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James Savage.1932-2021 Man of the people rooted in the local traditions

Newry, Mourne and Down District Council have paid tribute to former Newry and Mourne Council Chairman, James Savage at this months full Council meeting on Wednesday night. Mr Savage was a Councillor for 20 years.

At the beginning of the meeting Council Chairperson, Cllr Laura Devlin said "I'd like to pay tribute to James Savage A former SDLP Councillor in the legacy Newry and Mourne District Council. James represented The Fews DEA from 1977 to 1997, so 20 years of service to his local community. James sadly passed away and while I didn't know James personally I know the fondness that exists in the SDLP and wider community for James till this day. He'd be a Chair of the previous council, a farmer and a strong background in the GAA and indeed campaigned strongly for improved sports facilities in the district. Our thoughts are with his family and friends following his passing.

The late James Savage was Chairman of Newry and Mourne District Council from 1993 to 1994.

Cllr Barra Ó Muirí added "As a fellow Newtown man, and I believe he played for Newtown in the early days, Uncle of the Chairman in the County Board Mickey Savage. He'll certainly be missed by the Gael's all around the county and I want to echo your sentiment."


Representing the people was a special source of joy for James Savage.

A Newry and Mourne SDLP councillor in the Fews area of South Armagh for twenty years between 1977 and 1997, he was a truly original personality with a distinctive approach to local politics and local life. For him there was no greater uplift than having a responsibility for the welfare of the community and he never lost the glow of satisfaction in carrying out that responsibility.

Born in 1932 in the townland of Outlacken between Belleeks and Newtownhamilton, he was one of a family of seven to Hugh and Annie Savage. His mother died when he was five and he was reared by his father on the family farm.

The undoubted hardships of those years shaped his approach to life but in quite a positive way, summing up his philosophy of representation in one phrase- the betterment of the local people on the ground. That was his gospel.

His long lifetime spanned vast changes: from the horse and plough to broadband, from the age of the scythe to the age of the silage , from the spring well and tilly lamp to the water supply and the coming of the electricity, from life- long emigration into the jet age, from the  cost of illness to the Welfare State, from the drudgery of hand milking assorted breeds of cows to the milking machine and the Friesian herd.

So rooted was he in the land and the people that in his years as a councillor there was always the sense that he looked after the people partly in the name and memory of their forbearers who long before had wrought in the same fields and trod the same roads. There was an ongoing quiet poetic power in his thoughts and deeds in this regard, that he saw the people in their total belonging, full of the past and full of the present, and out of his own experience he would be part of that betterment.

Before he went into formal politics his natural self confidence lead him to an involvement in various organisations including the Newtownhamilton Credit Union, the Loughgilly parish committee, becoming a civil rights activist and a founder of the local Belleeks GFC.

As a younger man he followed the dancing scene enthusiastically, enjoyed the ceili bands, playing cards, joining in the storytelling sessions and above all playing gaelic football. This latter was his fullest expression in those days and in his time he togged out for Newtown, Clady, Drumheriff and Belleeks. James- sometimes known locally as ‘big Jemmy,’ mostly played in midfield and central positions where his size, strength and fielding ability saw him a match for any opponent in fifteen years on the field of play.  When he hung up the boots he  took up a refereeing for several years. Whether as a player or selector he was totally involved and when Belleeks were re-established in 1983 saw his three sons Séamus, Hugh and Brian deservedly line out for the club. Angela his eldest daughter played with the Belleek camogie team, and Nan was a corner back in a Derrynoose/St Michaels Newtown ladies football amalgamation.

Few matched his intensity as an Armagh supporter all through the good and bad times from the early fifties until recent years. His exhilaration at Armagh’s All Ireland success in 2002 moved from bouts of pure speechlessness to outpourings of gratitude that he had lived to see the day- and always included a litany of lament for the great players and supporters who didn’t. He never missed an All Ireland between 1951 and 1999 and followed Crossmaglen Rangers enthusiastically through all their great years.

In 1966 James married Kathleen Slevin from Keady and he built one of the first modern bungalows in the entire district to set up family life in his native Outlacken Road.

He was enticed to run for the SDLP in 1977 and threw his hat in the ring with full aplomb having acquainted himself with the rules and powers of the Council. Every Monday evening following his election, week after week, he finished off the milking, changed into a suit, collar and tie and drove off to Newry to the meeting.

He brought to the council a rare speechmaking and representation style by merging the art of storytelling with the art of forcibly making his point.  His speeches were always full of old country sayings and parables as his method of highlighting the importance of whatever cause or case he was espousing.

Often he introduced an element of humour to stress the seriousness of a situation such as during a debate on helicopter noise in Newtownhamilton when he told Council members it was so bad that the crows were putting their wings over their ears. 

James served as Chairman of the Newry and Mourne Council 1993-1994 and travelled across the entire district to preside at the various functions and launches. His year included a trip to New York where he walked the St Patricks day route with his niece Anne Marie Slevin and as first citizen in 1993 he welcomed the then Irish President Mary Robinson to Newry. But his most satisfactory achievement in that period was negotiating a council grant for the development of the new Lissummon GAA grounds and club. That was his bread and butter.

All things agricultural interested him. He used his years as councillor to attend conferences in Ireland and abroad relating to farming matters, and delighted in bringing back information regarding various grants and developments to have them implemented locally. He also served on the Northern Ireland water and drainage board.

In later times he always spoke of the lasting friendships he made as a councillor including John Mc Evoy, Pat Toner, Nan Sands, Gordon Heslop the Unionist farming councillor, Jim Mc Allister, Kevin O Neill, the Clerk of Council and famous Down footballer, and Tom McEvoy, head of DoE.

For twenty years as a councillor, ever supported by his wife Kathleen and family, James brought his unique approach to local government and local representation. He was always himself, positive, self assured and approachable, ever willing to have a go, delighting in the achievements of families and communities. Year after year throughout his public life  he was the embodiment of the struggles of the people and the hopes of the people.

He is predeceased by his wife Kathleen, and survived by his children Angela, Séamus, Hugh, Brian and Nan, grandchildren Caitlin, James Pius and Peter, brother Pat and sister- in law Nan Mc Cone Ni Slevin.

Peter Makem

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