Newry & Environs

Newry (from Iubhar / Iúr Chinn Trábha / Trá“Yew at the strand’s head” – often shortened to An tIúr – “The Yew“) (pop. 28,000), is near the head of Carlingford Lough and close to the Gap of the North, a historic mountain pass between Ulster and Leinster. Thanks to its location on the Dublin-Belfast corridor and close to the border with the Republic, Newry is a major shopping destination, with good restaurants, traditional and modern pubs, and a range of accommodation options. Nearby attractions include the scenic Ring of Gullion, the historic Cooley Mountains and the beautiful Mourne Mountains.

Newry’s Town Hall, designed by William Batt and completed in 1893, stands on a three-arched bridge over the Clanrye River (aka the Newry Water), historically the border between County Armagh and County Down; the edifice was allegedly so constructed in order to settle rivalry as to which County it should be sited in. (Photo by Cairlinn)

 Although a major part of Newry is clearly in County Armagh territory, the town was included entirely in County Down for administrative purposes by the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898.

Newry was only granted official city status as part of Queen Elizabeth II‘s 2002 Golden Jubilee celebrations, making it the fourth-largest official city in Northern Ireland and the eighth biggest in all Ireland; however, it is still classified as a large town by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. As of the 2001 Census, 99% of the population were “White European”, 89.6% were from a Roman Catholic background, 9.4% were from a Protestant background. These proportions were not always so.

Once but no longer the largest population centre in County Down, Newry is nowadays the administrative centre of the Newry & Mourne Council Area (population 90,000). However, Newry & Mourne Council is scheduled to be merged with the adjoining Down District Council in 2011 as part of the reorganization of local government in Northern Ireland.

Newry History


Newry derives its name from a yew tree that stood for 700 years at the head of the strand of Carlingford Lough, said to have been planted by Saint Patrick,  who set up a monastic community that may have survivived almost as long.


A Cistercian abbey founded in 1153 by Maurice McLoughlin, High King of Ireland, seems to have initially used older edifices from an earlier monastery, rebuilt and enlarged c.1144, but destroyed by fire in 1162, along with the yew tree.


Newry Castle was established c.1177 by John de Courcy, the Norman conqueror of Ulaidh and first Earl of Ulster, whose successor Hugh de Lacy confirmed the original charter of the Cistercian abbey in 1237.  The castle was burnt by Edward Bruce in 1315 and after reconstruction was again destroyed by the O’Neills.


The Cistercian abbey initially survived the Reformation by becoming a collegiate church in 1543, with the abbot renamed provost, but was surrendered to the crown in 1548 and granted by the young King Edward VI to Nicholas Bagenal (1509 – 1590), a Staffordshire-born adventurer who started his Irish career as a mercenary employed by the O’Neills and became Marshal General of the Army in Ireland.


By waging war successfully against his former O’Neill mentors, encouraging colonists to settle and constructing St Patrick’s parish church, Nicholas Bagenal effectively established the modern town of Newry. He either took over or built himself a “castle” (fortified house), so hidden by subsequent edifications that a contemporary drawing of it was long believed to be a fake, even though  the 1568 plan depicted three distinct areas seemingly corresponding to a 1575 rental roll listing tenants in ‘the High Street’, ‘tenements within the Fort’ and ‘the Irish Street without the Fort’.


One of the most important local planters was Sir Francis Needham, created Feudal Baron of Orhera in County Armagh (1613) and Viscount Kilmorey (1625). His descendants  were powerful landlords for many generations; General Francis Needham was created Viscount Newry & Mourne and Earl of Kilmorey in 1822.


Newry was briefly occupied by insurgents led by Sir Con Magennis during the 1641 Rebellion, but soon retaken by Lord Conway. It then changed hands intermittently until the following year, when it was pillaged by a Scots army under General Monro, who had several inhabitants executed (and introduced Presbyterianism to the town).


The Williamite War saw King James II’s retreating forces under the Duke of Berwick set fire to Newry in 1689 rather than let if fall into enemy hands; only six houses survived, but the town was soon rebuilt and established as a garrison and commercial hub.


The Newry Canal, completed in 1742, was the first summit-level canal to be constructed in the British Isles since Roman times, linking the Tyrone Coalfields via Lough Neagh and the River Bann to Carlingord Lough. Newry became a significant port and underwent a period of prosperity, when many fine buildings and public places were built.


