Soft Border – An Irishman’s Diary about childhood memories of South Ulster

John Quinn, Seamus Heaney and TK Whitaker

John Quinn, Seamus Heaney and TK Whitaker

 

In his new book This Place Speaks To Me, based on a long-running RTÉ radio series, writer and broadcaster John Quinn interviews various Irish people (including the late Seamus Heaney) about the landscapes that formed them.

He also includes life-changing journeys of his own, some to places much farther afield, including Ephesus, Gallipoli, and Auschwitz.

At the appointed rendezvous, we would collect a box of the required material, pay the man, and then flee back to the 'Free State'

But I was fascinated to see that the book climaxes with his emotional visit to a part of the world that I know well, the borderlands of South Ulster.  

And I was riveted by his recollections of one particular institution, now long gone – “Paddy Larry’s shop”.

Quinn’s father grew up near there, before a Garda career propelled him into exile from his native drumlins to the plains of Meath, where the author was born. But as a child, the latter made many trips back to the ancestral homeland.  

Paddy Larry

So returning last year, after decades, he was able to navigate from memory, up to a point. Then he got lost. And when he stopped at a house to ask directions, by a happy chance, the man at the door turned out to be a grandson of Paddy Larry.

Now, readers with long memories may recall my confession, some years ago in this column, to youthful involvement in an international smuggling operation.  

To recap, it involved journeys between my native Monaghan, in the Republic, and South Armagh, in Northern Ireland. These were almost certainly via “unapproved roads”, as they were known.  

At the appointed rendezvous, we would collect a box of the required material, pay the man, and then flee back to the “Free State”.

In my defence, I was about nine years old at the time, and the gang leaders were my parents. Also the main item we were importing was butter – 24lbs at a time – for personal consumption. But in any case, the vendor was the aforementioned Paddy Larry, who, thanks to the UK’s cheap-food policies, was able to sell at prices vastly lower than in the adjacent Republic.

An interesting footnote to that column is that, afterwards, I received an email from a man in Donegal who was married to a native of those parts. He was nearly sure, he said, that Paddy Larry’s was in Monaghan. And that, if so, we had never left the Republic on those trips.  

He promised to find out definitively, and write again.  

Maybe what we need is a soft Border that could be refrigerated, when necessary, especially during hot spells?

In the meantime, I checked with several people who could remember the shop. They were all adamant it was in the North, although the very fact of my asking made some begin to doubt.  

One was a former garda who had often manned Border checkpoints within “150 yards” of Paddy Larry’s. But the actual shop was always off-limits to those in southern uniform, he said, so it must have been on the other side of the Border.  

Despite this, my Donegal correspondent came back, after checking with his in-laws, and declared with certainty that the shop had been in the Republic.

John Quinn’s book does not address this issue. But I could probably put the argument to rest, finally, by tracking down Paddy Larry’s grandson, as he did. And yet I prefer the ambiguity, especially in the current context of impending Brexit, when imaginative thinking about the Border is required.  

Perhaps, indeed, butter is a useful metaphor. Maybe what we need is a soft Border that could be refrigerated, when necessary, especially during hot spells?

The title of This Place Speaks to Me might be considered ironic in the context of the Monaghan-Armagh frontier, a part of the country where the natives have been traditionally reluctant to part with information, at least to strangers.

We didn’t use seat-belts, assuming the car had any. Never mind the Troubles

But his father’s homeland spoke volubly to John Quinn, who was moved to near-poetry by the “little hills”, and by reliving conversations with now-dead aunts and uncles, “discussing the matters of the day in that lovely Monaghan idiom”.

At least one of his childhood memories spoke to me. On the occasion in question, his father was driving around a bend in their Baby Ford, when a door opened “and my sister Mary tumbled out onto the grass verge”. There was no harm done, Quinn recalls; they just teased her about it for years.

Ah yes. Not the least dangerous thing about those 1970s smuggling missions is that we didn’t use seat-belts, assuming the car had any. Never mind the Troubles. Between the health-and-safety standards of the period, and eating 24 pounds of butter every few weeks, it’s a wonder any of us are still alive.