Newry Shamrocks Hall Was A Real Community Centre

“WE never closed,” was the proud boast of a famous London theatre, during the bomb-blitz of the last world war. And a similar claim could have been made for the Newry Shamrocks Hall in Boat Street, which remained in operation during the worst of `the Troubles, often operating by candlelight.

But the Shamrocks Hall was not just for GAA use; it also served as a community centre for the area from High Street to O’Neill Avenue. Venue for guest teas, bingo, feiseanna, concerts, ceili dances, and talent contests, it facilitated meetings, as well as indoor training for football, netball, basketball, badminton, etc.

Indeed, film and stage stars like Susan and John Lynch, Rose Marie and Tommy Balance, also young actors from the Newpoint Players; groups like Crubeen and the Sands family folk group, - all cut their acting and musical teeth in these unique club premises, - the first GAA club to have a lounge!

Now the home of the St Mary’s Club, the Shamrocks Hall also provided a vital transit-point for refugees, fleeing from loyalist pogroms of nationalist areas in Belfast etc. They were fed, given shelter and sleeping facilities by local people, before moving to camps in the south.

The Shamrocks Hall was built in 1968, the site of a former soap-works, as well as an entry, where Pat Murtagh from Kilmorey Street kept the pony and trap, while Joe Rooney had a float. Driving forces behind the project were Larry Beattie, Tom McKay (senior), Paddy Gribben, Bobby Langan, Tim McCoy and TP Murphy.

Former secretary Tom McKay, - later Head of the Training and Employment Agency - described the founders as “very genuine, dedicated and influential people, who encouraged young people to get on the right track, leading by example in commitment and loyalty to the club and the GAA.”

He recalled that the search for suitable premises had entailed renting a building in River Street, rooms at Water Street, and the present Boylesports offices on the Mall. Advice was sought from the Clann na Gael Club in Lurgan, of which a former GAA president, Alf Murray had been an official.

The unique pre-fabricated building was constructed by a Co. Offaly company, without any grant, and officially opened by the president of the GAA, Seamus O Riain in 1968, coinciding with Down’s conquest of the Sam Maguire Cup. Newry Shamrocks GFC, with three members in the squad, - John Murphy, Larry Powell and Pat McAlinden, - also became one of the first GAA clubs in the country to have its own clubrooms.

Benny McKay of `Crubeen` recalled many great occasions in the hall, especially St Patrick’s Night, 15th of August and Easter Sunday nights, also charity functions organised by Green Cross for prisoners; guest teas, etc. And John Murphy referred to how “when the county squad was leaving for New York in 1968, a special function was held in the hall, in order to make a presentation to club members in the All-Ireland side.”

Playing a major role was the late Sean Hollywood, involved in training the young hurlers; also coach to youthful members of the Newpoint Players, recruiting such aspiring actors as John and Susan Lynch, Tommy Balance, etc, to perform at various functions. Former chairman Eddie Burns recalled ,John Lynch mimicking Michael Crawford of `Some mothers do have them.`

Sean Hollywood’s dream lives on with the Newry Schools’ Ten-year Development Plan, spear-headed by Shamrocks Hurling Club, in which qualified hurling coaches will visit local primary schools on a weekly basis. Soft hurleys, helmets and sliotars will be provide to create a safe environment. Recently two All-Star Cork hurlers set the ball rolling with visits to some schools, and were guests of honour at a function in the local Shamrocks Club. Sean’s spirit would have smiled down.

Some of the biggest bingo sessions in the frontier town were held in the old Shamrocks Club. Also the Canon Burke Feis and Fleadh Ceoil, involving Anthony McKay, played a major role on the Irish dancing and musical scene, as did the Scor competitions. However, by 1990, the premises had outlived their usefulness, and the move was made to the present clubrooms beside Pairc Esler.

St Mary’s Association, which took over the Shamrocks Hall was formed in 1989. Fr John Kearney realised that the long summer holidays left some children roaming aimlessly around the streets, with nothing got do and nowhere to go. Others were feeling lonely, - cut off from their school pals.

Calling together a group of adults in order to address the problem, Fr Kearney held the first meeting at the Parochial House in April of that year. Those present were Frank Keenan (RIP), PJ McCartney, Tom and Margaret Comer, Peter and Margaret McKeown along with Tom McKeown. Ideas were put forward, and a pilot scheme was put into operation.

Describing the schedule, Mrs Margaret Comer (nee McAteer) recalled: “The youngest children, - those aged from 5 to 10 years, - were escorted to the swimming-poll, and enjoyed fun and games under adult supervision. So mothers had a break between 9.45 am and 11.30 am.

“Cycling was also suggested, and with Stephen Roche’s recent victory in the Tour de France uppermost in our minds, everyone wanted to be out on a bike! The competition to be first into Warrenpoint was terrific, but there was no way of beating the cycling cleric!

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008