On the edge of war
An Irishman’s Diary: Smuggling, jarveys and a funfare flourished close to Carlingford Lough
In some unusual ways Carlingford Lough was on the perimeter of the second World War. The Border runs down the middle of this scenic inlet of the sea, bounded on the southern shore by the mountains of the Cooley Peninsula while the slopes of the Mountains of Mourne sweep upwards on the northern side.
During the war, Northern Ireland was Allied territory while the Irish Free State, as this country was then called, was neutral. But the tides of war, however distant, washed against both shores and affected people on both sides of the Border.
Our grandparents lived in Omeath and during the summer of 1944 my brother Tom and I travelled there for a memorable holiday. We were nine and 11 respectively and were vaguely aware that there was a war on.
Our first sight of any war-related activity was from the carriage of our train as it left Greenore. We were enthralled to catch sight of a big plane taking off from the other side of the lough, while two other planes circled overhead with heavy humming sounds. We learned later that the US airforce was using Greencastle airfield as a training base for operations in Europe and that Gen Eisenhower had once visited it.
There were rumours that the US airmen had a liking for Irish whiskey and stout and that an illicit trade had developed. Under cover of darkness, against all civil and military regulations, small boats laden with crates would set off from the pier in Carlingford and steal across the short, international stretch of water. Some pubs were said to do well out of it.
We soon became aware that smuggling of butter and bacon, cheese and jam was part of the daily life in Omeath. There was strict rationing of these commodities just across the water in Warrenpoint or up the road in Newry, whereas the shops in the Cooley Peninsula were well stocked with such produce.
It seemed as if just about everyone was making a few shillings profit.
Our grandmother would peer out the front window of the cottage and say things like: Oh there’s Wee Tawm away to Newry on his bicycle with his jacket on the carrier.
Apparently the hope was that the vigilant customs men on both sides of the Border would wave the cyclist past and not discover that the jacket was folded round 2lbs or 3lbs of butter destined for the black market.
At weekends flotillas of small boats would cross from Warrenpoint to Omeath, carrying visitors who wanted to drink alcohol without restraint and then board the returning boats, their bodies now bloated with hidden produce stowed under their clothes.
There was a funfare in the square at Warrenpoint, a colourful place full of the movement of bumpers, chairplanes, swinging boats and the blare of loud music. It was a recreation place for soldiers in uniform. I asked one of them where he was from and he said he came from Belgium. Apparently Belgian troops were being trained in Northern Ireland for a return to their own country.
The severe restriction on petrol both north and south of the Border from the beginning of the war meant that people resorted to horses and traps to get around. In addition, there were up to 50 jarveys in Omeath offering the crowds of visitors trips along the scenic road to Carlingford. All this meant that our grandfather was busy. He was the village blacksmith and was kept going from dawn until dusk shoeing horses.
We witnessed a traumatic and tragic event related to warfare. One Saturday afternoon in July we heard the sound of aircraft nearby and could see two planes rolling and diving in the air just above Warrenpoint. We didn’t know it at the time but the aerial display was part of civil defence air raid exercises and hundreds of spectators had come to view it.
It was so spectacular that our grandfather left his forge and we went out into the field to get a better view. Then the two planes collided in mid air over the town. I distinctly remember seeing a large piece of fuselage or tail section sheared off. We saw a great splash as one plane plunged into the sea near the baths. Six airmen were killed in the collision but no civilians even though the shattered second plane slammed into buildings in the town.
When we returned to Omeath the following summer the war in Europe was over. The airfield at Greencastle was being wound down. Uniformed men no longer laughed on the swinging boats in Warrenpoint. There were still food scarcities in the North and still some smuggling, but some kind of normality was returning after six years of conduct. Carlingford Lough was still there in all its serene and scenic beauty.