The respectable and god-fearing smugglers of borderland

Posted By: April 12, 2015

Kevin Mullan. Londonderry Sentinel. Saturday, April 11, 2015

Borders and ports have always attracted criminal-types thanks to the myriad opportunities and loopholes they, by their very nature, afford.

But what happens when the sudden imposition of an international boundary turns the “soundest and most respectable and god-fearing” of people into smugglers?

That’s largely what happened out the back of Londonderry when the interdependent communities of the Laggan and Inishowen were cut off from the city for good or for ill following partition.

It forced people to smuggle to survive and sometimes run the gauntlet of obstinacy and cruelty at the hands of officious customs men.

The late Bertie Bryce of Inch, who passed away in October 2013 aged 93, was returning home from school as a passenger on the Lough Swilly train when he bore witness to a horrific encounter between an official and one tragic smuggler.

Bertie told Stuart Buchanan of Monreagh the story before he died. 

Kildrum Customs Post during the 1960s.
Kildrum Customs Post during the 1960s.
“One of the saddest stories I heard about smuggling was told to me last year by a wee man called Bertie Bryce from Inch Island,” reflected Stuart.

“Bertie died in October there [2013]. He was 93. He was, I presume, coming from school on the Lough Swilly train. 

“He got into the car and a lady came in with what he thought was a box and put it up on the rack and another very well dressed gentleman in a tweed suit came in and sat down. 

“The train would have stopped in Bridgend and the customs men came in to see what you had or whatever and he looked into the carriage, where they were, and he saw the box up on the rack and he said: ‘Who owns this?’ And the lady said: ‘It’s mine.’

“And he asked: ‘What is it?’ And she said: ‘It’s a coffin.’ I think it was an only child that died and they were very poor and they got a coffin made in Derry for what I think was £5, Bertie told me.

“He asked how much it was and she said it was £5. He said: ‘You’ll have to pay me a third of that.’

“And Bertie told me she counted out her money. She had only three and sixpence. She was from Clonmany.

“He said: ‘If you can’t pay, I’m going to have to lift this.’

“He reached for the little coffin but the man in the tweed suit said to the custom man: ‘Look, you leave the coffin back and I’ll pay.’

“So he paid whatever it was, a third of £5. The lady got her coffin home to bury her child.”

This heartrending tale is amongst the many border testimonies, which have been gathered via the remarkable Border Lives multi-media project, which has compiled the stories of the communities straddling the border from Culmore to Warrenpoint and, which has attracted a global audience since its launch last September.

Stuart was amongst 90 people who took part in six films concentrating on different border areas including the Laggan and the Strabane area.

Much of the Laggan film concentrates on the issue of smuggling.

Mary Crossan, Family Resource Centre Coordinator at the St Johnston and Carrigans Resource Centre was another contributor.

Road closure on lane just outside of  Bridgend near Coshquinn.
Road closure on lane just outside of Bridgend near Coshquinn.
She remembers her smuggling days when the border was less porous than it is now.

“We would have gone into Derry to buy clothes. Different things for the house and all. I always remember when you went in at Christmas, the clothes that you bought for Christmas were put on over the clothes that you had and my mother would have been saying: ‘If the customs men ask you have you anything on board, just say no.’ Because there was a real, real fear of losing what you bought.”

Writer and broadcaster Joe Mahon – another contributor – was also witness to the hard-heartedness of some of the customs men.

“There was a woman in a seat opposite us and she’d bought a present for somebody wrapped up in a brown paper parcel.

“The customs man took it and rather crudely and cruelly, I thought, tore off the paper, discovered some sort of wee, I don’t know what it was, a wee trinket or statue or something underneath, and just handed it back to her and I was appalled by the violence of this and the intrusiveness of this,” said Joe.

The local presenter says the community had little choice but to resort to smuggling in order to furnish itself with many of the necessities of life.

“Some of the soundest and most respectable and god-fearing people were involved in smuggling and if you lived near the border it was almost mandatory,” he said. 

Bridget O’Donnell and her mother were amongst those trying to move contraband – in this case a hat for a wedding.

“I remember going into Derry with my mother, which wasn’t very often, at a time, and she must have been going to a wedding because she bought herself a new hat.

“And she wore the hat out on the bus because you weren’t allowed to bring it out. But she took the labels and all off it. Even the inside labels and all.

