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.”
The County Grand Master of the Black Preceptory, H.H. Cushnie declared: “If any place on earth deserves a curfew, it is Newry. Right through from 1919, it has been a blot on our country. Loyalists would not like to see the curfew lifted. Let those responsible stew in their curfew juice. Every loyalist will happily put up with any inconvenience that the curfew may bring. Let it stay until our enemies learn to conduct themselves.”
But the MP for South Down, Joe Connellan criticised “comments from a particularly bigoted section of the Unionist community, both inside and outside the town. They have called for a continuation of this measure as a punitive operation, aimed at one particular section of the people.
“This curfew is only one of the many grievances affecting the town of Newry. For it has the unenviable distinction of having the highest percentage of unemployment in these islands. On top of that, it has suffered most from IRA atrocities.”
Meanwhile, the Newry Branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union called on the Minister to “have this ridiculous state of affairs terminated without delay. All fair-minded people must realise that this action is calculated to strike at a particular section of the community.”
All street-lighting throughout the town had been switched off. So there was a tremendous sense of excitement and anticipation at the introduction of the curfew, with hundreds of defiant young people gathered in the town-centre. Scouts had been posted at the Mall and the Town Hall, to alert the demonstrators about the approach of the police.
Adults, who had to leave the pubs and clubs early, brought bottles of beer and spirits, which were distributed. And since Boden’s bottling plant was situated about 200 yards away in Water Street, with some of the protesters being employed there, a sympathetic manager “turned a blind eye” as crates of Guinness were removed, to keep up the spirits at the “Big Clock.”
The singing, cheering and chanting increased in volume, as about a dozen police tenders arrived at the scene. A senior RUC officer remonstrated with the crowd to go home quietly; but the shouting and chanting continued unabated.
A detachment of “B “ Specials in riot gear formed a line, drew their batons and charged the protesters, who made their escape via the various alleyways. Those from the Church Street area took the Lindsay Hill route, while their companions from the Castle Street and High Street direction used the little entries between Water Street and North Street. A small group were arrested, and taken to the local police station.
Cllr. Jackie Patterson reported that some of the escapees took refuge at the Ulster Transport Depot, now Woolworths, where the maintenance crews would allow them to hide in the buses, or in the mechanics’ pit under the vehicles.
“Parents were very worried, in case some of their sons might get caught up in the trouble. But, belonging to large families, we covered for each other, saying that a missing brother was at a relative or friend’s house. And since there were no phones, it would be difficult to check.”
After the first few nights, the “B” Specials were replaced by regular RUC personnel. Obviously it was felt that the heavy-handed tactics of this notorious force were only making the situation worse. And though the protests continued, police tactics changed, using their vehicles to push the demonstrators down Hill Street. They took up positions on the various bridges, intercepting all traffic and pedestrians.
Finally, after a period of four weeks, the historic curfew was lifted, though the Minister for Home Affairs warned that the situation would be reviewed within a few weeks. During that month, there were no further bomb-attacks.
However, three months later, the most serious episode of the I.R.A. campaign occurred at Edentubber, when five men were killed as a bomb exploded prematurely in a house. Gardai found human remains scattered over a wide area by the blast. Picking my way through the rubble of the demolished cottage, I noticed a large, gritty object. It was a portion of a human jaw, with teeth attached. Four Thompson submachine guns and ammunition were also found in the wreckage.
A large crowd accompanied the remains of local man, Michael Watters; Newry-born Oliver Craven, Paul Smith from Bessbrook; along with two Wexford men, Patrick Parle and George Keegan, through Dundalk, from the morgue to St Patrick’s Cathedral, where Requiem Mass was celebrated.
Sinn Fein TD, S. McGirl stated in a graveside oration: “These men came from North and South to end the tragedy of our nation and its people. Having employed all peaceful approaches to the unnatural division of our country, they once again asserted their God-given right to freedom.”
Since that day in November, 45 years ago, various brands of republicanism have held annual commemoration ceremonies at the monument, where the ill-fated cottage once stood. The Curfew Order has never been re-instated, despite the recent “Troubles.”
(*- This was actually the work of Saor Uladh- Mick3)
A series of reminisces of the Curfew published in the Newry Journal: