Smuggling on the Border

 Having become acquainted with Anne Tierney during her research into the crash of the Halifax plane between Tuam and Lavelly I have come to appreciate the wonderful research that she has done into the event. As a result she has been called upon by other groups working on World War 2 plane crashes. She always has come up with long lost information and traced not only relations of the men concerned but also found surviving crew members thought to have passed away. Being aware that the people of Tuam would not have any idea of what life was like along the border since partition and especially during the war years Anne suggested that I might write a story on those years.


  The question may well be asked what connection has the historic Town of Tuam got in common with the little Fermanagh village of Belleek. History shows that a connection goes back at least 245 years. From the Plantation of Ulster in the early 1600’s a large portion of Fermanagh north of Lough Erne was part of the barony of Lurg and the land lords were the Caldwell family. On the death of his father – Sir John – Sir James Caldwell inherited the title. The castle had fallen into a state of disrepair and funds were low. It now became necessary for Sir James to find a suitable bride and of necessity she must bring with her a substantial dowry. Several attempts at match making were made until eventually Elisabeth the third daughter of the Most Reverend Josiah Hort, D.D. Lord Archbishop of Tuam was found to be the most suitable bride for Sir James. The fact that she brought with her a dowry of £10,000-0-0 would have had a major bearing on the matter. The first and second daughters of the Lord Archbishop had married well and brought with them substantial dowries. This is an indication of the wealth of the diocese of Tuam.


     Older residents of Tuam may have made the pilgrimage to Lough Derg in Co. Donegal; the island was in the same parish as Belleek. Apart from the war years pilgrims would travel by motor car from the west of Ireland to Pettigoe and Lough Derg. In normal circumstances special documents and passes were required for motor crossing the border. For the pilgrims there was a concession made for motor vehicles. They were permitted to travel without documents the ten mile portion of road which was in N. Ireland, from Belleek to Pettigoe. The one condition being that they should not stop in N. Ireland. At the time an enterprising Belleek business man carried on several trades, he had a forge, a carpentry workshop, one of the first commercial dance halls in Ireland. He also ran a thriving hackney service. On one occasion while working on his Ford Model ‘A’ car he got the electric wiring mixed up. The situation was serious, but never to be beaten for a plan John kept a watch on Belleek Street for cars going to Lough Derg. He spotted a Galway registered car (IM) the same make as his, signed the driver to stop. Opened the bonnets of both cars saw the sequence of the wires and sorted out his problem, thanked the driver most sincerely and sent him on his way to Lough Derg.


     Having grown up on the border and it was then part of every day life, we just accepted it for what it was. To a stranger it was very complicated and impossible to understand, there were no fixed markings apart from the Customs Post’s on each side. The quality of the road surface was different. The Free State customs post was a corrugated iron building with wooden barriers on the road. In early days the Northern Ireland building was much the same, it was replaced by a modern structure about 1935. We always called then ‘Customs Huts’. All vehicles had to have pass books which were stamped by the Irish customs every time the owner passed through. The N.I. hut was open from 8 in the morning until 5 in the evening; only during these hours could goods officially be imported or exported. The N.I. customs were responsible for all road traffic including buses and for checking the trains, the railway then passed through Belleek to Bundoran. Customs duties in the north along the border were carried out by the police (Royal Ulster Constabulary), either on foot, bicycle or car. Naturally it was constant battle of wits between the smugglers and the officials. Cattle were mainly smuggled by night in all sorts of conditions. When plans were in hand to take a herd of good cattle across the border, through fields and bogs. Word was sent to the police that cattle were to be brought across at point A. Then an old worn out cow was driven to the place, the person with the cow ran away and escaped. The real good cattle were taken across at point B several miles away.


