There is a plaque on the North Street Block nearest High Street celebrating the life of one Seamus Mac Conmara (McNamara) who was born near there (7 North Street) at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Seamus was first and foremost a surgeon. He graduated from Queens University Belfast in 1931. He wrote in Irish (one of the very few of the twentieth century so to do) a number of successful novels, notably ‘The Stranger’. He suffered from ill health and died in 1936 at the age of twenty seven years.
His father, a sergeant in the RIC, owned two businesses in North Street, a tobacconists and a draper’s shop. Seamus is the son of this James by his second wife Johanna (nee Lacey). There was also a daughter from this marriage who married into the Murtaghs of Kilmorey Street.
That this issue is not a priority for any political party on these islands currently is a matter of great concern. Brexit – and the very real danger of an imminent no-deal Brexit – dominates all, yet this too is most relevant. It is difficult not to conclude that Sinn Fein, in particular, wishes for that outcome, so that opposition (to a United Ireland) within the protestant community will be silenced in the face of economic catastrophe, loss of agricultural and economic support in the form of EU grants, trade and business contraction and increasing danger to the ongoing Peace Process from a porous but ‘hard’ border.
In the North, we have not a single leader in any party of the intellectual status capable of comprehending, much less solving the issues soon to face us. The DUP in particular, bereft of a single leader or potential leader is content in the short term to wallow in their very temporary position of influence nationally. Apart from the ‘cultural’ issues of ever-higher bonfires, indiscriminate loyalist marches and displaying portraits of the Queen, the DUP has a negative agenda only: no Irish Language Act, no abortion reform, no LBGTQ+ rights. Looking South gives little cause for optimism too.
The two decades since the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement have been totally wasted. A sizable section of the nationalist community is turning away from the established political parties and looking to the burgeoning Civil Forum movement for leadership and inspiration. Try as they do, these good people seem unable to recruit intelligent, concerned and rational civic protestants to the cause. Yet it is less than two years till the 2021 referendum results confirms the inevitability of a pro-nationalist majority in the North, as well as in the South. By then it will be much too late to do the essential groundwork.
No one wants a sizable, obstructionist, malcontent and disaffected unionist minority in an all-Ireland Parliament intent only upon destruction. Yet how now does one mine the positive and progressive from this community which has so much to offer and will find widespread support in all communities for its efforts to maintain the best of British in our future society.
After much pain, anger and uncertainty, protestants (if not their political ‘leaders’) are coming to the realization that they have to reconsider their past and approach their neighbours, not in terms of ‘sell-out’ or ‘compromise’ but as an exercise in influencing the future.
To start, on the imminent ‘celebration’ of its centenary, the Northern state must be viewed as a failed entity which was ever viewed with bemused distaste from London. Today Boris, ever more dependent of the DUP votes, is happy to wrap the flag about him and wine and dine them, but inevitably he will dump them, to the huge relief of the British political establishment which is diminished and embarrassed by their presence.
The North – protestant and catholic alike – has a great deal to offer a future Ireland. It’s time to talk about it.
One knows one is ageing fast when yesterday’s happenings are
surreal, like a dream, quickly forgotten, yet events of 50 years ago shine
brightly in one’s memory.
Today’s Irish News, ON THIS DAY column, recounts the events
surrounding a Peoples Democracy protest in Armagh City on July 11 1969. Despite the detail below, I remember it for
two reasons :
1. This was my first
direct confrontation with the extremism and bitterness of loyalism, led of
course by the great Satan himself, Ian Paisley – and I was shocked and very
scared, knowing that these counter-demonstrators would like nothing better than
to attack and severely injure – if not kill – us, for demanding One Man One
Vote and equal rights and treatment. There was no doubt whatsoever that the police –
RUC – were on their side and, but for the TV cameras, would also like such a
2. One of our number,
my school colleague and friend from Derrybeg Estate Newry, Gerry Ruddy, was
accompanied by a young Queens student, Briege, from The Bone, Ardoyne, North
Belfast, and the two were inseparable and very much in love. As always, the human story was more
meaningful to me.
I am happy to report that they married soon after, reared a
family and are together to this day.
Briege was a lovely girl, is a fine lady and occasionally makes the
headlines this time of year, representing the interests of the much beleaguered
residents of the Holy Land. Anyway, the
story from the newspaper follows …
Four members of Armagh
Civil Rights Committee, including Senator Garry Lennon, leader of the
Nationalist Party in the Senate, staged an all-night sit-in at Armagh City
This followed clashes in the streets between members of Peoples Democracy and the police. About 200 PD supporters staged an impromptu march.
When they reached the
top of Scotch Street, which leads to a Protestant area (sic!) they were
confronted by 30 policemen And three Land Rovers.
Scuffles broke out and
stones and bottles were thrown.
Two PD members were
reported to have been slightly injured.
