I was about 6 years old when I learnt where and what the border was, and how to by-pass the check points both the British and the Irish. After school I spent most of my evening travelling on the train between Newry and Dublin bridge station to Omeath, Carlingford. There were 3 train stations in Newry at that time, Edward Street to Belfast, Dublin Bridge Street to Warrenpoint.
A family friend worked on the train to Omeath so he took me almost every day with him.
Wartime restrictions were in force, so items like sugar, butter, clothing etc. were rationed, sweets were never seen.
My railway friend called into a bar in Omeath once a week, for a beer and the barman gave me two mars bars every week. My mother gave me some white bread to give to the barman. White bread couldn’t be got in the south. At weekends, trains were full of people, especially leading up to Christmas. There were two gentlemen who always travelled together. Sometimes they had fishing rods with them, but we never seen any fish. The same two men also travelled to Dundalk. We soon realised that these men were HMC undercover men. They observed customers bagging, and nodded customers to the checkpoints. It wasn’t long before people got wise to them.
Some Sunday in the summer to Warrenpoint there was a fleet of boats running a ferry service to Omeath. These boats were packed with people on day trips from Belfast. There were half hour trains from Newry as well. The women were smuggling clothes, and the men were smuggling beer, whiskey, and cigarettes. Many of them were worse for drink.
A customs officer stood at the loading point to search people but a lot of boats dropped their passengers off anywhere along the beach. There were never enough customs men to catch everyone. The nickname for the customs officers was “water Rats”. I often knew young women that went to Dundalk nice and slim, and came back on the next train looking like a very expectant mother. They had yards of curtain material, or two or three dresses hidden within their clothing. One lady from Belfast, whose husband managed to get her a fur coat in Dundalk, stored the coat until Christmas. She wanted to wear it on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve, customs officers raided the house and took the fur coat away.
There was a shop in Newry who sold Southern cigarettes about 3p cheaper than Northern brand. The shop only sold them to people they knew. One English customs officer, who dated a local girl, sent her into the shop for cigarettes. Because she was local they sold her the Southern brand. The next day the shop was raided. The poor girl had to leave Newry.
Three or four nights every week outside a well-known pub house in Dominic Street – “Felix Larkin’s”, a convoy of electric “bread” vans would park up. These vans were disguised as milk or bread floats. They made little or no noise and were used by the smugglers. On the side of the street were two cars full of customs officers. They had black cars fitted with radios, everyone knew them. Suddenly the smugglers filed out of the bar! The customs officers followed the first few bread vans only to discover they were decoys! The cat and mouse game went on for years.
A small MG sports car crossed the border on the Omeath Road, with a large box clearly visible, with “EGGS Product of Eire” written on it. The car slowed down at the checkpoint, and then took off at high speed. It was chased down by the Custom “Water Rats” up and down and around the flagstaff, until it stopped in Falham woods. The MG drivers ran away and the HMRC was then blocked by a cattle lorry which contained a number of men who attacked the HMRC with sticks and shovels. For a few weeks afterwards a number of the custom sported black eyes and plasters. I was old enough to cycle to Buckley’s halfway house on Omeath Road “this is opposite narrow water”. From Buckley’s there are at least 6 back roads over the border into the North. I used every one of those roads at different times including walking through the Falton woods to by-pass the customs post. Buckleys had a pub, petrol station and a large shop. They sold many things from cigarette lighters to flags, and all things Irish! They do a great trade. A gentleman from Newry would take the bus to Omeath or Dundalk and would cycle home later. He done this for years during the war and they did not know that he was smuggling new bikes and selling them to a well-known shop in Newry!
My favourite place was the Red Bridge in Altaweigh. This is where the main Dublin-Belfast railway line and the road runs alongside it. This is half way between the custom in the south and north at Listerwood, so people arranged to discharge various items out the train windows in the area of Red Bridge before they got into customs. Items like jackets, boots, tea and nylon etc. could be collected at the bridge.
Some men bought their engagement rings in Dundalk and hide them under the saddle of their bike or inside their socks. Sometimes the custom men would ask you to take off your shoes. There was one customs officer who nobody liked. He had one beautiful daughter who everyone liked so he always kept his eye on us. He was stationed on the Newry to Omeath Road and his small customs hut sat almost on the border, beside a small river where he would use water to make tea. The year of the Coronation, some people were watching for him to go for water and they blew his hut up. After that happened they used a mobile hut which they took back to Newry every evening.
When the troubles started in 1956 the customs only went out with heavily armed police or “B” specials. All minor roads were either spiked or cracked and old disused railway lines were sunk onto the road. Local people just travelled down the ditches on either side so the spikes were just like a roundabout. The cattle smugglers were delighted whenever they dropped off the rear loading boards on top of the spikes and northern smugglers dropped off which made a walkway from one load to the other. It seemed them live cattle were smuggled from places as far away as Cork to place in County Antrim, Ballymena, and the Glens of Antrim.