     When caught smuggling the penalties were severe, large fines and in some cases jail. One young man caught bringing a pack of flower into the Free State was sentenced to a month in jail and his ass and cart seized. It was only released when a cash sum was paid. Any vehicle caught smuggling was also seized and dealt with in a like manner. During the war years there was much domestic movement of goods at night and through the fields. Butter, sugar, whisky clothing, cigarettes, tobacco and some jewellery was more ready available in the Free State. Tea, white bread, petrol, paraffin oil, candles, bicycle parts such as tyres, tubes, chains and free wheels could be got on the Black Market at a price in the north. Naturally there was a constant movement of these items, not on a large commercial scale by the ordinary people; more of a barter system was used. People from the Free State at Christmas would make up food parcels to be sent to their family members in England. The parcels were brought over at night given to a friend who posted then in Belleek. Parcels coming from England and America were addressed to a friend in Belleek and went the opposite way. Clergymen and doctors has special passes for their cars that permitted them to use the many un-approved side roads and lane ways to cross the frontier boundaries as they were officially called. The Free State Customs had their own patrol cars and many a battle was fought between the officials and the law breakers.


   All sort of means were used to better the officials. One elderly lady regularly travelled by train from State to North where she had relations. For her comfort when travelling she carried one of the old crockery hot water bottles, it did not contain water, but whisky. On reaching her destination the whisky was emptied out, the bottle dried out and filled with tea leaves for the return trip. Other items scarce in the Free State were those made from iron, nails in all shapes and sizes, iron bars to make shoeing’s for cart wheels. Eggs, fowl and at Christmas turkeys were brought across for posting to England. Recently a friend who worked in London told me how a turkey was stuffed with new nylons stocking suitably wrapped for a family in England. Another man who grew up in the war years told me how he would snare rabbits; string them on his bicycle from the handlebars, the frame and carrier He could bring over 40 rabbits from Belleek to Enniskillen where he would get a half a crown each from the dealer there. They were then processed and sent to England. There were 8 half crowns to the pound so he had £5-0-0 for his work, quite a good sum in those times.


     The canny Irish folk along the order devised many ways to beat the excise men. In those days the prams were large vehicles far removed from the fold up aircraft designed models of today. There were wooden rails along the inside of the pram to support panels on which the wee mattress rested. Baby of course could then see out and enjoy the scenery. Mother when going across the border, removed the panels placed her contraband in the well of the perambulator and proceeded on her way. The customs official would then ask her if she had any goods to declare, naturally she answered in the negative and told baby to give the nice man a big smile. If a person declared goods they were charged duty and could keep the items. If they did not declare them and on being searched goods were found, seized and the smuggler fined. One wet day an old lady was asked if she had any thing to declare. She replied, “I declare if the weather does not mend all the crop will be destroyed”.


        Petrol was strictly rationed during the war and any car owner who was permitted to operate a vehicle was issued with coupons to purchase fuel. The amount of the coupons was based on the horse power of the machine. An enterprising hackney man bought a big 32 horse power Ford V8 for which he was allocated a petrol ration. He also had a wee Ford 8 and transferred the number plates from the big one to the small one; naturally he got more use from his petrol. The cars were kept just across the border in the Free State where most of his business was done and could not be used in the north. At one time in the north he went to Belfast, bought a big 25 horse power Humber Hearse. This vehicle was considered to be providing an essential service and was given a generous petrol coupon ration. The hearse was never known to have been used to carry even one coffin. Some years after the war the R.U.C. were removed from customs duty and replaced by Excise men who patrolled the border by car. They were mostly English ex-service men who were nick named ‘The Water Rats’, probably because at sea ports they would deal with shipping. Cigarettes were much cheaper in the Free State and large quantities were seized from people crossing the border. To amuse themselves young boys in Belleek would gather up empty Large Player packets, stuff them with paper and cycle around until stopped and searched by the ‘Water Rats’ who had nothing for their trouble only scrap paper.


As already related one of the most thriving industries in Ireland during the 20th century was the smuggling industry. Fortunes were made and lost in the profession. It was principally but not solely confined to the border districts from Donegal/Derry in the north of the island to the Armagh/Louth area in the east. The Trade had a short life, founded with the establishment of the border in the mid 1920’s it went out of existence in the mid 1980’s when the relaxed E.E.C. regulations brought an end to the trade.


