Three Cheers For `The Good Old Abbey Boys`

In 1903, the Christian Brothers established their secondary school at Abbey Yard in Newry; and many generations of students have passed through those portals. In 1966, the new grammar school on Courtney Hill was officially opened, and plans in progress for a move to Ashgrove.

Principal Dermot McGovern, a past pupil of the Abbey primary and grammar schools, became the first lay head teacher of a Christian Brothers’ school, during their 140-year history in the frontier town, when he took charge in 1995.

Over the previous century, many notable personalities graduated from that huge grey structure at Abbey Yard. They included eminent Jewish surgeon, Dr Abrahamson; Archbishop Francis Carroll, Bishop John Crawford from Warrenpoint and Lord Justice Turlough O’Donnell. Also on roll were future doctors, teachers, lawyers, chemists, journalists, civil servants and businessmen.

On the political front were Frank Aiken, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs; Seamus Mallon, M.P. former Deputy First Minister; Stormont M.P.’s, Assemblymen and local councillors, including Jackie Patterson, Mayor of Newry, and past president of the Christian Brothers’ Past Pupils Union.

The legendary Brother Newell, known as `Wee Tarzan,` had launched the C.B.P.P.U. as a fund-raising channel for the new monastery, a residence of the brothers. Other presidents included historian and human rights campaigner, Dr Seamus McAteer, Des Murphy, Mick Mathers, Martin Goss, Barney Maguire, Paddy Cullen and Austin Kane.

Many sports stars have donned the red, black and amber jersey, such as Gerry Brown, Barney Carr, T.P. Murphy, Sean and Kevin O’Neill, Tony Hadden, John Murphy, Val and D.J. Kane, - from Down’s Sam Maguire Cup winning sides. And 10 players in Armagh’s historic squad were ex-Abbey boys, including the McEntee twins, the O’Rourke and McNulty brother, Oisin McConville and manager, Joe Kernan. Also International soccer stars, Peter McParland and Pat Jennings, as well as British boxing champion, Dan McAlinden.

History was made in 1954, when an Abbey C.B.S side, coached by Gerry Brown, brought the Mac Rory Cup to the Newry school for the first time, amid great jubilation. The all-conquering heroes were paraded through the streets of the town, preceded by bands. In fact, the golden jubilee of that auspicious occasion will be celebrated in the Carrickdale Hotel in February.

Among the best-known members of the Christian Brother’s community were 96-year-old Brother Aidan Byrne and 97-year-old Brother Dominic O’Donnell, who were honoured by Newry and Mourne district council at a special reception in 1995. Brother Byrne died a year later.

Council chairman Danny Kennedy stated: “Generations of young men, who attended the Abbey schools, have gone out into the world, better-equipped to take their places in the academic or commercial spheres. They had the benefit of having been taught by the Christian Brothers. You have seen many changes in your lifetime, but I trust that your faith in mankind has remained unshaken. We hope that many more will come forward to meet the challenges that lie ahead.”

Canon John Kearney, Adm., a past pupil, declared: “The Christian Brothers have welcomed us with open arms. They have imbued many young men with a sense of dignity, empowering them to become good citizens of their town and country.” And council vice-chairman Pat McElroy reported that the Order had “shown much charity to townspeople, especially during and after the war, when life was difficult. They provided food and clothes to the needy.”

A native of Co Wexford, Bro Byrne had taught for many years in the old Carstands primary school, and later in the secondary school. Mick Mathers, well-known in musical circles, recalled his visit to a nursing home in Dublin, when Brother Byrne made a special plea to be buried “among the Newry people.” The Superior, Bro Beausang acceded to the request, and the adopted son of the frontier town was interred in St Mary’s Cemetery.

Incidentally, Bro Beausang, known affectionately as `Bo`, involved in the Irish language and schools drama, described life in the `Master’s House,` which adjoined the secondary school. He reported how the Brothers “rose at 5.45 a.m., gathered in the chapel for prayer and meditation, then walked in singe file to the Dominican church for Mass at 7 a.m. There would be spiritual reading during breakfast.”

Recalling how the qualifying examination for free education at secondary level had been introduced in 1948, he stated that the headmaster for the primary school had been Bro Hennessy, assisted by Bros. Cloke, Gleeson, Nannery, McGreevy, Skehin, Lynch and Drohan. The lay teachers had included Petey Curran, Joe Sally and Johnney Walker.

After spending 26 years in Belfast, Bro Beausang was posted back to Newry as deputy headmaster in 1981. It was “like coming home from the high seas to calm waters. But what changes! The Abbey House was empty; the Brothers had gone to a new monastery on Courtney Hill. My neighbours had all gone, - the Keenans, Prices, Carrolls and Campbells. Old Mrs Keenan’s sweetie-shop, and Annie Dowdall’s pub had vanished. And the old Abbey building looked sad and desolate.”

But, 10 years later, the former secondary school had been transformed into the modern headquarters for Clanrye Abbey Development’s training and employment agency. This had been achieved by a team, led by Paddy McGuinness of Concern, funded by many groups. And Minister of Commerce, Richard Needham had officially opened the renovated Master’s House.

`Bo` also referred to the “red-letter day” in 1954, when the MacRory Cup had been won by an Abbey C.B.S. side for the first time. Two bands met the victorious squad on the outskirts of town, and the players were carried shoulder-high through the streets, cheered by large crowds. Bonfires blazed in Abbey Yard, while the players and management team stood triumphantly on the steps. A week later, we won the Corn na n-Og trophy, amid similar celebrations.”

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008