Frontier Town: Canavan

The research and writing of ‘Frontier Town : An illustrated History of Newry’ was undertaken by Tony Canavan when he was curator of Newry Museum over a decade ago.  Though Canavan is a famous name in Newry, Tony is from Belfast.  He returns here shortly to give a lecture in the Carlingford Lough series.  I’ll be there.

I am an ardent fan of this wonderful history.  It is excellently researched and reads like a racy narrative.  We are very lucky to have such a tome at our disposal – that is, those of us who purchased early and have looked after our copy.  I say this because Blackstaff [ISBN 0-85640-430-6] unfortunately bound this paperback volume with a brittle gum than deteriorates with time, and most copies are by now, literally in bits!

I seldom hear reference made to Canavan’s work locally – in Newry History Society, for example – and wonder if begrudgery has again raised its ugly head.  Certainly any localised research must begin here.  His Preface succinctly expresses the role of the town in Irish history.  Personally I still prefer Frontier Town to Newry City, the former conjuring thoughts of our pivotal role so often in the past: the latter a sop – from QE2 – to aspiring ‘spinners’.

Those of us who lived through much of the twentieth century may take exception to parts of his final chapters, though it is always most difficult to assess living history.  He wrongly identifies Irish Labour [I was a member and attended Annual Conferences in Liberty Hall, Dublin] on Newry Council with Northern Ireland Labour Party and casts the principled rump led by Tommy McGrath as ‘dissidents’ when they were faithful to party policies, whereas Pat McMahon – whom he extols – went on to unfairly allocate homes on the basis of ‘I want my bite of the cherry!’

He dates the Great Hunger from 1844-1849 and alleges it had no effect on the town.  Readers of Workhouse History on these pages will disagree!  There are other anomalies but errors are few.

If you only ever read one book about Newry, make sure it is Canavan’s!

Drama: Newpoint

From last year’s Newry Drama Festival programme, I note for the first time a warning of ‘plays that contain strong language’.  I think any one exposed to TV is by now inured to all that.  However if your sensibilities are easily injured you ought to know that Newpoint’s contribution this year (Festival begins on Friday 19 March) falls clearly into that category!

Your local director is again Sean Treanor, who carried last year’s Trojan Women by Euripides not just to provincial, but to national [international?] success when the group was offered a ‘wild card’ British national entry – and scored an outstanding success in England.  We are informed in the pre-production flier that Portia Coughlan has a ‘richly textured dialogue’.  That at least!

The perennial critics [I include myself!] who complain that the programme never includes a sufficient number of dramas by Irish authors will now be silenced.  Besides Newpoint’s Irish entry, there are works by G B Shaw [Arms and the Man, an early comedy] Hugh Leonard [The Poker Session and Love in the Title] and Brian Friel [The Loves of Cass McGuire].  Then there’s the N Ireland drama The Force of Change.  Other plays on offer in this nine-night feast of drama are My Three Angels (comedy), Ladies who Lunch (witty) and The Living Room.

As if all that were not enough, we have the All-Ireland One-Act Drama Finals in Warrenpoint from 23 April-1 May.  I need a lie-down just thinking about it all.

But we will be there, each and every night.  See you.

Lislea Drama Festival

It is an enormous credit to the vibrancy of the community of Lislea, a fabulously picturesque district on the way from Camlough to Crossmaglen, that they are currently celebrating their 23rd Drama Festival.  I recently skimmed through again Tom Keane’s booklet of the history of the area [now an unbelievable 30 years old!] and was enormously impressed.  Newry library has no copy and neither have I.  Any chance, Tom?

Last time I attended a play, it was standing room only.  These thespians could teach Newpoint – or any one else, for that matter – a lesson.  I’ll be among you for a number of your forthcoming dramas.  Meanwhile, for those interested, the programme includes:

Callaghan’s Place – a play that examines the effects of isolation in remote rural areas. It is performed by St Dympna’s Dramatic Society.

Philadelphia, here I Come – the Friel classic, by Castle Players, Tyrone.

Playboy of the Western World: Singe; Wayside Players, Wexford.

Girls in the Big Picture: Belfast’s fabulous Marie Jones; Pomeroy Players, Tyrone.

Eclipsed: Drama Circle, Creggan.  1960s convent laundry (yes, you’ve guessed!)

View from a Bridge: Millar classic:  Lislea Dramatic Players

They all need and richly deserve your support.  You’ll be made welcome!

Voices & The Sound of Drums

I know nothing at all about the book I’m about to ‘review’ except that it was entitled ‘Voices and the Sound of Drums’ and it was written by Patrick Shea and published in 1981 by Blackstaff. 

