CROSSING THE BORDER DAILY TO SCHOOL IN THE 1950S by John McGurk

The border was an integral part of the school day for boys like me who bussed it to Derry from Donegal in the 1950s.

The ‘Frontier Post’ as it was referred to in official jargon was manned by customs men in their respective ‘huts’ which, at Carrigans were a mere twenty yards apart. All motor traffic was required to stop at both. The Northern side was largely, in modern parlance, ‘light touch’. On the Southern side they were much more diligent – a typical crossing would involve a customs man getting on the bus to look into shopping bags (and sometimes handbags) of the factory workers and domestic servants who were our fellow passengers. 

The Christian Brothers saw an opportunity and they used some of as couriers to supply them with cheap cigarettes. I used to bring Brother McFarland two packets of twenty every few days. The late Mickey Joe O’Kane whose parents had two pubs in St. Johnston was doing the same on an industrial scale. He regularly carried what must have been a dozen packets or more concealed in his zipped jerkin. One day the customs man playfully grabbed Mickey Joe by the jerkin and although the contraband wasn’t detected we were all a bit shaken. We relayed the episode to the Brothers and for a time I was released from my arrangement with Brother McFarland… 

During the final years at the College, the bus home was the scene of much ribaldry. Many a hapless customs officer after making his walk-on inspection to look in ladies bags was the target of loud whoops and jeers as he stepped down from the bus. 

The illegal movement of cattle (to benefit from the different agricultural subsidies) was common practice. We lived a hundred yards from the actual border and a Derry man called Miah often arrived at our house in a highly agitated state having had a close shave with the Excise man from St. Johnston who patrolled what was known as the back road between Derry and Carrigans. 

Butter was a commodity that due to rationing in the North in the post war years, was part of the cross-border contraband. Freddie Wilken who had a grocery shop and pub in Carrigans latched on to a small earner by supplying people from Derry with butter. As a result he often ran out of supplies much to the chagrin of his local customers.  Mrs Park, a widow who lived in the village used to come into Freddie’s for her butter.  ‘The butterman’s dead, Mrs. Park’ .  Her reply – ‘Aye and there’ll be a lot of Derry wans at his funeral’. 

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ The author, John, was a good friend who lived in my home for a while when he started work in Derry. Initially at Foyle Fisheries and then at the DuPont Chemical plant.  John had higher ambitions and became a pilot, eventually flying long haul around the World. He now lives near Newmarket and we last met in Stirling, a few years back, when he was touring the Highlands.  The Mickey –Joe whom he mentions was one of my closest friends; a bon viveur, lover of horse racing and unparalleled raconteur, he left us far too early.

Irish people understand the complexities of the Border crossing. I shudder at the ignorance of British politicians who have little understanding of the part the frontier plays in the lives of the people who live along it. Worse still, they are indifferent in their ignorance.

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