Newbuildings then and now

There are few villages in Ireland which can boast the same cultural heritage and diversity as Newbuildings. Enjoying the benefits of a tidal river, it has been a centre of human activity since the Third or Fourth Century.

Historically, Newbuildings has had its own Castle and Abbey, as well as being an area populated during The Plantation of Ulster, and a centre for employment due to its water mill.

In the first of a series of features on the village, Sentinel reporter Olga Bradshaw delves into the history of Newbuildings and is told some very 'fishy' tales.

A truly historic village with colourful characters

THE next time you find yourself in Newbuildings waiting for someone in the car park to the rear of Villa's pub look across the road to the row of houses.

Imagine a time before the houses existed; to the left (where the trees are now) used to be the dam wall and directly between the car park and the houses in the distance, was the dam itself, into which a burn flowed from the right. Further up the village was a mill and it is believed that at one point in the village's history starch was produced there using the humble potato - again with help from the water run produced by the dam.

On the far side of the dam used to be the Dam Row - a little row of houses linked to the mill and no longer in existence, and if you go back far enough in time, you would be parked not too far away from the castle.

Newbuildings was a Plantation village, and local historian George McLaughlin, believes the first known inhabitants can be pin-pointed by archaeology.

"Due to the archaeological discoveries we can identify that there was a very large settlement here in the Third and Fourth Century, so you have the ancient history of the area as well as the modern history of the village.

"This is the Duncastle Road and used to be known as the Donemana Road in the old village, and in the model we made of the village for 1907 it shows you just how few houses there were in Newbuildings at the time. Historically the water mill was the main form of employment in the village, and over the years the mill would have change its function with different business," he says.

At one time the time the mill was used for starch production near where the Dam Row was a set of potato sheds had been built which meant it was a simple task to shovel the spuds into the waterway and shoo them down the water run to the mill to make the starch.

"In history there is a debate about the houses. Some people say the houses were provided for the mill workers, as a lot of mill owners used to provide accommodation for their workers, and others say not," he says.

George is a member of the local Archaeological and Historical Society, and his fellow historian, Richard Brennan, draws my attention to the public house just behind us.

"There used to be two rings in the wall where they used to tie up the horses when they were going in for a drink or go into the shop, and around the front of the pub there used to be a petrol pump right on the corner on the main Victoria Road, and they declared it unsafe and had to get rid of it. It was one of the old-fashioned hand pumps," he tells me.

A man called John Kerr, who took over the local bar after the McIvor family, was the first person in the village to have a car, and was the proud owner of one of the first Fords ever produced, and yes, it was black. His grandfather George Phillips was the second man in the village to get himself some wheels, only he had a big Austin 12.

Having briefly touched on the village's pub life, the conversation settles on religion, and George highlights the importance of the townland of Rossnagalliagh, the site of an ancient nunnery and Abbey, which would have existed at the junction of the main road with the old Tully Road. At one stage when some building works were being conducted in the area a number of bodies were unearthed causing a bit of a stir.

George goes on to reveal that the Abbey would have dated back to the Ninth Century, and that Rossnagalliagh means 'the place of the nuns' or 'the wood of the nuns'. Meanwhile, nestling behind railings to the rear of the public house is a cinder block building, which serves as the Catholic Church. Interestingly, the site was the location for the first Catholic Church, which in its earliest form was a Nissan hut.

Across the road, on the corner, is an area of scrub land, but not so long ago it was the location of the Old Post Office run by Dorothy Mitchell until the 1990s.

Fishin' for fun and a living in Newbuildings

THE River Foyle near Newbuildings once had the reputation for being one of the best anywhere in Europe for fishing, and for salmon in particular.

Sadly, the days of the two-and-a-half-month 'fishing festival' in the village died after the 1970s due mostly to over-fishing, but the great days of yore are fondly recalled by villagers.

