TWO BLACK EYES – New Book 6

In years gone by the towns and districts of Ireland were under British administration and relied upon appointed Magistrates to dispense justice to those lawbreakers brought before the court system by local police. In the decades that Britain governed from Dublin most of the resident magistrates were retired officers from the British forces, who often had their own means of income and were part of the gentry class in society. It appeared to be obvious to the administration that there could be no better candidate for dispensing British justice to the Irish than an officer of the crown’s forces. Because he had been a former Captain of Infantry, Robert St. John Stevens was appointed to the vacant magistracy at Ballyskeagh, which he thought was a quiet, rural backwater.

The local tenants, labourers, and ‘scallywags’ had never liked their Resident Magistrate and were excited to here that he had been replaced by a younger man. They were keen, of course, to discover just how harshly this new Magistrate would deal with those lawbreakers brought before him. The local native Irish Catholic population was on the lower step of society’s class system, and many of them were involved in various criminal offences, both minor and major. So, on that first day of Robert’s court there was a large and inquisitive crowd of local people, who were waiting at the courthouse to see how this new Magistrate dealt with those brought before him.

With Robert comfortably seated in his judicial chair the court was called to order and the Clerk of the Court, a young Dwyer Patton, immediately stood up from his seat and declared, “We have only the once case before the court this morning, which alleges the defendant is guilty of house-breaking, public drunkenness, possession of illicit spirits, and of resisting lawful arrest by local police officers. The defendant is Richard Fearon, resident of this Parish, and better known to his neighbours and friends as ‘Dick Fearon’, and cross-summonses have been issued to both Mr. Fearon and his wife.

The charges had been read out to the court and the packed public area anxiously waited for proceedings to begin, looking toward Philip Duffy who had the honour of beginning the case. It was Philip who rose slowly from his chair and announced that he had been appointed to defend Mrs. Fearon, and looking toward the new magistrate’s bench said, “I wish to impress upon this court that the offences that have been laid against Dick Fearon are very grave. This man drank a great amount of illegal spirits with friends before making his way home. These spirits, popularly known as ‘Poteen’, which are known to inflame male emotions and cause upset between man and wife.  So, put out of his mind by the Poteen, Mr. Fearon came to his home, broke down the front door, and began to wreck all around him while terrorizing his poor, frightened wife. And, to make matters worse, when Sergeant Heaney arrived at the house to pacify Mr. Fearon, he refused to obey police instructions and physically resisted arrest. This man, therefore, has shown by his actions that he is undoubtedly a destructive menace that can threaten the peace of our community at any minute. Surely, not since the days when Viking warriors stormed our shores and ravaged our peaceful land has so much havoc been caused by a single individual? Not since those dark days has there been a time when gentle women like Mrs. Fearon are forced to suffer such a terror!”      

During this opening statement by Philip Duffy, Dick Fearon had been fidgeting nervously as he sat in the prisoner’s dock, but these last words of Duffy’s statement caused his patience to snap. He suddenly sprang to his feet, his face red with anger, and immediately interrupted Duffy’s opening words to the court. “Holy God!” he shouted aloud in his anger. “Can a man not take a notion to tidy his own furniture? Can he not bring a cantankerous wife back into order when he feels the time calls for it? Jesus, man, are you telling me that the men of Ireland have been castrated by the law?

Magistrate Robert St. John Stevens was not appreciative of Dick Fearon’s angry outburst and hammered heavily with his gavel to regain order. “Order!” he called out several times. Then, addressing the defendant, he told him, “You cannot disrupt the proceedings of this court in such a manner, Mr. Fearon. You will get your chance to speak, but if there is any repetition of this type of behaviour, we might just consider it to be contempt of court, and it will not end well for you!” Dick looked fiercely at the magistrate and sat down on his seat again, muttering some derogatory remark under his breath.

Duffy now continued with his opening speech and told the court, “You can just imagine how terrified Mrs. Fearon was, thinking that her end had come. She had been forced to watch all her lovely delph pieces smashed into a thousand small fragments, while her well-loved furniture was smashed and broken in front of her. On her hearth the alarm clock had been smashed and broken, and no longer able to awaken the house and allow Mr. Fearon to take his wife’s breakfast into her,” he added with a tone of sarcasm. “Can any of you even imagine how this poor, mistreated woman felt as she looked at her home, now wrecked beyond recognition.

Again, Dick Fearon jumped up from his chair, red faced and very angry. “Holy Christ!” he exclaimed loudly. “Do you not know that there are more feelings in a bloody tombstone than there is in that woman?

Undeterred by this outburst Philip Duffy turned away from Dick Fearon and continued, “Can I ask the court to simply consider the feelings of this decent, respectful, loving wife, and mother, who has had no less than three husbands.

Aye!” Mrs. Fearon now called out. “And, if please God, I will get myself another one!

Duffy smiled at this comment, but he did not allow the interruption to disturb his train of thought as he spoke on. “Yes, gentlemen! Three husbands and ten children, six of whom rest peacefully in the family’s plot, while the remaining four are all distinguished members of the constabulary. This man, Dick Fearon, was once a model husband and father until he took to the poteen. He once would have done anything his wife asked, just to please her, but the ‘gargle’ changed him into the useless blackguard you see here today.

It was Mrs. Fearon who now jumped to her feet and stared at Philip Duffy with eyes full of anger. She brought herself up to full size and, gritting her teeth, she said, “Hold on for just one minute! Who, in the name of God, do you think you are Philip Duffy, to have the gall to say that my husband is a blackguard? Let me tell you, gobshite, that my husband is one decent, hardworking man who has never had reason to call on the likes of you for any help!

The magistrate, Robert St. John Stevens, was very irritated by Mrs. Fearon’s outburst in the court and, believing that things were getting out of control he began to bang his gavel and shout, “Order! Order!” When he had restored some order he announced, “Unless you all begin to behave in a correct and proper manner, I will have the entire court emptied, the guilty arrested for contempt, and this case will continue without you.

Ah, now, your honour!” Mrs. Fearon smiled, “Sure, a man like yourself does not expect a woman as upright as me to sit quietly while her husband is insulted before her very eyes? Well, I will tell you this! There is no way that I will listen to puffed-up gobshites, like that boy, say bad things against my man, as long as I have a tongue in my head!

Now, now, Mrs. Fearon! I must prevail upon you for a modicum of order,” insisted Robert, hoping that he would be able to quieten her a little. But Robert was a stranger to the ways of Irish women and did not realise just how determined she was to make herself heard. As she moved to stand up again Sergeant Heaney was concerned about what she might say in front of the court and put his hand over her mouth.

Mrs. Fearon was annoyed by Heaney’s efforts to silence her, and she struggled to get free of him. She succeeded when she nudged her elbow forcibly into the police sergeant’s groin and causing him to groan loudly as he crumpled to the floor. With a great deal of ‘tut-tutting’ she helped Heaney back to his feet again despite her anger with him. “By Christ!”  groaned Heaney, “If you were my wife, I would stitch that mouth of yours closed!

Looking him straight in the eyes she answered, “And do you think that I would be allowing you? It would not be just a nudge in the boondocks you would be getting!

That’s quite enough, Mrs. Fearon!” shouted a very Irate magistrate, who was determined to have his voice heard. “This is scandalous behaviour for any lady! You must learn to keep your unwelcome comments to yourself in this court! In short, Mrs. Fearon, shut up!

Aye, that will work,” Dick Fearon commented sarcastically. “Sure, you might as well tell a whale to whistle the ‘Foggy Dew’ or ask a Cavan man for the loan of a penny!

Mr. Fearon, you have been warned! Now, Mrs. Fearon you can come forward and give the court the benefit of your testimony,” said Robert, more calmly.

Mrs. Fearon tidied her dress and fixed her hat correctly on her head before she strode up to take her place in the witness box. “You are Margaret Fearon, better known to your family, friends, and neighbours as ‘Peggy’?

That’s right, your honour,” smiled Peggy confidently.

You are married to the prisoner?

I am, may God forgive me,” she replied. “That lump of manhood is my third husband, and he is twice the bother of the two fine men who came before him. That man would drink the bit out, day and night if he could, and then stumble home at all hours of the night, all heated up and ready to fight.

Has he ever hit you in the past?

Hit Me?” Peggy laughed aloud. “Well dare he even lift his hand to me, for I would swing for him. They would have to dig me out of him, and I would make sure there wasn’t a part of him to be found. No. Dick knows better than attempt to hit me.

Well, could you please tell us what caused him to wreck the house on the evening in question?

Sure, wasn’t the blackguard drinking and gambling with his friends and when his money was spent, so was his welcome. He had no choice but to come home and some comfort in a bottle of poteen.

