Poteen Making – Chronicles 6

An Old Established Industry

Vulgar legend has it that it was St. Patrick himself who first gave the Irish the wrinkle how to make poteen. A ribald rhymester of the last century hoped to perpetuate this foolish notion when be introduced it into a song which bad a pasting popularity and then followed its author into oblivion. That poteen-making, however, is a domestic industry of considerable Antiquity is a fact of history. In the Red Book of Ossory, there is a description of the virtues of “uisge-beatha,” a Gaelic compound. signifying the Water of Life—and a recipe for manufacturing it from malt.

When the Anglo-Normans landed here more than 700 years ago, they found our ancestors according to their chroniclers. Adept in the art of distillation, and much given to the consumption of the product of their poteens. It is not clear, by the way, when the term ” poteen”– derived from the small pot-stills in which the Liquor is made – first came into general use, probably somewhere about the middle of the 18th century. when a band of smugglers set up large pot — stills in Co. Antrim and laid the foundations of the famous Bushmills Distillery, the oldest in Ireland.

HANGED FOR POTEEN-MAKING.

The manufacture of ‘uisge – beatha must have continued to flourish during the centuries immediately following the Invasion. for restrictions were at length imposed upon domestic distilling and the sale of spirits, by the Parliament of the Pale. It was characteristic of those times that while the poor man caught thereafter in the art of making poteen was led to the nearest tree and hanged, the nobility, exempt from any penalty whatsoever, could distil and drink away to their hearts’ content. Distilling without a licence was first made illicit in a statute passed at Drogheda in 1556, restricting the manufacture of whiskey —” a drink nothing profitable to be daily used, and now universally made throughout this realm, especially on the borders of the lrishry, whereby much corn, grain and other things are consumed.” Within a few years following the industry was established on a licensed basis, and persons were nominated in each province, who bad the sole power of grant licences.

WHEN WHISKEY WAS 3d. A GLASS.

The soaring prices of strong drink are said to be the main cause of the present alarming spread of poteen-making throughout Ireland. Too much stress, however, can be laid on this explanation. There were more illicit stills in the country when the duty on whiskey was only tenpence a gallon than there are to-day. Between the years 1802 and 1806, for instance, 13,439 stills,1,198 heads, and 9,732 worm were seized by the revenue police; and in 1811, when whiskey was only threepence a glass, we find the observant Edward Wakefield in his “Account of Ireland”, writing: – “I am convinced, whatever penal laws or regulations may be made, it is almost impossible to extirpate illicit distilleries from the mountains. It has been represented to me, and I believe with truth, that they are erected in the kitchens of baronets and in the stables of clergymen. The mountains are covered with them, and they are to be met with in the very last places where an English excise officer would expect to discover them.”

ELUDING THE GAUGER.

As in the days of soap and candle smuggling, eluding the gauger now became a fresh bond of union between orange and green, the Protestant planter of Ulster having as little respect for the distilling laws as had the Catholic Celt of Connacht. Just a century ago the poteen traffic had become so extensive, not alone in Ireland, but in England and Scotland as well, that more than half of the spirits actually consumed in these countries came from mountain caverns, lonely islets, and bogland wastes where the poteen distiller was able to evade the law and pursue his illicit industry without fear of molestation. The Government grew alarmed, and a Parliamentary Commission was appointed to investigate the subject. New regulations which were then adopted brought the abuse within bounds, in Great Britain, at all events. The success of this effort to stamp out the traffic soon manifested itself in an enormously increased demand for legally manufactured spirits.

DISAPPEARED IN ENGLAND.

In 1820 — the year before the Commission’s recommendations were given effect to – the quantity whiskey made in the ` licensed distilleries of the Three Kingdoms was 9,600,000 gallons. Within five years the output was almost doubled. In Scotland alone there were 14,000 poteen making prosecutions in 1823, but thirty years later this surprising total had fallen to less than 50! In England illicit distilling almost disappeared during the same period.

In Ireland, however, the efforts at suppression were much less successful. The reasons for this were several, but the principal one seems to have been that Inland Revenue police were utterly unable to cope with the work of detection, which, down to 1851 they alone were responsible for. In that year the constabulary were called in to their assistance and taking up their new duties in true R.I.C. fashion, prosecutions became suddenly more frequent, and poteen stills more of a rarity.

EMPLOYMENT OF R.I.C.

Hitherto, as implied by Wakefield in the extract just quoted, the illegal traffic had not been confined to any particular class, and magistrates and landlords had their own reasons for turning their heads away should they chance upon a still full blast. The Inland Revenue Commissioners had evidently this fact in their minds when including the following adroitly-worded passage in their annual report for 1870: “There can be no doubt that the moral effect of the employment of a force (The R.I.C.) so much respected and so closely connected with the magistracy and the Viceregal Government will have great influence on some classes in Ireland who have hitherto been too much to look with indifference upon the Revenue laws” The co-operation of the landlords was at length secured, and poteen making in Ireland continued to wane until its sudden revival in recent times.

SOME ARTFUL DODGES.

A regular literature—probably buried in the pages of defunct Irish magazines – must have grown up around the subject of poteen making a few generations ago, when the majority of Irish farmers were their own distillers, and many of them retailers of unlicensed spirits—when Lever sang: –

I was a monarch in state

Like Romulus or Julius Caesar,

With the best of fine vittels to ate,

And drink like great Nebuchadnezzar,

A rasher of bacon I’d have.

And statues the finest was seen, sir,

And for drink, it’s no claret I’d crave,

But a keg of old Mullen’s poteen, sir,

With the smell of the smoke on it still.

A law was passed imposing a heavy fine on any townland in which a poteen still was discovered. But the artful construction of private distilleries on the boundaries drove the proverbial coach and four through that statute. Stories, too, could be told of how revenue officers used to be kidnapped and kept in close confinement for weeks together, in order to prevent their giving evidence at Petty Sessions prosecutions. After the R.I.C. took to tracking down poteen makers in the fifties they would pay handsomely for information regarding the whereabouts of a still. Not infrequently it was the owner himself who would put them on the scent and then draw for a worn out and worthless apparatus as much ‘Castle Money’ as could buy him a new one.

TERENCE O’HANLON.

“Sligo Champion” Oct 1900 (Downloaded from BNA, Aug.2021)