Defiant Townsfolk Opposed The Infamous Newry Curfew

OUTRAGE and defiance was the reaction of many townsfolk to the imposition of the infamous Newry curfew, 50 years ago, - the only place in the North to be so afflicted.

“Unconstitutional, unjustified and unreasonable; a direct violation of the liberty of the subject,” declared solicitor P.G. Curran, in challenging the Curfew Order. This had been imposed by Minister of Home Affairs, Colonel Topping on Aug 12, 1957, after a series of I.R.A. bomb attacks, including Victoria Locks, which closed Newry port.

Defending Bernard Larkin of St Patrick’s Avenue, who was charged with a breach of the Order, Mr Curran, - later Coroner for South Down, - described the curfew as “drastic and penal,” pointing out that it had been signed just six hours before coming into effect. Larkin was found guilty and fined £1.

This controversial measure stipulated that everyone had to be indoors from 11 pm to five a.m., unless they had an official permit from the RUC. Those who qualified included doctors, nurses, clergy and journalists. Later, bakeries and transport companies were also exempted.

However, public houses, clubs, cinemas, halls and other entertainment or sporting venues had to close early. Also, meetings of Newry Urban Council and various organisations had to be curtailed, so that members and officials could reach their homes before the curfew. This novel situation applied to the area within the urban boundary, as well as the townlands of Derrybeg, Ballinacraig, Ballinlare, Carnegat, Corrinshegoe, Lisdrumliska and Carneyhaugh.

As the curfew time approached, on that first night, a large crowd gathered around the “Big Clock” at Margaret Square in the town centre. This had been the traditional scene of political, civil rights and trade union rallies, as well as the climax of the “Welcome Home” reception for the victorious Down GAA squad in 1960.

Recently, Newry trader and community leader, Bertie Flynn recalled the “great craic” at the protest parties, which were held at that venue during the notorious curfew, with singsongs and bottles of beer passed around.

And former vice-chairman of Newry and Mourne district council, Jackie Patterson, who was 12-year-old at the time, described how the “B” Specials, in riot-gear, baton-charged the protesters. However, protesters like Gussie Begley, Dickie Rodgers, Hillard Turley, Jimmy and Harry Morgan, the McCann, Kearns and Sarsfield brothers, Shamie Crawley, Barney Larkin and Robbie Curran were able to evade their pursuers, by using the warren of little entries between Water Street and North Street.

Community activist and cobbler, Joe Campbell from Castle Street, now residing at Dromalane, explained that, having been in lodgings on the Crumlin Road in Belfast at the time, he had been unable to play an active role in the anti-curfew campaign. However, “wee Joe” had taken a keen interest in events at the frontier town.

Covering the situation as a photo-journalist, I can vividly recall the feeling of real fear, fleeing along with the crowd past the Catholic Workingmen’s Club. I could hear the heavy thud of boots from the pursuing, baton-wielding “Specials,” a few yards behind. Nipping down O’Hagan Street I escaped, as the chase continued up Mill Street.

However, the curfew led to a bitter clash between nationalist and unionist leaders in the frontier town. Chairman of Newry Urban Council Max Keogh, editor of the `Frontier Sentinel` and later M.P. for South Down, issued a statement, appealing for the Order to be lifted. He asked the Minister “not to be influenced by a small, insanely-bigoted clique, which exults in any measure, repressive to their opponents in religion or politics.”

And he stated: “This is a most drastic step for the Government to take. To curtail the liberty of the subject in any country is a most serious matter. I do not think that the terrorist attacks in Newry justified such action. The vast majority of people in our town, of all shades of religious and political opinion, would support the call for the curfew to be lifted.”

But Unionist Senator Joseph Fisher, on behalf of the Newry Unionist Association, angrily rejected the council chairman’s claim, accusing him of “completely misinterpreting the present situation in Newry, and approaching it from a purely political point of view.

“Mr Keogh speaks about the adverse publicity, which the Curfew Order is alleged to have brought to the town. But he ignores entirely the long list of 19 I.R.A. outrages, listed by the Minister. It is those, and not the Minister’s action, which have given Newry the very worst kind of publicity.”

Senator Fisher added: “The people of our political and religious opinion feel no grievance with regard to the curfew. But we feel very strongly about the continuous, outrageous destruction of the town’s public services and buildings are having on the town’s prosperity.

“What Newry needs is a curfew on all those religious and political prejudices, which Mr Keogh has displayed. And also the cultivation of a spirit of tolerance, by which people may develop an attitude of true co-operation. I call on him to use every influence to ensure that all sections of the community co-operate with the authorities in preserving the peace.”

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008