 Smuggling was not a traditional way of life in the Ireland of old, but following the setting up of the border the canny native Irishman soon became adept at pitting his skills and wits against those of the Excise man. The trade really came into its own during the economic war of the 1930’s, when in retaliation against the policies of deValera the British authorities banned the importation of Irish cattle. Cattle that could not be given away in the Free State made their true value when smuggled into Northern Ireland. A leading Northern Ireland politician who was experiencing financial difficulties had a change of fortune as a result of smuggled cattle. A well known Leitrim smuggler was caught red-handed attempting to export cattle by unauthorised means elected to have his case dealt with in the county court and tried by judge and jury where the penalty could be a big fine or even jail. As can be imagined it was impossible to have a jury of Leitrim men who would convict a man on the charge of smuggling, He was found not guilty and the charge dismissed. During the Second World War the industry peaked such was the volume of goods that were scarce, some on one side of the border and some on the other, so it became a two way trade.


A local smuggler got his unusual nick-name as a result of his smuggling activities. One winter night while bringing a small herd of cattle across the border in a remote area he was accosted by a policeman who was there as a result if ‘information received’ most likely a jealous neighbour. The police in those days were responsible for excise duties along the border. Jack was recognised by the policeman who called on him to surrender. Wise in the ways of the infant smuggling industry Jack mounted his bicycle and made good his escape. He never stopped until he reached the town of Enniskillen a journey of 20 miles. There he booked into a lodging house for the night.


On his return home Jack was presented with a summons by a confident policeman, he was to appear at the Petty Sessions in Belleek Court House on the second Tuesday of the month where he would be tried on the charge of smuggling cattle. The case went according to plan for the constable who gave firm evidence of identification, there appeared to be no doubt about the guilt of the defendant. Jack’s solicitor who was a native of the border area called a witness for the defence. This was the landlady of the Enniskillen lodging house where Jack had spent the night. She truthfully swore that he had spent the night in her house on the date in question. The case was dismissed and when the constable was cross examined about the identity of the defendant, he said, “I am confident that the man I saw was Jack, if not, it was his ghost”. For ever after the man was known as ‘Jack the Ghost’.


Another local well versed in the art of smuggling was Mick who operated a hackney service. A full book could be written about his clandestine experiences. He delighted in taking on the authorities on both sides of the border and more often than not found loop holes in the regulations much to the embarrassment of people in high places. The following story did really happen. Jack purchased at the local Belleek petrol station a quantity of petrol which was rationed during the war, only obtainable with coupons. It was not into the tank that the petrol was pumped but into a quantity of five gallon drums inside the vehicle. He set off down the street on his way to Ballyshannon, as he turned the corner at the bottom a policeman stepped out and signalled Jack to stop. The policeman got into the front passenger seat, told Jack he was under arrest and order him to proceed to the barracks which was in the opposite direction.


Jack said that he would have to turn the car down the road at the bridge, but when he got there he drove across the bridge and the border into the Free State. There he stopped and ordered the policeman out of the car. Jack proceeded to Ballyshannon with the contraband; there he remained for several days while negotiations took place behind the scenes with people who must remain nameless. When he returned to Belleek he was arrested, charged with smuggling and kidnapping a police man. He was realised on bail to appear at the Petty Sessions on the second Tuesday of the month before the Resident Magistrate. There he was fined the sum of £25-00 and costs a rather unusual penalty considering the seriousness of the offence. Some time before his death I asked Jack about the case. He told me that petrol and other goods were regularly smuggled during the war. Petrol was scarce in the Free State; good whiskey was scarce in the north. He had an arrangement with a certain northern hotel owner who lived on the shores of Lough Melvin and supplied him with the necessary coupons to buy petrol. When he brought the fuel into Ballyshannon it was exchanged for several cases of whiskey for the hotel owner. The hostelry was a most popular venue for fishermen, many of them high ranking police officers, solicitors and even judges from all over Northern Ireland. Negotiations got under way the regular guests were given to understand that if Jack got a custodial sentence there would be no more good whisky for the fishermen. It therefore became advisable to have a lenient sentenced passed on the offender.

