- Contributed by
- BBC Radio Foyle
- People in story:
- Paddy Gillespie
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 December 2005
Paddy Gillespie and his sister Sheila.Paddy was an infamous smuggler during the war. He smuggled from Strabane to Lifford daily and never got caught
This story is taken from an interview with Paddy Gillespie, and has been added to the site with their permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions. The interview was by Deirdre Donnelly, and transcription was by Bruce Logan.
I worked in Buchannan’s garage here in the war years. Very close to Strabane canal. There was 6-700 troops stationed in Strabane. Actually in the Palindrome, where dances were held. And the council offices — the old Workhouse, they were stationed there. And Porter’s factory, and various places about the town that could cater for 2-300 troops.
They trained here. Crossing a canal with full kit on them, holding up the rifles and all. Some of them actually later on, I saw it on D-Day. I realised then that’s what they were training for, but at that time I didn’t know. God help them poor fellers, I saw them manys a cold morning struggling across that canal. The canal was only about 4-5ft deep. Otherwise they could never have done it. They got across eventually. The Sgt Major wasn’t easy on them. I thought it was very cruel. But later on when I saw it in films I thought “these boys knew what they were doing”.
The Sunday church parade. They paraded to church, 3-400 of them at different denominations. They had a bugle band. very interesting to watch and listen to them. I enjoyed that.
The old workhouse was a training camp. They had a rifle range out there. One thing I remember — when the war ended that base was deserted. A couple of gents well up in the army at that time, I had an old lorry and I got the contract of letting it out. I got a couple of fellows to help me, and I had to really rev this place out. Hundreds of old uniforms, good uniforms. I gave them to the boys that helped me, and lo and behold in a fortnight I thought the army was back, these fellows were all wearing the coats. I thought I was going to get into trouble. The war was over, that was the finish of them.
At Strabane canal there was a decontam centre. A lot of people don’t know that. That’s where they distributed gas masks. I had a car, I got petrol coupons. Petrol was tightly rationed, that’s why I lost my job at the garage. There was no cars on the road except those in business of national importance.
TPTB considered distributing gas masks around the area and schools to be of national importance. So I got extra coupons. A wee bit extra for myself. Nevertheless, I went out to places like Donelaw, Artnagarvin … wee stations and schools about the country. Every time, 150-200 masks in the car. I took the seats out, make in kind of a van.
I had a big laugh at some of the women trying on gas masks. So they lifted it and took a big breath, and threw them in the corner. They would rather die or be gased than put these bloody gas masks on them.
That’s a terrible word — smuggling.
I spent most of my life smuggling. We’re exactly half a mile from the border. You had to do something to make a few bob. Everything was scarce, rationed. Petrol, food, clothing. Everything. So when the opportunity arose. If you found 1 lb of flour was £4 in Strabane, you went across to deliver you got £20 for it, that was surely a temptation.
The first car I had was an Austin 7. I hadn’t the money to buy it, so I smuggled over 3 bags of flour. That’s where I got the money to buy me first car.
Smuggling was very interesting. I got into it in a big way. You could earn a lot of money. The only time in me life I ever had money.
An old lorry went along the river Foyle to smuggle bags of 1hwt of flour. We had 30 hwt of flour. It was a lovely moonlit night, not a good night for smuggling. We carried the bags over the banking, and there was 2 old fishing boats waiting on us. 2 men per boat. 7 hwt per boat. I watched them , a nice moonlight night, and they didn’t want to make too much noise with the oars as the sound travelled up the water. So they rowed very gently to the far side, to the Porthall direction. I remember thinking “surely that’s a great intro for a song”. Because Jimmy Kennedy wrote a song in Portstewart about “Red Sails on the Sunset”. A very famous song.
I saw the moon shining on the white bags. “white bags in the moonlight”.
I went into it in an Industrial scale. At the start it was cigarettes and razor blades. Eventually it got into a bigger … the money was good, and the bigger the load … especially flour. Tea was good to smuggle over. I remember the tea chests into sugar bags. A very fine mesh. The tea didn’t get out. Sew it up, have the 2 wee ears to make it handy to smuggle in the boats.
I miss it every night. You miss the money too. It wasn’t about money, it was the challenge of beating the system.
There was times we was near enough caught. I was worried, because the profit of a good number of nights would have been wasted. When I had a few bob gathered up I decided to call a halt. Which we did. And I’m still living on the profits.
Never caught. Within a cat’s whisker. The man above was very good to me.
I wasn’t particularly interested in politics. There was no money in it. I had other sports. Bikes, boat racing. That was good for the smuggling.
We never had American troops here, they were based in Derry. But they might as well have been based here, they never left. There was taxis every night coming into Strabane. There was so many they had these MPs — soldiers with big white helmets and batons. Manys a scuffle I saw up the town. But they treated the yanks pretty good, and the yanks treated us pretty good. We seemed to have good rapport between yanks and locals. There was plenty of soldiers in the town. An awful lot of Strabane girls got married to the soldiers.
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