Newry.ie

The Gallows Hill tunnel is a unique feature of Newry but also a feature of which very little is known.

Apart from a couple of lines in one or two historical books, anecdotal evidence is really all there is, with some people coming to a conclusion that it doesn't exist at all.

What is known is that it was a passageway used in the 1700's to take prisoners who had been handed down the supreme punishment of death by hanging, up to the gallows on Gallows Hill, now Heather Park in Newry. Presumably they were taken directly from their prison cell but the exact location of that cell is just one of many questions that may never be answered fully. A reason for a tunnel no doubt also would have been to reduce the chance of the prisoner escaping!

The Gallows Hill tunnel in Newry. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
The Gallows Hill tunnel in Newry. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

1798 would no doubt have been a busy period for the Hangman although again evidence isn't there to tell us if it was used much before that or much after.

There is some written documentation that the cells/ prison was around where Bank of Ireland is now, although the layout of the tunnel at present suggests it may have continued from Heather Park down to between the rear of St Colman's Parochial Hall and the rear of The Bank Bar. It's possible that it could then have run along Trevor Hill, making it to where the Bank of Ireland sits at present but this is basically all guess work. There is some evidence of blocked up tunnels underneath St Colman's Hall that could well have been part of a longer construction.

We recently got an opportunity to check out the end of the tunnel, the part that opens out unto Heather Park. The unfortunate prisoner would have climbed up a few steps to ground level with the horizon blocked by the gallows and no doubt hundreds of people (It was before television after all!). It's quite ironic that the site is now occupied by Childrens' swings and roundabout.

The structure is pretty impressive for being around in 1798! Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
The structure is pretty impressive for being around in 1798! Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

Walking into the tunnel and having no idea of a potential layout it was interesting to see the tunnel stretch approximately 30M into the distance. It is wide enough for one person although you could pass if you turned sideways. Ceiling is quite low. After 30M it made a slight turn to the left. Unfortunately this is where the story ends for now as a wall has been built up with blocks and you can go no further.

Access to the tunnel at present is blocked by a gate over the entrance. In the past and even recent past it has obviously been used as a drinking den as the floor of it is littered with cans and bottles and a lot of sharp shards of broken glass.

Unfortunately the Gallows Hill tunnel comes to an abrupt halt 30 metres in. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
Unfortunately the Gallows Hill tunnel comes to an abrupt halt 30 metres in. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

A Town of Newry map which we were fortunate to find in Newry Library had this stretch marked on the map as an "Underground Passage" The map was based on a survey from 1859 and was reprinted in 1915. Interestingly The Underground Passage marked was exactly the same distance as we were able to walk before the blocked up wall. Although that does raise more questions than answers.

The conondrum is that the short distance of the tunnel in reality and verified by the 1915 map doesn't take you anywhere near Bank of Ireland or The Bank Bar or in fact Trevor Hill. It takes you to a wall at the top of a field overlooking Trevor Hill and it's a considerably steep journey down to street level.

Two theories come to mind although neither may be remotely right.
1: Through the blocked up wall is a line of steep steps travelling underground taking you down to street level around the Bank Bar/ Parochial House.
2: Because the present tunnel ends abruptly at an overground wall, it is possible that there is no more underground structure and the prisoners were walked up the hill to the wall to enter the tunnel, although it seems strange why they thought they would need a tunnel for a relatively short stretch.

Looking at the state of the block work sealing off the tunnel, it would be a good guess that they were put there 40 or 50 years ago so there is a good possibility that the person who built them is still with us and maybe could answer why it was blocked up and what if anything was on the townward side of the blockage.

The interior of the tunnel. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
The interior of the tunnel looking towards Heather Park. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

Thanks to Newry Museum we found a reference to 1798 in the book A Historical Sketch of Newry which said "On the hill behind the Bank of Ireland a gibbet was erected (from which circumstances it was long called Gallows Hill), and there some unfortunate suspects met their doom. The heads of two of these wretched men were exposed to the gaze of the horrified people on the top of the News-room. Besides these, a number of the townsmen of the highest respectability were arrested and imprisioned in the Linen Hall. None of these were executed, but they were all treated with great harshness."

The walk to the gallows ... Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
The walk to the gallows ... Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

In a post published on Newry.ie in 2013 WWW.NEWRY.IE we produced a shopping list of things we would like to see in Newry by 2020. This included Number 4: "The re-opening of the Gallows Hill tunnel from the Bank of Ireland to Gallows Hill/ Heather Park as a historical hub. What a tourist attraction that would be. Don't think any other town or city in Ireland has such a facility sitting there and not used. Edinburgh make so much use out of their underground tunnels."

It won't happen in 2020 but a bit more investigation certainly could. If you have anything to add to our story feel free to post a comment or send us an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Newry is on the up with a new public park planned and a new arts facility at Newry Town Hall and Sean Hollywood Arts Centre as well as many more smaller but equally important initiatives including ghost walks and city tours. Let's embrace our historical past for the benefit of our city's future.

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