I came across this short excerpt and was mightily impressed.  I’ll really have to make an effort to locate it (Amazon, again!) and buy a copy.  I hope you conclude likewise.

During our lunch period I walked along North Street, a tumbledown part of old Newry, to the Butter Market and found myself in the midst of a hiring fair; a fair in which the merchandise was human beings.  Those doing business were standing about in small groups, talking quietly; a sturdy man holding out for what he thought he was worth as a ploughman, a rosy-cheeked servant girl listening and nodding as details of the offered engagement were explained to her by a farmer and his wife, a mother handing over her fourteen-year-old son on the understanding that in return for his apprentice labour on a farm he would be kept and given three meals a day and after six months she would be paid perhaps five or six pounds. 

Hiring fairs were peculiar to the northern part of Ireland.

Do any of you know this book?  Was Patrick Shea a relative of Jack, our Laughing Policeman of Derrybeg Lane?  And of Dorothy (Dodo to us rude and uncouth schoolboys, although I remember this dear and unassuming teacher taking us for amateur drama practice in the living room of her own home in Derrybeg Lane on Saturday afternoons, for no reward!).  Gone now to her eternal reward, it’s too late to tell her how much I appreciated her.

[Yes I know the latter two were brother and sister, and were O’Shea – but that doesn’t exclude the possibility of some familial relationship with the author!]

P.S. I’ve just received an e-mail from Peter, the son of the author of this book.  He lives now in Australia but is visiting us in May.  And YES, Jack and Dorothy were brother and sister to Patrick. 

I’d love to meet him then.  Perhaps he will loan me a copy of the book, so I can do a proper review!)

Mourne Country : E E Evans


STOP PRESS *** STOP PRESS *** STOP PRESS *** STOP PRESS *** STOP PRESS ***Mourne Country by E E Evans has been reprinted for Christmas 2005 market. ***

Despite endless hints, not ONE of my large family saw fit to purchase me a copy for a Christmas present.  Would YOU like to make an old man very happy?

“Mourne Country” by E E Evans is possibly the most interesting, erudite, amusing, heart-warming and informative tome I have ever read, on the subject of the Mournes and the South Down region.  Although written more than half a century ago, its geographic and geological analyses remain – in a world of swift scientific advance and shifting hypotheses – surprisingly intact.

Evans, one-time professor of geography at Queens University, Belfast, was not native to these shores but acquired honorary Irishman status through dedicating much of his academic career and his huge research and literary talents to Irish studies, including the authorship of books on Irish folklore and customs.

No ivory tower academic, Estyn relaxed in the company of the Mourne people of his day, getting to know the landscape with and through them. In his book he knits them into the land’s magnificent architecture with an apparent ease that belies his huge literary talent.

Choose a page at random (here I chose page 15) and marvel at his relaxed but highly charged descriptive powers:

..the fortunate climber, from a noble peak, may chance to see a peregrine falcon keeping watch on the lonely hills..’ :

I could be there with him!

I admit that I keep coming back to this delightful book again and again, and always I acquire another little snippet that I appear to have overlooked before. In fact, it’s much like the Mourne walker himself, who is never disappointed in trekking his earlier pathways. Now honestly, how often can that be said about a holiday destination?

I really should not have reviewed this book for you, because now comes the bad news! It has been out of print for many years! Indeed some long time ago – in my enthusiasm to share its delightful charms – I loaned my copy to a ‘friend’ and, of course, never had it returned.

I regularly call into the Newry Library to browse their single remaining copy, and frequently to photocopy its pages. You might want to do likewise. I promise, you will not be disappointed!

‘..valleys nourished by many high springs .. sluggish streams’:

‘.. to one who reads the map with intelligence and feeling, the contours of the Mournes will sing together sweetly.’

Entering Newry from the South


Newry nestles in a low river valley with the eastern end of the Ring of Gullion on its western side, and rocky outcrops of Newry granite on its eastern side. Along the shore towards Warrenpoint on the east side of the estuary is the only flat access road – except of course for the parallel road to Omeath and Carlingford just across the water.

Read moreEntering Newry from the South

Entering Newry from the North


The drumlins just referred to are another unique feature of our local physical scene, sometimes rather graphically referred to as a ‘basket of eggs’ topology.  Away from the mountains, and stretching in a broad band across north central Ireland from Down to Galway, these ridges of boulder clay give a clear indication of direction of retreat of the last Ice Age some 30,000-12,000 years ago.


Read moreEntering Newry from the North