You were storing the bottle of poteen for him?

But Peggy was not going to be caught out that easily and replied, “Sure, I didn’t know there was any in the house! I had closed and locked the door for I didn’t want him coming in and staggering all over my clean house, while I was in bed. I was in bed a good couple of hours when he began his hammering on the front door and calling me every vile name he could think of, but I stayed silent until he broke the door down!

Aye and tell them who was in the bed with you!” Dick Fearon called out.

That’s a damned lie!” Peggy squealed at him.

Wasn’t it himself that you were sharing the bottle with? You Jezebel!

Peggy turned to the magistrate and told him, “That was his excuse for breaking down the door and wrecking my furniture and possessions, the thug. He was drunk and there was no other man in my bed. When he could not find anyone else in the house, he began to pull the house apart, shouting out for his bottle of poteen.

Did he find it?

Aye,” answered Dick. “I found it in the bedroom, beside the bed where her and her lover had lain and shared the bottle.

You’re a liar, Dick Fearon, and everyone knows it. Sure, the truth would choke you to tell it!” roared Peggy.

It will hang you,” laughed Dick. “Sure, isn’t that why the sergeant is sporting the two black eyes I gave him for his romantic dallying?

The court is adjourned!” ordered the magistrate.

JW Nov. 2021

Nettles -New Book 5

Seán Óg McVeigh was a tall man whose body was thin as that of a skeleton, and he would walk around the town in a long, heavy black coat, the hems of which trailed the ground. On his head he would wear a wide-brimmed hat that cast a shadow to hide his bright blue eyes. But in the area Seán Óg was a widely known and highly respected personage who was greeted with deference that would usually be reserved for a doctor or a clergyman. This was surprising since Seán Óg had left school at the tender young age of thirteen years, without any qualifications or hope of a trade. He had, however, been the only child of a woman who was famed for her wisdom in the use of herbs and charms to cure many ills and difficulties. Under her tutelage, Seán Óg had spent years studying the ways of ‘mother nature’ and the cures that proper use of her fruit could provide. There were those who were certain that Seán Óg’s mother had spent a long time living among the ‘good people’ from whom, it was said, she had been gifted with many cures and fairy knowledge. It was because of the care taken in passing her knowledge to her son that Seán Óg was often called upon to treat ailments that affected the local people.

As part of his treatments, Seán Óg refused to resort to pills, or bottles filled with foul tasting potions to achieve cures. Instead, he used his time gathering nettles and other plants that he would combine in various ways to create his cures, and he was always the target of hurtful, disparaging comments by the local doctors. Each time that Seán Óg was sent for, he would readily answer their call, arriving punctually at the patient’s home carrying a bundle containing his herbs, nettles, and other plants in neatly tied bunches. But the nettles he carried were of a special type. They were mature nettles that he had plucked at dawn the same day and they still had the dew of morning still coating the leaves.

Perhaps it was a sign of their confidence in Seán Óg that made them feel so much better the moment that he entered their home. But with raised spirits they would watch as the tall, thin man removed his long, heavy black coat, and take off his wide-brimmed hat from his head. This done, Seán Óg would immediately set about getting his patients to lie down on a nearby couch, or bed. If it was a male patient, they would be politely asked to remove their shirt or their trousers, if it were parts of their lower body that were giving them bother. And being a true gentleman in all things, Seán Óg would always defer to natural shyness of women when it came to them revealing the areas of their body that were affected by pain.

With the affected areas revealed Seán Óg that made them feel so much better the moment he entered their home. With raised spirits they would watch as the tall, thin man removed his long, heavy, black coat and took off his wide-brimmed hat from his head. This done Seán immediately set about getting his patient to lie down on a nearby couch, or bed. If it was a male patient, they would be politely asked to remove their shirt, or their trousers if it were parts of the lower body that were giving them bother. And being a true gentleman in all things, Seán Óg would always defer to the natural shyness of women when it came to them revealing the areas of their body that were afflicted with pain.

With the affected area revealed Seán Óg would spit lightly on both hands and rub them together like a man making ready to dig a ditch with a spade. Then, holding a bunch of nettles with both hands, Seán would begin to beat the affected area of the poor patient’s body until it was a mass of red, blistered lumps that stung the patient to the bone. The procedure would take Seán between ten and fifteen minutes before he would feel ready to step back from his patient and inspect his work. Satisfied that his treatment had been delivered properly Seán Óg would tell them to redress, while assuring them they would not feel so much as a tinge of pain ever again, although the pain they had felt had been due to rheumatism, lumbago, or other ailments. Naturally, the treatment they had received had painful side-effects which had taken several days to disappear. But Seán Óg’s assurance was not a false one, for many who had suffered long years of pain before undergoing the ‘nettle treatment’, had become a new person and enjoyed better health because of Seán’s efforts.

Now, those who live in rural areas have learned by bitter experience that nettles are always at their stinging best in the Spring or early Summer. The seasons, however, had no influence over Seán Óg or the treatment he was famed for giving patients suffering from pain. Most of us believe that in the depths of winter the stinging nettles lose most of any curative properties they may have. It is further proof to how good Seán Óg was because his treatment was still effective even at the Christmas period when the nettles barely had a sting left and he could continue to attend patients who needed him.

As is usual with such unusual treatments there are always the immoral and unethical people who will follow Seán Óg’s actions, in the hope that they would gain fame and wealth. ‘Spring-heels’ Eddie was just one of these characters, who was always on the lookout to make a bit of easy money on the back of another person’s difficulties, and he thought he would take up Seán Óg’s therapy. However, Eddie had the bright idea of collecting huge bunches of nettles and extract their juices from them, which he believed would achieve the same results as Seán had, but without the side-effects. ‘Spring-heels’ immediately established a production line in the kitchen of his home and, despite his wife’s bitter complaints, filled his first twenty-four small bottles with the elixir. With his first production complete, Eddie was keen to test it, and he began his journey to wealth and fame. For his first guineapig, therefore, he chose his next-door neighbour and best friend who was always complaining about his sore back.

The neighbour was informed by Eddie that the bottle contained Seán Óg’s treatment that would, in this new form, act much more quickly to ease his pain. He also assured him that there would be no uncomfortable side-effects. Putting the small bottle of liquid to the patient’s mouth, Eddie watched as he gulped down almost a half of the bottle. Within seconds the patient went a bright red, which turned very quickly to a sickly yellowish-green and he began to roll on the ground grabbing his chest. An extremely frightened Eddie wasted no time in sending for the doctor, who rushed to the scene in his car. Deciding that the patient was poisoned he gave him something to drink which induced him to be sick, and then an ambulance was called.

There was once a neighbour of our own family who suffered terribly from pains that prevented hi from ploughing his fields since he found it very difficult to guide the plough behind the horses. He constantly complained to anyone who would listen that, “I would be dead if I had the will to stiffen”, and he called on his long-suffering brother-in-law, ‘Squinky’ Hoy, to help him on the farm. The patient, who was known to all as Joey ‘Soup’ Campbell, heard about the wonderful results that Seán Óg was achieving in curing people in persistent pain and he begged ‘Squinky’ to contact the ‘miracle worker’.

‘Squinky’ was not a man who believed in magic cures or fairy charms, although there were many in the district that did. He was not convinced, therefore, that a beating with stinging nettles by Seán Óg would cure ‘Soup’. He was sure if Seán Óg could do it, then so could he. That afternoon he went to a nearby woodland and gathered a large pile of nettles and, later that night, he took them to ‘Soup’s’ house. In the kitchen area of the house several men had gathered to play cards and ‘Soup’ was surprised to see his brother-in-law arrive with a huge bunch of nettles in his hands. Looking at him quizzically he asked ‘Squinky’, “What in the name of God are you doing with those nettles?

Right, Big Man,” began ‘Squinky’ as he reached down to his brother-in-law. “Drop those trousers and we will soon have you on your feet again!

‘Soup’ stared at ‘Squinky’ blankly as he stood there waving his nettles in front of his friends. “Have you lost your feckin’ mind, you buck eejit?” he shouted as he rose angrily from his seat at the kitchen table and painfully moved toward ‘Squinky’. “Get out of here, you gobshite before I put my size twelve boot up your arse, so far you’ll be sucking leather for a year!

‘Squinky’, you can understand did not need to be told twice as he fled quicker than a hare at a coursing event.

©Jim Woods Nov.2021.

Paul’s Story – New Book 2

It was at Mick Harte’s funeral that I first met Paul Quinn, a popular and friendly man who was, before this occasion, a stranger to me. Paul, however, had been a very good friend to my Uncle Mick and he had, I was to discover, helped my father’s brother to avoid the full penalty of the law on many occasions.

