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working in the civil service


Newry 1957 to 1961

On return from Belfast I moved back to Creggan and for a year travelled to Newry by bus. It was a bit strange at first; like being back at school again as the office, in John Mitchell Place, was on my route to the Abbey. After a year I bought a moped and travelled everywhere on that. Its top speed was 30 mph; it did 120 miles to the gallon and you pedalled it on hills. I had it for four years and sold it for more than it was worth. For all its limitations it gave me the freedom of movement I craved.

The office was on a busy main street, directly opposite the gates to the Newry Market and next door to Boyd's hardware store. It was an old three storey building with a back yard accessed by a covered passage from the street. The ground floor comprised the signature section with three town boxes, a fresh claims section and the men's placing section (in those days the Employment Service was administered by the Ministry). On the second floor was the womens placing section (ruled over by Miss O'Bierne from Killowen), the Finance Office, the out-office section and the stationery store. The top floor housed the Insurance Officer (Frank O'Connor from Warrenpoint), the Local Tribunal section, the typists, Rating section and the Manager's Office.

The Manager was Billy Sterritt (from Warrenpoint). He was short, stout and grey haired and he was never seen without his pipe. Although he had a fearsome reputation I don't ever remember him doing anything to earn it. He did not mix with the staff and I can not recall him ever addressing a word to me in the four years that he was manager while I was there.

The Deputy Manager was George Brooke. George was English and a boxing referee in his spare time. He was a pleasant and hardworking and easy to get on with.

The Finance Officer was Charlie Brown (also from Warrenpoint). Charlie was an amiable fellow. He had a tremendous head for figures and in the days before calculators and computers he could total a page of 45 financial amounts in his head - and this was in pounds, shillings and pence - quicker and more accurately than the mechanical plus-adders that were available. He counted whole amounts, not each column separately. He had a long sad face and sloping shoulders and he shuffled rather than walked.

Jack McConnon looked after the Newtownhamilton and Crossmaglen boxes. He was taxied out to the sub-offices twice a week. Jack, as was the case with many of the men in the office, was an ex-serviceman who had fought in the war and had an irreverent attitude to authority. He was fond of the bottle and often returned from his rounds the worst for wear. Several times we had to find a quiet room for him to sleep it off in case the Manager should find him. Legend has it that on several occasions he arranged for the taxi driver to look after the office while he had a few in Paddy Short's in Crossmaglen. Jack was a gentleman, affable and jocular. He had a habit of sniffing while twitching his nose which I found myself involuntarily copying for a while.

Norman Carruth was an aristocrat, at least he acted and sounded like one. He claimed to be a cousin of Sir Brian Horrocks, one time Chief of the Imperial General Staff, He was tall, with a cultured booming voice and a considerable presence. He completely overawed the public who attended the office and most of them thought that he was the Manager. He once sold the same box of apples to three members of staff - I was one of them. Like a true thoroughbred, he sailed undisturbed through the subsequent uproar and paid nobody back.

Bill Bleakley was tall, burly and impatient. He was known as "Ackely" from his pronunciation of the word "actually" which he used frequently. He and Norman Carruth were rivals. They simply did not get on and engaged in a constant squabble. He was short tempered and on one occasion ripped the gear lever from the floor of the office car, a Ford Popular.

Mick McKevitt looked after one of the Newry town boxes. Mick was a steadying influence. I liked Mick and he took the trouble to keep me right in my early months in the place. He had a puckish sense of humour. He was dependable and very intelligent. More than once his sound advice kept me out of trouble.

Len MacCartney was small and silverhaired. He presided over the new claims section. In those days there was no formal training for recruits and his method was to show you how it was done for a day and then let you get on with it. Needless to say my early efforts were of mixed quality - I was often not sure what was needed and many a client had to wait longer than he should have had to for his benefit to be paid.

Miss Downing and Jimmy O'ConnorStrange how names, faces and personalities shine across more than forty years as though untouched by time. I spent nearly five years in Newry and can honestly say that the memories of the people I worked with in those years are clearer and more vivid than most later work placements. Lou Cole and Teresa Clarke - two feisty guardians of the town boxes; Anita Hale, blond and willowy; Sally Quinn, vivacious and fun loving; Ena Cust, large and imposing - who wasn't at all sure about my intentions towards Sadie Mackrell (who I married in 1961); Miss Downing (I never knew her first name), shy and retiring; Bill Wallace, tall, reserved, polite; Ray Dilworth (emigrated to New Zealand); Frank Connor (emigrated to Australia); Willy Wylie, Jimmy O'Connor, - and many more I see now in my minds eye,

See Group Photograph taken in October 1961.

