Newry Post Office Staff In Front Line Of 'Troubles'

EMPLOYEES of the Post Office in the Newry region, including sorting and delivery, as well as counter staff at the Head Post Office in Hill Street, were in the front-line of the recent `Troubles.`

Head Postmaster Bill Elliott was shot dead in 1973 by the Provisional IRA at Silverbridge, while postal Officer Peter Murphy from Mayobridge received a gun-shot wound to the head. They were mistaken for police officers, investigating a break-in and robbery at the local Sub Post Office.

Also, postman Frank Kerr from Camlough was kidnapped by the PIRA that year, and held for three days, before being released. He was shot dead at the Newry Sorting Office, while grappling with a member of an IRA gang, engaged in a robbery, in 1994.

Meanwhile, the ornate Head Post Office on Newry’s main thoroughfare was the target of several major bomb-attacks, which caused serious structural damage in the early 7O’s. On one occasion, staff and customers were trapped in the building with a ticking bomb, concealed in an abandoned pram, while a gun-battle took place outside, between the IRA bombers and British soldiers.

Numerous Post Office vans were commandeered, the mail stolen and vehicles set on fire, especially on the South Armagh border. Driver Patrick Mooney from the Armagh Road in Newry, had his van hi-jacked and burned out, twice within a week in the same locality. Mail intended for the people of Forkhill, Mullabawn and Jonesboro was destroyed in the flames.

A similar situation had arisen, two centuries earlier, when coaches carrying mail from Belfast to Dublin, via Newry, came under attack from armed robbers. After stopping overnight at the King’s Arms Inn on Hill Street, the passengers and post had a military escort from the frontier town, as protection against the Rapparies of South Armagh.

Meanwhile, at the outbreak of the World War in 1914, about 80 per cent of the eligible Post Office staff in Newry volunteered for military service. Two were killed and others seriously injured. A unique feature was that Ulster and National Volunteers took it in turn to provide guard duty at Newry Post Office in 1916.

Maybe the most talented postman was the legendary Matt Lavery from Castle Street in Newry, actor, producer and skilled craftsman. During 40 years as a postman, he walked about 250,000 miles on his daily round, almost the distance from the earth to the moon! He and his brother, Patrick, chairman of Newry Urban Council, formed the famed Fag a Bealagh hurling club. Matt retired with the rank of Head Postmaster in 1930.

Another notable personality was Henry Loughran, local Postmaster, who was elected chairman of Newry Urban Council with the rank of Mayor in 1901. He was also appointed Chief Magistrate, and chairman of the Board of Guardians.

Over the past 50 years, local Post Office employees have included Willie McGivern, a founder of Newry Gateway Club and later Postmaster at Newcastle; Arthur Ruddy, who helped to form Newry Mitchels GFC, elected chairman of Newry and Mourne district council; soccer player/manager Johnney Martin; Raymond Crossey and Gerry Sloan(RIP); Oscar Traynor; Stephen McClelland and Ian Campbell, as well as Babs Sands, Ena Campbell, Mrs Fitzpatrick and Pauline Crawley.

Other personnel have included John Mallon, Paddy Byrne, Billy Baines, Eddie Loye, Dessie McAllister, Terry McCartan, John Patrick, Peter and Danny Doran; Eddie Campbell, Oliver Lynam, Terry Kane, John Mulholland, Joe McCartan, Gerry Brady, John Curran, Dermot Finnegan, Paddy Crilly, Dessie Campbell, Eddie McGivern. Paddy Byrne, Gerry Brady, Christy McGuigan, Gerry Faloon, Tommy Heatley, Joe McCartan, Tommy Jones, Felix McShane, John Curran, Henry Stokes, Paddy `Oxo` McAteer, John, Jimmy and Eddie Carr; Hugh Pollock, Trevor Harris and Paddy Matthews (aged 80).

Postal United had a team in the Carnbane League, managed by Johnney Martin. They were Steve Rowland, George McGivern, Pat Martin, C. McCigney, John Johnston, Peter Doran Larry Campbell, Peter Keenan, Eamonn Fitzpatrick, Peter Gordon, Gerry Tremers and Wesley Park.

Longest-serving Postmaster was Hans Stevenson, who filled the office from 1960 to 1972, when he was awarded the MBE. A native of Crossgar, he had served in the RAF during the last war, returning to the Post Office at Downpatrick. Closely identified with the Rotary movement, he was past President of the Newry Club, and secretary of the frontier town’s first two Civic Weeks in 1966/67.

Meanwhile, the shooting dead of his successor, Bill Elliott, in 1973 provoked outrage and anger among the staff at Newry’s Head Post Office on Hill Street, and the local community in general, where he was held in the highest esteem. Post Office staff felt such a sense of shock that they found it impossible to carry on with their work. All postal and mail, as well as counter services were suspended.

The Provisional IRA in South Armagh denied responsibility for the gun-attack, or the earlier break-in and robbery at Silverbridge Sub Post Office, when £1530 pounds was stolen. The car in which the Postmaster travelled to the scene, was hit by 13 bullets by the three masked men involved, while 30 spent cartridges were found behind a nearby hedge.

The surviving Post Office employee, Peter Murphy told the Inquest that he and Mr Elliott had returned to the car, and then heard a crack on the windscreen. The Postmaster had called out: “That’s shooting, - we’d better get down.” More shots rang out, and the witness “felt something cut across the top of my head.”

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008