Mick was your uncle?” he asked as we walked behind the black hearse. “Then, it was Danny who was your father?

Aye, that’s right,” I confirmed. “Did you know them both well?

It was your father who was the eldest of the two and I got to know him. But it was your Uncle Mick and I who were the best of friends. In fact, Mick and I were born in the same week, just three or four months before the end of the great war.

I bet things in Ireland were a lot different in those days?

Aye, it was time when Ireland was very troubled and virtually lawless, and our early years were filled with a bitter and bloody struggle to gain our nation’s independence. The shock wave caused by the ‘Easter Rebellion’ were still being felt throughout Ireland, and the ‘Black and Tan’ thugs took the conflict to a higher level of cruelty and bloodletting, with neither side showing any pity to the other. We were still toddlers when the peace treaty was signed, and ‘Free State’ was created. But signing a treaty was much easier than maintaining lengthy period of peace.

I can imagine that it must have been an exciting time, but it must also have been very frightening,” I commented.

Exciting is one word that could describe those days in our young lives,” Paul smiled as he searched his memories. “But it was a time of ambushes, guns, and the killing of Irish men by their fellow countrymen. There was one day, When Mick and I were only five years old, and we were playing in a field at the edge of town which ran adjacent to “Hennessey’s Wood.’ Without a warning there was an explosion of gunfire that appeared to us to last quite a few minutes, but it was probably only for a few seconds. We were shaking with fear as we lay in the grass, and we attempted to gather our senses quickly when the gunfire ceased so we could escape the danger. But from where we lay we saw twelve men coming out of the wood with rifles over their shoulders and bandoliers of ammunition across their chests. In their hands, however, these men were carrying a variety of birds and rabbits that would have provided them with a great feast. These were what our parents called ‘irregulars’ and they had been able to avoid the ‘Free State Soldiers’ that had been patrolling the area for the previous two weeks. For two very young boys who were only innocent children it was our first experience of the troubled country in which we lived.

Some experiences, Paul,” I commented as I slowly shook my head in wonder as we walked on.

It was for someone so young,” said Paul. “My father, God rest him, had a worse experience. He was the owner of a busy local grocery shop and pub, and he owned one of only two cars in our small town.

What happened him?” I asked.

It was in the summer of 1922 and there had been several skirmishes in the area around the town over previous weeks, mainly due to ambushes being set up by ‘irregulars. Well, it was daylight when my father was heading home in his car, and he had a keg of whiskey secured on the passenger seat. He was quite unaware that while he was away, some local irregulars had been busy excavating a trench in preparation for an ambush against an expected patrol of soldiers along the road. As usual my father was in a hurry and didn’t see the obstruction that the irregulars had placed in the road until he was almost on top of it. In his panic to avoid the obstruction he pulled on the steering wheel, forcing the car to swerve with a loud screech of brakes. But such was his speed and the sharpness of the swerve that the car overturned and crashed into the trench. The car was a complete wreck and the keg of whiskey it was carrying was busted open and splashed all over the small band of men, who were forced to jump out of the trench in which they were hiding. These armed men wanted to avoid being hit by an out-of-control car and they dispersed quickly, and the planned ambush did not take place. It was only after old Joe Murray came with his Shire Horses was the car pulled free of the trench and towed home. The news of the crash was the talk of the entire district for a month.”

“Dear God, that must have been some experience for your father?” I commented and was in two minds as to whether I should laugh or not. “What did Uncle Mick say?

Paul smiled as he recalled, “Sure, Mick never said much about anything in those days, for in those days he was a bit of a tear-away himself.

Uncle Mick was a bit of a tear-away? That’s a bit hard for me to see, from what I know of him.

Aye! Mick was always a bit of an eejit, like myself,” Paul told me. “I’ll admit that things were much different in those days. The countryside around her was like a magical kingdom for two adventurous boys. We could have wondered anywhere without fear, and our parents had no concerns for our safety. There were many evenings that we would go after school to rob birds’ nests as part of our egg collecting hobby, which was a great past-time when we were young. You know, there were times when we would have to put an egg in our mouth so we could both hands to get down from the branches. It wasn’t always a successful choice, for there were times when the egg would break in our mouths as we descended and jumped the last few feet.

We laughed together at the idea of birds’ eggs breaking in their mouths. “Aye! Egg collectors and poachers,” added Paul.

Poachers?” I gasped.

Aye, that’s right! We became very good friends and poachers when we were young, catching hundreds of trout by tickling them,” he told me.

Did they just laugh their way into a net?” I joked.

Paul remained straight faced and began to explain, “In truth, it was Mick who was the real expert. His secret was to move his hand slowly and noiselessly under an overhanging riverbank, never hurrying or grabbing at his target. But when the opportunity came Mick would sweep the fish onto the bank with one swift scoop of his hand. At night we would take lamps and a gaff to catch the fish, but whether day or night we always had to be on our guard for police and gamekeepers. Maybe because we were so young, we never gave too much consideration to the punishment we might receive for our actions. We hunted hares, rabbits, pheasants, fish, and it was ‘Young Alo’, the postman in those days, who taught us everything about snares and other poacher tools. Now and again, ‘Young Alo’ would also bring his two big greyhounds and we would have great sport flushing out hares and rabbits, and watching the dogs chase them down.

“Great times and great fun! Not at all like today?” I suggested.

There was now a more serious expression that came across Paul’s face as he remembered, “Well, life wasn’t all one period o constant joy and carefree abandon, for the people around here did face hard times. Most of the people around this place lived in stone and mortar cabins with thatched roofs. Although they made them as comfortable as they could, the homes were not luxurious homes. Poverty was widespread at that time, with Tuberculosis and other serious illnesses rampant, and alcohol and tobacco were their only means of relaxing. The Parish Priest, an old and spiritually gifted man, was constantly busy with his parochial duties, especially the funerals of those poor people who succumbed to the scourge of Tuberculosis, for which there was no cure. There were many funerals that Mick and I had to attend, for our schoolfriends or their parents.

We walked on silently for a little while until Paul again began to speak. “There was not much in the way of work for a man in those days. The biggest employer in this area was ‘Tully’s Factory’, within which pigs were slaughtered and then processed to produce high quality pork and ham products. Of course, not all the locals were able to get employment there and those lucky enough to secure a job would stay for many years. It was said that you would have to shoot someone dead in the factory before you would face the possibility of dismissal. Just wounding a person would not even be considered a serious disciplinary offence.

After lighting a cigarette, Paul continued to explain, “There were many others who indirectly benefitted from ‘Tully’s’ by gaining employment with the numerous pig farms that supplied the factory. Every Tuesday the pigs would be marched or transported in wagons and lorries from the nearby farms to the factory. On arrival they would be weighed and checked by the factory’s vet, for the better-quality pig would always be worth the greater amount of money for its farmer. It was a good time for the farmers, but as the prices for ham and pork products rose and fell, the farmers’ income could vary greatly, effecting the lives of their workers.

Paul smiled as he told me, “There were, naturally, men who preferred to do little or no work, but still need money to survive. It was such men that found a home in illicit businesses, like smuggling and Poteen. However, there were more temperate people who were convinced that Poteen was the brew by which Satan entrapped mankind in permanent drunkenness. But the greater number were those who admired poteen and its manufacture. They considered the brew to be the ‘Nectar of the Gods’ which had been given to man to Pacify their hearts. Do you know that there are some men who will tell you that it is great stuff for rubbing on the backs of greyhounds, the forelocks of horses, and even the arthritic joints of men and women? But the truth of poteen’s attraction was that it could be made cheaply and sold at a good profit, and tax-free. Despite it being illegal, many stills were built and the people who made the spirit became socially acceptable to the community as a whole.”

Surely the law came after them?” I asked.

Of course, they did! In those days turf was used to heat the stills, which made the more easily detectable by the police and gaugers, who would destroy those they found. But there were those manufacturers who would double, or triple distill their poteen, improving its quality and bringing in a better price. Indeed, it wasn’t unknown, for some policemen and gaugers to ensure that they reserved the better-quality goods for themselves before destroying the still.

Ah, sure, you can trust no one. But the craic must have been good for Mick and you,” I smiled. “There mustn’t have been a corner of this county which was safe from you two rascals.

