`Old Chapel` And Cemetary Treasure-House Of History

ST. MARY’S 'Old Chapel' and the adjoining cemetery have re-united past and present residents of the frontier town for many years, in a spiritual sense, at the annual `Mass among the graves.` But the Chapel Street Area Re-union provided a natural and nostalgic coming-together.

Those interred over the centuries have included bishops, priests and Christian Brothers; leading politicians, sportsmen, professional and business people; wives and mothers; Old IRA veterans; Provisional and Official IRA volunteers, also two Canadian airmen, and RUC Inspector White, shot dead near Forkhill.

Incidentally, the name of Chapel Street did not exist until the 1820’s, after St Mary’s was constructed to replace an old Mass-house, whose remains are still visible in the original graveyard. Piggott’s Directory of 1824 refers to “a Catholic chapel, built on rising ground at the extremity of Boat Street.”

Historian Patrick Kearns wrote: “If Newry is the frontier town, then St Mary’s deserves the title of the frontier church. It marked the threshold of a new age, the dawning of freedom of public worship for Newry Catholics, the release from the sunless catacombs, where they had been confined for so long.”

Recalling how Bishop Donnelly had been a `hunted man, thrown into jail twice, not daring to live in Newry,” the former principal of St Joseph’s Boys School added: “Bishop Garvey thought it advisable to reside at his family home in Aughnagun. But when Bishop Matthew Lennon was appointed in 1789, he lived openly in Boat Street, built St Mary’s, and carried on public schooling.”

The Hilltown-born Gael added, - in a publication by Mrs Margaret Comer, daughter of Mrs Molly McAteer, an aunt of International goalkeeper, Pat Jennings, - “the growing tolerance encouraged Bishop Lennon to lead his flock from the secrecy of the Mass-house to a new land of fearless testimony.

Abbey Yard and Boat Street was among the more affluent area of the frontier town, being the residence of wealthy merchants and leading citizens, including Sir Isaac Corry, whose mansion became the Abbey Secondary School, now Clanrye Abbey Developments. Not only was the Bishop’s House sited in Boat Street, but the diocesan seminary was at the bottom of Courtney Hill, later transferred to Violet Hill as St Colman’s College.

The `Old Chapel` has some historic connections, for the gallery opposite the altar has contained an organ, donated by General Needham, brother of the Earl of Kilmorey. The altar gong, used in St Mary’s, was the legendary St Bronach’s Bell. Rung by the nuns at Kilbroney Convent, it went missing after Viking raids, and was discovered in the trunk of an ancient oak-tree, blown down during a storm in 1782. Presented to the `Old Chapel,` it was used there until returned to Kilbroney parish, and is now housed in the Star of the Sea Church at Rostrevor.

Meanwhile, a Catholic school was built in 1802 opposite St Mary’s, in the grounds of Mount St Patrick, later occupied by the McArdle family, catering for about 200 pupils. By 1826, the roll had increased to 240, the children being `educated, clothed and apprentices to trades, or provided with a comfortable situation.`

Since the Catholic population of the town had increased, the `Old Chapel` was considered no longer capable of accommodating the congregation in comfort. One-third had to kneel outside in all kinds of weather. A site on marchland, known as Seymour’s Green, - now Newry’s city centre, - was purchased and a cathedral built there.

Bishop James Kelly was the last to be consecrated in St Mary’s, and to reside in Boat Street. He died at the age of 42, being succeeded by Dr Michael Blake, who was raised to the bishopric in 1902, and moved to the new Bishop’s House at Violet Hill.

The Christian Brothers came to Newry in 1851, and took charge of the school at Chapel Street. The Breakfast School was so called because the poorer boys were provided with breakfast in the sacristy. And at Easter, they received a suit of clothes and dinner.

Then the Dominicans arrived, encouraged by Bishop John Pius Blake, OP. Three priests and one lay brother took up residence at the Hermitage, later named Priory House, then Priory Crescent. Based in St Mary’s, they later moved to Dominic Street, with the construction of St Catherine’s Dominican Church.

Major improvements were carried out to the graveyard, with the provision of an adjoining second cemetery. The `Old Chapel’ also underwent major changes, with seating for an extra 1,000. In the Marian Year of 1952, a statue of Our Lady was placed at the side gate, Stations of the Cross were painted by Fr Buckley, and a replica Calvary was installed in the new cemetery.

However, a number of young men, many from the Chapel Street area, lost their lives in the First World War, and are interred in foreign graves. They were James Bannon of Chapel Street; Tomas Bannon, son of Mr and Mrs Patrick Bannon; James Joseph Carr, son of Mr and Mrs Luke Carr, Custom House Avenue; John Carroll, 7 Chapel Street and Thomas John Casey, 78 Chapel Street.

Also Felix, Francie and Hugh Doran, brothers of Rose Doran, 16, Chapel Street; Robert Duffy, Michael Fearon and Michael Hughes, all from Boat Street; Edward Jennings, husband of Sadie (no address given); John McGivern, 21 Boat Street; Robert Kerr, 8 River Street; Robert O’Hare, 6, River Street; Thomas Traynor, husband of Bridget Rowntree, Upper William Street; Daniel Toland and his son, James, Home Avenue, killed on board the SS Dingle in 1916.

One young Newry hero, who was drowned in the late 1940’s while trying to save others, was 19-year-old Raymond Kelly from River Street. His portrait hangs in the foyer of Newry City Hall; an avenue at Barcroft Park has been named in his honour, while his mother, the late Mrs Bridget Kelly, was presented with a posthumous George Medal at Buckingham Palace.

The teenage seaman took part in a dramatic rescue of passengers from a stricken vessel in the Bay of Biscay. As his ship, the `Empire Plover`, was sailing from South America, they received an urgent SOS message from the `Famagusta`, which had run into difficulty due to treacherous weather. Its bows were deep in the water, and she was leaning to one side. When the engine failed, a signal was sent, asking for a tow to the nearest port.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008