My mother was born on March 26 1921 in the townland of Scribby, in Clogh, near Roslea. Her father William Gordon was shot by the IRA on the night of March 21 in his family home in the town land of Rathkeevan, just a couple of miles along the road from Scribby. These were very difficult times for the families along both sides of the “new” border. In 1920 the British Government passed the Home Rule for Ireland Act and a provisional border was drawn separating 6 counties of Northern Ireland from the remaining 26 counties of the rest of Ireland. The border had major implications for the people of this area of Fermanagh and Monaghan. Neighbours and families were suddenly separated from each other and everyday tasks such as shopping, buying and selling livestock , going to school, going to church, suddenly took on a whole new dimension. My grandfather was active in the Ulster Special Constabulary or the B-Specials, a quasi-military militia set up in October 1920 as part of the “defence” of Northern Ireland against the perceived threat from the impending separation of Ireland from the United Kingdom. Many of the Protestant families from the Roslea area strongly supported the B-specials and saw them as a key element in protecting them from the activities of the Nationalist IRA. In February 1921 the local B-Specials carried out a major exercise in Roslea, turning many Nationalist/Catholic families from their homes and 10 homes were burned, ironically there was only one death that day and that was a B-Special whom accidentally shot himself. . The raid was justified as a reprisal for the earlier attempted murder of one of the local shopkeepers, George Lester. Needless to say the B-Specials found arms and ammunition in several homes and so far as the Protestant community was concerned the raid was entirely justified. The local IRA of course took a completely different view and planned a major reprisal which took place on the night of March 21 1921 when 16 Unionist homes were attacked and members of the B-Specials were especially targeted. My grandfather was shot that night as was a B-Special colleague of his, Sam Nixon. My grandfather had been an active member of the local Orange and Black Lodge and indeed was the Master, Sam Nixon was also an active Lodge member and both are commemorated on the Lodge Banner.
On December 6th 1922 the Irish Free State came into being as a Dominion of the British Empire and covered the whole of the Ireland but on December 7th the Parliament of Northern Ireland opted out of the Free State and the 1920 provisional border effectively became a legal entity and divided the island. In 1925 the Boundary Commission confirmed the earlier 1920 provisional border with , it seems, little regard for the difficulties it would bring for border communities, and that’s the border we have to this day. My mother grew up in Clogh and went to school in Roslea just a few miles walk from her grandparents’ and widowed mother’s home in Scribby. In truth the new border had little impact at first. Local shopping was done either in Roslea or at Warrington’s shop in Clogh itself. The “big shop” would be in Clones but that was quite a trek by either bicycle or for bulky things like animal feed, by horse and cart. My mother went to secondary school in Clones and that certainly meant a daily round trip by bicycle.
In 1942 my mother married an Englishman who was serving in the RAF in Northern Ireland and a year later I was born. My grandmother then remarried a local famer, Robert Mills, who had grown up on the family farm in the townland of Drumaddarainy in Co. Monaghan. The Mills family all attended Clogh Church of Ireland but of course by that time the Church was “in the North” whereas the family farmhouse and land were in the Free State. My grandmother and her new husband Robert Mills set up home in Carrickmore, also in Co.Monaghan. Carrickmore actually borders the border and part of the farm includes Rathkeevan Loch which is divided down the centre by the border!
In my early years my mother and I spent much time with the various relatives around Clogh as my father had been posted to North Africa. I recall arriving at Smithborough Station on the train from Belfast and being met by my great-uncle with the pony and trap. We would then make our way back to Scribby crossing the border at what is now known as the Shankill Lough crossing but locally was always called The Strand – and still is! I don’t recall ever there being any check on the pony and trap at that crossing but certainly even in those early days nobody would ever take a car across the border at that point. As car ownership grew The Strand developed quite a big parking area and on Sunday mornings there could be a dozen or so cars parked there as the Protestant families from the Monaghan side of the border left their cars and walked up to Clogh Church.
The border gradually took on a greater significance in the lives of families living either side of it. Visiting family on foot or by bicycle was not really affected but car journeys increasingly meant deviations of several miles in order to avoid what had become known as “unapproved crossings”. In reality there was rarely any indication at all that you were about to cross the border when on the quiet back roads but the penalties for taking a vehicle across were severe, including impounding the car and people in general accepted that their old routes were no longer open to them. The house at Carrickmore, although just a couple of miles from Roslea and even closer to Clogh was effectively cut off from both. The nearest “approved crossing” was at Inishammon whereas the more straightforward routes via Shankill and Clogh or Mullanahinch were not available for cars or tractors. Nevertheless my grandmother regularly made the journey to Roslea by bicycle via Mullanahinch and to the best of my knowledge was never stopped by any Customs man!
