Sunday 21 July 2019

Real lives on the Border: 'We queued the day we married... I'd rather die than see it return'

Clones-based Walter and Margaret Pringle spent three years crossing the border before they married

Clones-based Walter and Margaret Pringle spent three years crossing the border before they married
Clones-based Walter and Margaret Pringle spent three years crossing the border before they married
Rachel Farrell

Rachel Farrell

THREE years over and back. Three years being stopped. Three years queueing and waiting. Three years enduring. Three years they don't want to return.

Leaning on a bridge on the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic, a man stands with one foot in each camp.

He jokes about who the weeds belong to, and which country will own them if a hard border returns.

But for Walter Pringle (71), who has spent all his life in Clones on the Monaghan-Fermanagh border, the laughter is uneasy - he's nervous for his business, for his family and for his daily life.

The nerves are based on experience.

“I have too many memories of this road being closed with what we called ‘spikes’, they were steel girders. We just cannot even get our heads around thinking what it would be like to have this road policed again,” the Monaghan man tells Independent.ie.

“I’d rather die. I’ve had a good life up to now. I don’t want to go there. We can’t go down the road of a divided Ireland ever again, because of economics, because of politics, whether it’s European or British politics or whatever.”

Just three miles from that border, or “only a mile and a half as the crow flies”, lies the Pringle’s family home.

Inside is Margaret Pringle, the woman Walter married in 1975, after spending three years trekking over the border to meet with her.

In 1972, Margaret had moved to Dungannon in Co Tyrone to pursue training as a deaconess in a Presbyterian church. Love was also in the air, but the path was far from smooth.

Walter Pringle (71) from Clones, Co Monaghan, said he would
Walter Pringle (71) from Clones, Co Monaghan, said he would "rather die" than see a hard border return.

"For three years it was a continual issue of crossing the border in order for me to come to see her, or for her to come up home to see me,” Walter said.

“Even the day we were married, I can remember us queuing at the border. It didn’t matter who you were, we queued for ages. You had to allow yourself that extra hour or whatever."

Travelling across the border, facing checks by “soldiers you couldn’t tell were real soldiers or people pretending” and traffic delays were a daily reality for the Pringles - and thousands of others living along the border in the 70s, 80s and early 90s.

One moment stands out for Margaret, when their car was pulled aside by the army. The Pringles had their two children in the backseat.

“We knew, we could understand what was going on. But for the kids, for the car to be pulled in, it was scary,” she said.

The idea of a return to those days is "unthinkable", says Walter, while admitting it dominates his thoughts recently.

“At the time I wasn’t aware so much of the danger, even though it was horrific. My southern registered car parked in Dungannon, as I spent time with Margaret where she lived. For some reason, I wasn’t as scared as I should’ve been,” Walter says.

“Heading back home, I can’t remember ever having checked underneath the car. I was a sitting target in a southern registered car, coming every Monday night, it was such an easy target if anyone wanted to have a go at a southerner. 

“My poor mother, living here and staying up until I was home before 10 o'clock. No way can we ever anticipate the idea of checks at the border again.”

Margaret recalls hearing the bombs going off when she lived in Dungannon, but says the reality didn’t sink in until a relative of hers was killed.

Billy Fox, a Fine Gael member in the Dáil and a distant cousin of Margaret, was shot dead by IRA gunmen in March 1974.

“I remember I was off with the flu or something when my boss shouted up at me to see if I was awake. Something awful has happened, he said.

“That was the start of it sinking it for me, someone belonging to the family, and across the border too. It was beginning to resonate with me.”

The pair recently took part in a “romancing the border” storytelling night hosted by the Monaghan Community Network.

Couples from all walks of life – and both sides of the border- met up in a local hall to discuss their stories of romance, love, heartbreak, and tales of sneaking out to meet each other.

Breege Lenihan, a member of the network, explains that it was set up during the early 90s in response to the Troubles coming to an end.

While Brexit hasn’t been a key topic of conversation among many of the members, the question of returning to border checkpoints has.

“What’s been discussed really is how were going to come and go and are we going back to queues and delays,” Breege tells Independent.ie.

“People are looking at how we’d cope with it again, and how it’s going to impact them directly.”

For now, all anyone can do is wait and see how it plays out.

“I keep thinking to myself, hopefully it won’t go back to what it was like. That it’ll be a modernised one with maybe just cameras, more linked in with produce crossing the border, opposed to political risks and that kind of thing,” Margaret says.

“I hadn’t really given it much thought until about a fortnight ago, when it was becoming more likely to have a hard border.

“Then you begin to really think back to all those years.”

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