Fitting Newry Monument To Heroic Dockers And Seamen

ALL the dockers, seamen and merchants, who worked at the Newry port over the centuries, received a belated commemoration in 2004, when Mayor Jackie Patterson unveiled a monument to mark “their outstanding contribution to the frontier town’s importance. Many families have ties with the docks through several generations,” he pointed out.

The Mayor’s reference to “all those who lost their lives in the harbour,” had a timely ring, considering the tragic deaths along the Newry Canal already that year. And the occasion also honoured the heroic Charlie O’Neill from Damolly, who drowned while trying to save a lorry-driver in the Albert Basin.

Nor will the courage of Raymond Kelly, born in River Street, within a stone’s throw of the memorial, be forgotten. He lost his life while saving passengers from drowning in the Bay of Biscay. This valiant young seaman was awarded a posthumous George Cross, while his portrait hangs in Newry City Hall.

Meanwhile, the 50th anniversary of a major boating tragedy on Carlingford Lough, was a reminder of disasters involving Newry port. Most horrendous was the collision between the SS `Retriever,` sailing from the frontier town bound for Gaston, and the passenger steamer `Connemara` in 1916. Over 90 people were drowned, and only one survived, John Boyle from Warrenpoint.

Indeed, 18 Newry-registered colliers were lost at sea between 1900 and 1942. Four steamers vanished without trace, while several foundered with heavy loss of life, due to bad weather, mines or enemy action, during the two world wars.

Fascination with the historic Newry Canal and port has drawn the interest of various historians, including James `Darkie` McKevitt, Anthony Russell, Hugh McKeown, Rowan Hand, Tony Canavan and Sean Patterson.

Long-time docker and stevedore, `Darkie` McKevitt referred to the “long tradition at the port, including the Maguire, McShane, McAteer, Bannon and Markey families. There were great characters like `Bonecrusher` O’Rourke, `Crack` Burns, `Toby McStay, `Doot` Craven, Gerry Coyle, Paddy O’Hanlon, Joe `Boot` McGuigan and Paddy Cowan; also fine union men such as Jim McDonald, John McAleavey and Owen Foy from Rooney’s Terrace, who was chairman of the local branch for several years.”

Son, grandson and brother of dockers, `Darkie` described how “men gave their lives and labour to provide Newry with an artery, which would link the town with the commercial world, making it the fourth port in Ireland. Employment and prosperity was provided for 200 years.

“Dockers played an important role in the economic life of the town, but their plight was not a pleasant one. They had to `dig out` the boats at all hours of the day and night, in all kinds of weather, for a pittance. Quite a number of them went to an early grave, due to the soaking they received while discharging cargoes.

Not all were 'card-men'. Some had to get up before dawn, in order to join the `casuals,` - for boats could be several hours late. They would have to walk round the town, in order to avoid the freezing cold. A docker, who failed to get a `score`, had to either take his family to the Workhouse, or plead with the Board of Guardians for money to feed his family.”

`Darkie` McKevitt, resident at O’Neill Avenue for many years, started work at the Albert Basin in 1931, and was secretary of the Newry branch. During the war, he was co-opted as a union representative on to Newry Urban Council, whose chairman was James Morgan. Other members included O.J. Hollywood, Tommy Elliott, James Fitzpatrick and Joe Bannon. `Darkie` recalled how, in the 40’s, a drive was made to establish the Labour Party in Newry. This involved Tom Kelly, Charlie O’Donnell, `Boots` McGuigan and James Morgan.

In 1942, the Newry dockers went on strike over the execution of a young Belfast republican, Tom Williams, in Crumlin Road Prison. They marched in protest from the Albert Basin to Newry Cathedral, where Fr McCumiskey, Adm., recited the Rosary for the repose of the dead youth. The priest prevailed on the protestors to return to work.

Blackest period for the Newry dockers had been in 1908, when a dispute between their trade union and the local coal-importers, over the refusal to discharge a strike-breaking vessel, led to the instruction that “no person, connected with the union, will receive employment.” This resulted in a `lock-out’ for months.

As Tony Canavan described in his book, Frontier Town: “This was a time of great hardship for striker’s families. There were many reports of families going without food or fuel during the winter. A local School Inspector stated that many children had no clothes to wear. Matters became worse when the Poor Law Guardians refused Outdoor Relief to the wives and children of striking workers, on the grounds that the hardship was self-imposed.”

Union leaders, `Big Jim Larkin and James Fearon, Terry Ruddy and Hugh Mackin, along with Bishop O’Neill, were involved in negotiations. But a drift back to work had begun, as the hardship was proving too much. Many returning dockers signed a document, repudiating their union, and promising not to be associated with it in the future.

Next Page >

© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008