Travelling was not just as easy in those days,” said Paul as he caught his breath. “The roads were rough and very hard upon the types of motor vehicles as well as horses’ hoofs. Local Councils were constantly making efforts to improve road quality, sending out men to break stones as aggregate, which was then pressed and flattened by a steam roller. Travelling for fun by car or other vehicle was rare and there were many occasions when we would walk twenty miles to the nearest town, herding our cattle to be sold there. On those days we would accompany the cattle driver, who could earn a few extra shillings for his efforts. But the going with cattle was far from easy, especially when some of the moody beasts broke away from the herd and would run off in all directions across fields, bogs, and woods.

Paul went on to explain, “On a fair day in town the sale of animals would begin about six o’clock in the morning and would last most of the day, with buyers and sellers coming in from miles around to bargain with each other. Big dealers would come from Dublin and as far away as England, and it would be to those places that most of the cattle went. The bullocks and bulls were the most difficult to handle, especially when they took the notion to wander off. Some of the farmers, however, would punch a hole in its ear and thread through some wild honeysuckle, which was said to stop the beast from trying to escape. It didn’t always work, however, and my father never believed in such old wives’ tales, preferring a much more hands on approach. There was one day when a bullock took a lunge at him and, without any fear, and with blood running down his rubber boot, he grabbed the beast’s head and thrust two fingers into its nose. With brute force he would twist its neck until it became still again. It frightened the life out of me, but he was a rough, tough man.

You know, there was one thing about people in those days,” he continued. “They were very much in favour of law and order, for they had seen enough destruction during the ‘War of Independence’ and the ‘Civil War’. I remember my parents were very strict, as were your own grandparents, and they had little patience for bad language or drunkenness. My own mother was always praying and saying novenas, and my father had very high morals, but neither of them would allow themselves to be dominated by any cleric. My father also detested anyone who would steal from him or tell him lies. He always said that you could watch a thief, but you could never watch a liar. Anyone who committed either offence against him would be severely punished with his fists, which were like giant sledgehammers beating down.”

I can remember one fine summer day when Mick and I were playing just outside the local pub while both our fathers were enjoying a quiet pint together. But it didn’t stay quiet for long when Tom Riley, the leader of the local tinkers, arrived and was already the worse for drink. The barman refused to serve Riley and told him that he had enough taken. Riley, not surprisingly, did not take kindly to this and a war of words quickly broke out. The air was filled with all sorts of swear words and deadly oaths, which continued until my father spoke up, saying, “You have had enough now, Tom. It’s time to go.””

Tom’s reply was to take a swing at my father, but he missed. My father drew back a little before he drove home a short jab, knocking the tinker chief to the floor on his back. The police were summoned to the bar and Tom was given a cell where he could sober-up overnight and get some treatment for the broken jaw he had suffered. That was the end of it and every time he came o the pub after this incident, he was sober and made welcome.

The funeral cortege was turning into the cemetery by this time, and I said to Paul, “Well, it’s time now to put Mick in his place of rest.

Aye, its true enough,” replied Paul sadly, “and I never go a chance to say goodbye to him.” “Sure, you are saying goodbye now, and you have told me more about my Uncle Mick than I ever knew before. For that, Paul, I thank you.” I tried to comfort him and offered him my hand, which he took and warmly shook. At that moment the cortege came to a stop, for we had reached the church door and the priest began to say a prayer of welcome for the deceased.

Tappers and Corner Boys – Chronicles 7

There are many things that were once part of everyday life in Ireland which have now disappeared. Some for the better and some, in all honesty, that have left a large sentimental hole in community life. One day last week I happened to be walking through my hometown when I met an old acquaintance of mine that I had not seen in many years. He was sitting on a wooden summer-seat outside the Church, which dominates the Centre of the town. It was a place between two memorials built to memory of the dead of two world wars and had always been a place where the older members of society sat and enjoyed the sunshine when it showed itself. Settling myself comfortably beside him I asked how things were with him. “Well,” he answered, “I am still putting one foot in front of the other.

He always did have a dry sense of humour and sometimes you would never have known what way to take his comments. But I laughed and told him, “Well, ‘Banty’, don’t you be dying before Tuesday, for that is the day the pension comes to me, and it is the only time I can afford to buy a ‘Mass Card.’”

Banty laughed and answered with, “There’s little chance of that happening, and me waiting for you to go first.” And in this manner the banter between us continued, and we reminisced about the old days and the people we had both known but were no longer with us. “Do you remember Felix Ryan?” he asked.

“Felix Ryan, by God? Sure, Felix would be a hard man to forget,” I told him. “He was one of the greatest corner boys that this town ever reared. Sure, the man was a wonder who never deserted his post come Autumn, Winter, Spring, or Summer. He was always there from the sound of the factory horn in the morning until the town clock struck six in the evening. Seven days a week and fifty-two weeks in the year he would be on that corner, resting only on Christmas and Easter Days.

And the twelfth of July! He wouldn’t stay on the corner when the bands marched through the town,” ‘Banty’ reminded me.

Aye, you’re right, ‘Banty’. It was a vocation to the man and not a job. It was a vocation to which his father had also devoted a lifetime to, and handed it down to Felix, may he rest in peace.

Well, Felix is gone now, too. God be good to him,” ‘Banty’ told me, and my heart sank a little. “Look down at the corner now. It’s empty now, for the first time in many years. No Felix and no corner boys to take his place. It’s sad.

Looking down at ‘Berwoods’ Corner’ I could see pedestrians walking by it, but not a sign of a corner boy. It had been called ‘Berwoods’ Corner’ from before I was born and was known as that because of the large furniture store on the site that had once occupied three floors of the impressive Victorian structure. The main doors of the building still opened on to the corner and gave an observer a complete view of the almost half-mile long main street comprised of ‘High Street’ and ‘Market Street.’ Even the street opposite and the street adjacent to the building were clearly visible. Not one thing, or one person could escape the sharp eyesight that Felix Ryan was famed for.

The bold Felix died last week,” ‘Banty’ informed me, “and was buried last Thursday, beside his da.

I never heard one word of it, or I would have been at his funeral, “I answered truthfully. “Do you know, I am living only six miles away and it might as well be China for all the news I hear about my hometown.

Well, that’s them all gone now,” sighed my friend. “Felix was the last one.

The terrible truth suddenly dawned on me at that moment. In a town which, at one time, had a ‘corner boy’ on every corner along the main street, and occasionally two ‘corner boys’, fifty years ago, now had none. They had all gone from the scene and had left us to look back on better days when we could laugh and enjoy their antics.

The ‘Corner Boys’ might never have done an hour’s work in their lives, but I cannot recall a time when they were without a cigarette to smoke, or a newspaper under their arm. There were none that I can recall that looked as if they were in need of food or a bed in which to sleep. In the case of Felix Ryan, there never was a day that passed when Felix would be seen on his corner wearing a well-pressed suit, a clean shirt and tie, and on his feet a pair of highly shined black brogue shoes. With his hair well groomed, Felix could well have fooled anyone, who didn’t know him, that he was a professional businessman, except for the copy of the ‘Daily Mirror’ he always had folded and tucked under his arm. He would call that paper his ‘Racing Bible’ and the horse racing section was the only part of the paper that he read. At one time I asked him why he didn’t read ‘The Sun’ and he told me, “That paper is full of Pornography, Sex and lies. Why should I want to pay for that when I can get it all at home for free?” It is my hope that his long-suffering wife had not heard him say such a thing.

When I was in my early teens I remember talking to Felix and him telling me that he believed schooling was a waste of time and that he had learned all he needed to know from the racing pages and the ‘Bookies’. From the time that he was ten his father taught how to read from the racing pages and taught him mathematics by showing him how to work out the odds shown for each horse on a betting slip. There must have been many, who didn’t know him or speak to him, that thought he was an ignorant man. But if they had taken the time to know him, they would have discovered him to be a man who had many important comments to make about the world and what was happening.

Felix may have been a ‘Corner Boy’ but this did not confine him to standing on the corner for hour after endless hour without relief. The man had his drink breaks, food breaks, toilet breaks, and betting breaks in the Bookie’s shop. Another important feature also was that Felix never was without company on his corner. He was not the type to call someone over for a talk, but there were not many in the town who did not know him and would not pass him without engaging him in conversation. He was not a man to be rude to any person who approached him, nor did he give any man the cold shoulder. Well, to be honest, there were only two types of people that Felix did not like, and he would waste little time in telling them to make themselves scarce.

