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.
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.
“Sligo Champion” Oct 1900 (Downloaded from BNA, Aug.2021)
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
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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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 …
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.
These are new stories brought to you by the team at ‘Ireland’s Lore and Tales’
My sabbatical is over and it’s time to get writing once again. The difference in these stories and recollections are that they are for the most part factual, taken from records with only names changed to protect the innocent. We hope to take things from the way life was in the past, the not so long ago, and the last fifty years, and relay them to you because they have, in all probability, never been read or heard by you before.
We shall take you on a journey in which you will occasionally find that truth is often stranger than fiction. And so, we will begin the Chronicles in August 2021.
At sunset on June 23rd, another of the ancient fire festivals begins and is known as St. John’s Eve. Not that long ago, it was a wide-spread tradition throughout Ireland that on St. John’s Eve a curious practice prevailed, in some districts, which related to the time-honoured tradition of lighting a bonfire.
Before sunset on St. John’s Eve a small fire was built and lit in a place that was near to the byre because in such a position the milk-cows would pass close to the fire as they returned from the fields. In fact, great care was taken to drive the cows as close as possible to the fire itself. This was done, it was said, to allow the cows to “smell” the fire, which it was believed would have a very beneficial effect on the quantity and the quality of the milk and butter produced. It was also believed to be a safeguard against any evil spirits or witchcraft which might befall the cow herself. Then, coals were taken from the little fire, and one of them is thrown into each field of potatoes that belong to the owner of the cow. Through this ritual, it was thought, a great increase in the cow’s production would be achieved..
It was the custom in some places that when a cow begins to calve the owner would place a “grape” (the ordinary steel fork used in farming operations) near her head until she “cleans” (Rids herself of the afterbirth). The steel or iron from which they form the grape was considered “lucky,” and effective defence against any evil influences spread by the fairy-folk. There may, of course, be other customs resorted to on such occasions as this, but what kind of results they achieve I couldn’t say. There is another custom where a silver coin is placed in the first drink that is given to the cow after it has calved, and the reason behind this curious custom was simply that it was considered “lucky to let the cowlick the silver.”
There are many other peculiar practices, such as tying a red rag to the tail of the milch-cow (Milk Cow), with a few horse-shoe nails, a partially burned coal, and some salt are rolled in the rag. It was quite common at one time to see red rags hanging from the tails of milch -cows at fairs in the west of Ireland, allowing the intending purchasers of milch-cows to easily recognise the milking cow, from the ones due to calve (‘springer’).
Tradition also advises farmers to take a very necessary precaution when the cow calves. Strangely this is to give the first of the milk, a small glassful is enough, to that very useful domestic animal, the cat. The reason behind this peculiar tradition, I have been told, is that they give the first of the milk to the cat so that the cat can take the bad luck away with her on her paws.
The following story concerns a well known character, who resided in this town over one hundred years ago, which was just before the Great War began in 1914. He was employed as a church sacristan and caretaker who worked in and about the town’s impressive Church of Ireland Church. Known to all as Bob Harte, he was a familiar figure about town, who was much respected by some, and disliked by most of the young boys in the place. He spoiled every effort they made to play truant from school in the expansive grounds that were a part of the Church. There and in the adjoining grave-yard these children would play their war-games among the many trees and tombstones. In the warmth of long summer evenings Bob would chase and chastise the local boys whom he found climbing the many bushes to seek out the nests of bats, sparrows and other birds.
There were occasions, while patrolling the grounds, that Bob would discover groups of boys peeping through a small, mysterious window that gave them a view into a dark, dusty room within the Church basement. They would gasp at the lidless coffins that gaped horribly back at them from among large, tattered wine-coloured, dust filled, velvet drapes. In the dim light that was provided by several small windows the observers could see what appeared to be various bones that lay strewn over the floor and covered with the dust of time. But, the enterprising young observers almost always were caught by the constantly alert Mr. Harte, who could often deal out his own form of punishment. These local boys considered Bob Harte to be a scourge on their enjoyment, constantly terrorising them. Even Bob’s personal appearance did not help to improve their perception of this man, because he was always dressed in black from head to toe.
Bob Harte was an imposing figure of a man; tall, thin and lanky, who seemed always to wear the same clothes, which never appeared to fit him correctly. He had a small, pointed and emotionless face covered with a sallow coloured skin that was matched by his cold, grey eyes. To add to the man’s strange appearance, his head was crowned by a mop of rust-brown hair that he usually left ungroomed. To many of the older generation Bob’s appearance was not at all startling, and they considered him to be a very devout man adhered strongly to his very strict conservative moral standards. In reality, however, just because he loudly upheld such convictions didn’t mean that he had no vices. Just as working in the Church and its grounds did not make him a saint. There were many occasions when Bob’s apparent severe sense of morality took time out and he suddenly became a genial sort of a man, who very much enjoyed some of life’s vices, particularly smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol.
