David Shanks: An Irishman’s Diary on the hard Border of the 1950s

‘The IRA did its best to blow away Border posts but it was the 1986 Single European Act, the Single Market, and the Belfast Agreement that ultimately have given us our soft Border’

John McNamee, dressed as customs workers, joined other members of Border Communities Against Brexit earlier this year to protest against Brexit by setting up an old customs post at Carrickcarnon between Dundalk and Newry. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

John McNamee, dressed as customs workers, joined other members of Border Communities Against Brexit earlier this year to protest against Brexit by setting up an old customs post at Carrickcarnon between Dundalk and Newry. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

After Dundalk, the tension in our tightly packed car rose perceptibly. “Now no jokes or stories about smugglers, please.” Mother had us under orders of best behaviour. Father, impassive, drove straight ahead for the Newry crossing. In the 1950s it wasn’t called the Hard Border, but it was one.

Strangely, we were going “home” according to Father, who hailed from Cushendall in the Glens of Antrim, and was spending his career life with the (curiously named) Northern Bank, in the South. Slightly confusing to this boy.

We lived in Bray, Co Wicklow, and were going for the August to the Glens. Without fail we did this for years of my youth. I loved it. We stayed with Father’s uncles, William and James Stevenson, bachelors who ran a general store the like of which even then was an anachronism. And there was fishing and all sorts of thrilling village novelties ahead.

“The Border” was two wooden huts at Killeen above Newry in the Mournes. The first was for the Republic’s customs, where Father went in for some formality. We knew that on the way back customs men there would be very interested in what we had bought in the North. A hundred yards or so on, the British customs was more of an ordeal. They would want to stamp Father’s triangular “triptyque”, a pre-1965 paper allowing the temporary importation of the vehicle. They could also confiscate any butter, eggs or tobacco from the South. It was never about drugs, of course.

Father got out ceremoniously and stepped up into the office. Minutes ticked. He might re-emerge with a uniformed customs man in black peaked cap who might lean in studying us. (Children were used as smugglers’ “mules”, I heard much later.) Sometimes the officer would search the car’s interior. The boot might be opened. The odd time we would have to get out to show what was packed around our ankles. It was a very sleek car – an imposing 1948 black Riley 1.5 litre RMA – but in fact it was pokey inside especially for a family going away for a month.

Tea men

Tea, rationed in the Republic, was cheaper in the North. I later heard of “tea men” with long bags in their trousers for the contraband.

Surprise, surprise by the time we got to Newry, the Riley’s tank would badly need a fill of cheap petrol. (I would be craving a Walls ice cream, another of the North’s unique attractions.) Tobacco was presumably cheaper in the South – or was it just that Father preferred Yachtsman plug or Mick McQuaid from the South?

I recall a very long queue of lorries down the hill into Newry, where a driver could apparently wait for hours for his load to be cleared. All this was before the days of the “M1 motorway”, the first on the island. Perversely, 10 miles south of Belfast it turned sharp right to Dungannon – of all places. Anywhere but Dublin, seemed to be a fundamental of unionist planning. (I digress.)

Border posts

The IRA did its best to blow away Border posts but it was the 1986 Single European Act, the Single Market, and the Belfast Agreement that ultimately have given us our soft Border.

I have some unsavoury memories of a hard Border in the late 1970s. In the middle of nowhere (where most of the serious smuggling was done) on the way back from Donegal a young British soldier stopped our camper van. Ignoring my two small boys, his idea of a conversational gambit was: “And what do you think of the political situation then?”

Studying his automatic rifle and trigger-finger, I took him to be bored and to mean: Which side are you on? I think I came up with something about belonging on both sides of the Border and that though I would like to see the island united – not by violence. This intimidating encounter must have been somewhere near Pettigo, which I recently passed through, taking a picture of what a group of senior al fresco afternoon drinkers assured me is the last Border post standing.

One scandalous 1950s story – don’t know whether it was true but it sure elicited lots of tut-tuts: A woman returned to Belfast off the Enterprise express — an elegant frontally sloped and imposing blue beast belching steam as I recall – was discovered by customs to have several dozen eggs. The customs man confiscated them and threw them in the fire of the locomotive at Great Victoria Street Station.

In those days of post-war rationing, right-thinking opinion was appalled at this sheer waste. That hard Border was petty.