Illicit Trade on The Mall

It was wartime food shortages, coupons and restrictions that brought the Butter Market to an ignominious close in 1948. That end was expedited by the growing enterprise of South Armagh farmer’s wives who established a rival and unofficial market on The Mall, Newry where the country buses drew in.

Burdened down with huge wicker baskets laden with fresh country butter and eggs, these women alighting on a Saturday morning would be immediately surrounded by hungry and eager housewives.

I was a seven year old, in the company of my granny Gribben, one of dozens of ‘shawlies’ ready to give the asking price for these fresh goods. The old farmers’ wives (they seemed old to me) would draw back the white muslin from the round pats of butter. Granny would scrape a sample with a florin or half crown to check the taste. There was much lip-smacking to savour the rich aroma. If it was considered too salty, it was left behind for the next woman’s sample. Brown-shelled eggs were considered superior (still are, ironically by most people) and eagerly sought-out. 

This commerce was not Government-controlled (the tax-man losing out!) and so those who would never been seen ‘dead’ in shawls, adopted them for the weekend to disguise their nefarious activities – that is, their attempts to feed their families in wartime! From 8.30 am The Mall would be crowded with people walking back and forwards, shawls wrapped tight against the harsh winds. The pungent smell and harsh feel of the driving wind emanating from the tidal river, lives with me still.

The shawls were to disguise the illicit purchases from the prying eyes of the local C.I.D. We children were on alert, to give the adults advance warning of the approach of Sergeant Dale or any of the others. We had sentries posted on the two bridges and at the Hill Street access roads where they’d usually emerge from.

That was insufficient, that cold Saturday afternoon when the sly police had already their plain-clothes men posted in gateways all along The Mall. At a signal and with the quiet efficiency of one of Hitler’s Panzer Divisions they swooped. To the last woman, the townspeople were trapped in their pincer movement. Goods were confiscated and names taken for future prosecution.

To add insult to injury, it was the very menfolk of the affected families who were most scornful in their comments. They were embarrassed by the published names of their womenfolk in the local press, each fined 2/6 on top of their lost goods.

‘Never you go down that Mall again! Disgracing us like that!’

Needless to say, the following Saturday the illicit trade resumed, as popular as ever. 

What else was there to do?

 … survival ? …

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