By Peter Makem
Among the first verbs I ever learned was the verb “to smuggle.” Among the earliest nouns that entered my vocabulary were “butter,” “fags” (cigarettes), “sugar” and “eggs,”— and each of these nouns was preceded by the word “Free-State” in the form of an adjective.
The reason for this was simple. We lived half a mile from the border with five roads leading South to either Blayney, Ballybay or Monaghan town. The South of Ireland had been a Republic for 10 years at the time but the old name of the “Free State” which had been there since1922 was hard to shake off and remains so from time to time to this day.
It must be remembered that the border cut off natural hinterlands at the stroke of a pen, separated communities and neighbors that had lived together for centuries and that until the mid-nineties, was often a serious physical barrier with unapproved roads blasted and steel bollards erected — and sometimes permanent checkpoints.
Then there was the term to “jump” the border, that is, to travel by what was officially termed an “unapproved road.” In the late fifties, in order to officially cross the border, a driver had to make “an appointment” to get back if they intended to return late, and pay a small fee to the custom man.
Things tightened very much following the short-lived IRA campaign of the fifties. But I remember the blowing up of the roads, that is, all the smaller crossings were cratered by the Stormont Government, and there were five of these near where we lived. While this caused considerable hardship to people on both sides of the border — an early version of the Berlin Wall — the smuggling instinct asserted itself and narrow routes were made across — even though the road was like a Third World dirt track.
Later in the seventies when the same roads were blown up again and even greater craters made, the age of the digger had arrived and I recall a quick public meeting the day after a major local unapproved route was blasted with three craters. Farmers and others from both sides spent a full day filling all three in, and by nightfall the road was reopened. It was blasted again about a year later and steel barricades erected, but these were cut away and cross-border access regained in days.
But while the border divided the people and caused considerable disruption, it also created a new economy among the locals. Smuggling.
I was regularly sent by my parents across to “The Free State Shop” — just over the border on to road to Ballybay — for whatever was cheaper there, usually sugar, paraffin oil (half a gallon at a time) and tobacco. The cigarettes in the south had different names such as “Sweet Afton” and “Carrolls Number 1”— there was never a number 2 or 3.
In the North the brands were “Gallaghers Blues,” “Gallaghers Greens” and “Woodbine,” advertised if I remember well as “Wild Woodbine, that grand little smoke.” John Players was common North and South, but always cheaper in the South and were sold as a “Large Player” 20 in a package, and a “Small Player” 10 in a package.
For older pipe-smoking people I often took plugs of Walnut or Warhorse tobacco across. But you dare not make a mistake. If you were sent for Walnut and arrived with Warhouse you were sent straight back across the border.
I was warned from an early age to be careful and use the right codes. At the local shop “Free-State fags” were sold from under the counter as a matter of routine and I remember I was sent to the shop to buy some cigarettes and full of innocence asked out loud — “could I have a packet of Free State Players?” The shop man quietly gave me a verbal roasting, telling me that there could be customs men listening.
“Just ask for a packet of fags, and we know what you mean!” he growled, and kept growling. I never made that mistake again.
Every schoolboy my age was at the smuggling, that is, living the normal life of a border upbringing, and of course when we met each other at school the deeds grew bigger and the narrow escapes were of high drama such as how to hide things if stopped by a custom’s car. I remember smuggling razor blades in the bicycle lamp and other “ingenious” ploys.
But some of my school friends were into quite serious smuggling and were known as the “egg men.” These lived very close to the border and very regularly sped across with a crate of eggs in a barrow — a crate held 12 dozen eggs. You can imagine a quiet road and the sudden drone of a barrow and the beat of speeding feet.
But I also remember some customs men who were interested in traditional music and who came a few times to our house where there were regular music sessions. One was a good fiddler. But when word got out, they had to be very politely asked to leave, as my father didn’t want the name of a “double agent” and the dread that neighbors might think they were fingering more than the fiddle.
Then there was the bigger and more organised smuggling involving taking pigs or cattle across — either way, depending on prices. I was never involved in this, apart from once or twice being asked to drive some local cattle onto the road to put a barrier between a fleeing smuggler and a customs patrol. But I often recall vanloads of pigs suddenly appearing into the peace with massive screeching and screaming as they flew past — what a Doppler effect— and squealing away around the corner to some destination.
Then, usually a few minutes later, the customs would follow at speed, but they didn’t know the nuances of the terrain as the locals, and usually were seen driving slowly back like a hound that had lost the scent of the hare.
But some were caught and paid a price. The customs always confiscated the vehicle of the smuggler, whether this was a bike or a van or a lorry. Before my time, an uncle of mine got six months in Mountjoy Jail in Dublin for his part in a major cattle-crossing.
But there were also really big, big smugglers — such as taking cement across at times of a strike — either North or South, or loads of cattle meal. Some families made their living out of smuggling, their 9-to-5 job, or should I say, ‘round the clock’ job.
It is still a serious factor along the border today, especially involving oil. On a wider scale, any sharp difference in prices such as petrol prices results in an immediate cross border surge and the periodical shopping exodus experienced in recent years from South to North has become quite a natural phenomenon
But apart from the direct smuggling, people naturally went to the places where things were cheapest. Back in the late fifties, shoes were usually cheaper in the Free State, clothes in the North, beers cheaper south of the border and bread cheaper in the North and so on.
The coinage was the same but the design was different. The Free State coins were designed by WB Yeats among others, with a horse on the half crown, a salmon on the two-shilling piece, a hen on the penny, a hare on the sixpence — I can’t remember the others.
But the English monarch was the symbol on the British coinage. The English five pound note was a huge white note that had to be folded while the Irish 10 and 20 pound notes were not as cumbersome but the large £10 note was green and the larger £20 note red. All were recognized as legal tender on both sides of the border.
The romance still lingers quite a bit. And some of the fantastic border tales were true. Their literally was a house on the border near where I lived that was half in Armagh (the North) and half in Monaghan (the Free State), — just as there were farms of land with fields on either side and smuggling was simply a case of moving cattle from one field to the next. It was also true in the house mentioned that you could make the dinner in the kitchen in Armagh and go next room to bed in Monaghan.
Nowadays, all roads are open and there is no sign of a physical border. But there is still a currency border and two distinct economic regions and underground enterprises such as diesel laundering are the natural heirs of the long smuggling tradition.
But I’m off! I’m heading across the border toward Dundalk. Diesel is a few pence cheaper there. It’s in the blood.