The caretaker had many hidden talents that very few knew about, one of these was the great memory he had for recalling tales of all kinds, and a real talent for being able to relate those stories to others in a very entertaining manner. Being a man of almost sixty years, he was a deep well of knowledge about the history of the town and the people who lived in it, both past and present. One thing always seemed to surprise those who would listen to his tales and that was the seemingly never ending supply of local stories, which were often true and very amusing. But, at the same time, Bob was also very well known for telling dark tales of terror, which he particularly relished relating to an attentive audience.
In most people’s eyes, Bob’s job as a caretaker and a, sometime, grave digger gave some semblance of truth to the stories that he told. He appeared to know what he was talking about when he began to speak of graves, goblins, ghosts and banshees. At the same time, his involvement in church weddings, baptisms and other Church celebrations helped him in maintaining when relating stories about the fuss, the tears and the secret meetings between men and women on such occasions. Furthermore, being aged sixty-years old, Bob had the great ability to tell interesting stories concerning the history of the town, because he had personally gathered an almost inexhaustible amount of accurate and entertaining local anecdotes during his lifetime.
Common sense would tell you that working for the Church as a sacristan and caretaker was not among the most financially reading of jobs in any society. In fact, the income that Bob earned from his work in the Church could hardly provide him with what would be normally regarded as a living wage. As a result, therefore, he was often called upon to supplement his meagre wage with income from several other jobs, for which he had the necessary talents. Indeed, quite a few of these extra employment opportunities would be considered by some as being far from dignified work for a man of his standing within the community. As in many of these cases, however, it was always a case off “when needs must” that encouraged Bob to take them upon himself.
One particular, and sometimes unpopular, way that Bob had was his regular gate-crashing of parties. There was also his annoying habit of imposing himself on small drinking groups that might just contain one or two people that he knew only as a passing acquaintance. But, wherever he was and whatever group he would impose himself into, Bob would entertain the people with his amusing stories. When the occasion demanded, he would select tales of terror, or local anecdotes, from his huge reservoir of stories. His one saving grace on these occasions was his choice not belittle himself by accepting drinks of any type as payment for telling his stories. He preferred payment in coin that was given to him, or he underhandedly salted away from those careless enough to leave their change on a table, or counter-top.
There was one particular person, called Paddy Slane, who had a genuine liking for the company of Bob and, indeed, always welcomed him to enjoy his ‘craic’. Paddy Slane was owner of a popular local public bar that stood in the centre of the town, and quickly became Bob’s local public bar. But, Paddy was far from any person’s idea of a jolly, fun-loving barkeeper, because he was, probably, the most gloomy and depressing person you could have ever had the misfortune to come across. Normally, when left to his own devices, Paddy never drank excessively. It must be said, however, that being a sombre man with a melancholic personality, Paddy always found himself in need of something, or someone to raise his spirits from the depths of the despair into which he fell. Bob Harte was just the man to fill this need, and Paddy began to develop a close with him. Over the years that followed Bob became the only real bright, entertaining source of light in Paddy’s dark personal life.
When he was in Bob Harte’s company, Paddy appeared to be a different man. He seemed to be freed from all of his melancholia, smiling as he listened to the fascinating stories and marvellous tales that Bob told him. It is, sadly, a fact that their friendship did not contribute positively to the credit, or the honour, of either man with regard to their reputation, or prosperity. In this case it wasn’t a matter of Bob taking a coin as payment for telling his stories. He would much rather accept a drink. Bob’s apparent conservative moral values did not quite stretch to his enjoyment of strong alcohol, and it was not unknown for him to drink far more than was good for his health.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Bob’s drinking habits did very little to enhance his character as a functionary of the church. At the same time, Paddy Slane found himself being drawn into a very similar lifestyle because he too began to find it was increasingly difficult to resist the urgings of his gifted and genial companion to enjoy himself. Paddy, being the owner of the public house in which Bob always drank, continually felt that he, under the circumstances, was the person to pay for all the drinks they had consumed. All the other regulars of the public house could only sit and watch what was happening to Paddy. As the weeks passed into months, these customers became increasingly aware that both Paddy’s wallet and bank balance was suffering just as much as his head and liver because of this friendship with Bob Harte. The men could see exactly what was happening and began to hold Bob Harte responsible, as the man who had turned the once respectable businessman into a virtual alcoholic. As the rumours about him spread Bob’s reputation in the town slid rapidly downward with his character, in the estimation of many.
