The streets behind the Cathedral were in former times known as The Back of the Dam. What is now the Cathedral gardens was once the site of a huge flour mill. Water from the Clanrye River was diverted north of the town into a mill race and the energy of the falling water used to drive the millstones which ground the corn into flour.
On the Downshire Road as the water of the stream passed by, housewives used this supply to do their weekly washing. It must be remembered that running water in the homes of the poor is a comparatively recent thing – to say nothing of washing machines.
Anyway I was speaking of the mill. To the front of this and on Hill Street – at the beginning of this century – was Wright’s Printing Works where the Newry Reporter was printed at the time. Between the two was a laneway known locally as The Step Entry which led to Mill Street, Market Street and Castle Street.
Two weeks before Christmas of 1910 a great fire broke out in this mill. In spite of the valiant efforts of the local firemen, the mill, six storeys high and occupying an area twelve feet by one hundred and twenty feet, was razed to the ground.
The embers were driven on the wind as far as Monaghan Street.
Fireman Fegan died fighting the fire and it was a full week before his remains could be recovered. Hoses were played on the fire from the Cathedral roof. All that survived was the huge chimney. This had to come down too, for the safety of the general public.
Word went round that a steeplejack was urgently required. Bently McDermott, who was hanging round the Hiring Fair area at the top corner of Mill Street didn’t wait to be asked. He climbed to the top of the huge chimney and offered his services. He was hired on the spot.