Belfast Telegraph

'One day, the Americans didn't come into town... and Clones knew D-Day was dawning'

Today it finds itself at the heart of the Brexit debate, but Clones, which straddles the Fermanagh/Monaghan border, has always had the air of a frontier outpost. Author Darach MacDonald, who was born in the town, recalls how it adapted to the coming of the Second World War

For a border town of diminishing fortunes and limited scope, the Second World War was a godsend. Even as Britain battened down the hatches of its island redoubt, cross-border passenger rail traffic picked up in Ireland and Clones became a Mecca for bargain-hunters.

Smuggling became a popular wartime pursuit as ordinary folk played off shortages and rationing on one side against plenty and surplus on the other. So, for instance, tea poured south and sugar and butter went north.

For Dan Kerr, it was a frantic and fun-filled period. As well as working as a young railway porter, he stood on the front line lest Crown forces attempt to invade the poorly armed Free State to prevent Germany from doing so first as a step towards an invasion of Britain.

There had been no regular military garrison in Clones since the 27th Battalion garrison was moved south with the December 1925 border agreement. When Dev declared the Emergency, Dan joined the Local Defence Force (LDF) with other young men from the town, including my own father, Eugene.

Dan recalls: "We all had to do our training. You know, you were called out at night for mock battles and such like. We were fully qualified as soldiers, but we were all just on rations (rather than wages). As far as I remember, there was a half-ounce of tea per person and you got brown bread. And other things, like cigarettes, were rationed. You never saw bananas, or fruit, or anything at all like that."

Clothing from my grand-dad's drapery shop was also rationed and, throughout this period, Dan's dressmaker sister, Annie Kerr, was very busy 'turning' coats to make them appear new. Yet, that didn't stop shoppers pouring in from Belfast and elsewhere north of the border on two weekly 'mystery trains'. These were advertised in Belfast city cinemas, where regulars could determine the mystery destination from the train fare.

Clones was popular, Dan observes, at least until local cafes started taking advantage by "charging 1/6d for a cup of tea that you'd get in Monaghan for a shilling". But the mystery train passengers were still drawn by the fact that they could get butter, meat and cigarettes without rationing restrictions.

"So, it was like an Ulster (Gaelic Football) Final coming out of that station, trampling each other to get up the town. And then they'd all come back and you could see them bulging with all the stuff they'd bought hidden inside their coats. And when they'd go back on the train to Monaghan, where the customs boarded, all the stuff would be taken off them. There used to be more yarns told about what was going on. Like this lady who sat down and the customs man says, 'You're very big, what have you got in there?' and she says, 'Come back in three months and I'll tell you'."

Dan recalls being put on full alert when British soldiers from Derry strayed across the Donegal border, sparking fears of an imminent incursion. He also recalls carriage-loads of confused Belfast children being deposited on the platforms of the Clones railway station in the spring of 1941, when German warplanes were blitzing Belfast. One of those child evacuees on his way to Fermanagh was Robert Harbison, who describes how he and the others reacted to the disclosure that they were crossing the border.

"Of course, none of us believed it. A train-load of us Protestant children being taken across the border into the Free State to be massacred? Things had not quite come to that, even if all the German spies that ever existed were hiding down in Dublin."

Being the most worldly-wise of the children, having "already been in four of Ulster's six counties", Harbison eventually gives his "considered opinion" that this was not the border: "Where, I asked, were the battlemented walls, the moats and the vast palings with cruel spikes which must separate the dirty Free State from our clean and righteous Ulster? It could not be."

While the child evacuees did not get spiked walls on their cross-border trek to Fermanagh, they did get sandwiches, refreshments and an almost-exclusive enclosure in the passenger terminal, according to Dan Kerr. The Red Cross operation was overseen by a formidable woman known locally as 'Mrs Win-the-War' for her zealous support of the Allied effort. Having instructed the railway staff to ensure the poor wee Belfast children were undisturbed, she fussed around making sure they had enough to eat. Dan says she was especially solicitous of one bedraggled boy stuffing himself with all the food on offer. "So, where do you come from, son?" asked Mrs Win-the-War, expecting he was from the hardest-hit Docks area of Belfast. "From O'Neill Park," replied the waif, pointing a sandwich to the relatively new housing estate on the crest of a hill beside the station.

Despite the Free State's neutrality in the war, the sides were drawn in Clones between formidable ladies who battled for the hearts and minds of any who might stray towards, or from, the Allies ensconced just across the border.

When a major Christmas fundraising concert was organised for the LDF and Red Cross, Mrs Win-the-War suggested it should also be staged for British troops stationed at Crom Castle, just on the other side of Newtownbutler. This was vigorously opposed by republican-minded Mrs McGilly and her ally, Mrs Coffey, who made it clear "there was no crossing that line", Dan Kerr recalls.

However, as well as singing in the concert chorus and playing in the local brass band, Dan, his brother, John, and several others, had a small dance band, and they agreed to play in Newtownbutler at a New Year's Eve dance for the soldiers. "It was the Seaforth Highlanders and, God, they were a lovely regiment. During the dances, they were all drinking and carrying on, but I remember this fellow came in walking up the dancefloor and he had his false teeth in one hand and a sandwich in the other and him eating away at it, or making out he was. Anyhow, when the dance was over there were some had been drinking whiskey and fell asleep about the place. Then, this big blond military policeman, Big Bob they called him, came in. He had a blackthorn stick with a head on it was like a shovel and he was shouting, 'Get up outta that. C'mon get up outta that'. He hit them and hit them. It was vicious and then they carried them out and threw them in the back of vans. They were shipped out for the front a day or so later and we heard they were torpedoed by their own, by the British Navy, when they were going in to land. It only came out later. But those Seaforth Highlanders were very popular about here and some of the Newtown and Clones girls used to go out with them and all. It was terrible what happened them."

Then, the Americans set up base in Crom Castle. They caused huge excitement as they roamed the countryside: "They were a great crowd. I remember them coming in (on the train to Clones) and they'd always give you Camel cigarettes. They'd come in and they'd buy bars of chocolate, bottles of whiskey and they'd go in and have a feed in the hotels."

Dan's sister, Molly, was a waitress in the Hibernian Hotel beside the railway station, where she encountered the Americans: "She says an officer used to come in and take three or four eggs with a big mixed grill, a feed that she said you would never see a man eat before. Then, some of the publicans started to sell whiskey with water in it, but they got fly for that. They used to come on the train to Clones, a lot of them in uniform, unlike the British soldiers. I think they used to come in about half seven or eight o'clock and then back out on the 10 o'clock. Apart from that, some could come into the border in Jeeps and then walk the rest of the way."

Traffic went both ways: "They used to have dances in Crom Castle. And they used to send a big tender, as we called it, and anyone here in the town who wanted to go out, the girls and the boys, could get on and go out there and then be left back to the border again when the dance was over. It was very popular."

Then, one day, the Americans didn't come into town. And Clones knew D-Day was dawning.

Extracted from Hard Border: Walking Through a Century of Irish Partition by Darach MacDonald, published by New Island Books, £15.99

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