The first group that he disliked were those people whom he called ‘innocent bystanders’ and considered them to be troublemakers and, in his own words, “interfering wee bastards.” He told me one time, “You here about terrible things happening to people who are described as ‘innocent bystanders.’ But allow me to tell you that an innocent bystander does not exist in ant shape or form. They are just people who enjoy hearing about or watching other people in trouble so they can pass on gossip. It was only two Saturdays past that that ‘Tommy the fruit seller’ was half-cut after winning a big bet in Paddy McGurran’s Bookies Shop. Holy God, but you could have heard Tommy and roaring and shouting before you could see him, using some very choice words in his anger. As he came close, I could see who the cause of Tommy’s rage was. It was that little weasel, ‘Tapper’ McVey and he had his hand out, tapping the man for a few pounds for drink. Tommy was never one to beat about the bush and he was telling ‘Tapper’ to go away, very impolitely. When they got to the corner here, I knew that there would be tears before the row ended.

By this time a group of these ‘innocent bystanders’ had gathered to watch the action and heard Tommy tell ‘Tapper’, “Will you just feck off!” At that moment one of these bystanders stepped forward and moved between the two warring men asking, “Do you have to …” The man didn’t get time to finish, for as quick as a flash Tommy lifted his fist and buried it right between the stranger’s two eyes, dropping him like a bag full of spuds. Both Tommy and ‘Tapper’ walked off together, leaving the man unconscious on the street. Now, how was he an innocent bystander?

Felix had no sympathy at all for ‘Tapper’ McVey, because he was a member of the second group of people that he could not tolerate on his corner. ‘Tappers’ were considered by Felix to be the lowest of the low, for they were men who usually slaves to alcohol and were constantly begging to get the money for their next bottle of anything that contained alcohol. They never appeared to wash, shave, or change their clothes and as Felix put it, “They had neither in them nor on them!

‘Tappers’ had no shame, and would beg, borrow and steal for their daily dose of alcohol. They had no care where they asked for money and had given ‘corner boys’ a bad name because ignorant people branded them alike. Felix told me that ‘Tapper’ Tim McVey was the worst devil in the town and, one day, when Felix was on his corner the ‘Tapper’ approached him and asked, “Could I tap you for a fiver, Felix?” Felix told me that rather than be rude, although he was shocked by the audacity of the man, he simply smiled as he told ‘Tapper’, “For a fiver Tim, you could hit me over the head with a brick!

Laughing loudly at this, Felix told me that ‘Tapper’ didn’t move an inch or show any expression of understanding. The man had the skin of a rhino and a brass neck on him, and public rejection was not something that would deter him from his aims. “You’re a funny man, Felix,” he said at last. “But are you going to give me a fiver or not? Surely, you won’t see an old friend go short for a bite to eat?

Sometimes being nice just doesn’t work,” Felix told me, “And you have to choose rudeness. Without a second thought I jumped into the battle and told him, ‘Firstly ‘Tapper’ you are not, never were, and never will be any kind of friend of mine! Just look at the state of you, man. I have smelled better sewage farms than you! You are no good ‘Tapper’, and you never will be, so why would I give you five pounds? It’s not food you long for but drink. You would just by yourself a bottle of ‘Buckfast’ or something, guzzle it down, and piss it up against some wall! I risked money on a horse and won those five pounds, and if anyone is going to have a drink, it will be me. Now, ‘Tapper’, Feck off, before I put my size twelve boot so far up your arse, that you’ll be chewing leather for six months!”

That was Felix Ryan, and I felt sorry that I would not see or hear him again.

©2021,  Jim@Pinebank Publishing.

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)

Medicine for Sick Greyhounds – Chronicles 5

One damp Wednesday morning the local district court was entertained by the prosecution of a man for possession of fifteen gallons of poteen. His excuse for this was that the poteen was kept as medicine, which he would give to his greyhounds whenever they were taken ill. Nonetheless, he faced a second charge of harbouring it.

The accused was a well-known local man called Patrick O’Brien. Justice Flaherty was in the chair and Police Superintendent Thorne was prosecuting the case. In his opening statement, Thorne told the court that Sergeant Keogh and a constable had visited O’Brien’s premises in the middle of September to begin a search. As the two officers looked around the premises, they noticed an outhouse inside of which a smaller outhouse, or store, had been built and the door to this smaller store was securely locked. This set-up made both men very suspicious of what was kept in the smaller store and asked O’Brien to open it for them to examine. Inside they found three casks, a crockery jar, an enamel measure, and a small drinking glass. One of the casks contained a liquid that smelt strongly of poteen to the two officers, and they decided to investigate further. The cask, they discovered, was fitted with a tap, and contained fifteen gallons of poteen. When they questioned the owner about what they had found it was reported that Mr. O’Brien replied, “Sure, what else can I say but admit that it was myself that made it.”

O’Brien’s solicitor, James Rowlette, pointed out toe the court that the police were actually visiting the premises in connection with reports that the defendant had an unlicensed gun with which he was poaching rabbits. He further explained that a short time prior to this visit Mr. O’Brien, who was a well-respected breeder of greyhounds, which he entered at some of the many track-meetings in the country, was approached by an acquaintance who was going to England. The acquaintance asked O’Brien if he would purchase a quantity of poteen he had, telling him that it was a great medicine for sick greyhounds. He also advised O’Brien that if he would administer a dose of poteen to a hound that was entered for a race, the animal would most certainly win. O’Brien was not a man to look a gift horse in the mouth and decided he would take the poteen of his friend’s hands. But there was too much in the cask and he decided to store what he did not need in the outbuilding and had no intention of selling it to the public.

Keogh described the shed in which they found the poteen, and he told the court that it was his belief that the defendant did not buy it but was certain that he had made it for his own use. Justice Flaherty then told the court that the two policemen had made an unusually big capture of good poteen, and it would be a pity to let it run down the drain when it could be mixed with industrial alcohol and be used car fuel. He also declared that based on the Sergeant’s description of the store in which the poteen was found, he was satisfied that Patrick O’Brien had distilled it himself. The only positive factor in the case against Patrick was the fact that there were no previous convictions against defendant.

The defence solicitor, Mr. Rowlette, pointed out to the court that severe fines were now being imposed for such offences, and that memorials sent to the Minister for Defence on behalf of some of those convicted now appeared not to secure. Moved by the appeal, Justice Flaherty imposed a minimal fine with a small amount for costs. This related to the first charge of being in possession of fifteen gallons of poteen, but the second charge was dropped

Busy Day at Court – Chronicles 4

As one travels around the country you will undoubtedly discover that there are some district courts which are much busier than others, prosecuting a variety of cases including the production of Poitin. One such court was occupied by Judge Louis Walshe for several hours one day a few years ago, because there were so many cases of illicit distilling of Poitin brought before him for his judgment. The first of the defendants to be placed in the ‘dock’ was a certain Patrick Doherty, who had become a familiar face to this judge. He was a tall, heavily set man, who had an excellent reputation for the quality of his Poitin and his still never appeared to stop production, despite his claims of constant police harassment. Into the witness box strode a police constable and, taking a notebook from his pocket, he prepared to give his testimony to the court. “We received information from members of the public,” the policeman began, “informing us that Mr. Doherty employed in making substantial amounts of illicit spirits, which he would sell locally. As a result, we undertook a search for evidence that might show that this illegal activity was being undertaken by the defendant, and we discovered a barrel of ‘Wash’ in a hedgerow that separated his land from the nearby road, about 100 yards from the home of the defendant.” The continuing police testimony, however, also said that there was another house, just a few yards away on the opposite side of the road.

Patrick Doherty gave his evidence and claimed that he was totally innocent of all the charges against him and denied that he had any knowledge of the barrel of ‘Wash’ that the police said they had found, pointing out that the location of the find was open to anyone including the people in the house opposite. At the same time, he told the court that a contractor and his men had been working on mending the road and fixing the fences for several weeks past, and they had found nothing. Patrick also told the court that the police had been harassing him for several years and had dragged him in front of the court on many occasions, at none of which was he ever found guilty. This fact alone, he insisted, was proof that he had never made a ‘Run’ of Poitin in his life. While Judge Louis Walshe doubted Patrick’s innocence, he had to agree that the evidence brought forward did not allow him to convict the man and he immediately waived all charges against him and allowed him to leave the court a free man.

With Doherty’s case complete the next case was called, which involved Seam McGowan and Jimmy Dogherty, who lived to the west of the town. The police witness stood in the witness box and told the court that two police constables, who were on duty about one-hundred yards from the house, saw two persons leaving the premises and making their way to a spot in the field and, after a few moments, they returned to the house. The two constables were intrigued by this action, and they left their observation post and made their way to the spot in the field that the two people from the house had gone to. At that place they discovered a two-gallon jar of Poitin that had been covered over with a length of waterproof material like tarpaulin. Carrying this evidence the two policemen entered the house through the kitchen area, where they discovered three empty barrels that had a strong smell of Poitin about them.

