The Poteen Makers

A Tale of the Royal Irish Constabulary

There have been many tales about, before and during the ‘War for Independence’ and the opinion of the force held by many of Ireland’s working-class was not exactly flattering. It was often said that the most obviously conspicuous individual in Ireland, prior to the ‘War for Independence’  was the policeman. People would say that wherever you went if the policeman was not there before you, it was because they had just been there and would be back before you decided to leave. In all of Ireland’s large cities and towns – Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Athlone, Belfast, etc., there was a police constable to be seen at every street corner, singly, in pairs, and in groups.

You could recognise the fresh-looking police who were about to start their shift, while the tired-looking police were going home to recuperate. You would have seen groups of clean, well-brushed police moving into the countryside by horse or by truck, after having heard reports of rural disturbances, while mud-covered police would be seen returning on carts or trucks, with prisoners from the nearest eviction, land dispute, or faction fight. Much like the policemen of today there were young men, with fresh, rosy complexion, and the middle-aged policemen, with wizened, stern faces, that often showed strong evidence of the many fights that they had taken part in, while the old policemen, with their deeply scarred and weather-beaten faces, paid little attention to what was going on around them becausethey were looking forward to a speedy retirement with a moderate pension. Allexamples of these were to be seen in each city, town, and village. In the ruralareas they could be found on every high road, by-way, and on the many narrow mountainpaths. Meanwhile, at every railroad station in the country they would be seenin pairs, keeping a close watch on those who arrived and departed, and taking noteson anything that may have appeared to be suspicious in the way travellers weredressed or acted.

Should a stranger adhere to the common, well-travelled tourist routes through the country he would only receive a sharp glance of inspection from the policeman. But, should a stranger leave those well-trodden paths usually followed by travellers, or make their way into parts of the country that were not often visited by strangers, you can be sure that they quite quickly became an object of intense interest and suspicion. But, should something cause even the slightest distrust of you or your business to enter the mind of the policeman, you are immediately a marked man. He will disappear for a few moments, allowing you to proceed on your journey. You might, by chance, look back and catch a glimpse of him, a mile or two away, peeping over a wall after you. In the next village, however, when you decide to stop for the night, that same policeman will reappear and, alongside the local policemen, after his coming, will be sure to watch your every move with great attention. If, for example, you would leave yourbags in the reception area of an inn and go outside for a while, the policemanwill come in to get your name, takes note of any bags you have and checks anyhotel or railway tags that may remain on your bags.

Not all these policemen were stupid because there were detectives that knew their job well and roamed both rural and urban areas of the country. This clever man can, at a glance, recognise foreign articles that a person may have and know from where they came. He will engage you in pleasant conversation, chatting about the weather, the crops, business news, and local tittle-tattle. All the while he is trying to discover just who you are, where you come from, and what is your business in that place. As you converse with him, the detective scans every inch of your body from head to feet, so he is better able to give his superiors an accurate report on your clothing and appearance. “Hat, English; coat, London-made; trousers, doubtful; shoes, American; party evidently an Irish Yankee, who might as well be looked after.

You would have learned that the majority of ‘pre-Independence’ Irish policeman, was usually the son of peasant stock. For a man who wanted something better in life than being a labourer, or a tenant, there were few options open. He could, of course, choose to emigrate to America, or enlist in the ranks of the British army, or apply for a place on the constabulary. Although emigration was, probably, the most acceptable option to such young men, many of them lacked the money to go. This left him with two courses, of which enlistment in the army was the more pleasing option since within Ireland the police are almost entirely ostracised by the people and they are left with little hope of being able to socially associate with others in the local community. Sadly, the plight of the people engendered within them a belief that any Irishman who enters the police has deserted his country’s cause and has entered the service of Ireland’sdeadliest foe. A policeman, therefore, soon found himself being avoided by his former companions, shunned by his old friends, and, just as importantly, being given the cold shoulder by the local ladies.

Undoubtedly, any Irishman who enlisted in the British army in those days would have been treated in the same way at his old home. The only saving grace for the Irish soldier was that at enlistment he usually left Ireland with no intention of returning, which makes his case materially different from that of the police recruit. So, why would a young man choose the police as a career at this time? There may have been the obligation of a son to support aged parents or to be the financial support of a family of young brothers and sisters. Such things as these often determined his choice to enter the police force, where he would become a ‘social leper’, who was hated by his countrymen with a hatred that knew no bounds. From the first day he put on his neat blue uniform and saucer-like cap, the R.I.C. constable, in the troubled Irish counties in the west carried his life in his hand. Every hedge had to be scrutinised carefully because, behind it, there might be an assassin lying in wait. Every division wall was watched for suspicious indications of an enemy’s presence, his alertness being concentrated by the knowledge that he is protecting his ownlife.