Sitting at Crawford's Point with Richard Brennan, Roger McCorkell and George McLaughlin, we stare through the rain at the river. Churning and swollen with the torrents of rain that have fallen in the past 24 hours or so, it is hard to imagine that scores of people used to make a tidy living net fishing between the two shores and that the village came to life with the influx of seasonal workers who added another dimension to the social life of the village.

Not every fish that was legally caught met a legal end, with some purloined by the fishermen who carried off their 'spoils' tucked down their waders. The odd hefty fish was deftly lobbed onto the bank to be collected later when the boss wasn't looking.

One of those who remembers exactly what it was like to fish the river at Newbuildings, is Roger who says that the river was noted for its salmon 200 years ago or more.

Roger, who did summer work in his younger day, recalls one night how he and others went out one night in the dark.

"It was dark, in fact it was near dawn and we were waiting for the tide to change and we were just sitting there and the sun just started to creep up over the hill, and it was one of the most beautiful mornings I remember. The water was so calm, and I just remember being struck about how lovely it was at that time of the morning."

He admits however, that moments of clarity and romance about the river were few when it came to the long hours, cold and the over-fishing of the area: "I remember fishing with Jimmy Campbell, I remember getting off at the end of the line and being up to my knees in glarr and Jimmy would have been well into his 60s at that stage. He lived just outside the village on Woodside Road. At that time I would have been 18 or 19 and I fished for two years, but it was done by people of all ages. You came back an hour and a half before high tide. You put the net out just as the tide stopped coming in before it turned to go out. That meant the water was still and you could get your nets straight out and come back in again, because once the tide started to go back out again the speed would increase and could get up to five miles an hour, which was really fast. You tried to get at least three shots out with each tide, and for eight weeks of the year you would have been going out maybe eight times a week," he said, adding: "You would have been coming down here at maybe 2am or 3am, going up the river in an open boat in waders and wet gear with no life jackets or any safety gear at all - no thought about safety - sitting in the pitch black going up the river, ready to skip out on the edge of the water. If anybody fell in they would have been gone, but, thankfully, nobody ever did," he said.

"It was sad then, when it all finished here, because the fishing season really was a social event for us all in the village. Everyone looked forward to it every year," he said.

"The fishing that went on here was done from boats using draftnets. You went out into the river in a big circle and brought the two ends of the nets in and pulled them together. The river is very wide at this point and there are sandbanks about so if you were going out you would have had to know where they were and to avoid them

"I remember one of the boats that went up the river went up the bank, and they got out onto the sandbank and actually fished from the sandbank. Sometimes someone would get out and go into the river in body waders and fish like that.

"There was a storm one weekend that damaged the boats. Those boats were built by Andy Walker who lived on the main road, and there was a path from his house down to the fishery cabins (where a private dwelling is now], and you dragged the boats down when they were built. It was quite an industry in its day."

There were those who fished illegally too.

"Over the period of The Troubles the poachers had a free hand and really the authorities didn't bother about them. You could have had a hundred boats out there on the river at high tide in the summer time and they were using illegal nets called 'mashers' because they used to have a mesh on them and they caught everything - anything they caught, if they didn't want them they threw it back in and let it die.

"In the early 1970s they stopped the fishing here and just had some draftnets down at Culmore. The Loughs Agency is working now to restock the river."

George McLaughlin recalls the nostalgia of the age: "We owned a shop in the village and the population doubled when the fishing season started. Of course, our turnover in the shop doubled as well! At one stage the fishermen were only paid monthly and then it changed and they were paid every two weeks and because of that when the fishermen came here they would have had to live and work two weeks in hand.

"They used to come to the shop and get what used to be called 'a book' and we used to charge the stuff to them, and I must say even though those men were coming to the area from quite far away, if there was one or possibly two of them who ever left with money owing that was the height of it. They were all very honest about paying up at the weekend," he said.

