Bessbrook is a village in Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland. The village lies about three miles north-west of the city of Newry. The village is near the main A1 road and the railway line between Belfast and Dublin.
Founded in 1845, the model village surrounded the large linen mill of the Quaker Richardson family. Their vision was to have no public houses, pawn shops, or police stations. There are still no bars in the Co. Armagh village. Many of the houses in the village today are the original granite structures built for millworkers by the Richardsons.
At the height of The Troubles, the area suffered some of the worst violence of the campaign. The village became a military garrison with one of Europe’s busiest helipads.
British Army in Bessbrook 1940-1943
In June 1940, soldiers of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry arrived in Bessbrook, Co. Armagh. Their role was a defensive one in case of a Nazi invasion of Northern Ireland from across the Irish border.
Christmas and Boxing Day of 1940, saw families take soldiers in, welcome them to the town, and feed them a Christmas dinner. After this, many of the troops became regular visitors to the farms and homesteads. There, they would play cards, sing songs, and tell stories.
Local children would on occasion convince the soldiers to take them for a drive in the tanks. In November 1943, with the threat of invasion waning, all British troops left Bessbrook, replaced with American GIs.
Segregation of American Soldiers
The hills and mountains around the village made for excellent training grounds. At the time, the American Army remained segregated. Black troops set up Nissen huts in the woods around Derrymore House. White GIs set up billets in the Town Hall, Orange Hall, and the Technical College, while officers made Mount Caulfield home.
Reports suggest the people of Bessbrook welcomed the black GIs and treated them as equals. In August 2005, Anthony Carroll of the Newry Journal recounted a story from Councillor Billy McCaigue.
He remembered black American soldiers in Bessbrook, Co. Down in 1943-1944. One afternoon one of the soldiers came into the shop in the village and the young lady asked:
“Sir, what can I get you?” The soldier wondered who she was talking to as he was the only person in the shop. “I’m sorry,” he said: “It’s just that no one has ever called me ‘Sir’ before. Being black I’ve been called many names but never ‘Sir’.”
The troops stationed in Bessbrook during the Second World War left a lasting impact on the people there. After leaving the village, many of the men continued to write to their Northern Ireland families.
Contributions to the War Effort
The Newry Reporter newspaper reported on 9th July 1940 that numbers of evacuees from Belfast were much lower than expected.
Fifty private cars and six buses waited at Newry Train Station to transport the expected 409 children. A total of 134 arrived on the train. Forty young evacuees were bound for families in Bessbrook but only ten arrived.
The small village contributed to the war effort in many ways. Bessbrook Spinning Mill produced 22,323,356 yards of cloth for use in the manufacture of tents and uniforms.
In February 1945, the Newry Reporter mentioned a Mrs. Josephine Brown of “Brookside”, Cloughrea, Bessbrook who invited two young men in for a cup of tea.
She realised they were German prisoners of war and sent a young boy Gerald Niblock down to Mr. William Muldrew’s in Millvale. He telephoned a local police force. As the men asked to study a map showing the distance to “Free Ireland”, the military police arrived and recaptured the escapees.
Places of Interest
The following places will be of interest to anyone wishing to explore more of the area's Second World War heritage.