The policeman is compelled, by the instructions of his superiors, to undertake duties that he feels are obnoxious and very much against his own sense of justice. Moreover, he is forced to risk his life and limbs to carry out these repugnant orders. Consider when a bad year comes, causing a tenant to fall into arrears and cannot pay his rent. In such cases, it was common for the landlord’s agent to decide on evicting the defaulting tenant and he normally sent for the police as back-up. The constables would arrive in force, but the tenant had anticipated their arrival and had collected a crowd of his friends to assist him. The hut was closed and barred, while inside there were normally ten or more men and women, who were determined to resist the eviction for as long as it was of any use. Then, as soon as the police appeared at the scene, a loud cacophony of Irish voices would begin, hurling fearful curses and insults at those trying to carry out the eviction, immediately succeeded by showers of stones and rocks being thrown by those supporters of the cabin’s defenders. The police would draw their clubs and rush at the objectors, striking right and left at the heads of the gathered crowd. Unsurprisingly, a desperate battle would soon ensue, in which the police were usually victorious, and succeeded in driving the shouting rabble to a safe distance from the cottage. When this was achieved, the police would leave some of the force to keep them away, while the remaining policemen would return to force a way into the besieged cabin. A beam, handled by several pairs of strong arms, would be erected and would speedily demolish the miserable pretence of a door. Once this entrance was achieved the police would go into the cabin and were quickly met with fists, clubs, stones, showers of boiling water, and other effective and offensive means of defence. And yet, after a stubborn contest, the cabin was finally cleared of its defenders and the furniture, ifthere was any, was set out on the road. Thereafter, the thatched roof wouldhave been torn off and scattered on the ground, the walls levelled, and thepolice, battered with sticks and stones, scalded, burned, would return toheadquarters with their prisoners in tow. On many of these occasions apoliceman was killed, and his killers would often defend themselves by statingthat it was entirely the fault of the policeman. In a court near Limerick the defendantsof one such incident stated, “We neverintended for to kill him at all, but his skull was too thin entirely for aconstable and broke with the beating he was after getting.”

Firearms were not often used in these encounters between the police and the ordinary people of the district, for such battles always took place in daylight. But, when an eviction promised to be of more dangerous than usual, the police would carry rifles, with strict orders given that they were not to use them except in a dire emergency. There were, therefore, instances when a policeman was beaten almost to death without resorting to the use of his gun. During their ordinary day-duty, the police carried only a short club or revolver, which was hidden under his coat. But at night, the country constables were armed with rifle and bayonet, and they would patrol the roads in pairs, with one walking on each side and as close as possible to the hedge or wall.

It was said at this time that despite the extraordinary difficulties and unceasing dangers of their work the Royal Irish Constabulary continued to follow their orders scrupulously. The record of the time does suggest that any instances of treachery to the government among the constabulary were few and far between. Furthermore, there were plenty of men who sought service in the police force with applicants far outmatching vacancies. The force’s physical standard for applicants was so high, in fact, that they were often hand-picked men from the rural areas of Ireland, whose average grade of intelligence was at a higher standard than that existing among the ordinary Irish peasantry, from among whom they were chosen.

                            A Captured Still

It was noticeable that the police would take on any service cheerfully, without much concern for how hard or perilous that work maybe. But, there was one task which the police force in the western counties hated to undertake, which was any mission that would take them into the mountains to seize illicit stills and arrest distillers of poteen. These expeditions usually meant days and nights of hard climbing, watching, waiting, and spying on suspects. Quite often these efforts would gain no result, because when the spot where the still has been was surrounded, with the police thinking they have the lawbreakers in their trap, the ‘poteen men’ would discover the police plan and escape along some path unknown to the lawmen. Behind them would be left nothing but “the pot and the smell” as signs that they were there and what they were doing. Disappointing results were a good reason for policemen to dislike the duty, but a more important reason was the unusual degree of danger that attended such expeditions. In the mountains of Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Clare, and Kerry, the illicit distillers usually owned firearms and are well practised in their use. Moreover, these men felt no more compunction for shooting a policeman than for killing adog.

The extremely rugged character of the Mayo mountains offered the illicit poteen makers many opportunities to practise their craft in safety and secrecy. The entire neighbourhood would be on the lookout for the presence of police, and there were always friends able to give the alarm to the distillers. Once an alarm was received they would hide the still in the ground, or in a convenient cave, which usually took them just a few minutes. Once their equipment was safely hidden, the distillers would immediately take up their weapons and turn their attention to shooting at the police from well-camouflaged positions. The entire enterprise provided the distillers with so little risk to themselves and so much discomfort to the constables that the latter frequently gave up thechase on the very slightest of provocations.

