Updated: Dec 27, 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