Newry and The Famine

Iúr Cinn Trá agus An Gorta Mór


History Department




Newry and the Irish Famine, 1845-49


In 1845, Newry was a bustling port town which, since the opening of the Newry Canal in 1742, experienced significant population and industrial growth.  Newry Canal was the first summit level canal in the British and Ireland and remains a significant turning point in the history of the transport and industrial revolutions.  Newry benefitted greatly from the canal and industry boomed.   Arthur Young, a renowned English agricultural and social commentator wrote in his book, “A Tour of Ireland” (1780) “I Breakfasted at Newry.  The Globe is another good inn.  This town appears exceedingly flourishing and is very well built, yet forty years ago I was told that there was nothing but mud cabins.  This great rise has been much owing to the canal.”   By 1841 the population of Newry had risen to approximately 12,000.  Paul Hobben (Local historian) wrote in his book, “The Newry Canal and the Transport Revolution,” (1999) “In the late 1700’s the canal was wonderfully successful and made Newry richer than Belfast and the fourth port in Ireland.  However, in 1850, the fortunes of the canal changed and from then on its story was a sad one.  The linking of the Belfast railways in 1852 was a disaster for the Newry Canal.”  Similarly, Kevin Dunne (past pupil of St Joseph’s) wrote in his History undergraduate dissertation for Queen’s University, Belfast, “Attempts to deepen and widen the canal to facilitate larger vessels were a failure and the opening of the Belfast to Dublin rail link in 1852 proved very damaging to Newry canal.”  Unfortunately for Newry, the demise of the canal was not the only terrible event to impact the town in the mid-19th century.  As with the rest of the country, in 1845, Newry commenced its own titanic struggle with the horrors of the Irish Famine. 

Many historians claim that the Northeast of the country coped much better with the crisis than other parts of Ireland.  With oats accompanying the potato as a popular crop in Ulster, access to seasonal work in Scotland, with a more developed industry the established linen trade, the perception is that this region was able to absorb the worst effects of the potato blight.  However, this image, created by these factors, hides the fact that there was still mass starvation and emigration from the areas of North Leinster and South Ulster.  Many of the rural areas surrounding Newry were as badly effected as many parts of Ireland.  Newry’s soup kitchens and workhouse were full to over flowing while diseases such as cholera and dysentery were common. The many thousands who sought to leave, via Newry (it served as the main port/escape route for the people of South Ulster and North Leinster) also brought with them many diseases. 

The newsletter “The Banner of Ulster”, on February 5th 1847, indicates the severity of the famine for those in Newry and its environs:

“It would be impossible to find more distressing cases, short of the horrors of Skibereen, [County Cork] in any part of those narrated by our reporter from the Eastern divisions of Down.  If an overwhelming amount of destitution exists largely in the South and West of Ireland it is largely participated in by the inhabitants of the North and I might say at our own doors.”


Please proceed to the interactive, Famine era map of Newry using the link below.  There are information points on the map and the text passages contain additional artefacts and images which can be viewed.