Close to Derryclare Lough, which lies in the Connemara National Park, and almost under the shadow of the Twelve Pins, there stands by the side of an arrow road a small crudely-made monument of uncut stones, on top of which stands a rough wooden cross. Such heaps of stones are common along Ireland’s west coast, and they customarily mark a family memorial. It begins with each family member and each friend who attends the funeral placing a stone upon the crude monument. In some parts of the country every relative and friend who subsequently passes that spot places a stone on the common pile, and by doing so cause the heap to constantly grow. The monument that I mention is no different in any respect from many others in the Connemara area. But before this monument, in the summer of 1886, an old peasant woman knelt there all day long. Regularly, every morning she would come to this place from her cabin in a nearby glen and spend every daylight hour there in prayer before the wooden cross. It did not seem to matter to this old woman if the sun shone, or the rain poured from the skies. When the sun shone, the hood on her tattered cloak would be thrown back to expose her white hair, but the rain forced her to draw the hood forward as shelter. Whether it rained, or the sun shone, however, that old woman was always there, with her lips silently moving in prayer as the beads slipped through her withered fingers. So engrossed was she that no voice and no question could divert her from her devotions. She never looked up, nor did she ever take the slightest notice of any remarks that were addressed to her, and she was never heard to speak aloud. One day every week groceries were sent to her cabin from the nearest police station and were left within. The men who brought these provisions would then depart immediately, for this old woman never gave them any word of thanks or any expression of any gratitude she felt. Although this ritual had been happening for many years, the constables, who had been sent to deliver the allowance made to her by the government, never tried to compel her to speak to them.

The old woman’s story was first recorded by a Sergeant of Police and provides the reader with a painful illustration of the poteen trade in the mountains of the west. In the year 1850, while the country was still suffering from the effects of the “Great Hunger,” she lived with her husband, Michael Murray, and their four sons, on a little farm near Derryclare Lough. Year after year the crops had failed them, but the little family had held together, starving and foraging faring to keep themselves alive. In 1850, although the country was generally beginning to recover from the famine, this part of Connemara was still suffering, and it seemed likely that the crop would fail again, bringingthe evils of starvation and disease face to face with this hapless family.

The four boys were all well-grown boys, who were accustomed to the hard life of the Irish peasantry, and they were willing to work if any could be found for them. All four sons left their home, the eldest went to Galway, while the other three went to the sea-shore, where they found temporary employment in the fisheries. While they worked away from home, these three brothers learned the secrets of the illicit distiller, and after gathering enough money to buy a small still, they returned home with it. The home-place was, fortunately, sited in a secluded quarter of a district that was rarely visited and they managed to persuade the old man to join in the illicit distilling business with them. The risk of detection by law officers appeared so small in those days, especially when compared with the profits that could be gained, that against the prayers and entreaties of the woman, the small still was established in a nearby hollow and the manufacture of the poteen began in the largest quantities that their limited resources would allow them. But, over the next number of years, their product found a ready outlet in the neighbourhood, and the O’Malley family prospered beyond their dreams. The three sons were all married to local women, and their families grew up strong and healthy around them.

The eldest brother, John O’Malley, had made his way to Galway City, and by a great stroke of good fortune, he succeeded in obtaining a place in the Royal Irish Constabulary. At the home-place, John’s family knew nothing of what had happened, for he did not communicate with them in any shape or form. Directly after he had enlisted he was sent to County Wexford, which lies on the opposite side of the island, and caused him to almost forget his old home and the life he had lived there with his brothers. But, because he proved himself to be both intelligent and capable, John was rapidly promoted to the rank of sergeant and was ordered to County Galway. Almost as soon as he arrived in his new post at the barracks in a small village in Connemara, police informers brought intelligence about an illicit still that was working in a place near the TwelvePins. O’Malley was immediately ordered to set out with a strong party of police to seize the still, and, if possible, arrest the criminals running the operation. The names of the offenders were not given by the informers, but the location of the glen, where operations were being carried, out was described with such precision that O’Malley, who knew every foot of ground in the area, drafted plans for an operation that would make it practically impossible for the illicit still workers to escape the police.

As planned, before dark one evening, a party of twelve mounted policemen armed with rifles started out from Maum, which sat at the head of Lough Corrib. They travelled all night, and by morning Sergeant O’Malley had positioned his men around the glen that the arrest of the criminals looked to be a certainty. In the dim light of early dawn, before any objects could be distinctly seen, several men were seen entering the glen, and, at a given signal from O’Malley, the police rapidly closed in on the little shanty where the still was operating. A desperate fight ensued between the two groups, and SergeantO’Malley was shot dead by one of his brothers without even knowing whose hand had pointed the weapon. Two of the O’Malley brothers were killed by the police bullets, and a constable was mortally wounded. Michael and his remaining son were taken alive by the police and were subsequently tried for murder. It was only when the charges were read out against them that they learned, for the first time, that the dead Sergeant was their own son and brother.

The raid and the casualties of the fire-fight attracted wide attention in the country and both men were hanged. Mrs O’Malley was totally devastated by the entire action, which, with a single blow, had deprived her of a husband and her four sons. For several months afterwards, she was driven almost insane by the memory of that day, but the anger soon passed away. Then, as her clouded brain became calm and clear, it became occupied with one idea, to the exclusion of all others, namely prayer for the happy repose of her dead husband and sons. While the body of the Sergeant was buried near Maum, O’Malley and his three sons were buried together under the cairn in a long disused churchyard, through which the road passed. It was a churchyard like thousands more in Ireland, where the grave-stones are hidden by overgrown nettles and weeds. There, with a love stronger than death, that poor old woman went every day, and, untiring in her devotion, she spent the rest of her life reciting the prayers for the dead.

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