Cormac McConnell: Hard border wasn’t too hard for us kids

The fuss and furore these winter days over the increasingly likely prospect of a hard border around the neck of this little island fascinates me lately.

Those many of you who were not born anywhere in the Irish borderlands (as I was, back in the Forties of the last century), cannot comprehend what it really was like for us, back then.

And it was not all that hard, either.

It was a geographic and political fact of life and living, away back then in the borderlands.

And there was a lot of real craic involved as well.

I’ve confessed here before that I was a hardened cross-border smuggler across that border between my Fermanagh, and Cavan and Leitrim in what we always called the Free State.

I was wearing short trousers like all my boyhood friends and cycling across the border with bicycles packed with items like cigarettes and many others which were scarce and rationed on our side of the border.

The customs men of both posts on the border back then were intent on searching cars and vans that might be carrying contraband loads, and were likely to wave little cyclists in short trousers through without a check of any kind.

Thank God for that, back then at border crossings like Swanlinbar on the Cavan side, and Blacklion on the Leitrim side of Cleenish, our Six Counties parish controlled by the British and their agents, above in Stormont Castle in Belfast City.

Decades later, I was not at all surprised to learn that my Dutch wife’s father, Willie Geuyen, from the Dutch borderlands village of Etten in the Gelderland district, always drove across the German border for refills of the petrol for his vehicles, which was much cheaper there than in Holland.

Common sense, for sure.

And Farmer Willie had been a prisoner of war of the Germans during World War 2, too.

And was lucky to survive the trauma of that era, and to be able to return unscathed to his acres in Etten in Gelderland.

One of our social realities, in the time of the showband boom, I recall, was that the best ballrooms, with the biggest showbands, such as the Royal Showband and the Capiol Showband with Butch Moore as lead vocalist, were always playing in ballrooms on the other side from us, in the borderlands.

If you wished to get to hear them... and chase the girls they attracted nightly... you had to register a request for a late night crossing with the customs posts, and have the sticker displayed on the windscreen when returning in the small hours of the morning.

A hard border indeed!

It is maybe worth a mention that all of those popular ballrooms around the border created by our troubled history were “dry”.

None of them had a licence for anything stronger than

orange squash or lukewarm lemonade.

The pubs in the towns and villages nearby benefitted hugely from that reality!

But then, the power of th Catholic Church was so great that most of the dancers were wearing the heart-shaped badges signifying that they were teetotalers.

And for the seven weeks of Lent, with the exception of Saint Patrick’s Day, dancing was banned for all on both sides of what, come to think of it, was truly a hard border for all concerned.

I suppose what I’m saying here, in a new era and a new enough century, in which just about everything that touches our lifestyles has so mutated and developed (mainly positively, in my view) is that hard borders and the restrictions adhering to them are limitations we have experienced before and know how to cope with by now.

Will we leave it there for now?

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