"Newbuildings was quite a small village and you had about 50 to 60 of a population at the time, and when the fishing started the fishermen would have come to the village from Donemana, Strabane, Bready, Burndennett, Ballymagorry, even as far away as Newtownstewart.

"The old cabins provided accommodation for the labourers with three tiers to the bunks across the walls. The population of the village almost doubled when the fishing started. These men were seasonal workers and they were mostly farm labourers who came and when the fishing was finished they were ready to go back to the land and the potato harvest."

"Some of them were musicians and sometimes the people of the village would have gone down to the cabins and engaged in sing-songs and up at the bridge in the village, by the corner where the church is now they would have gathered there, too, for a social get-together which generated a great bit of life in the village.

"The main aim of the men in coming to the village was to catch fish, but some of them also caught a partner. But it was a very hard life," said George.

PART 2

In the second part of her series, reporter Olga Bradshaw writes about education, the importance of the railway and B Hut dances

The 'B Hut' was famous for its dances - and winning money

VERY often in village life there is one hall where some of the best night's crack can be had at little or no cost.

Historically in New Buildings that was the B Hut - the training or 'drill hall' for the B Specials, on Duncastle Road, now long gone and replaced by a domestic housing development it used to exist.

George McLaughlin recalls it as an "old, black wooden hut".

Primarily used as a drill hall for the 'B Men' for the B Specials, it was located just across the road to the entrance to St Columba's School.

"The area had been fairly wooded area and the Burn ran down the road and there was a little wooden bridge from the road over to the B Hut and we used to block the Burn and we used to catch spricks and trout and things like that

"The B Hut when I was growing up - and right through the years - it was a real social centre.

"There is a man called Bob King who lived in the village, he was the Stationmaster, but he also organised the dances and the concerts and all that sort of thing.

"We had a lot of local people, like Willie Kerr and people like that who were all up singing and performing , and an awful lot of people in the community used that centre. There was no difference made in anyone," he said.

Tumbled about 20 years ago, the B Hut in it's day was a community centre as well as a ballroom of romance, and served the entire community for group meetings, social events and the like.

"In the early days it really was a community centre. It was needed for that purpose and was open to everybody, and everybody enjoyed going along there and I remember being at a concert there with my mother.

"They usually had free draws and were selling tickets and I remember winning 30 shillings, which at that time was an absolute fortune. My mother was delighted with me. It kept us going for quite a few weeks," says George.

"I was about six at the time and had to hand it over. At that time though, I think children didn't hold onto money. We used to go out and gather potatoes and that and do farm work and you didn't ever think of putting the money in your own pocket. Whatever we got from the farmers were went home and handed it over."

Railway facilitated traders and holidays

SITTING in Roger McCorkell's car on a rainy Wednesday, we stare out of the fogged-up windows at the topography, trying to figure out where the Dam Burn flowed and the railway passed.

In the back of the car local historians George McLaughlin and Richard Brennan, better known to his associates as Dick, plunder their not inconsiderable plethora of pictures, records, maps and other flotsam and jetsam of the years to illustrate the nuggets of information they impart to me.

"The railway line used to cross just there," says Richard, adding: "Do you see that dirt track?"

He gesticulates across our path and pointing down towards the village, adding that the old Donegal Railway started at the end of Victoria Road, at the Victoria Road Station in the Waterside in Londonderry. That old railway closed down in 1956, but in it's day it was a very good link for the people of Newbuildings, and for a time it was the only transport villagers had from Newbuildings to the 'Big Smoke'.

I ask if the loss of the railway had a major impact on the village, to which George replies: "It had quite an impact. It was really missed by the people of the village At that time, of course, the road infrastructure was being developed and we had a reasonably good bus service then to ease the loss of the railway."

Richard adds to the tale of the tracks: "Interestingly, there were a lot of halts on it, and during the war when you were shoot rabbits they could put rabbits on the train at the halts at Dessertowen and Cullion, and those rabbits could be in London, apparently, in two days. Into the train, into a boat, and over to London. They couldn't do that today," he said.

