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1976. A lonely country lane, Donegal, Ulster, Ireland. Us approaching the border between the Republic and British controlled ‘northern Ireland.’ We didn’t know what to expect and were a bit on edge. ‘We’ was my mom, dad and me.  We had rented a car in Shannon Airport when we arrived. 


See, my mom loved Belleek china. She wanted to go to the source, on the British side of the border, to the factory in Fermanagh. The Troubles were on hot and heavy but our anxiety over crossing 'enemy' lines just to look for some china was remarkably small. We felt, reality on the ground notwithstanding, that Ireland, all of it, is Ireland, our birthright, so f--- the British.


We were in good spirits as we made our way down the 2-lane pig trail called an A road at the time. Soon, we came on a huge sign: STOP - British Customs! So we stopped.


Oddly, there was nothing to be seen save the sign. No building. Nobody, anywhere. We waited, thinking someone would appear, from somewhere. But, no. After a time and some banter among us, off we went ... very, very slowly ... so any watching eyes would know we were simply - and oh, so, respectfully - going about our business.


We were nervous .... Brits weren't above dirty tricks ... but we ever so slowly gained speed until, obviously in the clear, we continued on our way like we had good sense. Just to look for some china!


The rest of the day was uneventful. Boring, frankly. My mom got a piece or two. They were wrapped up in a box, which she held on her lap in the back seat as we made our way home. But we choose a different route, thinking it might be safer. But here was the border, again.


On the British side, nothing - just as before. On the Irish side, a sandbag fortress. Inside 2 armed Oglaigh na hÉireann – the Irish term for the Irish army. Ironically, that’s also what the IRA is called – Oglaigh na hÉireann. A long story for another day.


We stopped, again, unconcerned because these were our guys, but, still, heavily armed combat troops, suspicious of us ... our anxiety spiked a wee bit.


One soldier went to my dad’s side, the other to mine, both signaled to roll down our windows and asked to see IDs. As my dad fumbled around for his, my soldier eyed my mom, then the box, then fixed on me – staring - not a word. It was an eternity.

Then, suddenly, my soldier stood, thumped his fist on the car roof, said something to the other soldier, looked at me again, winked and waved us on. That was it. We were free to go, no papers, no questions or searches ... no - nothing.


A bit later, my dad asked if I had said or done something – I hadn’t ... him, just staring at me. BUT then it hit me ... in the lapel of my sport coat was a silver pin, a phoenix rising ... I'd been out drinking with some lads the night before and forgot it was there, a symbol of the IRA ... and it all became clear.


Years later, I told a friend, a former IRA commander. ‘Oh, that was the O’Neill Brigade.' You see, even tho the Irish state was officially neutral, some of its military units were partisans. And the lapel pin? Proved to be our go home free card.


Oh, and the Customs station that morning? It had been blown up 4 times, rebuilt 3 ... abandoned. Score 1 for the Irish!


When we pass on, our daughters will divide my mom's china among them.

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