With the opening of the final section of the £150 million Newry bypass on the 29th July 2010, the ‘frontier town’ of Newry found itself yet again facing into an unknown future. What impact would this latest alteration to the transport infrastructure have on the City and its all-important cross border trade? Newry is the fourth largest urban area in Northern Ireland and was designated a city by Queen Elizabeth II in 2002 as part of her jubilee celebrations.
Looking out on Newry, from the Dublin – Belfast rail line, it is difficult to imagine that the area’s development has been marked by a range of power struggles, as competing groups vied for control of this strategic location. Newry, or in Irish ‘Iubhair Cinn Tragh’ (meaning yew tree at the head of the strand), situated in the Gap of the North, has long been part of the most direct route between Leinster and Ulster.
Its close proximity to Carlingford Lough, to which it is connected by the Clanrye/Newry River, has ensured that Newry has for many centuries acted as a conduit for both people and goods entering and departing Ireland.
Newry: Power Through History
The earliest evidence of power being asserted over the region is the account of St Patrick planting the yew tree which gave the city its name, as he travelled through the region in the fifth century. In the sixth century it was noted that Newry was included in every tour that over-kings made of their territory.
However, it was in the Norman period that Newry took on its identity as ‘the frontier town’, an identity which would see it at the centre of centuries of power struggles between the native Irish and waves of new settlers.
Norman control in the north east of Ireland centred on Downpatrick and stretched as far south as Dundalk. Newry was on the western boundary of this territory and changed hands many times between the Normans and Gaelic Irish. Castles were built, taken over, destroyed and rebuilt as each side tried to gain control of this important location.
This pattern continued during the turmoil of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The granting of Newry and its hinterland to Sir Nicholas Bagenal in the mid-sixteenth century began that family’s long tradition with the town. Bagenal re-built the castle and peopled the town with Protestant settlers, an act which would lead to the reframing of future power struggles in the town along religious lines.
It also ensured that Newry became the centre of operations for the English army in Ireland when war broke out between forces loyal to the crown, led by Newry based Sir Henry Bagenal and those loyal to Hugh O’Neill.
Newry would once again wear the mantle of frontier town, in the Ireland of the 1920s, when Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State became two separate entities. The initial border between North and South was drawn just south of Newry.
Newry’s large nationalist majority lobbied for the removal of Newry and its surrounding hinterland into the Irish Free State, on the grounds that Newry was linked closely to the economies of the surrounding counties of Louth and Monaghan. On the unionist side economic and geographic arguments were also advanced , but in the end the boundary commission decided to maintain the status quo.
Across Northern Ireland the period of ‘The Troubles’ brought power struggles to almost every town, however, Newry’s involvement started earlier than most. An IRA campaign began in the area in December 1956 and such was the scale of the disruption that a curfew was imposed.
This curfew was vehemently opposed by local people who staged protests in the town centre, a stance which led to many clashes with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and ‘B Specials’ (an auxiliary police force) until the curfew was eventually lifted. The violence of the later period of the Troubles brought its own tragedies to all sides of the community in Newry.
The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 marked a turning point for Newry, although evidence of political diversity can still be found in the hanging of Union flags around the nationalist dominated town for the 12th of July.
Indeed, another aspect of competing identities in Newry can be found in the hanging of flags of a different type. Until the mid-1700s, the Clanrye River had formed the boundary of Newry, wholly within Co. Down, until a new suburb of Newry formed on the Co. Armagh side of the river, known as Ballybot. In an effort to pacify town citizens from both counties, the Town Hall of Newry was built on a bridge crossing the river, straddling the county divide.
In 1898, the boundary of County Down was enlarged to encompass the entire town of Newry for administrative purposes. This has led to an interesting dual identity in the town evidenced perhaps most clearly from a sporting perspective. In 2002, when Armagh won the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Final, Newry was bedecked in the Armagh colours of orange and white, while in 2010 the City became a sea of red and black in honour of the Down team.