It transpires that during the War and in the post-War years, rabbits were in high demand to supplement the diet as meat was one of those commodities that was severely rationed.

George tells me that the rail system was second to none in the mid-1950s, and the same applied to the transportation of fish.

"Newbuildings was very well known and was one of the most important industries apart from the old mill, was the salmon fishing. It was possible to catch salmon in the early part of the 20th Century, to catch salmon in the Foyle on a Thursday morning and they could have it in Billingsgate Market (London) the next morning. That's how good the rail network was," he says proudly.

In addition to the Great Northern Railway network, the Irish rail network took in Donemana, Strabane, crossed over to Lifford and went right through to Donegal town and had an extension to Killybegs and Ballyshannon, so the north and Donegal were very well served as far as rail networks went.

Richard elaborates on the reliance on the railway for outings and holidays: "Three to five thousand people used to catch the train out to Buncrana ever Sunday. That would have been the Lough Swilly Railway," he says.

However, Roger and George remember with glee the 'wee Donegal' which took daytrippers to Portrush or was used for the Sunday School excursions. According to George, the train was "absolutely packed".

Roger recalls using the rail network as a young lad: "I went on the train to Londonderry. We got the train in the Waterside and it took us up to Portrush with the Sunday School excursion at the end of the Sunday School year. That's what we looked forward to, the train ride not getting to Portrush. We had been in the car manys the time. We loved getting on the train and coming home on the train, but then we started going on buses and it wasn't the same.

"I think the excitement was down to the movement, the noise and the steamtrains themselves, and just the whole hustle and bustle of the whole thing," he says, reflecting that the station has since been turned into a radio station and subsequently a shop.

"Waterside was an old-fashioned railway station and we loved just getting on the train and tunnels were a great source of excitement because they didn't put the lights on and we all screamed," says Roger, adding: "When you got up to Portrush and got off the trains you got your lunch first. They gave you a cardboard box with two buns and two sandwiches in it, and some people didn't bother eating it they just ran on. The train ride was the highlight."

Prior to estabishing integrated schools all the teaching was under one roof

SITTING adjacent to St Columba's Primary School on Duncastle Road, George McLaughlin recalls that all the children of the village were, at one stage, taught under one roof.

Stressing the ecumenical nature of life in the village, the history-lover tells me St Columba's opened in 1978, a small school it does not have a big enrolment, but it is very successful and every year can boast an almost 100 per cent pass rate in the Transfer Test, now defunct.

"It has been a very successful little school. When I went to school here, I went to Rossnagalliagh School which is half-a-mile up the main road in the Strabane direction.

"We would have walked to school every morning and walked back. There were not cars or lifts to schools at that time and that is what we referred to at the time as a mixed school. All denominations attended the same school and I often say it is the way thing should be because at that time Newbuildings was a very nice little village and everyone got along very well together and the core population of the village always did get along, I think, because they attended Rossnagalliagh School.

"Somehow everyone got on together and no differences were made, and relationships were built up that lasted throughout people's lives. So there is something to be said for a mixed school," he said.

He recalls the teachers had a very heavy workload but were very dedicated to the pupils. As is the way, things change, and in 1955 Newbuildings Primary School opened and it was in 1977 that children were transferred from Rossnagalliagh to St Columba's Primary.

PART 3

In the final part of her mini-series on Newbuildings, Olga Bradshaw writes about the village characters, Church life and what the future might hold

Church life and finding a wife in Newbuildings

FROM its early beginnings at a site for human settlement, Newbuildings has enjoyed a vibrant church life.

It is believed that a nunnery was founded in the village in the year 879AD at Rossnagalliagh, while in the townland of Disertowen there may have been another early Christian settlement, and another early church site was located at Grange near Bready. However, the most important ecclesiastical site in the district is in Londonderry, where St Augustine's Church and the Cathedral now stand.