    Jack enjoyed relating the story to me and how the £25-00 fine was arrived at when the proper penalty should have been at least a six months jail sentence. Many strange things a happened during the war years, I remember to see the Irish army making preparations to mine Belleek bridge in case of the Free State being invaded. A north of Ireland man was employed as a civilian in Finner Camp near Ballyshannon. One day he cycled in great haste into the town and declared to a group of men congregated at the Bridge end. “The Germans are at Belleek and the whole Irish army are away out in two lorries to stop them”.


There was an American radio station at Magheramena near Belleek and if the G.I.s wished to go to Ballyshannon they dressed in civilian clothes and went to the pubs across the border. One Yank was in a pub and in typical fashion he had to show how well off he was and bought all the drinks for the men there. As the drink went in – the wit went out -and he started to berate the locals saying. “You lot should stop this neutrality lark and join with us in the fight for the freedom of small nations”. A local wit who could never be beaten for a good answer said, “Look here my good man, you lot did not join in the war until the Jap’s bombed Pearl harbour. When they bomb Ballyshannon we will take then on and beat the hell out of them without the help of you lot”.


During this period a journeyman tin smith by the name of Johnny Crumlish would set up his mobile workshop at the top of the Main Street. As we made our way home form school we would stand and watch him fascinated by his skill as he made porringers, pint containers, quarts, half and full gallon containers from shinning sheets of tin. They were used in the farm house and milking parlours, they did not carry the stamp of the weights and measures inspector, but still they were accurate and gave good value to those who purchased their milk from the local farms. This was before the days of door to door milk deliveries. While Johnny made his wares, his wife Hannah travelled the country side selling them. Dressed in her long black cloak and a black shawl she had a bundle of tin ware on each shoulder held together by a length of Hairy Ned rope.


Johnny specialised in a unique design of milk can, this can had several other important uses as well as transport of milk from the farm house to the town dweller. A now no longer young man named Billy lived within the shadow of Breesy Mountain, which of course is in the Free State. His mother kept a flock of great laying hens producing about 15 to the dozen. During the war there was a great market for eggs in the Belleek egg store, they were mainly exported to England where all such foodstuffs were rationed. Large quantities of eggs were smuggled across the border and of course detection by the police had to be avoided. Many methods were used for this purpose. Billy told me how his mother had a special tin can designed and made by Johnny Crumlish. It would hold several dozen of eggs, as the authorities assumed that it contained milk; no remarks were passed on the young boy carrying it. When he sold the eggs in the egg store he then went to the local grocery shop and bought two loaves of white bread. They fitted neatly into the Crumlish can. At the time the bread in the Free State was dark coloured not of the highest quality, it was known as black bread.


So did young Billy transport goods both ways across the border. On his way he had to pass the local police station, he was well known by the police who did not see anything suspicious. The Free State customs were a different breed of officials, as Jack would say they were a cantankerous type of person who greatly over estimated their own importance. If Billy was spotted by one of them he had the speed of foot to out run any of them. He knew the terrain exceptionally well for he had often hunted for rabbits over the bogs and mountains and so could out wit and out run the excise men. Where possible he avoided the roads and so made it home with his valuable goods.


    It was during the research by Anne Tierney into the Halifax crash that the Tuam/Belleek connection was to crop up again. She discovered that the bodies of those young men who so sadly died at Lavally were brought to the border at Belleek by the Irish army, handed over to the R.A.F. with full military honours and four of them buried in Irwinstown, Co. Fermanagh. While compiling her story “The Sound of Wings” and preparing the wonderful Garden of Remembrance, Anne retraced the route taken from Tuam to Irwinstown where she paid her respects at the graves of the young men whose names had become so familiar to her.


   There are many more stories that could be told about life on the border, if Anne were to use her investigative research talents around Belleek who knows what she would uncover.