The two constables went on searching the rest of the rooms in the house and in one of the rooms the found a child lying in bed. One of the constables asked Mrs. McGowan, Sean’s wife, to lift the child out of the bed so they could thoroughly search the room. But as Mrs. Magowan reached down to the bed and, as she lifted the child, a bottle fell out from where it had been concealed in the child’s clothing. Under cross-examination by the defence’s lawyer, however, neither of the two police constables could clearly identify any one of the two people they had seen leaving the house and going into the field. One of the constables also stated that Mr. McGowan was standing in the kitchen at the time he requested the child be retrieved from the bed. Furthermore, one of the accused men, Jimmy Dogherty, was bedridden and could not have been one of the two people that had been seen in the field. The defence lawyer’s questioning had shown the court that the testimony given by the police constables was unreliable in this case, and it was suggested that maybe the only person who knew something about the Poitin was Mrs. McGowan, who had been charged with nothing.

Once again Judge Walshe had to agree with the suggestions put by the defence, and he dismissed the charges against Jimmy Dogherty. But in the opinion of the judge Sean McGowan was engaged in the illicit distillation of spirits, and from previous experience he knew that they would never get McGowan to admit his guilt. McGowan was given a custodial sentence of one month and one day, but he would allow him to appeal the decision if he so wished. Sean was happy to get away so lightly and, knowing that an appeal if lost could increase his jail term and impose a fine, he decided not to accept the judge’s offer

Following this case there were two other local men, Daniel, and Neil Dougan, brought before the court, and a Customs and Excise Officer made his way over to the witness box to give his evidence in this case. The ‘Revenue Man’ (Gauger) began to describe how he and his colleague were investigating based on information received, which told them that an illegal still was operating somewhere in the area. So, the previous Sunday morning they had gone out early to begin their investigation and, within the hour, their attention was attracted by a fire on the high hill above them and using all the cover available to them the two ‘gaugers’ made their way uphill until they were only fifty yards from the spot where a still had been set up.

As they moved stealthily toward their quarry there was a loud crack as a twig broke underfoot and the Poitin makers realised that they were under observation. One of the men suddenly grabbed the still and carrying it on his head, and he ran off into the cover of some trees. Meanwhile, his partner in crime tried to salvage as much of the remaining equipment as he could carry before he too could make his escape. The ‘gaugers’ were ready for just such a move by their targets and quickly gave chase, and free of any equipment they quickly caught up with both men before they had managed to get any distance away.

In the subsequent search after securing the men, the two gaugers discovered two gallons of ‘wash’ and with this evidence the revenue men arrested and charged both men. Though happy with their case, under cross-examination by the defence the revenue officers were accused of using underhand methods and of abusing the two defendants after their arrest. One of the ‘gaugers’ answered by telling the court that it was he who had chased after Dan Dougan, who had gathered the equipment and ran off like a hare at a ‘Coursing Meet.” He testified that Dan had just finished a Poitin ‘Run’ when they were discovered and as he ran away, he dropped the equipment that he was carrying away from the scene. As a means of stopping his escape the revenue man said that he reached out a stick in the hope that he could hook him around the neck, but he only caused the prisoner to trip and fall. The witness insisted, however, that neither of the prisoners had been abused by being hit on the head with clubs. The defence team, while not denying that their clients were producing Poitin, they denied that they were not important enough to be imprisoned. The judge responded,” These are the people that the Revenue are after for they are the real evil-doers and need to be put away if we are to stop this terrible trade in illicit spirits.” With these words he sentenced both men to two months in prison with hard labour. At the same time, the judge praised the two revenue officers for their vigilance and professionalism.

Battle for the Still – Chronicles 3

You could guarantee that at least once every month the wilder areas of South Armagh would get a visit from the Customs & Excise men, or ‘Gaugers’, as part of their efforts to seek out and remove all illicit Poteen Stills that were spread all over the area. They were not always successful in their searching, and, on many occasions, they would meet resistance from the poteen makers, especially if they were in the middle of a ‘poteen run’. But, for the most part, the ‘Gaugers’ found that their expeditions into these country areas were uneventful because the local community was close-knit and the ‘Revenue Men’ could not enter the area without their transport and themselves being recognized by some person or other. By various secret means these locals would track the path taken by the ‘gaugers’ and make their presence known throughout the district.

There were occasions when the customs and excise men could launch a surprise raid on suspected poteen makers, who were usually informed upon by a local ‘tout’ (Informer). These were, of course, targeted raids in which the names of offenders and the location of their stills were supplied to the ‘Revenue Men’. On one dark autumn night officers Paddy Flaherty and Tommy Townsend set out to observe reported activity that said there was an illegal still established in the mountain area close to the border with the Republic of Ireland.

Both Paddy and Tommy were experienced officers and used to undertaking night-time observations under difficult circumstances. But that night was a clear star-filled one and the half-moon gave them excellent light to see. Quietly the two officers made their way up the mountainside, keeping alert to the slightest sound that might indicate the nearby presence of the suspected poteen distillers. The sweet smell of the escaping vapour would be a tell-tale sign for them, as would the strong odour of the turf smoke from the turf-fueled fire built under the still. It was just after three o’clock in the morning when Paddy Flaherty first noticed a dim, flickering yellow light ahead, which indicated there was a fire burning. They decided to move more towards the right of where the fire was, which would allow them to approach their target through a thick covering of pine trees.

This far up the mountain the wind was a good deal stronger and both men could clearly smell the smoke from the burning turf and were more convinced that they had caught their prey without being seen by them. Closer and closer to the target the two excise men crept and soon they began to hear voices talking to each other. From their vantage point Tommy had the best view of the fire being reflected off the large rocks that provided shelter for what the two officers believed was an active poitin still. With stealthy steps they pushed forward until they were only a few feet from the Still itself, and they could clearly hear the voices of two men talking to each other. “Ah, sure, it’s running clear as the finest well-water, Frank!” said the deep voice a man who sounded much older than his companion.

Aye! Only it’s a hell of a lots stronger than well-water and worth a lot more money when we get it out there,” laughed the man who was undoubtedly called Frank.

Then like dark spirits the two revenue officers burst into the middle of where the men were sitting, and with a loud roar Paddy called out “You are under arrest! Sit your ground and don’t move!” He might have saved his breath since neither of these poteen distillers were about to allow themselves to be taken into custody quietly. But, without first securing their prisoners, the two excise men immediately began to put out the fire under the still and to dismantle the equipment. As the officers worked on the still the two prisoners decided that this was the opportune time for them to make their break for freedom and rapidly got to their feet. Officer Townsend saw them move and immediately shouted a warning to Paddy. “They’re off!”

Quick as a flash Paddy Flaherty threw himself at the nearest escapee and brought him to the ground, while Tommy had to pursue the other man for several yards before getting a grip of his coat and bringing him down. As Paddy and his prisoner fell to the ground the fists began to fly and a bitter fight between the two men was soon in full flow. Tommy Townsend successfully avoided the first swing made by his prisoner toward him and launched a full-blooded punch of his own, which caught the man squarely on the chin and caused him to stumble. It was soon clear that neither prisoner was about to surrender their freedom easily. The two excise men were hampered in their struggle with the prisoners because they had no weapons that they could call, neither guns nor batons. The two escaping prisoners, however, filled their hands with large, sharp-pointed stones that abounded on the ground there and they began to assault the officers with them. Despite the difficulty the two officers fought on bravely to keep a hold on to their prisoners. Their efforts were, however, to prove insufficient and they were finally overcome by the illegal poitin distillers.

Paddy Flaherty had received severe abuse from the hands of his prisoner, who armed with a sharp rock made several deep cuts and bruises. The excise man was knocked unconscious after suffering a heavy blow to his head that left a long, deep gash that bled profusely. Meanwhile, without Flaherty’s assistance, Townsend alone had to face both prisoners attacking him with stones and with kicks to his body. Tommy suffered a broken nose from a kick to the face, and shoulders and hips were badly bruised by the boots of the two prisoners. In this way the two poitin makers escaped their captors and left them bleeding heavily from their wounds.

With great difficulty the two excise men struggled to regain their feet. Recovery from their beating was slow and wracked with pain they gingerly made their way back to safety. At the police station they arrived in a state of delirium from the loss of blood they had suffered, and their colleagues quickly ensured that they were taken to the hospital emergency department. On arrival at the hospital Paddy Flaherty once again fell into an unconscious state and was placed under the care of hospital staff in a private ward.