One local reporter shared the last tram run to Bessbrook, as it set out from the Edward Street terminus in January 1948, with a young boy, and one man and one woman.This is his story.
In answer to his query, Mrs Hannah J Copeland replied that departure time was five thirty.
‘You mustn’t be on the tram often or you’d know the time she goes?’
‘No.I’ve never been on it before and I’m all my life in Newry’, I answered.
‘Well, you’ll never be on it again’, the man cut in, ‘For this is the last.’
He waited for a reaction.Then he continued,
‘We’re from Craigmore and she goes past the door.When she goes, we’ll have nothing.’
His wife was in the spirit for reminiscence.
‘I could cry this night.I am on this last run, and I well mind being on the first.I was a wee girl sitting on my father’s knee.’
I sought for suitable words of reassurance.
‘Sure they’ll likely give you a bus?’
‘They likely will.But they’ll have to give us a road first!’
Her husband concurred.‘There’s forty or fifty families up in Craigmore and now we’re nowhere.Don’t know what’ll come of us.’
Two more men, John Meeks and William Barr boarded.The conductor, Tommy Anderson joined our group.Someone recognised the young chap as a Master Johnson.Of the newcomers, Davy Burns was the most expansive.
‘Ah mind when the fare to Newry was only tuppence.That was before the Bessbrook ones all wore boots!’ he added, enigmatically.
‘There was good craic on the final tram from Newry at night.Everybody talking.If you opened yer mouth too wide you might get a clout of a half-pint bottle!If you complained of thirst, you might get offered an acid drop.The morning tram was even noisier.Full of girls going to the mill, and them all singing as like as not.’
He was enjoying himself.
They’d ask if you liked it.
‘You’re not good,’ I’d say, ‘but give us another verse anyway’.
Off they’d go, laughing and singing.Them was good times but now they’re gone.There’ll be no fun like that on the buses.’
The lights dimmed, indicating that the car was slowing to a stop.
‘End of the line’, the Conductor called to the Copelands.Was it said with irony, I wondered.Goodbyes and good lucks were exchanged.They had petitioned the Directors of the Mill for a reprieve but with little optimism.
At Millvale along the line, our last passenger, bar myself, Jack Cowan got off.
Tommy Anderson told me the story of the two Brook men one time approaching the tram.
‘Are you going on the tram?’ asked the first.
‘No’, replied the other, one Willie Bradley.‘I’m in a hurry today.I’ll walk it!’
At the terminus, the foreman concurred.
‘It’s sad but it had to happen.She’s too slow,’ he added.
Sheltering from the icy wind, awaiting the return tram to Newry, I had time to reflect on the Bessbrook/Newry tram’s history.It had opened with a flourish just sixty three years before in September 1885 and only two years after the Irish Tramways Act that enabled its construction.Its primary purpose was the conduct to NewryPort of the products of the Bessbrook Spinning Mill and the carriage of raw materials in the opposite direction.Michael Faraday had only recently made his great electrical discoveries.It was less than four years since the world had had its first electric tramway.Electric traction with the third rail system was developed by Siemens and Halske and shown at the Berlin Exhibition of 1879.
It was expected the Bessbrook tram would haul 28,000 tons of product a year.An ingenious innovation was incorporated in the local system, the flangeless wheel and shoulder rail construction of Mr Henry Barcroft of the Glen in Newry.This enabled the wagons to be used on the rail or on road, as desired.This was a unique world development.Another advantage was the ability to carry passengers too.At its maximum the driving car carried a load of 56 tons and thirty four passengers at a speed of 12 m.p.h.A 56 H.P. turbine made at Belfast fed the two dynamos via the mid-rail system.Yet at all road crossings, primarily for safety reasons, an overhead wire was substituted for the rail conductor.
My reverie was interrupted by the conversation buzz arising from the queue at the corner of the Square, awaiting transport to Newry.This was a different crowd entirely from that whose camaraderie and bonhomie I had so recently shared.Modern youth, self-possessed and self-assured, dressed in nylon macs and slouch hats with fur-lined bootees, not the peaked caps, and shawls and aprons of my recent companions.There were boys with girlfriends, a soldier going back from leave, and a gang of nippers, long-trousered and becapped, movie bound to Newry.Up at the front, girls joked with the Conductor, and from the rear floated the strains of the current croon sensation – ‘How are things in Gloccamara?’ – not liltingly as Davy Burns might recall, but ‘swooningly crooned’ – you know what I mean!
And so I ended my journey on the last tram to Newry.The Brook ones would tell you it was the longest tram in the world, because the track looped at both termini.My lasting impression was sympathy with Willie Bradley’s complaint – maybe it was ‘too slow’.
All that’s left is the occasional patch of overgrown track, such as up Derrybeg lane or to the back of Clonmore on the Armagh Road.