Smuggling on the Irish border in 1949

smuggling jewellery in guiness pic 001Discovered in an October 1st  1949 issue of The Leaderis this contemporary account of smuggling in Ireland by veteran Marxist ‘ trouble-maker’ and later  Private Eye journalist Claud Cockburn (1904 – 81). It should interest anyone bored stiff by the Brexit debate over whether there should be a ‘hard’ or a ‘soft’ border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It is also written by someone with a special knowledge of life in Ireland. Cockburn had emigrated to Ardmore, Co. Waterford, in 1947 and died in Cork thirty-four years later.

Back in the austere post-war years, when rationing was affecting the eating habits of British citizens, whether at home or in restaurants , the farmers and smallholders of neutral Ireland and the crooked businessmen of the six counties were in a position to evade the customs authorities and the police through smuggling.

The lush Republic, with its rain-fed pastures and potato fields was poor financially compared to the UK, but rich in food of all kinds. Smuggling had been going on since the War had begun in 1939, but in these ten years the authorities had learnt much about the methods of the offenders. According to Cockburn:

‘ The days are gone when you could sit peacefully in the dining-car of the Dublin-Belfast express, murmuring that you had nothing to declare, while sipping slowly at a glass of good black Guinness with a few hundred pounds worth of jewellery nestling in the dark heart of the drink…’

Improbable as this trick sounds, there is something to the maxim of ‘hiding in plain sight ‘. Travelling in the other direction, however, were cigarettes, which were more expensive in Eire. Cockburn claims that organised crime centred on Belfast was mainly responsible for this trade. But most smuggling was ‘homespun’ rather than big business, covered ‘every possible agricultural produce, and depended for its extent and variation, north to south or vice versa   —on local price variations.’

‘ Troupes of cattle, goats, poultry perform the most bewildering manoeuvres as their eager owners set out on the chase for a higher price across the border. Scouts report that the ‘Law’ is on the watch. The drovers retreat suddenly , pass necessary hours in the guise of poor and innocent men, after doing nothing at all but just drive a few goats to a neighbour’s field, and then try again’.

Bartering was rife too.

‘Here and there as you drive along the border, your guide will point out to you a farm , a public house, or an isolate general store, which he will tell you is used as a ‘ smuggler’s exchange ‘, where a barter trade goes on, with varying but accepted exchange rates   , so that a person knows just what parts of a radio he ought to get per bottle of whiskey, and how many lipsticks go to a goat .’

As Cockburn argues, the authorities themselves were easily spotted by the locals from their isolated smuggler’s exchanges, and lookouts ensured that they were not surprised by sudden visits from ‘the Law’. The authorities were also hampered both by the fact that, according to the illustrations that accompany the article, none of them appear to be in plain clothes, and that smuggling of contraband, such as whiskey and tobacco, using false bottoms of carts and in one case, coffins, was so prevalent, and the numbers of customs men devoted to patrolling so many farm tracks across such a porous border, so few.

The smugglers even recruited local girls to keep an eye on the movements of the authorities. There is a tacit hint from Cockburn that attractive young ladies were selected for some of this spying. Were sexual alliances created by them for the specific purpose of gaining useful information? We can only guess. Nor was bribery of those dedicated to patrolling certain roads out of the question. The smugglers might also relay false information concerning a lorry carrying contraband, which turned out to be an innocent decoy for another lorry on anotherroad which wascarrying a smuggled load. Occasionally, a decoy lorry would travel ahead of the smuggler’s lorry and act ‘suspiciously ‘, attracting the patrolmen to it. The smugglers’ lorry would then overtake it to the border.

Cockburn, whose tone suggests that his sympathies lay with the ‘homespun’ smugglers, rather than with big business interests, concludes ruefully that smuggling was taking place on such a large scale and with such ingenious organisation that ‘if England is in for another ‘austerity period ‘its inhabitants would have the satisfaction of knowing that its privations ‘will be bringing gladness and good living to quite a number of men normally resident in certain expensive bars of Belfast, Dublin and Cork City’. In fact the whole business reminds us of what the IRA, or indeed, the UVF, were to do twenty or more years later to raise funds for their respective campaigns during the ‘Troubles’. Perhaps they learnt some of their methods from their forebears among the smugglers. [R.M.H.]


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