John Martin, (1812 – 1875) and John Mitchel (1815 – 1875), both raised in Newry as members of prominent Presbyterian families, went on to become  leading Irish Nationalists and served time in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).


The Great Famine had a lesser impact on Newry than many other parts of Ireland, but thousands emigrated from the port to England and America.


The Newry Ship Canal was upgraded in the mid-C19th with the construction of the Victoria Lock and Albert Basin. Traffic on the inland canal decreased dramatically after the 1849 arrival of the railway, as Belfast’s dominance in Ulster grew; however, the impact of the American Civil War on the world cotton market boosted  the flax spinning industry developed at Bessbrook, linked to Newry by an innovative tramline. The Newry Mills were located to the west of the town.


By 1881 the population of Newry had reached its C19th zenith of 15,590, but from the turn of the century until the 1960s there was a period of decline as the inland canal, the mills, the tram and the railways all closed.


Unionist parades and displays of strength in Ulster’s border towns marked the period just before WWI (in which many local volunteers died). The 1918 – 1923 Troubles considerably affected Newry and its neighbouring areas, with violent confrontations  and several casualties. Although the Border Commission accepted in 1924 that a majority of the population wanted to join the new Irish Free State, it decided to attach the area to the UK “province” of  Northern Ireland for economic reasons.


From the 1920s to the 1960s Newry Urban District Council was one of only a handful of local authorities in Northern Ireland with majority of councillors from the Roman Catholic /Nationalist community, which at around 80% of the population comprised such a large majority that it was impossible to gerrymander. Another unusual factor was that for a time it was controlled by the Irish Labour Party, after the left wing of the Northern Ireland Labour Party defected to them in the 1940s.


The 1969 – 1997 Troubles saw numerous episodes of violence in Newry, and the town has suffered several later outrages. The British Army dismantled its hilltop watchtowers in 2003, and departed the area in 2007.


As a major shopping hub, Newry has often benefited (and occasionally suffered) from price differences between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. In December 2008, as the current financial crisis began to hit hard, The New York Times described Newry as “the hottest shopping spot within the European Union’s open borders, a place where consumers armed with euros enjoy a currency discount averaging 30 percent or more“. Some government ministers in the Republic claimed that shopping in Northern Ireland was “unpatriotic“.


Another version of the history of Newry is available here.

The remains of Newry’s once great Cistercian abbey church and Bagenal’s Castle were long enveloped in the premises of the former McCann’s Bakery.

Bagenal’s Castle


Bagenal’s Castle, a typical early fortified house of the kind favoured by the gentry in Ireland and Scotland in the late C16th, was only ‘rediscovered’ in 1996. It has now been fully restored and together with an adjoining C19th bakery warehouse contains Newry & Mourne Museum, Newry Tourist Information Centre, and a café.


Bagenal’s Castle is the only known surviving castle in Ireland for which the original drawing (c. 1568), is still extant. During restoration work many original features were uncovered including fireplaces, windows, doorways, gun loops and a bread oven. These are interpreted for visitors with illustrations showing how the living quarters functioned.


The Museum has exhibitions on farming, fishing and folklore in the Mournes and South Armagh, Ulster’s Gaelic order and the relationship with the English Crown, Newry’s Cistercian foundations, the building of a merchant town and the Newry Canal. Artefacts on display include a granite cross from Newrys Cistercian Abbey, examples of Carrickmacross lace, a pair of mill shoes from Bessbrook and seaside memorabilia from Warrenpoint.


One of the key exhibitions, A Border Towns Experience of the 20th Century, examines local attitudes to major political and economic events over the last 100 years.

Following the two Newry Town Trails is a pleasant way of admiring the town’s varied and interesting architecture.

Hill Street is Newry’s main shopping street, with a fine range of family owned businesses, and holds a market every Thursday and Saturday.

Newry’s Marcus Square,  named after Lord Marcus Hill (later 3rd Baron Sandys), MP for Newry 1833-35 and younger brother of Arthur Hill, 3rd Marquess of Downshire, a powerful regional landlord. (Photo by Marcin Gajda)

 The Proud People sculpture by Paddy MacElroy in Marcus Square was  put up in 1994  to celebrate 850 years of Newry history; its name comes from the rather sour epigram about the town – “High Church, Low Steeple, Dirty Streets, Proud People” – made  by Dean Jonathan Swift, who preached several times in St Patrick’s church.

