Belfast Telegraph

Family tales of Robin Hood-style grandfather revealed by Sky correspondent

Sky's Ireland correspondent held his hands up this week with a very personal family tale of Robin Hood-style border smuggling from times past.

David Blevins' Co Armagh grandfather Sam Blevins twice served time in prison after confessing to an eight-year career spiriting tea, butter, then cigarettes across the frontier.

It was the early 1950s and a period of post-war scarcity.

He gave away the spoils to hard-pressed neighbours but the thrill of the chase and out-smarting the law kept him going.

His grandson researched his story during a feature on smuggling for the Sky News broadcaster.

Mr Blevins said: "He just got a buzz from his clandestine escapades.

"Accounts of him out-running police cars, on both sides of the border, have gone down in folklore."

The UK's plan to leave the Customs Union after Brexit has raised concern about an upsurge in smuggling across the Irish border, taking advantage of differing tax arrangements.

At one stage it was virtually a way of life, from profiteering by the IRA during the Troubles to the more benign brand displayed by people like Sam Blevins - the man they called Ulster's Robin Hood.

The 1950s was a tough time to bring up a family.

Rationing from the Second World War years ended in that decade.

Mr Blevins lived close to Portadown and worked as a fruit dealer with ambitions.

A grocer expecting a raid by Food Ministry inspectors had asked him to sell some tea, with his merchant taking a cut of the profits.

The farmer's son earned a handsome bounty and never looked back.

David Blevins said at the height of his cross-border game his grandfather was making £300 a week, a lot of money back then, b ut he was losing just as much - some £20,000 in fines and in the value of goods and cars seized.

"I am not ashamed of my past," he would say. "Everyone was smuggling when stuff was scarce.

"If only I had stopped," when making more than losing, "I would have been on top of the world.

"The one really big mistake of my smuggling career was when I decided to keep going."

Generosity saw him distribute much of the windfall diverted from official coffers to neighbours and, in a twist of irony, they persuaded him to run for a seat at Stormont.

Mr Blevins added: "So the North Armagh constituency had an unlikely independent candidate on the ballot paper in the 1958 election.

"He didn't win but the honest confession of his shady past had gained him an unexpected admirer.

"When Sam died suddenly, aged 54, the Rev Ian Paisley turned up and participated in his funeral."

On both sides of the political divide, there was a cultural ambivalence about "subsistence smuggling", Mr Blevins said.

Fifty years after his death, people still talk about Sam the smuggler who stood for election.

His campaign slogan was: "Thank heavens, here's Blevins."

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