Tommy McGrath

Our Council of the 1960s, under pressure from Government departments and various interest groups, capitulated to demands to raze an historic and much loved part of our town to make way for the principal trunk road between Ireland’s major cities of Belfast and Dublin. The decision was incomprehensible.  And very unpopular

Tommy Markey’s earlier taking the salute of a British recruiting regiment at Clanrye Avenue, though seriously divisive, did not of itself destroy Labour in Newry. It was this later issue that put paid to our local Labour movement.

The idea was laughable. Everyone else, everywhere, already recognized the need for motorways bypassing major towns, but our dinosaur-brained representatives were intent on capturing the ‘Yorkie Bar’ trade of passing truckers for the corner shop owners of Newry.  Upper and Lower North and Water Streets, Market Street, Castle Street and much of Abbey Yard disappeared before the bulldozer. 

The multi-story blocks of flats that replaced our homes were, we were told, the future.  Pressure on building land made it imperative that we live literally on top of one another. Strangely though no Councillor ever chose to live there. They moved to the suburbs along with all others who could afford it.

You’ll find the present-day ones there too. Like every other Irish town, ours spread into and beyond the suburbs, up hills and mountain slopes and along the valleys.

You have probably read of the unholy row that split the Irish Labour Party (Markey’s Newry Labour had earlier seceded) and that led to its early demise North of the border. It was another debacle of the fickleness of Labour Councillors, and of progress versus transport/home/family business needs. The immediate issue – the need for a William Street roundabout to channel back out of town that traffic that never should have been forced there in the first place – became enmeshed with another, the fair and equitable allocation of new homes, those at Barcroft Park and Armagh Road.

Some of those same Councillors who demanded the ‘New Road’ were now loathe to ease the inevitable gridlock at William Street. It was a no-win issue. The road improvements were inevitable and happened soon after. Former Council chairman Max Keogh, South Down M.P. and proprietor of the Frontier Sentinel used the latter organ to propound his own regressive and reactionary viewpoint. Very soon after, when the issue became Civil Rights, Keogh almost lost his parliamentary seat to a total unknown, Fergus Woods of Belfast, running as Peoples Democracy. Keogh became ever more irrelevant and retired to Dublin.

The rump of committed and principled Irish Labour Party Councillors under that working class titan, Tommy McGrath, tried to continue but the savage denigration from a proprietary press continued. 

McGrath rightly highlighted the unprincipled stance of erstwhile colleagues who now allocated houses without regard to qualifications. ‘Give me my bite of the cherry’, demanded Chairman McMahon who could maintain that exalted position only with the support of Unionists, who represented a mere 15% of townspeople. He allocated a six-apartment house to a newly-wed of his acquaintance, in preference to dozens of very needy, large families. Journalists were excluded from the allocation committee meeting, to limit public dissemination of their shenanigans. No doubt it was such matters that convinced Government that such people must not be permitted to exercise any real power.

The Council was dissolved in the worsening political climate. At re-organisation and the establishment of Newry & Mourne District Council in 1972, only Tommy McGrath of the former Labour group, now representing the SDLP, was returned.

Tommy was satisfied of his new colleagues’ worth because ‘labour’ was in the Party’s title deeds. But they were a social democrat mix of lower middle class do-gooders, mainly teachers, and way below Tommy’s political class, beliefs, principles and commitment. The quick purging of socialist tendencies represented by the expulsion of Paddy Devlin left McGrath stranded. But he persisted.

A personal friend, Tommy was a dedicated public representative of the Old School. He would not have known what to do with himself if he left politics completely. His father Robbie had been the same. May they both rest in peace.

Tommy once confessed later that his new colleagues were not the socialists he’d have chosen for party colleagues. But he was loyal. He recognised that they were principled and good men. He confessed he’d never felt happier in that respect.

Eventually a decade ago we got our bypass. Only it wasn’t and it isn’t. It’s a dual carriageway Ring Road facilitating intra-city (i.e. Newry) traffic much more than Belfast-Dublin transport. The capital’s North-bound motorway reaches now to Dundalk and will go no further for the time being. The link past Newry is deadlocked with farmer and resident interest groups digging their heels in, in search of ludicrous levels of compensation. Remember how farmers and landowners in Camlough stymied the proposed hydro-electric scheme there a generation ago in a similar fashion. In the end the British Army seized the land without compensation, and it holds it yet!

Where do our heroic civic leaders stand on the motorway issue? If you ever find out, pass it on. Don’t be surprised if the majority is again hostage to fortune. That is, those seeking a fortune in compensation because their cows can’t get from one field to the next with a motorway intervening.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.