Staccato questions and insistent torchlight – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Border memories
We waited for teenage soldiers, often from the north of England, to decide on how long it should take for us to continue our journey into the South. Photograph: Alan Betson
As a child, to me it mostly meant Sam Spudz smokey bacon crisps and Smarties in a straight-sided box rather than a round tube. Others in my family might point instead to the Golden Crisp or Caramel bars that came home from Donegal of a Sunday evening: contraband confectionary that we could not access in Tyrone. It was all the more alluring for its vague exoticism – because it came from across the Border, it wasn’t available to us on a weekday.
Other things that the Border meant at the time included the need for two purses, the main one being for the “English money” we used every day and second for the “Irish money” spent on these weekend trips. Children can be as expert on currency fluctuations as the most sophisticated of forex traders when it might have an impact on how many packets of Smarties they can afford, or how much they might have to lose in the Donegal slot machines. The latter were another substantial cross-Border draw during my childhood, although the somewhat noxious air supply generated by the chain-smoking clients of the low-ceilinged amusement arcades probably wasn’t all that great for our respiratory health.
And then there was the Border itself — there were a couple of different crossings that we used, but the main one was Belleek in Fermanagh, where the river Erne provided the divide for maps but not always for minds. A few miles before that was Boa Island, an island in Lower Lough Erne that was (and still is) connected to the rest of Fermanagh by road bridges. At the end of one of these was the army installation and checkpoint at which I spent many, many Sunday hours in traffic queues, waiting for a long series of often teenage soldiers, often from the north of England, to decide on how long it should take for us to continue our journey into the South.
It was usually tolerable in winter (our Donegal trips didn’t heed seasonal vagaries), when there were no queues and you might even be waved through without having to wind down the driver’s window.
Summer, however, particularly the sunnier days, brought a peculiar kind of purgatory. Parents and children alike would hold their breath as the checkpoint neared, wondering how long the single-file snake of cars would extend across the bridge today. The equation was both simple and infuriating: more people deciding they wanted to enjoy their nearest seaside on a warm day meant more cars in the Boa Island queue. Early in the afternoon, the queue would be worse coming from the North, while the direction would switch in the evening.
It was not terribly unusual to spend up to an hour here both ways in August, making a decision to take the trip (a 40-minute drive today) a much more substantial one than it should have been.
And yet we persisted.
The Sam Spudz and Smarties provided some comfort on the way home, while I can definitely say I have read a lot more books while sitting in queues for army checkpoints than most people have.
All of this is only bizarre in retrospect, along with getting your bag (even a child’s bag) checked on the way into Marks & Spencer in Belfast, having walked through security barriers to get on to the main shopping street in the first place. Or asking your parents at a much too young age what “sporadic” meant because you heard the term “sporadic violence” in almost every television and radio news report that was broadcast, day after day.
And back on the Border, interactions with the teenage soldiers could provide an odd smattering of interest. Some might be responsive to queries about where they were from, or how old they were. Mostly though, it was a staccato questionnaire by insistent torchlight: Do you have any identification, where are you coming from, where are you going, is this your own vehicle, would you mind getting out to open the boot, Sir? They must have got very bored, because we certainly did. And boredom generally doesn’t lead to good humour, especially in circumstances such as these, where a veneer of normality lay most uncomfortably on top of an utterly dysfunctional situation.
It all came back to me a week ago when a son, bound for a camp with his scouting troop, thought it would be funny to shine a newly acquired torch right into my face without warning. The transportation back to the Boa Island checkpoint was almost instant, and not in a good way.