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“A Pleasant Little Game of Money-Making”: Ireland and the “New Smuggling,” 1939–45

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 49, Issues 1 & 2, Spring/Summer 2014
pp. 44-68 | 10.1353/eir.2014.0003

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Smuggling is an enduringly romanticized crime. In the popular imagination it connotes guile, pluck, anxiety, and the breathlessness of narrow evasion. Battles between smugglers and officials, as portrayed in movies like Whisky Galore! (1949), form an archetype of modern film and literature. And yet, in keeping with the clandestine nature of the activity, the history of smuggling tends to be recounted via the yarn rather than the written record. On the other hand, the history of the prevention of smuggling is amply documented in official correspondence among police, politicians, customs officers, and others in the state bureaucracy.1 The challenge for the historian, then, is to reconcile the myth-busting sobriety of official sources with the popular spirit of folkloric romance found in oral accounts of smuggling.

This essay examines cross-border smuggling in Ireland during the Second World War through analysis of archival sources and oral history.2 In doing so, it contributes to the colorful historiography of the black market during this conflict. In the tightly controlled war economies of the early 1940s, a range of actors sought to satisfy consumer demand through the illegal economy. Official histories written after the war downplayed the prevalence of such criminality in favor of heroic narratives of national struggle.3 Recent studies, however, have reappraised these narratives by emphasizing the significant role of wartime black markets and the “spivs” and smugglers who populated them.4

Attempting to quantify smuggling is a foolhardy exercise, for the “dark figure” of unreported and unrecorded incidents of such a clandestine crime must account for the greater part of the true volume of such activity. For that reason historians of smuggling have generally focused on the political economy of smuggling, exploring its role and meaning in the construction and undermining of different states and empires across time.5 This article is no exception. Despite the downplaying of smuggling in politico-centric histories of Irish partition,6 cross-border criminal activity is an integral part of the history of Irish state-building in the twentieth century.

Ireland’s Border Region in the 1930s

In 1920 the Government of Ireland Act established the new territory of Northern Ireland, thus creating Ireland’s border region: an extensive land frontier that spans nine of the island’s thirty-two counties. Early political disputes over partition were soon accompanied by economic opportunity. In the 1930s prices in the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland diverged considerably, leading to the development of the illegal cattle-smuggling trade.7 Northern Ireland Minister of Agriculture Basil Brooke commented in 1935 that the “monotonous regularity of seizures” indicated that “the smugglers are succeeding.” Whereas just under 7,000 cattle were seized in 1931, the onset of the Anglo-Irish Economic War in 1932 saw this figure increase to 33,000 before rising to 50,000 in 1933 and 80,000 in 1934.8

Throughout the Economic War all-Ireland trade relations were marked by the lack of a conciliatory attitude, hardened by the sideline status of Northern Ireland government ministers during the Anglo- Irish coal-cattle pacts between 1935 and 1937.9 Northern Ireland assumed greater prominence in the Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement talks of April 1938, after which senior civil servants came close to agreeing to a substantial degree of cross-border collaboration in order to prevent smuggling in the event of war. Economic relations between the two territories were seriously undermined a few months later, though, when Northern Ireland’s ministers reacted negatively to Taoiseach Eamon de Valera’s outline of a federal solution to partition in a London Evening Standard interview of October 1938.10 As the proverbial storm clouds gathered over Europe, a mini-tempest was raging between Dublin and Belfast, ensuring that the border remained a hotly contested economic and political frontier.

It was disparity in supply rather than price that drove wartime cross-border smuggling. Following the outbreak of war, separate rationing schemes were introduced on either side of the border, leading to demand for items more readily available in one territory than the other: hungry northerners lapped up butter, bacon, eggs, sausages, ham, beef, and jellies, while soap, wireless batteries, candles, white bread, paraffin oil, sugar, cycle...

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