Newry: Geography and Interconnections
The development of Newry has been marked by power struggles between diverse population groups, but it is this diversity which has brought growth and success to Newry as a trading centre. The first evidence of Newry as a town is a map of Newry from the late sixteenth century, which clearly shows the town developing from a defensive settlement. The walled enclosure of the town was divided in two, one section housing the castle, the other (the ‘Bayse Town’) housing the merchant classes. Outside the safety of the walls is an area, present in many Ulster towns of the period, believed to have housed the native population who wished to reside near the town, but who were not in need of the town’s protection.
Despite the similarity in layout to other Ulster towns, Newry did develop in a unique fashion thanks to its local topography. The early town of Newry was perched on a ridge of high ground (modern day High Street) avoiding the marshy valley floor, which was subject to flooding.
This remained the case until the valley floor was drained in the eighteenth century. The new town, laid out by the Earl of Hillsborough, later Marquis of Downshire, re-orientated the town towards the marshlands. This led to the development of a new network of streets, many of which were named after members of the Hill family.
It is other Newry street names, however, which attest to the diversity of trade and commerce in the town even in the eighteenth century, for example, Sugar Island, Corn Market, Buttercrane Quay and Merchant’s Quay. Thanks to the earlier settlement of families from the linen areas of Britain, Newry was well endowed with the necessary expertise to play a full part in the then booming, linen industry. By the late 1700s Newry was one of the three prongs in the core linen triangle in Ulster (Belfast and Dungannon, being the other two).
After the Belfast Blitz during the Second World War, children from Belfast were evacuated to Newry and its surrounding countryside. This link with Newry was never forgotten and Newry’s tourist industry has benefited as the region became a regular holiday destination for these children, their children and now their grandchildren. Of course the movement of population has not always been inward, the Newry of the 1950s was described as a town where ‘living conditions [were] basic, and most children left school at 15 years’ . In this climate emigration was a natural course and traditional links built up over years of seasonal migration to Great Britain were exploited. Newry continues to be a home for migrant populations in the modern era.
Migration statistics show that the number of new migrants into Newry grew steadily until 2006, though they fell back thereafter as the impact of the international economic downturn began. An examination of work permits issued to A8 nationals shows a peak of 865 issued for the Newry and Mourne district council area in 2006, but this number had fallen to just 280 by 2010.
Modern day Newry is perhaps best well known for its role as a major centre of trade in the north east of Ireland. Through history, its strategic location on routes from the coast inland and from Dublin to Belfast ensured that Newry’s development was inextricably linked to developments and alterations in transport infrastructure. The single most important development in the history of Newry as a trading centre was the opening of the first canal in the British Isles in Newry in 1741.
This established Newry as a central point for the import and export of goods into Ireland. By the 1830s Newry had developed trading links with the West Indies, United States, British North America, the Baltic and Mediterranean as well as with the major cities on the west coast of Britain. At a local level Newry became a focal point for goods travelling inland, both by water and via the rapidly developing road network. Newry was becoming the pivotal point in a range of local, national and international connections.
This period was Newry’s heyday. The arrival of the rail network to Ulster marked the first negative transport development in Newry. While the connecting of Newry by rail to Armagh and Enniskillen proved advantageous, the connecting of Dublin and Belfast marked the end of Newry’s dominance in the northeast and the rise of Belfast as the area’s foremost urban centre. The main rail line ran to the west of the town and although Newry was connected to this by a separate line the town was no longer a central part of the trading route.
Newry’s pivotal position at the centre of a range of local, national and international networks, changed dramatically in the twentieth century. Newry suffered from trade restrictions during World War II, when the town’s security was increased and it was sealed off from trade with the Republic.
Officially, Newry had become disconnected from one of its most important trading links; however, this naturally led to a vibrant smuggling trade. Full use was made of the natural feature of Carlingford Lough which had made Newry such an important strategic location in the past – boats travelled up the river from the coast under cover of darkness carrying goods that were rationed in one or other jurisdiction.
While Newry’s economy was dealt a further blow with the closure of the canal in 1949, a slight revival in its fortunes did occur in the early 1960s with the opening of new industries such as Bessbrook Products, Ulster Textiles and Starks. However, this was reversed with the closing of the rail connection between Newry and the Dublin – Belfast mainline in 1964 at the same time as traffic through the port decreased.
