Most good folk stories of all traditions have a moral and that of the Newry Bear no less than any other.
Certainly there was a smallpox epidemic in February 1895 and it is probable there was a travelling circus in town, from which the Grizzly may, or may not have escaped. Fear of the latter, the proponents of the pragmatist interpretation allege, kept people’s minds off the former and united them in fear of the wild animal. Meanwhile the authorities more easily went about the business of confining people to quarantined locations, the populace was more willing than before to comply and the menace of smallpox was contained.
The majority of people today as then prefer the romantic story.
It was a very hard winter and the canal was frozen over for six weeks. Before the dual fright people were skating to their heart’s content though water-bound commercial traffic was brought to a halt.
The owners of the menagerie offered a reward for information leading to the re-capture of the escaped bear. Its roar was described as ‘more fearful than the storms that sweep the hills’ ………
Before long there are several sightings all over the area. This bear is covering a lot of ground, largely unseen. He is spotted by a resident close to Camlough Lake and fired upon with the owner’s Winchester rifle. The shot misses, the bear scales a six-foot fence, jumps into the lake and swims across to the opposite bank, from where he makes his way to Killeavy. He disappears again.
Mr M E Lockhart reports ‘two sheep killed and one badly injured’. William Henry laments the death of his retriever dog in suspicious circumstances. The domino effects kicks in as does a serious case of compensation!
The bear doubles back, skirts the lake and is next reported several miles away in Goraghwood. Constables McConnell and Smith of the RIC set off in pursuit, armed with Sniders. The hungry bear is now devouring dozens of geese, other poultry, lambs and assorted animals on the way. The next human sighting is by a breadman on the Dublin Road (yes, miles away again!). He quickly flees the scene. A sheriff’s posse with shotguns and graips sets out to the scene. The breadcart is found minus its pastry.
The whole country is alerted and excited. The local District Inspector receives a telegram from a Colonel of the Dragoon Guards at Newbridge, Co Kildare informing him of his imminent arrival with a hunting party to capture the bear. Would the recipient please arrange stabling for twenty horses?
The fearless bear strikes back by eating a donkey near Mullaghglass (yes, once again he has crossed the town!). The Board of Guardians of the Poor Union get wind (excuse me!) while assembled at their monthly meeting, that the bear has been spotted nearby in the pauper’s graveyard. Reinforced by a sizable number of townspeople, they adjourn there to surround the animal. He eludes them.
Next he is sighted in the town, but in the dead of night and from a distance. This hairdresser gives witness to her sighting in Newry’s Water Street ‘between 5.00 a.m. and 5.30 a.m. ‘to be exact”.
It’s not just the local newspapers that have a field-day, but even the Irish Times affords two columns to the story.
Two bargemen from Portadown eventually come upon the bear asleep on the canal’s towpath. Stealthily they creep up on him and secure his broken chain with a boat hook.
So ends the sensation of the Newry Bear.
Strangely neither they, nor the police, nor the newspapers produce photographic evidence of this happy conclusion.
The smallpox epidemic is contained.
As the newspaper magnate said, ‘When the story becomes a legend, print the legend.’
You got both!!