Award For Act Of Valour Amid Internment Turmoil

WHILE browsing through the records at Newry Library on the subject of Internment, I chanced upon the report of an award for an act of valour, made to fellow `Democrat` columnist, Rowan Hand, during turmoil in the wake of detention without trial.

“This young man has shown great courage in accepting the challenge. He dived into the Albert Basin, when there could have been explosives attached to those vehicles. The task was so hazardous that other skin-divers refused to get involved,” stated Judge Ronald Appleton.

The County Court was informed that Newry Port and Harbour Trust had requested 27-year–old Mr Hand from Daisy Hill Gardens, to help clear a number of vehicles. These had been hi-jacked, used as barricades, taken away and deposited in the Basin by the British Army.

One of Fisher’s colliers, the m.v. `Olive,’ was stranded and unable to leave Newry port. Other vessels were waiting outside Victoria Locks, the dumped vehicles blocking access to the harbour.

Rowan Hand, a member of Newry Sub-Aqua Club, described how visibility in the Basin was about three or four feet. He examined a mini-car and a tank attached to a trailer, to discover if they were booby-trapped. After `clearing` them, he assisted in raising the vehicles from the water. An award of £150 (now about £1,000) was made by the judge.

The hi-jacked vehicles, like many others throughout the town, had been used as barricades at local housing estates, during an orgy of arson and vandalism. This outbreak had followed the arrest of hundreds of men from the town and rural areas, on the morning of August 9, 1971. Women banged dustbin-lids, to alert their neighbours about raids by the British Army.

That dramatic episode, including the ill-treatment of internees, was recalled by the recent controversy over abuse and torture, inflicted by U.S. troops on Iraqi prisoners. Pope John Paul reprimanded President George W. Bush, during an audience at the Vatican. And a United Nations Report has called for those involved in such atrocities to be charged with War Crimes.

Revelations about the `inhuman and degrading` treatment, meted out to the detainees, came from Dessie Smith, Dickie Rodgers and Tommy Collins; Peter Mallon and his uncle Hugh; as well as Brian Patterson, who was on the staff of St Columban’s College in Kilkeel. The `hooding` of father and son, Sean McKenna, who resided at the Gate Lodge of St Colman’s College, also caused outrage.

The editor of the `Frontier Sentinel,` Max Keogh, M.P. for South Down, wrote: “An atmosphere of despair pervades the streets of the town, allied to terror in the housing estates, - every night bringing fear of invasion by an undisciplined British Army. They are hated today, as were the Black and Tans.

“People are barricaded inside some estates, with no entry or exit for cars or other vehicles. Appeals to allow movement for residents’ cars, doctors, clergy or essential services have only partial success. But it is the town centre, which awes one the most. The streets are littered with burned-out shops, cars and lorries, broken glass, paving stones and iron bars.”

And the M.P. added: “Many Civil Rights leaders and Official Republicans were `lifted` from their beds, - some not even given time to dress. Parents, wives, children and other relatives were left to wonder where they were taken. When the chairman of Newry Urban Council, Pat McMahon and I sought information from the British Army and the RUC about their whereabouts, this was refused.”

However, a strongly critical statement, referring to “recent disturbances,” was read out at all Catholic churches in the Newry area. It acknowledged that “in many respects, the nationally-minded people have reason to air their grievances. The policy of Internment without trail is particularly repressive, selecting only one section of the community.

“But where does one draw the line between patriotism and vandalism? Was it patriotic to risk innocent lives, and endanger public and private property? Were unchristian acts against one’s fellow-man the best foundation on which to build a united community?

“Irish patriots have been recognised throughout the world for valour and principle. And, no doubt, from the present unrest will emerge distinguished patriots. But God`s law cannot be suspended to justify sinful acts,” said the statement from the Catholic clergy in Newry.

Damages granted in court included Emme Fashions on Hill Street, (£14,000); Russell Boyd of John Mitchel Place got £6,200; RUC Inspector Ian Todd was granted £5,330 in relation to his home at Doran’s Hill; Dr Andrew Boyd received £2,400 for dental equipment; and Foster Newell’s (now Supervalu) was awarded £1,137.

A catastrophe was averted, when the Milestone Bonded Warehouse on Canal Quay was fire-bombed. The flames were extinguished before they reached thousand of gallons of raw spirits, - similar to petrol. The `Belfast Telegraph` offices on the Mall were gutted; a hardware store, O’Hagan’s of Merchants Quay, and a large furniture shop in Canal Street destroyed. Also, firemen came under gun-attack, when tackling a blaze at the Newry Steam Laundry in Monaghan Street.

Internment Day dawned with loud knocking on the door of our home at the Derrybeg estate. Down below was a group of men, gesticulating, and announcing that a large number of residents had been `lifted` from their beds by British solders, and taken to an unknown destination.

If our windows were to remain intact, I was encouraged to hasten with my camera to the RUC Barracks at Corry Square, where a protest was being held. The emphasis was on a mobile posterior! Driving through the deserted streets of Derrybeg and the Meadow, I arrived at the police station, where a crowd had gathered.

After being addressed by the Council chairman, Pat McMahon, who was in his shirt-sleeves, the demonstrators headed out to the UDR Centre on the Belfast Road. Mothers, wives, sisters and female supporters lined the barrier, berating the sentries on duty, and demanding the release of the detainees.

Then they re-formed and paraded back into the town centre. Following behind, I parked in Kildare Street, turned the corner into the main street, and beheld an astonishing sight. Shops were ablaze as far as the eye could see, and there were no firemen, nor security forces in sight. A helicopter hovered overhead.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008