“And the custom man that was on must have watched her that well that when we got off the bus at Killea at customs, he pulled her into the hut and him and her had a wild argument and he tried to say she wasn’t wearing this hat but she got away with that but I always remember that,” said Bridget.

The Buncrana fiddler Dinny McLaughlin remembers his father wasn’t so fortunate when he tried to bring a new pair of boots back from a trip to Londonderry. 

“My father thought he wanted a pair of new shoes. They were called hob-nailed boots then,” said Dinny.

“And my mother said: ‘Sure when you’re in Derry, buy yourself a pair when you sell the turf and that.’

“He said: ‘I’ll need to watch when I’m coming through the border.’

“So he dirtied the shoes so as they wouldn’t know they were new shoes but that wasn’t good enough for them. 

“When they were going through the border one of the boys spotted that they were new shoes so he took the shoes off him and sent him home in the socks with a horse and cart and I can still remember him coming into the street shouting to my mother: ‘Bring us out a pair of shoes there.’

“She says: ‘Ah Jesus, Mary and Joseph, he’s lost the good new shoes.’”

Cross-border smuggling was one of the more obvious physical manifestations of the new international boundary but the Border Lives project and the film focusing on ‘The Other Laggan,’ includes deeper reflections on an area that has its own unique character.

Stuart Buchanan explains how everyone was a native Ulster Scots speaker around Monreagh regardless of national or religious identification.

“I’m an Ulster Scots speaker. My father employed two men on the farm. One was a Catholic and the other was a Church of Ireland and they spoke nothing else.

“So we had this language. When we were in the house we spoke proper English and when we went in to Derry/Londonderry, to school in there, I was smart enough not to use that because it was frowned upon.

“My wife was a teacher. She came from a part of Inishowen, Carndonagh, where the Ulster Scots language wouldn’t be used a lot and she came to teach around here where it is widely spoken and she’d never come across it before.

“She wasn’t here two months before she told me the children here have terrible bad English and I told her: ‘No, that’s a remnant of the Plantation.’

“What we have here in Monreagh is a cultural centre. I don’t think culture is a threat to anybody.

“We have people who come in here – in fact, I think there are more people from the Catholic community coming in here out of curiosity to see what we have in here.”

Kieran Fegan, the Monreagh Heritage Centre Manager, agrees.

“We are in an area that is very culturally rich because here in this part of Donegal is where a lot of the Scottish Planters settled during the early part of the 1600s and those families, the descendents of those settlers are still in here and the names of the local district reflect that.

“The Church across the street is probably the oldest or second oldest Presbyterian Church in the whole of Ireland.

“The last residence of the Manse was Reverend McSparron, who retired in 1987, so it’s been unoccupied since that time and in the last few years it’s become a heritage centre, specifically around Ulster Scots/Scots Irish content. 

“My great-grandmother, Sarah Anderson, was from this area and she married – she was Presbyterian – and she married my great-grandfather who was Roman Catholic – so I’ve mixed roots, like most people when you go back in your family history, there’s no pure blood.”

Joe Mahon believes the psychogeography of the border up behind Londonderry is different.

At least, it has an effect on him, unlike any other stretch of border from Muff to Omeath.

“If we start up at Lifford or Strabane the border comes right down the river the whole way, so Tyrone is facing Donegal for most of that river, then it comes to the outskirts of the city of Derry and the border loops inland just to include the city.

“It just kind of sends an arm like that protectively around the city and then it goes back in to the Foyle again where it’s Derry and Donegal facing each other across the border.

“So it’s a border town in a very, very tight sense because the border is literally a little fence around it.

“So you can’t walk anywhere in the Westbank for more than 10 or 15 minutes from the edge of the city and you are probably over the border.

“Once you were over the border you were in beautiful countryside, you were in what you might call landscape and seascape country and, you know, that just happens to be an accident of where we are geographically.

“I suppose with the advent of the Troubles the border meant long, long delays at checkpoints and all the rest of it, so when you got past that there was just [gasp] a sense of relief, or a kind of sense of escape almost.

“You did have a sense of more freedom and a more beautiful…the blue skies of the Republic, I suppose, as opposed to the grey skies, so to speak, so that’s always kind of been with me, but only refers to the border around where I am. I don’t get that sense with the border elsewhere.”

To find out more about the brilliant Border Lives project visit