, Don Concannon. But he held out little hope of financial support. Then a flame of hope was provided by the discovery of natural gas off Kinsale, Co Cork, with an invitation from the British government to supply the cheaper gas to Northern Ireland.

In 1983, an agreement was reached that Kinsale gas be brought to the North. There was jubilation at Newry, which would be the first town in the North to be connected to the pipeline. Staff and employees at the Gasworks were delighted that job security appeared to be assured.

But disaster struck when doubts arose about the cost of the gas, as oil prices had risen, and it would not be viable to proceed. It was announced that the pipeline would not proceed after all. The collapse of the scheme in 1984 spelled the end of the gas industry in the Newry area, despite some forlorn hopes of piping natural gas from Britain.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008