Tuesday 21 January 2020

'It would be dreadful to go back' - communities living in fear of a return to the old ways

Mary Rafferty Photo: Steve Humphreys
Mary Rafferty Photo: Steve Humphreys
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

'It feels like an island here because that's what it is," says Mary Rafferty as she stands at the small stone bridge, built by her great-granduncle in 1897, which straddles the Ulster Canal.

This tranquil farming community boasting 15 households at most lies just outside Clones, Co Monaghan.

It is called the Connons but is locally dubbed the "Wee Republic" - a tiny outcrop of the south which became trapped behind the Border, jutting into Co Fermanagh, when the Boundary Commission was ratified in 1925.

Only a map demonstrates the bizarreness of the political divide. On the ground you would never know because the green fields roll out as far as the eye can see.

But during WWII this was a smugglers paradise and in the late 1950s and early 1960s all the roads around were spiked or cratered by the British military, with the exception of one, which was controlled by Customs.

Mary Rafferty's family have lived on this spot since the 1890s, though the old thatched cottage with the half door is long gone.

She has one son living in the North with a business in Cootehill, Co Cavan, while the other works at the Ryanair Headquarters in Swords, Co Dublin.

"I can't leave my house to go anywhere at all without crossing the Border," she declares.

As a child, she would walk up the canal bank, not so overgrown then as it is now, to go to the shop half-a-mile away over the Border.

"You'd be coming back with butter - but you'd be smuggling the butter. And if the British customs caught you, they'd take it off you," she says.

She also grew up accustomed to the sound of the pipe bands from the local Orange hall, marching up and down the road to practise for the parades.

"We would be too nervous to go out to watch them," she explains.

And yet close as they were to the Border, the Troubles never touched them directly here - apart from the time a body was found up the road in the 1970s.

"But it turned out it had been dumped there from Belfast," she recalls. "We had to get used to the life we had back then.

"If we wanted to go into Clones we were always nervous about checkpoints. You were always nervous about the soldiers because they could ask you to open the boot and you could be held for an hour.

"There was a lot of time spent waiting around at the Border."

When the Border vanished, so too did the old suspicions between the two communities and now "everybody knows everybody".

Now, with the looming threat of its return, Mary (left) is at a loss as to how things may change.

"We had got used to the way it was. It would be dreadful to go back," she says.

Irish Independent

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