Rene Revels, Teresa Crawley and Sadie MackrellOn morning in early 1958, about three months after I transferred to Newry I was standing behind the counter when a petite and striking dark haired girl arrived to start work. As soon as I saw her I knew that she was special and I said to myself that this was the girl I would marry. Sadie Mackrell lived in Warrenpoint and had been transferred from Belfast. It took me six months to ask her out. When in the summer of 1960 we decided to get engaged we went to Dublin on the train from Warrenpoint, changing at Goroughwood. We had a great day in Dublin, bought the ring in McDowells Happy Ring House in O'Connell Street, and, as was usual in those days, smuggled it over the border.

The Newry office covered a large area, comprising all of south Armagh and a large part of County Down. There were sub-offices in Newtownhamilton. Crossmaglen, Forkhill and Warrenpoint. In those days the unemployment count hovered around the 3,000 mark. There were a substantial number of dockers employed in Newry Port and there were some share fishermen, although the most of these were covered by the Kilkeel office. The largest employer in the area was the Bessbrook Spinning Company owned by the Richardson Family. The huge mill, which dominated the village, gave employment to hundreds of local people. The mill provided the complete linen making process, from the arrival of the scutched flax to the production of finished cloth.

In the early 1960s the advent of new artificial fabrics, combined with the ready availability of a wide range of cheap imports from Asia, reduced the market for linen and the industry fell on hard times. The mill went on three day time working and rather than try to cope with the hundreds of people coming to the local office, or setting up a short time office in Bessbrook, claims were processed in the mill itself. Arrangements were made for the company to make up benefit packets, based on our calculations, to be paid with the wages.

One of my jobs was to check the accuracy of the amounts and accompany the company's wages clerk through all of the mill departments and tick off the payments as they were made. To a country boy it was a strange place, full of massive, noisy machinery, unfamiliar and sometimes nauseating smells, air full of dust in one part, hot and clammy in another, floors damp with oil and water in the wet spinning sections. Years later I was to deal with the human consequences of these conditions when I worked in the industrial disease section of the Department.

Robert McGladdery was an agricultural labourer who, like many others, was frequently unemployed. He was a tall, blond, good looking chap. He was also a bit of a thug who was often involved in fights at dances etc. Sadie and I sometimes saw him at dances in Newry Town Hall, and made sure we avoided him. He was said to carry a hatchet, but whether this was true I cannot say. More than once I saw him standing at the market entrance, which was opposite the office, flipping a knife. He was the last man to be hanged in Northern Ireland.

In modern time murder has become almost commonplace in Northern Ireland but in the 1950s it was an unusual and sensational event and occupied the media for months. After a dance in the Newry Orange Hall he followed a local girl, Pearl Gamble, stabbed and strangled her with his tie, and dragged her body over three fields. He was an early suspect and the police put a continuous tail on him, following him everywhere - including the local office when he signed-on. He would arrive in the office, cocky and confident, while his police tail slipped in behind him. He would sign his docket and dive quickly out, forcing the detective to exit rapidly also. He led the police all over the countryside, wading through mud and rivers. Eventually he led them to where he had hidden the incriminating evidence, clothing hidden in a septic tank close to the murder scene. He was tried and convicted in Downpatrick Courthouse and hanged in Crumlin Road Gaol. To the end of his trial he continued to deny his guilt, at one point trying to implicate he friend. Just before he was executed, on 20 December 1961, he confessed to the murder.

Years later, while involved in a training event in Enniskillen Agricultural College, I was in a group given a tour of the local training college where all new Royal Ulster Constabulary recruits were then trained. In the college was a "black" museum, housing a variety of artifacts from old murder investigations. In one of the exhibit cases were items of Robert McGladdery's clothing, including the tie he used to strangle Pearl Gamble. I mentioned to the guide, an elderly man, that I had known McGladdery, adding the comment that he was a well known bad lad. The guide told me that he had been a Prison Officer in Crumlin Road Gaol and had been assigned to guarding McGladdery in his final weeks of life. He had talked often with McGladdery and believed that, despite the murder, McGladdery had many redeeming features. He told me that McGladdery had had a difficult childhood and that, despite his long denial of his guilt, had genuine remorse for what he had done. I have never forgotten that episode, I had been given a different perspective and an appreciation of the complexities of the human psyche.

