Saturday 6 August 2011

39 - 'The d'alin' men from Crossmaglen'

The 'Gap o' the North,' Armagh/Monaghan border
July 27, 2011

Well, the sun is shining and here I am inside working on a new show!  It's a hard life, isn't it?  Yesterday I was sitting out in the sunshine in the middle of Armagh City, chillin' out while I waited for a gig to begin.

County Armagh is famous for growing apples - there are orchards all over the county.  But of course, the thing most people think of when ye mention Armagh is south Armagh, which is on the border and famous - or infamous - for a lot of things, including smuggling.  

In the past, pigs, cattle or sheep would arrive at a farm near the border and disappear down a tunnel, only to re-appear on the other side of the border, where they would fetch a better price, of course.  Animals would sometimes get shipped from as far away as England, be brought to south Armagh, where they would vanish and then magically appear on the other side of the border to make a lot of money for those involved.

One of the most lucrative smuggling operations is that of diesel and petrol.  Tankers will arrive at a farm near the border and the fule will be pumped across to tanks on the other side.  Whenever the price of fuel goes the other way, the pumps operate in the opposite direction - so the owners will make money no matter what way the economy goes, as long as there is a diffferential between north and south!

The roads along the Irish border lend themselves to all this smuggling activity.  The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was drawn up in 1924, or so - after the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.  The idea was to allow Roman Catholic enclaves, which now found themselves in the north, to become part of the south.

The three man Boundary Commission travelled all over the border areas in 1924/25, taking submissions, but ended up only recommending one Catholic town, Crossmaglen, in Co. Armagh, for transfer.  Leaks of this report in 1925 caused a political crisis in the south and in the end, the border was kept pretty much as it had been.  As they said at the time, "the Boundary Commission: surveyed a lot, proposed little and achieved nothing!"
The result of a former county boundary becoming an international border is a pretty complex wiggly line that keeps crossing major roads.  The main N53 road from Dundalk, Co. Louth, to Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan, crosses through south Armagh and becomes the northern A37 for a while.  It's known as the Concession Road, because the two governments agreed not to have a Customs post on this road.  

The same thing happens with the main N54 road from Monaghan to Cavan, which crosses the border a total of four times between Clones and Butlersbridge.  People who live in the middle bit, in Clonfad, or Roranna - a peninsula of southern Ireland extending into Fermanagh, can only get to any other part of southern Ireland by crossing an international border twice!  Some of the northern townlands are in the same position.

There has always been a history of smuggling in south Armagh, the most famous place being the aforementioned town of Crossmaglen, which is in south Armagh, but four of the six roads out of it lead across the border into Co. Monaghan, or Co. Louth.  The famous Tommy Makem wrote a song, 'Whiskey in me tay,' about this town:

So all you bold tea-totallers, if sober you may be
Be careful of your company and mind what happened me
T'was not the boys from Monaghan, nor the lads from Ballybay
But the dealin' men from Crossmaglen put whiskey in me tay.

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