As part of my tour of Newbuildings my attention is drawn to a small, nondescript building behind Villa's, opposite what used to be the old Dam Green, where Miss Jane Kerr, the daughter of the former owner, John Kerr, was said to walk and pray. Land there was later donated to the Catholic Church and as a result a small church now exists on that very piece of land. Miss Kerr was the former principal of the Waterside Girls' School - the old school building is beside St Columba's Church (for the sake of completion). Miss Kerr also taught for a time at Rossnagalliagh.

Interesting, and curiously, that patch of land was formerly the site of the old castle that used to exist many centuries ago - which also took in part of Villa's yard.

Newbuildings now boasts two Methodist Churches - the Independent Methodist Church in the heart of the 'new' village, and the Methodist Church on Victoria Road, but the first Protestant church near the village was thought to be the Presbyterian Church built in Magheramason in the 1850s or thereabouts, and before that Presbyterians would have gone to Glendermott or Donagheady to worship.

"For the Presbyterians to get Magheramason opened at the start they had to fight for years to build it with their own labour," Richard Brennan tells me, but were only allowed to build the church "on the Tyrone side".

"They were not allowed to build it in the village because the Presbyterians in the city didn't want another church so close and they couldn't get approval. They raised funds and all the rest and got the church built anyway."

Travelling to church was no mean feat - if a horse and cart wasn't available to take worshipers into the city or to Magheramason, people walked.

"People used to walk from here, up the hill to Chapel Road, or some would have taken the train and occasionally taken the bus. But people used to love walking and I remember people used to have their old shoes on and would take them off and put their good shoes on when they got to a certain point, and on the way home you got to do a bit of courting," he recalls.

Indeed church services of all types, weddings and funerals were the main way to spy a possible partner and be introduced, as those events were among the biggest social gatherings around.

George continues: "In Newbuildings we always had the little Methodist Church, and there was a certain amount of Methodism in Newbuildings over the years because this area had been visited by John Wesley on a number of occasions, here and Prehen. In the late 1780s Wesley had quite a gathering because some of the times that he was here he actually stayed in Prehen House with the Knox family, and there is one of the rooms in Prehen House that is actually referred to as the Wesley Room."

Old curiosities and characters...

LOOK carefully at the modern house that sits to the rear of Villa's and you will see the remnants of a small house where one of the village's greatest 'entrepreneurs' used to live - Corny McCloskey (the son of Ellen).

I am told Corny "dealt in all types of things", but one of the businesses he had was in the buying of rabbits, and this was part of the income of the people of the village. These poor creatures had been either snared or shot around the Moss area or round the railway line.

People would have brought these rabbits to Corny, and George McLaughlin informs me that folk would have come from a wide area, indeed it was not unknown for people to come from as far away as the town of Donemana with their furry bounty. Corny exported the rabbits to various parts of England, and it is quite possible that those in high-class restaurants in parts of England could well have been feasting on quality rabbit from the hills around the north west!

"Corny had quite a business going because he was able to make use of the good transport network offered by the railway. I remember seeing him actually packing rabbits into tea chests and they had to be hung and packed in a certain way so that they would not be crushed or damaged. He put them on the train and got them to certain parts of England for the following day."

George's own father used to be well-known in the district too. He used to do a lot of jobs round the village and had the name of a great handyman, repairing clocks, watches, radios and turning his hand to some electrical work too, when the wiring of the village was being done.

George's dad also repaired the grandfather clock for John Kerr the publican and shop-owner, and George relates the story: "My father used to have to replace the hands of the clock and that sort of thing and when the house was being sold and Miss Kerr was moving out to a country residence, the clock was for sale at the auction. Now for some reason or other it wasn't sold and was sitting outside when I passed, and I sent a message in that I was interested in it, and she said I could have it.