Saint Patrick’s church ( CoI) overlooking the city centre from Church Street, was erected  on the instructions of Nicholas Bagenal in 1578,  and is thus thought to be the oldest purpose-built post-Reformation Protestant church in Ireland. Originally the parochial church, it was severely damaged in the course of C17th disturbances and, although restored, was so delapidated by the early C19th that it was demoted, and almost completely rebuilt in 1866.

St Mary’s church (RC), aka “the old chapel”, was built on the outskirts of the town in 1789, and for forty years doubled as parish church and Diocesan Cathedral church.

The Bridewell on Kilmorey Street was originally the old Customs House, built c.1750 and replaced in 1806 by a new Customs House on Merchants’ Quay.

 St Mary’s parish church (CoI), a Gothic edifice designed by Patrick O’Farrell and Thomas J Duffdates from 1819 and has a tower and spire 150 feet in height. Patronage rights  held by the Earl of Kilmorey for both Anglican churches were only relinquished in 1966.

The First Newry Presbyterian church on Sandys Street was erected in 1828 by a breakaway group from the original congregation.

Newry Cathedral


The Cathedral of SS Patrick & Colman (RC) on Hill Street is undoubtedly the most commanding building in the city centre. It was completed in 1829, just before the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act, to designs by Newry-born Thomas J Duff, who was also the architect of the Roman Catholic Cathedrals in Armagh and Dundalk.


Constructed with local granite, the imposing edifice cost £8,000. The interior marble work and mosaics took craftsmen from Italy five years to finish. The tower and transept were added in 1888, and the nave was extended in 1904.


 The Cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of Donore, a Diocese founded in the C6th AD by Saint Colman of Donore (aka Mocholmoc). The small northern County Down town’s old Cathedral, converted to Anglican use during the Reformation and burnt down by insurgents in the 1641 Rebellion, was rebuilt c. 1660 and is still used by the Church of Ireland. The Roman Catholic See is one of eight suffragan dioceses of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Armagh.

Newry Courthouse, designed by Thomas J Duff and opened in 1843, was considerably remodelled and extended in 1996. The gates of the complex were damaged in February 2010 by the first large car bomb detonated in Northern Ireland since the Millenium, evidently planted by dissident Republicans; it was reportedly a “miracle” that nobody was injured.

The Second Newry Presbyterian church on Downshire Road, aka the Garrison church, dates from 1843.

The First Presbyterian (Non-Suscribing) church was designed by WJ Barre and erected in 1853 in Needham Place, since renamed John Mitchel Place.

The Riverside Reformed Presbyterian church is a fine redbrick edifice on Basin Walk, designed by WJ Barre in 1866.

St Catherine’s church (RC), attached to a Dominican friary, was consecrated in 1875, and has a spectacular interior.

Newry Methodist church is a vaguely classical edifice on Sandys Street.

Newry Baptist Church meets in a large house on Downshire Road.

Newry’s Masonic Lodge in on Sandys Place.

Abbey Way is one of the oldest and most colourful streets in Newry. (Photo by Cairlinn)

Canal Street, which grew up after the opening of the Newry Canal in 1742, is one of the best-preserved streets in the town.

Quay Street, the site of the old Port of Newry, was the original point of entry to the inland canal.

The Corry Monument, a pedimented die and obelisk mounted on six granite steps, was erected in 1877 to commemorate Trevor Corry, a local magistrate whose family were powerful in Newry for several generations.

The Quays and Buttercrane shopping centres are modern, extensive retail and entertainment complexes.

The Sean Hollywood Arts Centre & Museum, housed in the elegant former Newry Savings Bank premises (c.1840) on Bank Parade, next to the Town Hall, contains two theatres, workshops, dance and art studios, exhibition spaces and the irritatingly named but rather good Art Bar Funkel café.

 Older sources refer to Crown Rath / Crown Mount Rath, described as a celebrated site northeast of the town, comprising a huge earthwork surrounded by a deep fosse with a platform anciently used for armed one-on-one combat. A romantic tale about the place can be read here. Could this be the Spring Hill rath referred to on some modern maps?

Newry’s hinterland was predominantly Irish-speaking until the early C20th, and today the city has a vibrant Irish language community, with one of the highest concentrations of Irish speakers to be found not just in the north but in the whole of Ireland.

(More soon!)

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