Hard Lines – Frank McNally on a Border centenary, Mylesday 2023, and unionism’s ‘last post’

A roving Irish Times reporter found on April Fool’s Day, 1923, that the Border was still soft in places

It is, I suppose ironic, in current political circumstances, that this weekend marks the 100th anniversary of a hard border in Ireland, imposed by the Dublin government against the wishes of northern unionists.

But there we have it. The achievement of fiscal independence during the Treaty talks – a late and major concession by the British – led inexorably to customs posts along the new frontier. And with unfortunate timing, they took effect on April Fools’ Day 1923.

That was the official start, at least. As a roving Irish Times reporter found on the Sunday in question, however, the Border was still soft in places.

Yes, travelling south from Newry, he was stopped by “imperial customs”, who inquired if he was carrying any “hosiery latch needles, synthetic organic chemicals, cinematograph films, analytical reagents, or molasses”.


But on answering in the negative, he was then allowed proceed to the Free State posts, with a warning that staff there didn’t work on Sundays “and that if we had anything that required looking into, we should come back on Tuesday during business hours”.

The shoe was on the other foot back then, politically. Northern unionists hadn’t wanted border checks because, in their ideal world, all of Ireland would have remained in a customs union with the UK. The Free State needed checks to express the limited independence it had just won.

The funny thing, looking back, is that many people in the South thought the new customs regime could be anti-partitionist, in the long run. By imposing the Border, to the intolerable inconvenience of those north of it, they would soon force a united Ireland. It must have seemed more logical at the time.


In a tragicomic tradition of more recent origin, April 1st now also marks Mylesday, an event commemorating the death in 1966 of Brian O’Nolan, aka Flann O’Brien, aka Myles na gCopaleen.

At the other end of his life spectrum – in 1911 – O’Nolan had been born in Strabane, not yet an international frontier then, although soon to become one, separated by the rivers Finn and Foyle (which sound like a certain political party) from Donegal in the Free State.

But he grew up to acquire a literary version of borderline personality disorder, being a writer of multiple and often slippery identities.

Apart from his official pseudonyms, which also included Brother Barnabas and George Knowall, O’Nolan enjoys the perhaps unique distinction of being visually represented in many publications (including some of his own books) by a portrait of somebody else: Robert Farren, another habitué of Dublin’s Palace Bar circa 1940.

And so numerous were the false personae under which he was suspected of writing letters to The Irish Times that it led on occasion to real people being considered fictional.

Witness “Oscar Love”, a regular contributor to the Letters page from that period, who sounded like a typically preposterous O’Nolan invention until scholars established that he was a respectable real-life Dubliner from Blackrock (as Mr Love himself had never ceased to doubt).

O’Nolan’s actual creations will again be celebrated this Saturday afternoon, when the Palace hosts Mylesday 2023. The event is mainly confined to the famous back room, allowing regular drinkers unimpeded access to the front. But admission to the inner sanctum is free and there will be no hard border.


An important influence on Brian O’Nolan’s life, Border or no Border, was his father’s job as a customs and excise official. This meant the family moving home a lot, from their native Tyrone to Glasgow, then Dublin, then Tullamore, and back to Dublin, where the future writer first attended school aged 11, in what had just become the Free State.

But could Michael O’Nolan have been a literary influence on his son too? The question arises because of the existence, in the years surrounding Brian’s birth, of a columnist for the Strabane Chronicle and other northern newspapers who went by the intriguing pseudonym of “Art Flann”.

I’m indebted for his discovery to Trinity College historian Georgia Laragy, who asked the Flannoraks of Twitter recently if they knew anything about him.

I don’t, really, except that his columns, which appeared from about 1907 onwards were highly literate, sometimes satirical, and usually – to quote from Myles’s Catechism of Cliché – sound on the national question.

Mind you, as a political prognosticator, he was not always vindicated by posterity. One of his later pieces was a damning review of an Edward Carson rally in Cookstown. Carson’s campaign against Home Rule was “flagging”, he wrote, while the man himself was “flagged out”.

But the tired performance of the speaker was symptomatic of the movement as a whole, Art Flann thought. “Positively his last appearance,” concluded the columnist of Carson, a little prematurely, “it was also the Last Post sounded over the grave of organised, militant Unionism in Tyrone and in Ulster.”

The column was published in August 1913.