Updated: Dec 28, 2019
by Gerdette Rooney
Brexit has been dominating the airwaves for the past three years and talk of hard and soft borders bandied about in a willy-nilly fashion. Few understand what the terms actually mean and what effect it will have on people’s daily lives on the new UK EU border on the island. The following is an account of how it was for me and my family growing up in Monaghan during the 1960s and 1970s with a ‘Hard Border’.
I was eight years old in the early sixties when my smuggling training commenced. My mother was an expert at it and her excitement at evading the customs officers and saving some housekeeping shillings was contagious. For my brothers and me, it was our weekly adventure going to the wee North and meant treats of milky ice lollies and Opal fruits – made to make your mouth water. This was our payment for helping her out in illegal operations, doubling her butter quota, and keeping our mouths shut.
We lived in the Republic three miles from the border with Northern Ireland and were headed for the small village of Middletown two miles further on. The border consisted of two small wooden huts by the roadside manned by uniformed officers. The first we arrived at was the Republic’s customs, where my father went in as a formality but was sometimes waved on in wet weather when the officer didn’t want to get soaked or was reading the newspaper. A placard in the middle of the road had ‘STOP CUSTOMS’ written in both Irish and English in bold lettering. It was only on the way back the officers would be interested in what we had bought in the North.
A half mile further on we stopped at the English customs post with the stop sign of ‘Her Majesty’s Custom and Excise’ service. This was more of an ordeal as my father had to go inside and have his driver’s licence and car registration checked and until 1965 a triangular ‘triptyque’, or 'bond', had to be stamped allowing the temporary importation of the vehicle.
He might re-emerge with a uniformed customs man in a black peaked cap who would study us carefully. Then the boot would be searched but we seldom had to get out of the car. There were few products from the Republic that were worth smuggling north and the officers weren’t too bothered with ordinary shoppers. If you were lucky, some lorries with commercial loads would be passing through at the same time and distracting them.
The landscape didn’t change at all on the journey to Middletown – poor boggy farmland and drumlin hills on both sides of the border but the Irish language disappeared from the road signs in the north and the main street of the village sported a brightly painted red post office and post box with Her Majesty’s emblem. Next door was the one grocery store and off-license, into which my father disappeared to compare prices of Bushmill’s whiskey with Jameson’s from the south. That was his baby while we children hovered over the greater variety of sweets and bars and chewing gum from England that looked and tasted so different. We would squabble over who was getting what.
My mother shopped carefully because of the currency difference between the Irish punt and the English pound sterling. She kept a special brown purse in her dressing table drawer for her cross-border shopping trips and if any northern aunties or uncles came visiting, complicated exchange transactions took place over tea and apple tart. Kerrygold butter is a high quality butter brand from the cream of grass-fed Irish cows and its popularity was increasing in the UK and Europe. Wrapped in its distinctive golden foil with green logo, it travelled all the way from Cork in the very south only to be sold for 20d cheaper in Northern Ireland. It might be said to have been considered the ‘cocaine’ of the 1960s.
Across the road was Hughes’ pub and petrol pumps where it was no coincidence that we needed a complete fill of cheaper petrol. This too was a big savings. We were distantly related to the Hughes brothers and often a quick drink was had in the bar on a cold day, my parents keen to hear family gossip on the Northern side. My father would have a wee Bush chased by a glass of Guinness, my mother a hot port and we children would be given non-alcoholic ginger wine. At that time, Coca Cola was out of the question.
Whether a warm spring day or a rare sweltering Irish summer’s day, our winter coats were donned for these excursions, and on leaving the village, we pulled into a layby and pounds of Kerrygold butter were carefully inserted under our oxters, a Celtic colloquialism for the armpit. At the English customs hut, the car registration was noted and we were waved on. Tension tightened in the packed beetle Volkswagen. Mammy had us under orders of best behaviour and Daddy, impassive, drove straight ahead towards the stop sign entering the Republic.
The boot would be opened and all of us asked to step out of the car, it being well known that children acted as 'mules'. My baby brother Cathal acted as a good distraction and his screeching or a smelly nappy often did the trick, and we were waved through without searches. It was imperative that we weren’t kept waiting as that butter was melting rapidly under our armpits!
I remember so well one occasion when on stepping out, my mother just couldn’t keep a firm grip on her pound of butter and it dropped to the ground. There was dead quiet.
‘You’ve dropped something Madam,’ the officer said, as he gazed at the splat of butter on the tarmac and my poor blushing mother was highly embarrassed as she scooped it up in front of him. Under no circumstances was she going to let it go. Most officers overlooked small-scale personal smuggling but you could sometimes get one who was rigid about the law, and either confiscated goods or threatened imposing fines.
