Longford during the “Emergency”

The Story Behind a Picture - Lalin Swaris in June 2016 Longford Eye
The Story Behind a Picture – Lalin Swaris in June 2016 Longford Eye

Im of Longford extraction and am a Longford man to be when my cottage in Ballinamuck is restored and I move up there in the next few years. Both of my parents are from Ballinalee – dad from Auaghagreagh and ma (a Donohoe) practically next door in Lislea.

Stories of Longford, the Emergency and life during those times was my staple diet as a kid. Dad was in the LDF where Master Mannix was the seargent I gather, and a good tale was when one night dad went to the pub wearing the coat as it was lashing rain only to run straight into Mannix who gave him a bollicking in front of all in the pub. Dad was not one for anyone pulling rank – he only joined the LDF as his dad James Carty wanted to keep him out of the local IRA units which were very active in a logistics role at the time – and Dads retort was “Will you ever go on with yourself, its not your coat, its De Valeras!”

Markets such as Longford were common, and all official goods were on ration. Everyone had a ration book, where you were allowed only a certain amount of each commodity, but guaranteed that amount. Food was plain but nutritious, turf was used to power the trains, and it was compulsory to till your land, with inspectors touring the country and issuing fines for folk not utilising the land or letting noxius weeds like the humble buthalan (ragworth) grow out of control. Even in my childhood, the taboo was so strong, my mother was on a crusade against the buthalan, which was the bane of my life as it was my chore as a kid to weed our biggest garden! The concept of setaside would have been an abomination to the people back in those times.

With goods being on ration, we had the strange senario where the North of Ireland had a shortage of butter and turf and I think tea, and we had a shortage of coffee and coal and such items. It was a breeding ground for smugglers, and the Cartys could hide elephants in matchboxes so to speak, and stories of the “Border Runs” with John Carty of Errew in Carrigallen were ranked by me right up with stories of the Wild West!

John of Errew as we knew him was of a family of the brother of my great grandfathers, and him and my dad was always up to mischief of one sort or another, along with another cousin Willie Carty. If it wasnt smuggling it was brewing poitin, and the local Revenue and Guardai were forever on their tail, and were placated every so often with parts of a rubbish still and a fair few bottles left out, enough for an official find of half the bottles, and half to being home for themselves!

Once they were on a border run through their usual route in Fermanagh and another friend of theirs brought his daughter with him. She was only a kid, this was her first border run, and they got stopped by a mobile patrol of the B-Specials while heading north.

Cop stands at drivers window, and her father told her to sit on the tea chest to hide it. The cop stuck the gun pointed towards the window and asked all the usual questions. None of this flummoxed the menfolk, but the girl never seen a gun in her life and pissed herself. In the middle of the conversation with the cops, the girl tapped her father on the shoulder and said “Daddy Daddy Daddy, I wet the tea”

“What does that mean” says the cop. “Nothing, shes just a foolish child” said the man, and the cop went back to following through the usual questions and let them go. Needless to say the tea was still sold. Just a little unique flavouring and scent!

Its a tale I love telling, and when telling it to Polish workmates I was told two unique stories. The first was from a box factory I worked in where my Polish workmates told me that the life we had hard – and it was hard – was seen in their world as a green and pleasant idyllic island of peace, which it was to a Europe under Nazisim and torn apart by war. The Polish wave wartime songs and stories about Ireland under this romantic image that was a staple of the curriculum in Communist times.

The second was of a story similar to ours but from the 80’s before the fall of Communism. After Dubcek was deposed in the wake of the Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia was under a very strict but economically effective pro Moscow regime. In the 1970’s to develop Poland the ruling party borrowed money from the west and sunk Communist Poland into a debt they could not handle. Soon the repayments meant they could not keep the country running, there was cutbacks, the economy slumped and in time the regime collapsed, bringing down the entire East Bloc with it. More than anything this is what defeated communism I was told. But that is but the background to the story I am going to tell – to the Poles Czechoslovakia was like America to us, and there was food rations in Poland, but those near the border could smuggle too, and they did, from Czechoslovakia they got goods in unlimited supply, and sold on the black market for quite a mark up. On one such run there was kids in the car, and they got stopped by Polish border police who asked was there any contraband with them. They replied no, they were down seeing relatives. One of the kids was very excited at the massive supply of food, and chirped up “Daddy got a pig, daddy got a pig” as there was a carcass covered up in the back. All was denied by the driver, and a fistful of notes and a bottle of vodka for the guards and they were let go with nothing further asked!

Lands so far apart, but in times of trouble we have so much in common, and its heartening today to see them make good lives for themselves here and contribute to our society in an economic way and a cultural way.

There was official trade at the markets too, hard deals struck between honest and hard working people who eked out a good living by maximising resources as you have to in times of shortage. All goods could be found on sale, with the local guards keeping an eye that no contraband was sold. It never was, officially, but there was often a mighty price paid for something not worth it, which was actually a payment for something bought earlier, or yet to be delivered! The complaint “That one overcharges something shocking” could be an advertisement that there was more to sell than what was on display as much has it was a complaint about the vendor themselves!

Cloth was in demand, as many housewives made their own clothes for their children. This was long before the days of mass production, which was seen first in Ireland around that time when the saucepans and such were imported from the USSR came to the market, and did the local Traveller population out of a trade. Between then and the 60’s, mass production of utilities and tools killed off the old tradition of Travellers calling round to farms on an annual tour fixing pots and pans and farm tools, and society is nothing the better for it.

Many from Longford were in the War, my own granduncle among them, Tom Reilly of Molly. This was his second war, having served in World War One in the American Army, he lost his legs and arms in Dunkirk. Brought to England, I was told as a child he died in British Military Hospital in 1953 or so, and an attempt to repatriate him was made, but the telegram was ignored as things were hot in Longford at the time with the Border War and keeping a low profile about a family member in the Bristh army was the prudent if not the correct thing to do. We have been trying to find where he is buried since, to no avail. He had two sons with a German girl after the Great War, and as she died in childbirth, he gave the kids to her shopkeeper parents to raise. We know nothing more than that of them.

All these memories came back to me as I say the Fr Browne photograph of the Market in Longford that is photo’s here by Lalin Swaris. Who the poeple are we do not know, prehaps someone might be able to put a name to some of the faces.

This article was originally published in the Longford Eye free newspaper, based on the photo taken by Lalin Swaris of the Fr Tom Browne photo of Longford. This article references the story behind the smuggling story of my fathers…

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