Award For Act Of Valour Amid Internment Turmoil
(Part 2)

Section-Leader, the late John O’Hare from Derrybeg, recalled in his book, `Newry Ablaze,` the scene in the town centre when his fire-fighters, later assisted by outside crews, were finally able to tackle the inferno. Comparing it to `D-Day` he described how six appliances were required, along with 50 personnel, - `25 hours of continuous hazardous duty.`

“During the week of Internment we had to deal with numerous fires, which created appalling destruction. Feeding, when and where they could, the firemen snatched an hour’s sleep, sometimes sitting or lying down in their wet uniforms and boots, on station or even out on the street.

“That week proved to be the most trying in the history of the Newry Fire Service. And had it not been for the leadership of the officers, the comradeship between all ranks, and the high morale of the force, then the history of this frontier town would have suffered disastrous consequences.”

And the author stated: “Firemen have feelings and emotions, the same as anyone else. Especially at a violent and tragic time, by virtue of our unique position in the community, firemen have to apply personal ministry and concern for the individual, irrespective of who or why. We will not condemn or condone, but remain impartial, seeking to help when a disaster occurs.”

Constant battles took place between soldiers, seeking to dismantle barricades at various estates, using massive bulldozers, C.S gas and rubber bullets, and the residents, determined to replace them. Virtual martial law was exercised in the town, with people being stopped and body-searched on the streets. Check-points disrupted traffic, and street-lighting was extinguished at night.

Meanwhile, M.P.`s Max Keogh and Paddy O’Hanlon; councillors, including chairman Pat McMahon, Tommy Markey, Hugh Golding, Stephen Ruddy, Colman Rowntree and Mick Murphy; trades union and Civil Rights leaders like Rory McShane and Sean Hollywood met and agreed that barricades should remain, and a Civil Disobedience Campaign be organised.

That night the Town Hall was the scene for a public meeting, attended by about 2,000 people. The M.P. for South Down stated: “In my long experience of public affairs in this area, I have never seen such a massive gathering of anti-unionist opinion. The people have turned out in strength to show that Internment will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

“The civil disobedience campaign can succeed by disciplined organisation and unified effort. But the burden must not be left on the shoulders of the working-class people of Newry. The bigger tax-payers and the middle-classes have to play a part in the struggle.”

And Mr Keogh, MP, stated: “ It must be a great consolation to the fathers, mothers, wives, brothers and sisters or children of those interned, to see that the people of Newry are determined not to let them rot in jail, or aboard a prison ship in Belfast Lough.”

Praising the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association, who were “banding together to fight oppression,” he said: “British ex-servicemen are going to march to the Newry UDR Centre, and throw their well-earned medals and discharge papers across the wall. I will be there with them.”

The CESA met Colonel Palmer, local C O of the UDR, to discuss the alleged misbehaviour of British troops in the Newry area; measures to de-escalate the current state of fear and tension; as well as the Army’s ability to defend the area in the event of an attack by the extreme unionist Third Force.

Chairman Joe Henry told the colonel that Newrymen, who had served in the British Army, were being asked if they had behaved in the same manner as British soldiers were now doing. Col. Palmer responded that “the British Army has not changed. We are completely impartial, and just wish to ensure that the local population can go about their business in peace.”

One of the incidents which we raised was the case of Raymond Bradley from Home Avenue, GAA fan and a person with Special Needs, who was accosted by soldiers when meeting some friends on Lindsay Hill. It was reported that one of the soldiers said: “We know who you are,” pushed him against a wall and struck him with a baton on the hands and legs.

Two neighbours, Seamus Sarsfield and Sean Crawley came on the scene and informed the soldier who the victim was, but were hustled away, as was a small crowd. Raymond Bradley was taken to the UDR Centre, and kept standing spread-eagled against a wall for over hour. Cllr Stephen Ruddy contacted the RUC, who went to the UDR Centre and recommended his release.

Local grocer, Brendan Gallagher took the youth to Dr Seamus McAteer, who found that he had received a severe beating on an arm, leg and the side of the head. The GP also reported that he had complained to the British Army GOC, General Tuzo, about soldiers beating up people in the Newry area, especially the Derrybeg estate, where he had treated residents for severe injuries.

The frontier town became the focus of world attention, when the setting for a massive Anti-Internment March after Bloody Sunday. British prime minister Ted Heath appealed for Cardinal Conway to intervene, but the primate refused. Organised by the local Civil Rights Committee, over 60,000 people took part in a peaceful parade, avoiding confrontation with a huge military presence.

Stormont fell a few months later, Direct Rule was imposed, then the Sunningdale Agreement, and finally the abolition of Internment. For hundreds of young men from the Newry region, who had committed no crime, a nightmare had come to an ended!

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008