It is not surprising to learn that there was great anger among the other excise men of the district, who now joined with a considerable force of policemen and were determined that the men who had assaulted Paddy and Tommy would be brought to justice. With such a number of men it was decided to undertake an area-wide search for those men who had been making illegal spirits on the night the excise men were attacked. Every house in the district was visited by the police and a local small farmer, John Lydon, was interviewed. When he could not satisfactorily explain where he had received the various cuts and bruises that were evident on his body, particularly his face and hands. Mr. Lydon was taken in for questioning by the police and after some interrogation he eventually gave up the name of his friend and neighbour, Frank Keady. Both men were now arrested and charged with causing grievous bodily harm to the two excise men. Additionally, they were charged with conspiracy to distill illegal spirits that were to be sold to the public. Both men insisted that they were innocent of any charges, but it was obvious to all that the two excise men had given as much punishment as they had received. More importantly, Paddy and Tommy could identify both assailants.

Molly Maguire’s Abduction – Chronicles 2

One evening Sergeant Brennan was manning the front desk of the police station when an obviously irate and breathless Jimmy Lennon burst through the main door. “In the name of Jesus!” exclaimed the Sergeant.

Hold on, Sergeant, ‘til I catch my breath,” panted Jimmy.

By God, man dear, I thought you were going to take that door off its hinges,” scolded Brennan.

It took Jimmy a moment or two to gather himself before he was ready to explain the purpose of his visit. “My family’s destroyed!” Jimmy wailed. “That blackguard Micky McMahon from ‘The Hill’ has stolen my sister away, and the beast even assaulted my own wife!

Brennan was shocked by this revelation and he asked Jimmy when had all of this happened. “This morning, when he knew I would not be around. That gobshite didn’t want to meet me face-to-face, for I would have fixed him for sure. But he left my wife in an awful state and our four wee children are completely destroyed by the experience. I want something done about this, Sergeant!

First we will get a statement from you about the facts, and then my constable and I will go and see what this McMahon fellow has to say for himself. Now, in your own words, clearly and slowly tell me what happened and I will write it all down,” said Sergeant Brennan.

It took an hour for Jimmy Lennon’s statement to be finalised and signed by him. From what he had heard, the Sergeant believed that there would be some very serious charges to be brought against Micky McMahon and that he would need his Constable to help him bring in the violent blackguard. “Get your coat, Constable,” Brennan instructed the young policeman who was now manning the front desk.

What’s happening, Sergeant?” asked the Constable.

We have to go up the ‘Hill’ and arrest Mickey McMahon for kidnap and assault.

Kidnap and assault? Micky McMahon?

I know its hard to believe, but accusations have been made,” replied Brennan.

And Jimmy Lennon made the accusation?

That’s right.

Sure Jimmy Lennon wouldn’t know what the truth was, even if it bit him on the arse” commented Constable Wright.

Don’t I know the sort of Jimmy Lennon?” the Sergeant grimaced. “But we still need to investigate the accusations. So, Come on. The quicker we get there the quicker we’ll be done.

On the way to ‘The Hill’ Brennan explained that they should take things very easy when talking to Micky if they wanted to ensure things did not get out of control, and cause somebody to get hurt. In the small, outdated police car Brennan brought Wright with him to the McMahon home. It was a single-storey home that needed a bit of ‘tender loving care’ done to its exterior, but was generally well maintained. Sergeant Brennan marched right up to the front door of the house and knocked on it heavily with his hand calling out loud, “Police!” But despite his efforts he did not get a reply although there was something about the place that made him certain that someone was inside. He marched around to the rear of the house and, seeing a bedroom window open, he clambered in and began his search in such a way that anyone who was in the house would know he was there.

It was not a large house and he quickly made his way through to the kitchen, the door to which was closed against him. Grabbing the door handle, Brennan tried to push the door open but it did not budge and, when he forced it with his weight, he found the door obstructed by a heavy chair. Standing with a look of fear and amazement on her face was Molly Maguire. Sergeant Brennan was totally astonished by her presence in the house of Micky McMahon because she was the sister of Jimmy Lennon who had allegedly been kidnapped by McMahon. As he came to his senses again, the Sergeant began to notice the familiar, strong bouquet of Poitin assaulting his senses. In front of him, on the kitchen table, Brennan saw three open bottles, all of which contained remnants of Poitin and were, undoubtedly, the source of the strong odour.

Molly looked at the tall, burly policeman with pleading eyes and she began to tearfully tell him, “They are not mine, Sergeant. Mick McMahon and another man have been up all night making Poitin, and now he has gone to sell it.” But Brennan showed little interest in her obviously false story. Molly now went further by saying, “That damned blackguard even locked me up here in the cottage as a prisoner until whatever time he returned. I just thank God that you save me, Sergeant.

Aye! You are safe enough now, girl,” Brennan told her coldly, as his eyes scoured the room for some evidence of what had happened.

I can show you some other things that will prove what he has been up to, Sergeant,” urged Molly.

Brennan summoned Constable Wright into the house after first opening the front door. “Bring in some of those evidence bags and we can gather a few things. You finish off looking in the house for more evidence, while Molly takes me to see irrefutable proof of McMahon’s crimes.

Yes, Sergeant,” replied Wright.

The Constable watched as Brennan went out of the back door with Molly at his side, and she was chatting to him, giving him directions with her hands. “It’s just over there, beside that hawthorn bush,” Molly told him and began to lead the way. When they arrived at the thick bush and hedgerow, Sergeant Brennan began to search among the close-knit branches. It didn’t take him long to find a metal milk churn and, with Molly’s eager help, he dragged it into a clear space. “Didn’t I tell you, Sergeant?” Molly said triumphantly.

Well, let’s have a look at it first, shall we,” replied Brennan cautiously. Then, using both hands he succeeded in forcing off the lid of the churn and he became engulfed in a sweet, strong smell and when he looked inside the churn he found it was full of ‘Wash’ in a state of fermentation. This was evidence that this Micky McMahon was preparing the mix for a second run of Poitin for his customers. That same evening, when he arrived home, McMahon was arrested for illicit distillation of spirits and several additional charges.

In due course, in the District Court, Micky McMahon was defended by Joe Geary, a much respected and successful local solicitor. In his opening statement to the court Mr. Geary reminded them that his client had been arrested and prosecuted three years previously for making Poitin. He told them that on that occasion Micky was convicted of the offence, but was arrested a year later on similar charges, which were dismissed when it was discovered that Micky had been ‘set-up’ by persons unknown. Mr. Geary made it clear that it was his case that the charges against his client were also a result of someone ‘framing’ Mr. McMahon. He alleged that Micky had been having an extra-marital affair with Molly Maguire for several years, until two years ago, they fell out. Micky admitted that, four years previously, had left her husband and began living with Micky in his house. Micky declared that she had been a difficult woman to live with and they had separated several times, with the last and worst argument occurring about eighteen months previously. On that occasion, Micky testified he had become tired of Molly’s argumentative ways and began to become closer to his own wife. “When Molly found out,” said Micky, “She swore that she would get me back for treating her so badly. She could have gotten into my house quite easily and ‘planted’ all this so-called evidence.

In his summing up the judge, Gerard McElroy, commented that it was very strange that Mrs. Maguire had not answered Sergeant Brennan’s calls when he entered the house. This would have been easily done even if the accused had locked her in the house. Judge McElroy also suggested if the Poitin had been ‘planted’ then such behaviour was consistent with Mrs. Maguire’s previously alleged conduct. He did point out, however, that Mr. McMahon had failed to give any definitive proof that she had been guilty of such deception. In the end, Micky McMahon, was fined what could be considered a nominal amount for the offence with costs. Although she wasn’t found guilty by the court, Molly Maguire was ‘Sent to Coventry’ by the local community.

The Pioneer – Chronicles 1

A warm welcome back to all my readers now that my summer sabbatical is over. To begin a new line of stories I have chosen to outline those men and women who were, and are still involved in Ireland’s Poitin making business. Each one of the stories involved in this chronicle is based on true facts, though names have been changed to protect the characters. There will be stories of Poitin men, Poitin Women, the Informers, the Gaugers (Revenue and Excise men), the Police, the Courts, and all who are involved in the illicit industry that continues to prevail. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as you have apparently enjoyed my previous tales. So let us begin with …

The Pioneer

Anyone who has read about Ireland, its customs and traditions has heard the word Poitin (Poteen), which is the name given to the illicit, but very popular, spirit that is distilled in many areas of the country. There are many stories and customs surrounding the manufacture and distribution of this favoured beverage, but little is known about the men, or families, who distill the spirit. The stories included in this short book are taken from recorded facts, with some necessary changes made to protect the innocent.

