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Anything to Declare?
on Wednesday 01 March 2006
by WebMaster author list
in article > History
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The smuggler sat on the train carrying his contraband goods in his pockets. This particular consignment was two 1lb bags of tea to be illegally transported over the Fermanagh/Monaghan border. The man was not a hardened criminal but rather an opportunist earning a little extra at a time when money was difficult to accumulate. He was unfazed when the train stopped to allow Customs men to board for their regular search. There was no need to fear these searches, which were often mere glances into the carriages accompanied by a mandatory, “Anything to declare?” This time it was different. The two Customs men began a vigorous investigation of each carriage. The smuggler quickly considered the situation. Then he swiftly removed his shoelaces, tied the two tea bags securely together, let down the carriage window and fastened his parcel to the outside handle. He resumed his seat in time for the inspection and when the Customs officials found nothing and moved on, the smuggler coolly retrieved his tea.

The 1922 partitioning of Ireland invited smuggling but it wasn’t until 1932, when the economic war between the Irish Free State and Britain began, that smuggling became part of the lives of most border families. As Mrs Anna Irwin(Shannock Green) recalls, “You had to go to the Customs hut at Clontivrim and get this little black disc put on your bicycle or it could be seized by the Free State Customs when you went into Clones. I remember us as children looking at this little black thing on Uncle’s bicycle.” The same rule applied to farmer’s carts. Between 1932 and 1938, the Irish government placed taxes on goods coming from Britain and Northern Ireland. Equally, Britain imposed duties on all goods imported from the Free State. The border tightened further on the outbreak of World War II.

John Willie Irwin, whose sister owned a border shop says, “tea was very scarce in the Free State. Flour and bread were also smuggled from the North for Irish bread was coarser and darker than the bread in Northern Ireland.” In wartime sugar, butter, clothing, textiles, confectionary, cosmetics and cigarettes were smuggled into Northern Ireland. Mrs Irwin says, “there was sort of an exchange you see. Cigarettes were plentiful in the South, scarce here. Then maybe there was something quite plentiful here that was scarce there so it was a sort of ‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours!’”

If Southerners had relatives living in England, they smuggled provisions over to the North to be posted out of the country. Mrs Gauley remembers her father’s friend arriving in a horse and cart with a sow to the boar and a bundle of parcels for posting. She remembers, “they’d be the size of a pound of butter or maybe bigger. He’d leave them at our house to post. We’d maybe have to go two days at it, not to be bringing too many things at the one time to Roslea.”

Even when the war was over, groceries were still rationed. In Northern Ireland, the employment rate was at a record high and people had more money to spend. Southern Ireland, unhindered by rationing, was the place to spend this money. The Great Northern Railway and bus companies began to run “Mystery Tours” but there was little mystery about the destination, Clones, Monaghan, Dundalk, Bundoran all had their turn with an influx of shoppers. Customs officials policed the “Mystery Tours” by charging duty on goods bought in the South. Customs officials also monitored all regular cross border bus and train services. There were five approved crossings in Fermanagh for those travelling by car. A person living in the South would need a Northern friend to sign a bond to promise that the car was only visiting Northern Ireland and would not be re-sold there. A customs pass was then given and this had to be stamped when crossing. These routes were only open between 8.00am and 10.00p.m. If someone needed to travel outside these hours, he would need to request a special pass and pay a fee of about 10 shillings. Some customs officials took their trade more seriously than others.

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