Cormac MacConnell: Heading back to the Border way of life

It now looks certain that what they are calling a hard Border will shortly be imposed again on this island, by our powers-that-be.
Cormac MacConnell: Heading back to the Border way of life

The emerging reality, since Brexit, recalls to my mind the boyhood era when I was part of a gang of smugglers led by my allegedly highly respectable schoolteacher mother.

Again, the purest of truths.

You see, our Erne-side rural parish was only a few miles from the Cavan border, and my brothers and I, led by our mother, Mary, were mounted upon bicycles for a special trip every autumn across the Border, into Swanlinbar.

Worse still, at first sight, was that Mary stripped us all down to the bare bones, covered only by old raincoats, before she led us down the twisty road from Arney to Swanlinbar.

The journey past the heavily manned Customs posts was about ten miles or thereabouts, and crossing the Border was highly exciting.

All cars were stopped and checked, but a respectable looking mother, with a string of cubs behind her, was routinely waved through into what we always called the Free State, and which our Protestant neighbour s termed simply the State.

The first thing you noticed was that the telephone kiosks, scarlet in the North, were green in the Free State. Things like that.

It is happening again nowadays, as we speak, that the fall of sterling is leading to shoppers from the Republic to cannily cross the nowadays invisible and unmanned border for bargains.

We were boys in the Forties, just after the end of WW2, with stringent rationing still in force in the North, and many scarcities, and the economic truth was that mother Mary could clothe her lads much more cheaply in Cavan than in the home county where, generally, boys’ clothing was hard to obtain.

That is why she stripped us off before the smuggling began.

Anyway, I think the drapery supplies were available in a shop called McGoverns in Swanlinbar (which we simply called Swad), and it was here that Mary bought each of us the fashionable corduroy sets which would clothe us through the upcoming winter.

Many of you will remember them well. The trousers, of course, were short. The jackets were zipped all the way up the front.

The sets were available in navy or brown, as far as I can remember, and, with three of us to cover, she always went for navy sets.

They were instantly donned. For the first few days, the ends of the new short trousers would irritate your thighs significantly, just as a new pair of wellingtons did when they were first worn.

She would buy us some lemonade and sweets, and Mary would have tea and cakes with other women she met in Swad on the day, all of them doing their smuggling too of course, and then we would set off for home with our new clothes hidden under the old overcoats, feeling very guilty, fearing we would be caught and jailed by the men we called the Water Rats.

Don’t know where that term came from, but it applied to the customs men from both jurisdictions.

Mary would also have purchased other items to smuggle across, often for neighbours back home.

I recall her once putting a bag of sparables in my pocket. Those were the small steel nails used for repairing shoes, and were almost impossible to obtain in the North.

On another occasion, with high excitement altogether, we brought back a brown paper bag of the first bananas we had ever seen. The taste was mighty. I have had a strong weakness for bananas ever since that smuggling operation with my mother.

There i8s always smuggling as a reality in the borderlands, then and now.

There were always price differences which, in fairness, folk would have been crazy not to avail themselves of in hard times.

Today, all the talk is about diesel laundering and suchlike. Back then, herds of cattle were driven by night into whichever marketplace was best at the time but, mostly, the smuggled commodities were cigarettes and tobacco and pots of jam and simple small items like that.

And corduroy clothes for the boys (who were always called cubs) around Swad and the other nearby Border town, called Blacklion, which we always called The Black, and which was where the menfolk from the North could get a drink on the Sundays that were closed days up North.

I had my first bottle of stout in my late teens in The Black, did not like the taste, and did not drink for years afterwards in consequence.

Again, the pure truth.

I will not go into the harsher side of life then and later, either side of what was surely a hard Border.

Is it enough to say that the little British customs posts on the line were being blown up in the dead of night right throughout my lifetime?

The Erne was a sounding board for the blasts.

The old men could listen to the booming sounds coming rolling down the Lough, and accurately say, “Swanlinbar is gone tonight” or “There’s Derrylin”, and they were always right.

It was an ongoing reality, and we do not need to dwell here on all the blood and pain and deaths and tragedies that were the totemic signposts along the‘invisible line.

So, after all the talking and political posturing to come, it looks certain we will have a hard Border again in a couple of years.

Maybe cubs as yet unborn will be going smuggling across it with their mothers too.

Good luck to them, and I pray they will evade the new generation of the ones we called Water Rats long ago.

More in this section


Keep up-to-date with all the latest developments in Farming with our weekly newsletter

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up