Smuggling of all sorts was the norm for people of the Borderlands. Baby prams could have a false bottom or coffins be filled with contraband – there was no end to the ingenuity employed to smuggle tobacco, cigarettes or alcohol, as well as butter. Livestock prices fluctuated constantly between north and south, and farmers did deals on both sides. Having farmers in the family, we would hear some very funny tales of cattle swimming across rivers in the dead of night and pigs sedated with Guinness in order to cross lakes by boat. Bureaucracy and identity tags were a thing of the future.
My mother told us about how it was in the 1940s, during wartime when the Republic of Ireland was neutral with no food scarcities, yet in Northern Ireland people were on strict rations. At that time the trains running between small towns on each side of the border were called the butter and sugar express. Women from Belfast travelled south to buy tea and the rough brown bread native to the south filled northern bellies more quickly than white English loaves.
By the time I was ten, our smuggling exploits had grown more daring. My brother and I were getting our first bikes and a research drive to Armagh, a bigger town seventeen miles from the border, indicated significant savings could be made buying them there. After some speedy lessons on cousins’ bikes, we were deemed proficient enough in our riding skills to not end up in the ditch or get knocked down.
Bikes purchased, they were strapped to the boot of the car and we took a different route home via an unapproved road. There were many of these straddling the border – often only narrow boreens with humpback stone bridges and badly potholed as the council didn’t repair them. Vehicles were not allowed use them, having to detour to an approved road with custom posts. They were generally used by local farmers to transport cattle and other livestock from one area of their farms to fresh pastures that just happened to be in the other jurisdiction, and they needed special permits to do so.
With random patrols and hefty fines if caught – my father dropped us off near the border and my mother led our inexperienced legs home the remaining miles. If stopped by random patrols, we were just ‘out for a spin’.
The next rite of passage was getting our first record player - mainly to play my parents collection of old 1950s crooner LP records purchased at an auction house. Such stuff as Jim Reeves and John McCormack, the Irish tenor. I had won my first single at the school hop – Kenny Rodgers ‘Ruby Don’t Take your Love to Town’ – and with the LP 'Top of the Pops 1969' on my Christmas list that year, I was very excited we were getting a player. Not conducive to the bars of a bicycle, this smuggling operation involved my father’s combined skills of a heavy foot on the fuel pedal and the practice of skirting potholes on the unapproved road.
The 1970s arrived and with it ‘The Troubles’. Sectarian violence erupted in the city of Derry in August 1969 and British troops were sent into Ulster to restore order and protect civilians. They didn’t leave until 2007, the longest campaign in British military history. Barbed-wire army camps and watchtowers were constructed along the 310-mile border and armed soldiers appeared on Belfast street corners. Armoured cars and tanks patrolled Catholic and Protestant ghettoes.
The smuggling continued in ‘bandit territory’ along the border, as South Armagh was known, but now it was guns and ammunition transported by paramilitaries on both sides – Republican and Loyalist. Crossing the border had the added hassle of army checkpoints and searches as well as dealing with customs. A huge concrete barracks was built, and entering Middletown you had to halt at barricades. As armed soldiers searched the Volkswagen, you could sense the rifle trained on you from the watchtower above. Clean shaven squaddies hardly out of nappies asked questions and you could see the fear in their young eyes.
After the first car bomb in 1970 which killed two police officers in South Armagh, the UK government decided to close over a hundred unapproved roads, hoping to put a stop to the gelignite trail across the border. Craters were dug and large concrete blocks or spikes put in place making the road impassable, and bridges were blown up where a stream or river marked the boundary. As quickly as they were closed, locals banded together at night with heavy machinery to remove the blocks and fill in the craters with gravel. It was a pointless strategy as all farmers knew the fields well but anger and resentment was rising.
Meanwhile, ordinary life went on and times were more affluent for those living on the border. My family was now regularly shopping big time in Armagh city as business declined in Middletown due to the army presence. Each to their own, my mother and I went in search of ‘fashion’, she in Lennox’s department store browsing through rails of crimplene trouser suits and twin sets, and I in the trendy boutiques, looking at bellbottom corduroys and fringed jackets. My brother and I made a beeline for the record shop, pleading for extra pocket money to purchase singles and LP’s. Bob Dylan was all the rage. Wine had arrived in Ireland – or Northern Ireland at least. Two pound ninety nine bottles of Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon were available so my father gave up making his unpalatable homebrew.
My hormones were in full swing in the early 1970s. Rock bands played in my hometown of Monaghan as ‘The Troubles’ brought entertainment to a standstill in the North. People held their weddings and functions in the South for safety, and four local hotels were booming. I went out with a scruffy guitarist from an Armagh band playing at our teenage disco but he got beaten up by the local mob – protective of their home patch and girls. Soon bomb scares regularly interrupted the vibrant nightclub scene, when all would be asked to vacate the hall and stand outside in the cold while the venue was searched for bombs. The reality of the guerrilla war on our doorstep was starting to hit home to us young ones. I questioned why I wasn’t allowed to date Protestants. Neighbours were becoming wary and social tensions rising.