My grandmother’s brother, Tommy Wadsworth had a farm in Rathkeevan that bordered the Monaghan border that ran along the Stonebridge to Roslea road, the Gorry Lane. The main entrance to the house and farm was off the Gorry Lane. The border meant that the farm’s only entrance led straight into the Free State! Tommy was a member of the B-Specials and as such was prohibited from entering the Free State except at his own risk – which was considerable! In 1924 with the assistance of the local Northern Police he made a path across the field of a neighbour, Miss Madden of Roslea Manor and made a gap in her hedge out onto the Clogh road i.e. into Co. Fermanagh. Miss Madden took exception to this and had a trench dug and barbed wire fixed across the gap – perhaps the earliest example of digging up the road and spiking the crossing! The police reopened the gap and filled in the trench and the matter ended up in court. The judge decided that Tommy’s action was pardonable but nevertheless he was fined £1.10s for the trespass! Tommy continued to live at Rathkeevan for many years and used both exits from his farm!
Rathkeevan Loch divided our land at Carrickmore from Tommy’s land and from the early 1960’s I had a boat on the loch. The boat was built by a local carpenter George Presho who was a very well known local character. The Preshos lived close to Clogh on the Monaghan side of the border and George was a first class craftsman but unfortunately while still a young man had a very bad accident with a big circular saw and ended up with a hand so badly damaged that he found it hard to continue working. He spent a lot of his time fishing all the local lochs and had a large round of families with whom he would go on his ceilidh every evening. To the locals around Clogh and Stonebridge he was always known as Doctor Presho and claimed to have had all sorts of medical training! He had a very big old bicycle that he seldom rode but which he always had with him. I think that for George the border had little relevance but in the 1960’s he used to complain bitterly about having to manoeuvre the bicycle round the big hole and the spikes at the Shankill border crossing. When out on his travels he always had an old tin mug with him and was not averse to “dipping” the odd churn of milk for a cupful irrespective of which side of the border he found them! In the early 1960’s he decided that he would build me a boat to have on the lake at Carrickmore. The Mills brothers cut down a big cedar tree and arranged for it to be sawn into planks. George then built the boat himself and a very fine boat it was! We launched it onto Rathkeevan Loch and it was named the Border Rover and that’s just what it did, crossing the border numerous times without let or hindrance from the authorities. I don’t think the British Army or the Custom and Excise ever considered whether lake crossings were unapproved or concession crossings. Certainly from time to time sacks of flour and sugar crossed the border in the Border Rover!
There was a footpath that crossed the border from our lakeside field into Rathkeevan but it involved crossing the drain that ran into the loch, a single plank with a bit of a branch as a handrail provided a rather rickety crossing but it was well used! Every week Tommy Andrews from Clogh would come up to the house with a big wooden box tied on his back and take his “order” of eggs and butter back across the border to the North! From time to time other people could be seen making their way down the field to the crossing but my grandmother always said it was better not to ask who they were or what they doing!!
As the Troubles developed during the 60’s and 70’s so crossing the borders around Carrickmore became more troublesome. Blowing up the roads and then spiking the craters made even crossing with a bicycle more hazardous and whereas the journey to Roslea by bicycle via Mullnahinch had been quite straightforward before it became increasingly difficult. There was also a psychological element that had not been there in earlier years – all day, every day, there were helicopter patrols along the border between Roslea and Clogh and there were many times that to seemed that the helicopter strayed over the border onto our side. Even in the late 80’s and 90’s the helicopter could often be seen at night hovering over the border near Roslea with its very bright searchlight pointing down at what?? Certainly during the 80’s there always seemed to be a tension along the border area and if ever we went by car to Roslea – via the proper crossing – there were always army patrols along the lanes, sometimes they would stop our car and other times they just looked and waved us on. It could be quite unnerving to be surrounded by a group of heavily armed young soldiers who always looked rather anxious and nervous. Certainly our children did not like visiting Carrickmore at that time. I think the fear was that highly unlikely as it was that anyone would deliberately do anything to us despite the English registration plates on the car there was always a nagging feeling that you might just get caught up in something by accident.
Whereas in the 1950’s and very early 60’s life in the border area around Clogh and Roslea continued in many respects much as before things did start to change. The 12th of July Parade had always been a big event in the lives of the local Unionist families, indeed for most of the local farmers it was their one day of holiday in the year. My grandparents could always rely on their Catholic neighbours to do the farm jobs on that day ( and vice -versa on St Patrick’s Day) but by the late 80’s and 90’s tensions were such that a number of families stopped going to the 12th Parade, my grandparents included. On a slightly lighter note the family horse, called Dick, made the papers one 12th in about 1967. He was always a bit flighty and could be very awkward! My step-Grandfather Robert Mills was getting him ready for something or other on the 12th morning when suddenly in the distance the Inver Band struck up as they started to prepare for the day’s Parade. Dick took fright at the sound of the band and ran away, jumped the hedge onto the Gorry Lane and ran off down the road to the Mullnahinch border crossing. He was eventually caught and brought home but the local press made much of the story of the “Orange” horse who took off across the border to join the 12th Parade!
My grandparents both made their final crossing of the border at the Strand in that they were buried in Clogh churchyard and the funeral cars took them to the border crossing from where they were carried across the border, round the spikes and the crater and into the Church. On both occasions their coffins were carried by Protestant and Catholic neighbours alike. Despite years of troubles from those difficult days of the 1920’s through the Troubles of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s close neighbours put their differences aside and crossed the border together. Happily there is no trace of those borders now and it is inconceivable that they will ever return. How much better for all it would have been if the Border had never been put in place at all and the island of Ireland had never been divided.