In 1998, just before I retired from the civil service, I was invited, with a group of other Agency Chief Executives, to lunch in Crumlin Road Gaol, just before it finally shut down. We were given a tour of the prison which included a visit to the cell from which the condemned prisoner was taken to be hanged, and the spot from which the hanging took place, then down to the room below, into which the unfortunate plummeted to his death and finally, the gravelled-over patch of bare ground, behind a grim gray concrete wall, where all of the executed people were buried. It was a depressing, poignant moment, since the last man to take this awful route was known to me personally. I had known him at the beginning of my working life, and saw his death place at the end of it.

These were the days of the show bands and travelled widely to the dances; Dundalk, Castleblaney, Newry, Mullaghbawn and Forkhill, Warrenpoint, Jerretspass. I had no car so depended on lifts; and sometimes a group of us would hire a taxi. This was fine for getting there but there was frequently discord when the dance was over while those who had not "clicked" had to wait for those who had and were seeing the girl home. Disappointment and jealousy make a potent combination. On one occasion I was abandoned in Rostrevor. I managed to hitch a lift to Newry but walked the 13 miles to Creggan. It took me nearly four hours. Not a car passed me, although a few were going the other way. I got home in time for a wash, a quick bite to eat and then off to catch the bus back to Newry. Oh happy days!

I had been in Newry for eighteen months when in the summer of 1959 the IRA planted a bomb in the entry beside the office and wrecked it. The front was blown out and the upper floors partially collapsed. A temporary replacement was found in the Car Stands, on the Mall, which had at an earlier stage been a Christian Brother's school

The building was a large barn of a place, on two floors. A long counter divided the public from the office section of the ground floor and the first floor was divided by screens. We were there for about two years before transferring to a new purpose built office in Bridge Street. In October of that year Sadie and I were married and, since the civil service had a bar on the employment of married women, Sadie had to resign. This injustice rankled with me and I was I was very pleased, seven years later, to be directly involved in the intensive negotiations with the government that abolished the bar. To my chagrin, I found that the most vocal supporters of the bar were single women - not much sisterhood in those days!

After a period of "apprenticeship" in the main office, I was assigned to work on the "out office boxes". Newtownhamilton and Crossmaglen were linked, Newtown in the morning and Cross in the afternoon. Attendance was two days a week, Monday to sign and Wednesday for benefit payments. Or was it Tuesday and Thursday - I can' recall. However, I did like this work, it got me out of the office, I was free from overt supervision and there was always plenty of "craic" with the locals, many of whom I knew from the Cross area. In the early days, before I started to go out with Sadie, it was also a great way to meet girls.

Mrs Bridie Carragher, Bretta Devlin's mother, gave me the following verse about the Crossmaglen "Broo Office"

There's an office lately opened in the town of Crossmaglen
Where the unemployed assemble when the clock is striking ten
And the Minisrty of Labour, in its courteous kind of way
Allows you to attend, per day, for keeping work at bay.

There are people in this world who have worked, it might be said
But some have never worked at all, except to work the head
If you ask them where they're toiling, they'll look and smile at you
They'll say "I havent got a job, I'm signing on the broo"

There are places in this world where workers go on strike
For higher pay, or shorter hours, or call it what you like
But here, they'll raise your salary with very little talk
If you get yourself a missus, and increase the human stock

There are some of the female sex who mingle with the crowd
Some are small and very dainty, some are tall and rather proud
They'll step up to the counter, in a modest kind of way
And throw the clerk the glad eye, as he hands them out their pay

So don't feel too downhearted, if this world treats you hard
There's a goodly share of friendship in an unemployment card
A little work for thirteen weeks, or longer if you can
And you're welcome through the broo door, in the town of Crossmaglen

When Sadie and I married we moved in with her parents temporarily while we looked for a house. In those days houses for rent were scarce and we registered with the then Housing Trust. Home ownership was low and most new families depended on the Council or the Housing Trust. Allocation of council houses was local authority responsibility then and it was necessary to cultivate the local elected councillor who had considerable clout in allocations. As a civil servant I was hampered in the housing stakes since approaching public representatives on personal matters was a breach of the civil service code of conduct. This put us at a distinct disadvantage. Such personal and political partonage was unhealthy and was rightly one of the first areas for reform after the civil right disturbances in the late 1960s.

Towards the end of 1961 I was interviewed for promotion. In those days the names of those fortunate enough to be promoted were never published and there was nothing to do but await the call, if it ever came. Our first child, Linda, was born in August 1962 and within a week I was told that I was being promoted to Senior Clerk and transferred to Central Benefits Branch in Stormont on 22 August.

So ended four satisfying years in Newry. I had worked with many honorable and interesting people, met and married my wife and started a family. And so... on to pastures new.

To be continued.....