As well as being known as the ‘Isle of Saints and Scholars’, Ireland is famed for its rugged coastlines, remote misty mountains, wide and treacherous boglands and for the great expanses of forests and woodlands. It is in the remote areas like these that the manufacture of Poitin has gravitated in modern years. Sadly, there are many places within the country where you can purchase Poitin legally, and cleverly presented in designer bottles to give the impression of age. But these legal Poitin brands are generally expensive and, from my own personal experience, they taste nothing like the ‘real stuff’. Like everything that is yellow is not necessarily gold, everything that resembles Poitin is not necessarily Poitin.

Thankfully, the illicit spirit is still being produced by master craftsmen in large quantities from many old stills that have been long hidden in almost every county in Ireland from Armagh to Wicklow. The craft itself has often been handed down from father to son over the centuries and demand is still strong despite the illegality and the attraction of designer bottles and advertising. Nevertheless, the law enforcement agencies on the island of Ireland continue to strive hard to wipe out the cottage industry, with the assistance of the customs and excise authorities. This, however, is the way it has been for several hundred years, but the trade still survives and the main areas of production remain in the isolated and remote rural areas of Ireland. In mountain areas, woodlands, and boglands the stills have been hidden and using more modern methods of production they have become harder to detect. But touts (informers) remain the scourge of any secret enterprise and are an ever present threat to the liberty of the ‘Poitin Men’.

Our first story could be subtitled “The Sergeant’s Embarrassment,” and concerns a man who lived in County Donegal and was well respected by all his neighbours in the small village where he lived. He was recognised as a fine, good humoured man, who did everything in moderation and who went to Mass and the Sacraments on a regular basis. The man man was also a committed ‘Pioneer’, which is a member of the Catholic faith who vows to refrain from drinking or using alcohol in his life and proudly sports a sacred heart badge on his left jacket lapel to publicize this fact. As you can imagine such men as this are a rarity in Irish society and the sixty-seven-years-old Hugh Trevor was considered to be rather saintly.

It must be said that any sane person would never have even considered Hugh to be a candidate for the post of Poitin manufacturer, or distributor, especially because he had sworn himself off alcohol of any kind. But the new sergeant who had recently taken over the local police station was suspicious of everyone. He knew that there was a still in the district producing a good type of the spirit and he was determined that he would destroy that still, bringing the ‘Poitin Men’ to justice. The only assistance he needed in his crusade, the sergeant had decided was a reliable tout to feed him information.

Police sergeant Grimason was a man who was determined to reach the pinnacle within the police force, and he saw the elimination of local Poitin makers to be his best route to such a position. However, in the few weeks that he had been stationed in the district he had succeeded only in securing petty convictions for possession of small bottles of Poitin, which caused no anger among his superiors. Neither had his efforts to recruit any informants borne fruit and he was beginning to become somewhat disconsolate about his hopes for advancement. But Grimason was not a man to give up easily and he decided he would double his efforts to recruit some reliable touts to assist him.

Samhain arrived and everyone in the district, including Sergeant Grimason, knew that as well as it being the season for fairies and demons, it was also the signal for increased Poitin production in the run-up to Christmas. One night, as he was standing outside ‘Rooney’s Public House’, when he noticed a small, thin man staggering from side to side toward the front door of the pub. As he made to pass by Grimason, the Sergeant took a tight hold of the man by the shoulder of his coat and pulled him to the wall. “Murphy, isn’t it?” Grimason asked.

Ah, Sergeant, you know me well,” Murphy answered.

Aye, that’s true,” said Grimason. “But I also know that you can’t afford to buy the amount of drink you must have imbibed this night. I also know that is not whiskey that I am smelling off your breath.

Whiskey?” exclaimed Murphy. “Not at all, Sergeant. It’s the smell of half a dozen glasses of the ‘’Cratur’ that’s keeping me warm this night.

Is that right?” asked Grimason. “Then it’s a night in the cells for you, wee man.

Not tonight, Sergeant,” he replied. “It’s Rooney’s pub for me, so come on in and I’ll buy you a glass.

No! There will be no pub for you, Murphy,” said Grimason. “It’s down to the station with you.

Why? What have I done?

Drunk and disorderly!” Grimason told him.

Drunk maybe,” agreed Murphy. “But I’m never disorderly. Anyway, sure, why would you want to arrest me when I haven’t done anything wrong?

You’ve been drinking Poitin, an illegal drink!” the sergeant told him. “Now, if you were to tell me where you got it I might be persuaded to forget everything.

You’re a big man sergeant! Brave enough to arrest me but do nothing to the likes of Hugh Trevor, and him with gallons of the stuff. But you are as bad as the rest, for you think butter wouldn’t melt in Hugh’s mouth,” slurred Murphy angrily.

But Hugh Trevor is a ‘Pioneer’,” laughed Grimason.

This attitude angered Murphy even more than before and he snapped, “Aye, he is! And he is at Mass every Sunday eating the altar rails, but that doesn’t make him a saint. I know that he gets through a fair bit of the ‘Cratur’.

Do you know if he is selling the stuff?

Murphy now had the sergeant’s full attention and he told him, “Christ, with the amount he gets the same man could supply all of the county!

This was just the type of evidence that Sergeant Grimason had been seeking, and he sent Murphy home, determined that he would raid the Trevor house the next day. So, early the next morning the Sergeant applied for and gained a search warrant to search Hugh Trevor’s home. He gathered one of the constables and together they made their way to Hugh Trevor’s home, where they knocked loudly on the front door. Hugh, of course, was a little bemused to see two policemen at his front door when he went to answer their knocks, and he was even more mystified when they presented him with the search warrant. “What is going on?” asked Hugh.

I can’t discuss that, at this moment. There’s the search warrant and now if you would just let us do our work, Mr. Trevor,” Grimason told him in his usual gruff manner.

For the next hour and a half Hugh and his wife watched in silence as the police officers searched every room in the house, every cupboard, wardrobe and drawer thoroughly. It was with great relief to him that Grimason search produced nothing incriminating and he was pleased to see the Sergeant speaking to the constable about returning to the Station. In the hallway, just as he prepared to leave the house the Constable stood on two loose floorboards and Grimason insisted they pull them up to search under the floor. Naturally, it was the Constable who carried out all the work connected with lifting the floorboards and, as soon as this was achieved, a huge smile broke across the Sergeant’s face. There, in the vacant gap below his feet, lay two ‘Jerry Cans’ lying on their sides. Turning to Hugh, Grimason asked, “What is in those?

Without hesitation, Hugh told him, “About nine litres of Poitin.

In a clear officious voice, with a notebook in his hands Grimason announced, “Hugh Trevor, you are under arrest for having illegal spirits in your possession and in such quantities to suggest you may be distributing the same illegal spirit to persons unknown. Constable, place the prisoner in custody and we shall return to the Station.

Sure, don’t be a ‘Bollix’ all your life, Grimason,” said Hugh in a very calm manner. “This is all for personal use!

Ha, ha,” laughed Grimason, mockingly. “But you don’t drink alcohol! Now let’s go!” Then,as he escorted the prisoner out of the house he turned to the Constable and told him to bring the evidence with him, making sure that they were moved in line with correct evidence gathering procedures.

It was only a few days after his arrest that Hugh Trevor was brought before the District Court, where Judge Thomas Campbell sat at the bench. In the dock the prisoner stood patiently listening to the charges being made to the court. When he was asked how he pleaded to the charges Hugh replied confidently, “Not Guilty!

Sergeant Grimason was now called by the prosecution and placed in the witness stand. From the notes he made in his notebook he related his testimony to the court and under questioning from the prosecution barrister he confirmed that that Mr. Trevor had full knowledge that the containers held nine litres of Poitin.

There were no questions from the defence barrister, who decided to put Hugh into the witness box to answer the charges made against him. He immediately confirmed all that the Sergeant had said and again admitted that he was in Possession of nine litres of Poitin, but he informed the court that it was all for his own requirements. “My solicitor has already presented to the court medical evidence detailing my many years of suffering from painful arthritis, which has worsened as the years have passed. But I discovered that just by rubbing Poitin into the inflamed joints gives me effective relief from the pain. Such is my pain, however, that I have progressed from rubbing small amounts into the joints to bathing in the spirit, and that is the reason that I purchase so much. It is the only treatment that works for me in my present condition. I have never drank a drop of the spirit and I have never had the inclination to sell it to others.

After Judge Campbell had deliberated on the case he came to the decision that the balance of truth was on Hugh Trevor’s side. He dropped all the charges against him and ordered that the nine litres of Poitin in his possession be destroyed under police supervision. At the same time, the Judge advised Hugh to seek a new and legal treatment for his arthritis, because the next time he was caught with such an amount might result in a different verdict.