"She named a price and I got it at a fairly reasonable price, but the strange thing is, I live in Prehen and we took the clock and put it in our hallway and the clock was going perfectly, but one Saturday afternoon the clock stopped and the following day we discovered Miss Kerr had died."

Close to the McCloskeys lived the Mellons, and on the Damn Row lived George's uncles called George and Eddie Phillips, who were great friends with the Mellons, and on occasion were known to be fans of fishing and 'progging' orchards in the early hours of the morning.

"They had arranged to go out somewhere at 4am one morning and the Mellons were very bad risers, but my uncles and grandfather were always from all hours of the morning, so my Uncle George told the Mellons he'd be over for them at 4am, but one of the Mellons told him he might not wake and my uncle asked what he should do, throw pebbles at the window? But Mellon said no that he might waken the rest of the family.

"They had a think about it and said 'I tell you what, I'll tie a piece of threat onto my hair and put it out the window'. So my uncle went along at 4am and found the piece of thread hanging and started pulling, and heard the commotion up in the bedroom. The boy John Mellon that he was trying to attract jumped up in the bed and started thumping his brother for pulling his hair," says George.

What does the future hold for Newbuildings?

ACCORDING to local history man, Roger McCorkell, Newbuildings has grown a lot since the 1950s - most of it on the Duncastle Road which is unseen by most people travelling through the village on Victoria Road.

This means that what they see is the old part of the village which has not been developed much and has instead become rundown and in need of lots of re-development.

Looking to the future and what he thinks might suit the burgeoning village, Roger says: "The old post office site has been empty for many years and various development ideas there have been scuppered, mainly by the planning office, due to unsuitable access. Perhaps a village park with trees, plants, paths, sculpture, etc could fill this area, and perhaps the Plantation history of the village could be depicted in some display," he said

"The opposite side of the road needs to be re-developed as it continues to be an eyesore. Some of the buildings have been left to fall down while some have been half tumbled for health and safety reasons.

"Again many ideas have been put forward but Planning has made things difficult with their many requirements. Perhaps they could be relaxed a bit. Further down the road an old care house is now empty and starting to get vandalised. This only adds to the bad images given to passersby," he says of his beloved village.

Whether you agree with him or not he continues: "The former IAWS buildings should never have been allowed to be built there and are now empty and very unattractive looking. There are plans for these to go but tomorrow wouldn't be soon enough. Stoney Path style houses built there would be very nice."

On the other side of the village we have another building/bomb site on the Strabane approach to the village, the former Desmonds factory. How long will this lie undeveloped the villagers wonder?

"I spoke to a bus driver recently who said that he was passing through the village with a bus load of people from outside the village, when he had to call into the Community Centre on the Duncastle Road.

"He said the people on the bus could not believe how big the village was and how lovely it was on both sides of the Duncastle Road. Unfortunately this is the case for most travellers going through the village, Newbuildings to them is just some grotty little place you have to go through on your way to somewhere else. We want to change their minds, sooner rather than later," Roger said.

For George McLaughlin, one of my other guides for my recent tour of the village, the future image of Newbuildings is a matter close to his heart.

His family once owned the thriving shop on the corner, which is sadly in a dilapidated state.

"It is very sad driving through the village to see those buildings lying in such a state. It would be nice to see a development of some sort along there, and if possible a development that would actually retain the character of the village street, maybe houses that are sympathetic to the area and the character of the old Newbuildings rather than something out of character."

Mr McLaughlin said that a small museum celebrating the history of the village and its links with the river and railways would also be welcome additions, as well as being an extension of the city nearby, and the culture and history of the north west corner of the Province.

"Newbuildings has been left out. A lot of the cultural developments with regard to museums and things like that have been very much located in the cityside, and I think Waterside in general and Newbuildings in particular, should fit into the overall plan, celebrating not just the city but our little village and what used to be referred to as the hamlets around the city that played a very important part in the history of the area," he said.

He also stressed his desire to see the village once more tap into its reputation as a village that welcomed all denominations.