`Swinging 60’s` - A Decade Of Progress And Turmoil

THE `SWINGING 60’s` brought radical change and progress to the Newry region in the fields of housing, industry, sport, education, entertainment, fashion and politics. But the end of the decade witnessed street violence and destruction on a scale not seen since the riots of the early 1920’s, - and a harbinger of conflict over the next 25 years.

A civil rights march through the town had been re-routed away from a `Protestant` area, leading to clashes with R.U.C. Riot Squad, the burning of police tenders, rioting and damage to property. Leading Protestant clergy launched a bitter attack on local Catholic priests. And D.U.P. leader, Rev Ian Paisley pledged to lead a large force, which would “take over the town of Newry.”

Back in the 40’s and 50’s, the frontier town had been a small, tranquil, introverted community, stretching from Kilmorey Street to Monaghan Street, - beyond that were green fields. Unemployment and emigration were rife, living conditions basic, and most children left school at 15 years, apart from the elite who could afford second-level education.

During the 60’s, second-level schools were constructed, - St Joseph’s and St Mary’s in Newry; St Joseph’s at Crossmaglen, St Paul’s near Bessbrook and St Mark’s, close to Warrenpoint. Abbey C.B.S. pupils moved to the new grammar school on Courtney Hill, and those from Newry High to Ashgrove. Extensions were carried out to St Colman’s College, Our Lady’s and the Sacred Heart schools, now in modern complexes.

New industries settled in Newry during that decade, including Ulster Textiles, Starks, Taylors, Bessbrook Products, Northern Waterproof, etc., while Bessbrook, Damolly and Drumalane mills also provided valuable employment. The launch of Newry and Mourne Co-op led to the W.I.N., Greenbank and other industrial estates, - a boost for entrepreneurs.

But then came the closure of the rail-link between Newry and the main line, while the local port was also in its death-throes. Meanwhile, Warrenpoint got a major boost with the construction of the dual-carriageway and major expansion of the harbour, while Reeds factory was established, providing work for hundreds of people over the next 40 years.

Newry Urban Council embarked on a massive house-building programme, creating new estates at Derrybeg, Barcroft, Mourne View, Drumalane and Courtney Hill, as well as the Armagh and Warrenpoint roads. They also embarked on a swimming-pool, major water and sewerage projects, as well as successfully lobbying for a new hospital at Daisyhill.

Council chairman Tommy Markey was expelled from the Irish Labour Party for taking the salute of the Irish Guards, but he continued to rule with the support of the unionists, and was awarded the M.B.E. However, in 1969 he stood on platforms along with Old I.R.A. veterans, former Irish Labour colleagues and the nationalist M.P., Max Keogh, in protest against the Bombay Street atrocities in Belfast.

Progress had come at a price, as the one-time commercial and industrial heart of the frontier town was bull-dozed to make way for the dual carriageway. That historic area had produced personalities ranging from a mayor of New York, Hugh Grant; Archbishop Carroll, - created Primate of Liberia in the 60’s, - soccer star Peter McParland, and the Mayor of Newry, Jackie Patterson.

On the entertainment front, the 60’s saw the emergence of pop groups and showbands along with Top Talent Contests. Irish musicians like `Crubeen,` were very popular, while such veterans as Jackie Hearst and Vincent Lowe still entertained, to be joined by the Sands family from Mayobridge. The Newpoint Players, along with Newry Musical and Orchestral Society were also an important cultural feature.

On the local showband scene, the Hilton were kings, including such artists as Mickey Doran, Ricky McVeigh, Peadar Cowan, Tommy Tohill, Jimmy McGivern, Luke Burke, John Hughes and Gerry Black, along with Eleanor Toner, - later Mrs Pat Jennings, - and Briege Jordan. Among others were the Soundtracks, Deirdre and the Defenders, the Clippertones, Eber Clarke and the Downbeats, the Rhythm Aces, the Targets, Sons of Rest, the Epic and the Teambeats.

Dress dances were a popular event, organised by the Newry Bachelors, Daisyhill Nurses, Knights of Columbanus and Newry and district Motor-traders, etc. More modest events, such as G.A.A club annual dinner socials, were held at the Boulevard Hotel or the Imperial Hotel in Newry, the Liverpool Hotel in Warrenpoint or the Park Hotel at Omeath.

Sport played a huge role in the life of the 60’s, as the Mournemen burst on the national scene, from `no-hopers’ to invincibles. They provided a remarkable transformation in the county’s fortunes, and swept everyone on a wave of euphoria over the three years that “Sam” travelled North.

On the club scene, Newry Mitchels and Shamrocks, along with Glenn collected the major trophies, due in no small part to the county stars on their panel. Ballyholland also got a taste of glory when the squad, captained by Pat Murtagh and managed won the Down Junior Championship. Crossmaglen Rangers dominated in the Orchard county.

On the soccer front, Peter McParland and Pat Jennings were bringing F.A. Cup and International glory to the frontier town. Back in 1960, big Pat had been in the Newry United squad, which won the Irish Junior Cup. Meanwhile, the Carnbane League was in full flow, thanks to the enterprise of Billy and Jimmy Davis, Eugene Markey and Frank Curran.

`People power` was in evidence during the 60’s, with the creation of the Combined Tenants Association, representing residents of council-owned houses. But they met their greatest challenge when confronted by a 100 per cent increase in rents, to be followed by a further 50 per cent in six months’ time. The reason given was a deficit in the housing account.

Refusing payment of the rise, a delegation was accompanied by local MP’s, Max Keogh and Paddy O’Hanlon at a meeting with the council. The tenants demanded an analysis of how the account got into the red; an investigation into the council’s administration; and a meeting with the Minister for Development, Brian Faulkner.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008