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Stories of smuggling tend to dominate many accounts of life in the borderlands from the 1920s to the up the late 1960s. The creation of the custom barrier in 1923 with its system of duties to be paid on certain goods being brought across the border and the development of differences in the prices or availability of goods across on either side led to a wide range of practices that collectively fall under the definition of smuggling. These range from the attempts by people to continue to do their household shopping in what was the nearest town of village, but was located across the border after partition, and avoid paying extra for their purchases in the form of duties at the custom post on the way home, to the well-organised and profitable secret movement of large amounts of goods across the border for re-sale by smuggling rings. Many stories of smuggling record the ingenuity of people in trying to hide goods, the excitement and adventure involved in evading customs officers and the money to be made in doing so – cattle being swum across lakes and rivers to cross the border, women hiding butter in their underwear, pigs being sedated with Guinness to cross the border by boat, children hiding things in their bicycle’s handle bars, coffins filled with contraband, donkeys trained to cross mountains laden with smuggled goods, false bottoms on prams.

The custom barrier did create opportunities for profitable smuggling by organised groups but for many people it was much more a matter of constant nuisance and inconvenience, relatively small amounts of extra money or savings, and efforts to avoid the effects of duties and fines on small family budgets. For most people the custom barrier led to a situation in which the smuggling of small amounts of goods that you could get cheaper or simply get hold of across the border to help ‘make ends meet’ for households with very limited family budgets or to make a little money to extend small incomes became normalised and routine, laced with risk of fines and sometimes anxiety.

Many adults today remember being sent off as children to smuggle butter, tea, bacon, bread or eggs across the border and the excitement or fear in trying to avoid being caught by custom officers and their parents’ regular efforts to get hold of cheaper clothes, tobacco, cigarettes or alcohol. Though many custom officers overlooked small scale personal smuggling others harshly applied fines and confiscated goods in ways that created real hardship. People tried to avoid crossing the border when certain customs men were on duty.

The direction of smuggling and the sort of goods smuggled varied as restrictions and personal entitlements and the prices and availability of goods on either side of the border changed over the decades. The list of items on which duties were payable on entering the Irish Free State first established in 1923 was long, changing and complex. It included duties on tea, sugar, soap, clothing, blankets and furniture. Until the early 1930s farm animals and produce could be moved relatively freely across the border. However, new restrictions on the movement of cattle and additional tariffs on other goods were introduced by the Free State Government during the Economic War from the early to late 1930s. These created new difficulties, especially for farmers very close to the border or with land on either side, and new patterns of smuggling especially of cattle. The higher prices paid for livestock in Northern Ireland meant that large numbers were smuggled into Northern Ireland during this period. During the Second World War rationing in Northern Ireland led to shortages which meant that eggs, turkeys and nylon stockings were smuggled into Northern Ireland. Shortages throughout Northern Ireland during the War meant that smuggling was not confined to the border. Many women travelled from Belfast to towns near the border in Ireland to buy sugar, eggs, butter and tobacco on what became known as ‘the sugar trains’ or ‘the butter express’. Restrictions on goods were also imposed south of the border. White bread was smuggled from Northern Ireland in preference to the rough brown bread only available in Ireland during the War. Goods banned by the Irish government, including contraceptives, were also smuggled from Northern Ireland. Differing payments due from or awarded to farmers for the export of livestock under European Union policy led to farm animals being smuggled between Northern Ireland and Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s.

By the 1970s the smuggling of goods for personal use had largely ended as restrictions were withdrawn, personal entitlements were increased and travel across the border became much harder. Since the European single market was established in 1993 the border is no longer a custom barrier. However, the organised commercial smuggling of diesel continues in order to profit from differences in the price and regulation of the use of agricultural diesel.

As, you know, as you grew older, you felt that … what was the need, for the Revenue or whatever they were, what was the need for them to take a pound of butter off somebody who was, you know, just trying to butter bread for their kids? . . . There was [resentment against the customs officers] at times. And then, my friend . . . she lived round the back shore, round in Culmore, and the all-cash grocery van used to come round and her mother used to get butter for Mum. And I still remember this customs officer and he lived a mile up the Whitehill Road there, and he used to always be on duty with his bicycle sitting at the bridge and him reading the papers, and it was down there opposite the Borderland . . . and there was a little r – gateway, eh, before – when you were in the North . . . before you came to the bridge, and you would go in – Maura and I used to go in there … we used to go in there, and up through the hedge and the fields to pass him. And all this. And she would get two pounds of butter, like, and she’d get it in four half-pounds, and Maura would have to weigh down this pocket, and this pocket packed with, you know, something else, and maybe a bag, and it was a nightmare. You know, trying to get, like two pounds of butter up . . . Everybody still did it, because . . . there was no option. […]

The thing at the border now was … at its worst in – when I was say, fourteen, fifteen, that age, you know . . . That was the bad time for the stuff that was really, you know, prohibited, and it was actually stupid. Can you imagine taking a pound of butter or a loaf for a such and such a thing off someone, you know, and it wasn’t – they weren’t, they weren’t going to make money out of it, they were going to make use of it, for their kids for lunches . . . [Although it could be fun] there were sad times about it too, you know, because … you know, it was . . . you were a nervous wreck if you were going anywhere to, to sort of pick up stuff, you know, you were a nervous wreck . . . I didn’t like people that would’ve bought stuff in bulk that would’ve had the money, I didn’t agree with that, and tried to smuggle all that, containers of stuff, and lorryloads and carloads of things over, and selling it to poor critters that couldn’t afford it, for a big price, but I did disagree wholly . . . with taking a loaf of bread or a pound of butter off some poor soul that went the North because they couldn’t afford it in the State. It was all wrong, really, you know?"
Extract from Colette Barrett, Muff, Co. Donegal