For many years before Ireland became free of the British Crown and its oppressive offices, the vast majority of the population held a particular revulsion of men in uniform. Though these groups included soldiers, sailors and policemen, the most severe treatment was reserved the members of the Royal Customs and Excise. Even in these modern times, in certain places the men of the Customs and Excise, whether Royal or not, continue to be reviled by a wide variety of social classes on this island. Although these men do not raise their hands against all men, it can be truly said that almost every man’s hand is raised against them. Most will smile cordially at the ‘Revenue Man’, but those officers are very much aware of the unmitigated hostility that those same people hold against them throughout their career. Those people look upon the smuggler as a ‘Robin Hood’ figure who supplies untaxed goods such as alcohol, tobacco, and luxury items. The ‘Revenue Men’ are seen as the evil forces of the law who try to stop them.
Known to the old-time Irish smugglers as ‘Guagers’, the ‘Revenue Man’ has often wrongly been depicted as being a ludicrous figure of a man. Those many occasions on which the ‘Revenue Man’ showed generosity, a sense of justice, and a certain abandonment of the strict rules have, for the most part, been entirely forgotten by writers. In this story we will see reasons as the why ‘Gaugers’ should not be the butt of ridicule, and that their virtues should not be ignored.
Our story begins one foggy November evening many years ago as two men made their weary way along a muddy road that wound its way through the wild mountains that stood guard over a remote area of Ireland’s far west. Now, as then, it was a wild, savage, and lonely scene that surrounded these two men. Ahead of them, in the far distance, they could just see the wild, heaving waters of the broad Atlantic Ocean, upon which the lowering clouds appeared to be settling themselves. Scattered over the surrounding moorlands arose a variety of misshapen rock formations, like large fingers of stones that have been carved by the winds and rains into a vast range of picturesque shapes. Around their bases and within their niches grew thick holly bushes and hardy mountain greenery. On the highest peaks of the nearby hills roamed herds of sheep and goats, scampering from place to place as they took full advantage of their freedom.
These two men, each of whom was leading a small pony that bore an empty sack along that difficult road, were widely different from each other in both form and appearance. One of the men was a small thickset man whose broad shoulders and muscular limbs showed that he possessed a degree of strength. But, he was a man who also possessed soft, blue eyes and a kind, good humoured face that would convince any observer that this man’s strength amd muscular arms had never been involved in any act of violence. He was dressed in a heavy brown jacket and corduroy trousers, while on his head he wore a broad brimmed, tightly woven straw hat that made him look like an outcast from the American ‘Wild West’.
This man’s companion, however, made a much more strange and unseemly figure of a man, being taller than his friend. In fact, he would be considered to be taller than the great majority of local men. His arms hung loosely together and seemed to accompany his extremely thin body with some reluctance, being literally nothing more than skin and bone. His head was a conical shape, thinly covered with rusty coloured hairs than were so thin they waved about his face in the light evening breeze. The tall man’s complexion was a greasy, deathly yellow colour, and highlighted by his rheumy sunken eyes, his highly prominent nose, the thin livid lips, half showing a few of his rotten, well-spread teeth. In fact he could have been held up as an excellent example of how disease and misery can affect the human body. He moved like a human skeleton and the pony that he led was hardly able to keep pace with the swinging unequal stride of that gaunt man, whose fleshless limbs did not fill the clothes that flapped and fluttered around him as he strode along that chilly moorland path.
As the two men and their ponies proceeded along the road, they were able to walk side-by-side and enjoy a good conversation with each other. The smaller of the two men pushed forward and renewed a conversation that had been interrupted some yards earlier as the path had narrowed to only allow passage in single file.
“You were saying, Shane,” said the small fellow, as he came up alongside of his lean, taller companion. “You were saying about that face of yours being the means by which we can keep the ‘guager’ from our wee bit of baccy (tobacco).”
“Aye, not one of those ‘gaugers’ will ever get a smell, never mind a squint, at even one bit of that baccy,” Shane promised, “as long as I am with you. In all the twelve months that I travelled with Tim Casey there was not one ‘gauger’ who even suspected the man. If that ‘buck eejit’ of a man had taken me with him that day, his load of best Brandy would still be his and he wouldn’t be sitting in a cold jail cell. If I had been with him he would now be stting at his own table, in front of a blazing fire, tucking into a good steak!”
Paddy Corr laughed heartily at his companion’s comment and then roguishly told the taller man, “The worry on my part is that it wasn’t much of Tim Casey’s profits that came your way, more like the cheap change, and that was what caused the poor man’s fate to change.”
“It’s you that could be laughing heartily on the other side of your mouth, Paddy Corr, should a ‘gauger’ got a sniff at your taste of ‘baccy’,” Shane replied. “There’s no doubt that he would take all that you have if I was not there to frighten him off, just like I have done, so often before.”
“But, could we not just put our ‘baccy’ in a couple of panniers on the backs of our ponies, put a few fish and oysters on top, and pretend that we have just been out fishing?”
“I know what I am talking about, mark my words, Paddy Corr. I was taught the trade by an old man whom the devil could could not out do when it came to committing a bit of roguery. So, Paddy, put your goods in the pony cart and spread an old sheet over them. Then I will lie down on that and you can tell any ‘gauger’ that we meet that I was on my way to the fair in Ballintree when I came down with a bad fever. You tell them that, as an act of mercy for my poor mother, you are taking me home. Say that it was Father Brady who had seen to me, and that he had said it was the worst case of the spotted fever that he had seen in the country for almost ten years. By Jaysus if that doesn’t frighten the nosey bastard, then you can be sure that someone has sold you out, and me alongside you”
By this time they had reached a deep ravine, through which a narrow stream pursued its slow, murmuring course. At this point they stopped, left the horses, and, gathering up some empty sacks, they walked on until they reached the edge of a steep cliff. In the dark void below them could be heard the great, hollow roar of the heaving ocean, as its waves smashed against this towering granite barrier. All along the dark outline at the foot of the cliffs great mounds of foam were created, as the snowy-white crests of never ending wave formations angrily vented the last vestiges of their strength in constant flashes of phosphoric light, that sparkled and danced splendidly to the wild and sullen music of the crashing sea.