On Border Duty

J. J. Bunyan

Luggage search at Carrickarnon Customs Post on the main Duldalk to Newry Road

Luggage Search at Carrickarnon Customs Post on the main Dundalk to Newry Road

The debate on the UK’s plans to leave the European Union led to speculation that customs barriers might eventually be introduced along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Approved border crossings were a feature that existed from 1923 until the enactment of the EU Single Market in 1993. The Border was the ‘land frontier’ - the boundary between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. It stretched for 270 miles from Carlingford Lough in County Louth to Lough Foyle in County Derry. It represented an intrusion in the lives of people living in Counties Louth, Monaghan, Cavan, Leitrim and Donegal and in their social and business interaction with people in the neighbouring counties of Down, Armagh, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Derry. The Border emerged as a lucrative source of income from the smuggling of goods from the northern counties into the Republic.

The Brexit debate brought back memories of the period I spent along the Border as a young Customs Officer in the mid-1960s. I was one of a group of twenty young men that attended a six-week training course in Griffith Barracks, South Circular Road, Dublin, during the months of April and May 1965, to prepare us for our new careers as Preventive Officers, Customs & Excise. The highlight of the course was a day trip, first by train to Dundalk and then by mobile patrol car to Carrickarnon Frontier Post on the main road from Dundalk to Newry. It enabled us to view at first hand the tasks that were performed by colleagues to prevent the importation of a variety of prohibited goods.

In May 1966, I took up duty in the frontier post in Culloville on the South Armagh border with County Monaghan, three miles from Crossmaglen. I have special memories of that glorious summer in Culloville for a variety of reasons – primarily my 21st birthday, the prolonged bank strike, the fine weather and the soccer World Cup.

My duties as a frontier post officer entailed the control of traffic to and from South Armagh. I was a member of a team of three customs officials, working a three-shift duty roster; the early duty from 8am to 4pm; the relief duty from 12 noon to 8pm and the late duty from 4pm to midnight. The early and late duties covered the weekends. The officer on relief duty finished at 12 noon on Saturday and was off duty until 4 pm on Monday. On my weekends off duty, I hired a car in Dundalk to travel to Dublin. I spent the long weekend with friends who lived in Drumcondra. I attended games in the Leinster Football and Hurling championships in Croke Park. I became a big fan of Kilkenny hurling. I had an equally big interest in Tipperary hurling due to my friendship with Customs colleagues from that county.

The daily routine in Culloville Customs Frontier Post was relaxed, and the staff enjoyed a friendly relationship with the people of South Armagh and South Monaghan. The activity was hectic on Saturday evenings with huge numbers of cars crossing from South Armagh to socialise in nearby Castleblayney and Dundalk. The traditional system of “requesting the attendance of an officer” (by persons wishing to cross the border after 12 midnight) ensured that the officer on duty was paid overtime until 3am.

An unusual feature of attendance at Sunday Mass in Crossmaglen fifty years ago was the practice of playing ‘pitch and toss’ outside the church, combined with a pull of an Afton Major, a John Player or a Woodbine cigarette during the sermon. As well as attending Mass, we played handball in the town’s fine alley. The Customs patrol car was often parked for a couple of hours as the occupants tossed the alley cracker to decide who would win the small sum of money.

I was able to survive by cashing every second pay cheque, effectively one cheque per month. I could not spend the amount of money I was earning by way of salary, subsistence and overtime. I did not own a car at that time and people leving in South Armagh and Monaghan used to bring me to carnival dances in Mullaghbawn and Silverbridge. I was at a carnival dance in a marquee in Annyalla between Castleblayney and Monaghan Town on a glorious night in early August. Big Tom and the Mainliners were serving their apprenticeship on the show band circuit. The organisers removed the sidewalls from the marquee to accommodate the patrons. 

The Beatles were at the height of their fame in 1966 producing “The Yellow Submarine” and “Eleanor Rigby”; the other popular songs were “Down Town” by Petula Clarke, “The Black Velvet Band” by the Capitol Show band and “Sunny Sunday Afternoon” by The Kinks. I learned during a weekend visit to Dublin that The Kinks caused a mild sensation on their arrival in Dublin Airport that summer. They were accompanied by two females who were very scantily clad. Customs colleagues on duty that day in the baggage hall confirmed that the two young females were wearing almost see-through shaded plastic raincoats and high boots on a scorching hot day.

During my stay in Culloville, there was an endless stream of men, women and children, mainly on bicycles, passing in both directions through the frontier post.  I regarded them in the same way that I viewed people cycling to socialise in Listowel, without labelling them as smugglers. The real smugglers were engaged in large-scale transport of prohibited merchandise in lorries and specially adapted motorcars. I often chased them in second-rate patrol cars. I recalled the exhilarating high-speed chases during the Beef Tribunal.

This same area became synonymous with the period referred to as ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. In 1975, Merlyn Rees, then Northern Secretary, branded South Armagh “bandit country”, since no other part of the world was considered as dangerous for someone wearing the uniform of the British Army. Some of the most significant events of the conflict occurred within a 10 mile radius of the heart of South Armagh. This was where, only a few years earlier in the late 1960s, I and other young Irish customs officers, equipped only with date stamps and inkpads, were responsible for the control of traffic to and from the Orchard County. And this was the same area where Customs officers continued to serve throughout the Troubles, in a very perilous environment and often putting themselves in great personal danger in service to the State.