Sex was seeping across the border: ‘dirty books’ such as Ian Fleming’s James Bond paperbacks which my father hid behind his trigonometry books in the bookcase; the Sun tabloid with its busty Page 3 girls; and, worst of all, johnnies emptied from the dispensers in Armagh toilets or legally bought across the counter in the North while illegal in the South. Licentiousness was the order of the day and it had the bishop ranting from the pulpit at Sunday Mass. Catholicism was in crisis.
The ‘Contraceptive Train’ from Belfast to Dublin held 47 members of the newly founded Irish Women’s Liberation Movement in 1971, and the triumphant feminists arrived in Dublin waving condoms to taunt the blushing Gardai (police), and Customs officials expected to arrest them. ‘Let them through,’ the crowd roared. The women were condemned by Church and State and deemed to have ideas above their station. The train inspired a musical made in 2015.
At that time, I was having my own wild rebellion at age seventeen, deliberately choosing boyfriends my parents didn’t approve of. The Traenors were strong republican sympathisers and rumoured to run a safe house which harboured IRA activists on the run. I just thought Colm was a good looker with sex appeal, and didn’t really understand the politics of what was going on.
1972 was the deadliest year of ‘The Troubles’ with five hundred people, over half of them civilians, losing their lives, and the tragedy of Derry’s Bloody Sunday in January of that year portrayed on TV screens around the globe. Sectarian barricades were going up in Belfast and Derry and people moved house to a Protestant or Catholic area in fear of being burnt out in a mixed area. The British Army patrolled the streets with rifles and searched bags at the entrance to stores. They befriended kids with sweets who later stoned them.
Along the winding roads of South Armagh, the Irish tricolour blew in the wind and ‘Brits Out’ or the ‘Sniper At Work’ signs on telegraph poles became Republican icons of ‘The Troubles’. Army helicopters patrolled the border continuously in search of suspicious paramilitary activity. Tit-for-tat massacres on both sides of the religious divide were on the increase. Ordinary shoppers from Dublin and further south became too fearful to cross the border, preferring to pay higher prices for goods locally. My father now minded the car with its southern registration number while we shopped on Armagh streets. The bag searches were tedious but necessary.
Leaving the Borderlands behind in 1973 for the safe pristine beauty of Switzerland, I relished the fact that nobody cared who or what you were. While living in Basel, I dated and nearly married a Bulgarian communist but the border education of sticking to your own kind and recognising cultural difference prevailed.
Thursday 17th May 1974 is forever etched in my memory. My boss Herr Dr Nidecker informed me that a car bomb had gone off in Monaghan with seven fatal casualties and many injured. With telephone lines blocked, it was impossible to phone home and get details. On Thursday evenings my father usually drove into town to buy the local newspaper and I was beside myself with worry until I learned they were safe. However, being a small town, I knew some of the victims and one was a cousin who’d been having a quiet pint in the pub when the bomb exploded outside.
The Dublin government decided to build an army barracks in Monaghan and it opened in December 1976. It was located a few hundred yards from our bungalow on the outskirts of town, in an old flax field belonging to the mental hospital. Its presence brought a buzz of excitement and new business to the town. However, rumours were rife that the unwanted pregnancy rate rose in the region that Christmas season, as young soldiers in civvies were fresh prey for bold local lassies. Even I sometimes donned my shortest mini skirt as I strolled past the wire when the lads were playing football. My younger siblings loved to watch the helicopters taking off for border patrols.
That summer I brought a Finnish friend Tina home to Ireland for a holiday. Her family was very worried about ‘the war’ and security issues, but I convinced them the media exaggerated the risks. Our first evening, we were in the pub having a drink with my parents when a bomb threat was announced. Tina went white and was ready to take to her heels instantly in her clogs.
‘Steady yerself there girl,’ my father said. ‘And finish your pint. Sure, it’ll just be a false alarm.’
Such was the complacency of those times when people attempted to maintain the normality of everyday lives.
Life changed along the border. A new divisive language was heard on the streets – Prods and Taigs, Orange and Green, us and them. Surnames designated which foot you kicked with, Protestant or Catholic. Short ceasefires came and went and people disappeared.
Then, with Ireland and the United Kingdom joining the European Economic Community in 1973, there was no need for customs control and the huts were dismantled. The Rooney family could stop wearing winter overcoats on a hot summer’s day. The price of Kerrygold butter became irrelevant. Free trade was appreciated by all and both sides of the border prospered.
With the signing of the Good Friday Peace agreement in 1998, the violence of thirty years came to an end and peace prevailed. Crossing the border is simple and hardly discernible nowadays, except for speed signs changing from kilometres to miles. One road crosses the border four times back and forth in ten minutes but you can’t spot where the crossings are.
With Brexit looming no-one really knows what’s going to happen to this new stretch of EU border. But who would want to return to the painful previous experiences of a Hard Border?
Copyright Gerdette Rooney