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Newry Set A Headline In Democratic Politics
(Part 2)


Denis Caulfield Brady won by 402 votes to 374. And a Press report declared: “The poor refused to vote for Staples. Instead, they voted for a man, sprung from the people, identifying with their feelings and principles, political profession and religious faith.” In 1868, Brady defeated Lord Newry in the last election with open polling. Then Justin McCarthy had a clear victory over Sir Reginald Saunders. And `Home Ruler` John F. Small won the seat in 1885.

But the Partition Act of 1921 removed the right of the people in Newry borough to have an M.P., the constituency being submerged in South Down. But when elections took place to a Northern Ireland parliament, Eamon de Valera won the contest for the South Down seat, though he never took his seat at Stormont. He had also been elected to Dail Eireann, becoming Taoiseach for many years.

The Town Commissions were abolished in 1898, being replaced by urban and rural councils. Last act by the local body was the construction of Newry Town Hall over the Clanrye River, due to rivalry between to Armagh and Down residents. However, members of Newry and Warrenpoint urban councils, Newry Board of Guardians, Crossmaglen and Kilkeel rural councils, refused to swear an Oath of Allegiance to the new administration at Stormont, and were suspended.

When the Northern Ireland government reinstated those bodies, republicans boycotted the elections, except for Newry and Warrenpoint councils. Twelve nationalists were returned in Newry, giving them a majority, while Hugh John McConville was reinstated as chairman.

As Tony Canavan commented in his book, Frontier Town: “The suspension of the council had done little to change opinion in the town. But it prevented republican councillors being returned again, and put in their place those who were willing to co-operate with the Northern Ireland government on a de facto basis. This was in the expectation that the area would be outside its jurisdiction, once the Boundary Commission had published its report.”

However, due to major disturbances in the North, and the Civil War in the South, publication of the report was delayed until 1924, by which time a Pro-Treaty government under Michael Collins was in power. It was accepted that the Newry region was too important from an economic point of view to cede to the South, despite the fact that all the local councils in South Armagh and South Down had voted in favour of joining the Irish Free State.

Ironically, the chairman of Newry urban council, Hugh John McConville, an ardent nationalist, who had led his colleagues in refusing to take the Oath of Allegiance, played host in the Town Hall to the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, on an official visit to the frontier town in 1926.

Also in the welcoming party were two public officials, who would render sterling service to the people of the town over the next 30 years, - Town Clerk William Cronin and Town Surveyor, Charles Blaney. Appointed Town Clerk in 1908, Mr Cronin remained in the post for almost 40 years.

He was described as “a practical and far-sighted administrator, a man of great integrity, who devoted his life not only to the affairs of the town but also the welfare of its needy inhabitants.” The Town Clerk was responsible for schemes, which provided expectant mothers and children with free milk, hospital care for the needy, eye-specialists for the poor, and free consultancy.

A noted sportsman, Bill Cronin was cox on a famous Newry Rowing Club squad, which took part in the 1903 Henley Regetta. The oarsmen were John Fisher (shipping), John Henry Collins (lawyer), Robert Corkery and Walter Scott, whose father had a grocery business on Hill Street in Newry.

Meanwhile, Charles Blaney was appointed Town Survey in 1908. He remained in the post until the age of 82 years, dying in 1975 after 57 years service. That dedicated official was responsible for housing projects, ranging from Erskine Street, John Mitchel and John Martin Street, St Clare’s and St Patrick’s Avenues to the conversion of the barracks at Linenhall Square into a housing estate; also the development of Newry Swimming Pool and Rooney’s Meadow houses.

He told a meeting of the Rotary Club: “Newry was the first town in Ireland to build houses for working-class people. And the bricks used to construct the dwellings were made in Newry, the first sand-lime bricks to be manufactured in Ireland!” And not only was Blaney Crescent named after the surveyor, but a street in London was called after his son, Max, killed while defusing a German bomb, dropped on the city during the last war.

When Bill Cronin died in 1935, he was succeeded by his nephew, Gerald Cronin, who had been Assistant Town Clerk. The latter’s father had been a surgeon at Newry General Hospital, and the family resided opposite Corry Square RUC Station. Then they moved to a house in Marcus Square, - later the Boulevard Hotel, - and finally to St Colman’s Park, beside the monument to John Mitchel.

“An urban councillor’s life was not an easy one,” Gerry Cronin told `Cuisle na Gael.` “They never received a brass sou, - all they ever got was abuse. Funds were limited, and it would take hours of deliberation before the council could spend £10. There was no budget for entertainment or travel. Newry Urban Council was responsible for housing, streets, roads, water and sewerage, public heath and the library, which was the forgotten orphan, - the staff being paid a pittance.

“Every clergyman was a member of the Library Committee, which acted as a watchdog. Anything unsuitable was never allowed on the shelves. The council was also responsible for censoring films. A full attendance was guaranteed at the previews in the Savoy Cinema. Our hands went up in horror as we viewed `Rock Around the Clock.` The laymen were often more shocked than the clergy!”

The Town Clerk, - whose wife, Sheila was a gifted violinist, and whose brother–in-law played rugby for Ireland, - stated that Council houses began to be built in the town because of Labour Party agitation. Referring to his predecessor, Gerry Cronin remarked: “He gave all to the job, a perfectionist, who was a walking encyclopaedia on local government. Bill Cronin was a hard act to follow!”

Incidentally, the recent demise of Arthur Lockhart, former chairman of Newry and Mourne district council, recalled the fact that this council was the first in the North to engage in power-sharing. John McEvoy (SDLP), High Chief Ranger of the Irish National Foresters, and Arthur Lockhart (Ulster Unionist), Worshipful Master in the Orange Order, began the rotation of chairmanship, in 1974, later extended to other parties. Newry made history once again!

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008