CROSSMAGLEN, Northern Ireland--Welcome to South Armagh, front line of the Troubles and the Provisional IRA's home field.
The British army has never publicly conceded being put on the defensive by the Irish Republican Army, but it comes closest to that here in the rolling boglands of South Armagh, the quintessentially Irish-Catholic "bandit country."
The border of independent Ireland winds its way along 370 miles of brooks, hedge rows and pastureland. It cuts through church parishes, villages and even individual homes (one family sleeps in the Irish Republic but watches TV in the United Kingdom).
Most families do not accept their official status as British subjects and want the soldiers out. Republicanism runs through veins here like a religion.
"The border's a sad joke," said Jim McAllister, an elected councilor for Sinn Fein, the legal political party of the IRA, which attracts about 35% of the vote here.
McAllister stood on one bank of a stream spanned by one of the many illegal roads built and kept open by locals: "That's County Monaghan, in the Republic," he said, flicking a spent cigarette toward the far side. "What we're standing on here is the north, County Armagh."
"Passports, please!" he said with a smile.
This porous border, however, is no joke. It's deadly business. About 170 such "unapproved" crossings provide access from South Armagh into the Republic; the army has tried to close them with tank obstacles and explosive charges, but crews of determined civilians have cleared them time and again.
The provincial center, Crossmaglen, has about 1,500 people, a modern church, a new community center, a dozen pubs and practically no above-the-table employment. From the center of town the Irish Republic is less than two minutes' drive--to the south, east or west.
The half-dozen Protestant families who still call the border area home have learned to keep their mouths shut about any pro-British view they may hold. Said one father, who requested anonymity: "You can never be too sure who's listening."
Just about everyone can point out the few Protestant homes, but there's little sense of the sectarian "them" and "us," most likely because the relationship is so one-sided. Also, the tension between the "haves" and "have-nots" that plagues other parts of Northern Ireland is missing from South Armagh.
"None of us is rich here," said one Catholic farmer. "The Prods have as bad a land as we do, so they're not viewed as any sort of elitist group." And the land is poor in South Armagh. It's rocky in the high spots and soggy in the low.
More than three-fourths of the people are dependent on welfare benefits or government job schemes, sheltered in subsidized housing--supported, in other words, by the government they say they despise.
Many collect welfare illegally and earn money on the side, usually across the border in the market towns of Castleblayney, Carrick Macross and Dundalk.
This is called "doing the double." Nobody expresses shame over beating the system. As one Crossmaglener who works illegally on Blayney construction sites put it, "We'd cheat on our taxes, too--if we paid any."
A surprising number of people, among them some community leaders, admit to supplementing their incomes by smuggling goods into the south, where some things cost 30% more than in Northern Ireland. Perhaps one in five households at least casually sneaks out items such as liquor, television sets, videotape recorders and gasoline, according to informed estimates.
"You get a certain amount of enjoyment outta beating the customs. It gets the adrenaline going," said one full-time smuggler. He lives out of a false-bottomed van with his wife and seven children (ages 5 to 15), and had just completed a run south with a case of whiskey and three VCRs. He said he made 95 pounds (about $190) on the deal.
Shouting over the roar of an army helicopter passing overhead, the man said he wasn't worried about getting caught by northern security forces, which are preoccupied by the IRA, or by the Irish police, called the Gardai.
"The Gardai are some of my best customers," he said, winking. "Sure hope the border always stays here, else I'll lose my livelihood," he added.
Crossmaglen residents are quick to tell you how calm the place really is from day to day: traditional music on Thursday nights, snooker and darts all week, across the border to a disco on the weekend, Gaelic football matches on the field beside the army's helipad, Mass at St. Patrick's on Sundays.
In the next sentence they'll give you the lowdown on the most recent shooting or bombing.
This border area is a closed society that knows its friends, shuns its enemies and casts suspicious stares at strangers. The roads are so narrow that eye contact with the passing motorist or farmhand is obligatory, yet people here do their best to stare straight through the soldiers who patrol the streets.