In addition, the potential for long queues at border checkpoints from the outbreak of the Troubles, and the risk of being searched, detained or arrested proved somewhat of a deterrent to cross border trade. With the increase in motor traffic, another negative factor working against trade in the area was the fact that the centre of Newry was becoming a bottleneck. This led to the development of a series of relief roads, the earliest in the 1960s and the most recent in July 2010.
Newry: Old Borders, New Networks?
By 1998, things were improving again. The removal of border checkpoints, after the Good Friday Agreement, allowed the free movement of traffic from north to south, while the new sense of safety encouraged erstwhile reluctant shoppers from the Republic to investigate what Northern Ireland had to offer. Newry was once more perfectly located to benefit from this new curiosity.
In 2006 Newry topped the league of house price increases in the United Kingdom as prices increased by 54% in one year alone and the city’s high level of unemployment had dropped to just 2% by 2008. The world-wide downturn has undoubtedly altered this picture in more recent times, but its impact on trade in the region has actually been quite beneficial. As the Republic of Ireland began to sink deeper into economic recession during 2008 and 2009, cross border trade with Newry grew substantially.
A favourable currency exchange rate, coupled with VAT increases and improvements to the road network in the Republic ensured that people from as far away as Cork began to flock to Newry.
In the South, talk of unpatriotic economic behaviour and rumours of four hour traffic tail-backs did little to dissuade the bargain hunting southern shoppers. News of the Newry effect spread to such an extent that The New York Times carried an article on the phenomenon in December 2008, describing Newry as ‘the hottest shopping spot within the European Union’s open borders’.
The big question, however, is how long can a trading centre built on such fluctuating bases as favourable currency exchange and VAT rates sustain itself in the current uncertain economic climate? The Newry and Mourne District Council’s Economic Development Strategy of 2009 stated that unemployment had been rising in the region since the start of 2008 and house prices corrected sharply in 2008 and 2009.
The Strategy was concerned with the potential loss of jobs in the construction centre, the low skills base available within Newry and the area’s dependence on fluctuating retail markets. It highlighted the need for a broadening of the area’s commercial activity suggesting the further development of Newry Port and investment in the area’s tourist industry.
To the latter end, in 2009, the district council also published a Tourism Review and Strategy which aims to promote the region as a tourist destination. With its excellent transport networks, magnificent scenery, cultural heritage and wealth of historical sites, Newry is well placed to benefit from this industry into the future.
The full impact of the opening of the new bypass is a serious concern but it will not be known for some time yet. The major fears, naturally, are that bypassing the town would remove the element of passing trade which could account for up to 70% of business, while decreasing the journey time between Belfast and Dublin would encourage shoppers to continue en route to their final destinations. Initial predictions, however, are positive. The reduced journey time to Newry from Belfast and Dublin is encouraging shoppers to travel to Newry, safe in the knowledge that the level of traffic congestion within the city has eased substantially. Many of the retailers in the Quays shopping centre have reported positive results for 2010, while Buttercrane Shopping Centre attracted retail investment of £7.5 million and created 188 full time and part time jobs in 2010.
The development of facilities in Newry is also continuing apace with the announcement in February 2011 of the construction of a new £38 million business park outside the City. This 73 acre site is expected to provide much needed employment for the construction sector, while it is a statement of the intent of Invest NI to attract business into the Newry area.
Newry: Looking to the Future
It would appear then that the outlook for the ‘frontier town’ into the future is positive, however, challenges still exist. There is a need to create development sites in the centre of Newry City, a need to develop and improve transport links within the City, in particular to increase parking facilities, while the population of Newry needs to be up-skilled to ensure that the skill sets needed to attract industries from a much broader economic base are available in the City.
These are all challenges which the local and regional authorities must meet. The Newry of today is a far cry from the Newry of Bagenals’ time, but its success as a commercial centre is still dependent on its strategic location, accessibility and transport infrastructure.
- Arlene Crampsie was writing in response to the BBC/Open University co-production Town with Nicholas Crane