There were some in the town, however, who saw Paddy Slane as the man who had encourages Bob Harte to be an even bigger blackguard than he had been before they met. Because of his generous habit of buying all the drinks for his binges with Bob, it came as no surprise to many that, under such circumstances, the accounts of Paddy’s public house became somewhat disorganised. Very quickly his once lucrative town centre hostelry began to become overcome with financial difficulties, increasing Paddy’s depression. Finally, one bright summer’s day, when the weather was warm, heavy and humid, Paddy decided to leave the bar in the capable hands of one of his barmen. This was not unusual for him to do this and quietly retire into the quieter back room, which was his office.
The accounts books for the business were laid out untidily across a large desk, behind which was a tall dirty, dusty window that overlooked a boring, red brick wall that hid the outside world from view. Paddy turned the key in the lock and then went immediately to sit down on the office chair at the desk. The small desk drawer to Paddy’s left was nervously pulled out to reveal everything that he had expected to be in it. Reaching quite gingerly into the desk drawer, Paddy took hold of a loaded pistol that he had kept hidden there. Hesitatingly, Paddy gripped the muzzle of the gun, wrapping his fingers around it and guiding the pistol into his open mouth. Then, closing his eyes, Paddy muttered a short prayer to himself, and gently squeezed the trigger. There was a mighty explosion that echoed throughout the back area of the public house. At the same time the upper portion of his head was blown off by the force of the shot. Blood, splattered out of the large exit wound in his head, which spread widely across the ceiling above, and the dusty window behind him.
The barman and the customers in the bar heard the explosion of the bullet, and immediately rushed to the office door in the rear of the building. Finding the office door locked against them, broke the door open and saw Paddy’s body lying on the floor at the rear of his desk. As they stood over the body the witnesses saw deep red blood flowing rapidly across the linoleum floor covering to form a large pool. The news of Paddy Slane’s tragic death spread throughout the town like an uncontrollable bush fire, and there was a deep sense of loss felt by many of the residents, who had once held the man in high esteem.
Bob Harte was, himself, very shocked by the news of the horrible incident, and the manner in which Paddy took his own life. Paddy had, after all, had been both his benefactor and his friend. There were some in the town whose opinions had turned against Bob and, quite uncharitably, suggested that the grief he was feeling was due, entirely, to selfish reasons. His sorrow, they alleged, was due, for the most part, to the fact that he would now find it very difficult to find himself a new source of free hospitality on the scale that he had enjoyed from Paddy Slane. But, for a period of time after the tragedy, Bob stopped drinking alcohol in any form, and he also ceased his once frequent calls on the town’s many public houses.
During this short period of time, Bob presented himself almost as a paragon of virtue; a perfect example of temperance and sobriety for others. There were some, of course, who preferred not to believe that Bob’s new sober lifestyle was simply a pretence. They spread rumours that Bob, on several recent occasions, had been found to be rather the worse for wear a far as his alcohol intake was concerned. Some suggested that people had found Bob late at night, on several occasions, in a drunken stupor. Others said that he was, sometimes, found wandering the streets of the town in a highly intoxicated condition. Many of the rumour mongers tried very hard to convince people that Bob had been forced to change his wicked ways simply because of the threat made to him by church authorities. It was said that he was made aware of the possibility of dismissal from all his church offices if he did not curb his over indulgence in alcohol. The truth, however, was that Bob Harte was determined to observe his resolution to remain sober, much to the pleasure of his wife, and to the total surprise of his neighbours. Never again was Bob Harte found drunk in public or, for that matter, even the slightest bit tipsy. In fact, so incredible was the overall change in the man that people who, at one time, would never have given him the time-of-day on the streets of this town, now greeted him warmly as he passed them by.
It was over a year since the tragic death of Paddy Slane when the Curate of the Church was given a letter that was delivered to him by hand. The letter that he received was a polite request for a funeral to be conducted within the Church, and it contained a series of instructions as to how the family wished the grave to be prepared. Because it was not the responsibility of the Curate to act upon such instructions personally, and he, therefore, sent a message to Bob Harte, asking him if he would call at the Curate’s house to be briefed on the family’s requests.
It was a heavy, early autumn night and there were large numbers of threatening thunder-clouds slowly rising from the earth, loading the sky with a dark and foreboding storm canopy. The deep, low growl of a distant thunder and could be heard echoing over many miles on the dull, still air of the night. It appeared almost as if all of nature had chosen to cower under the threatening influence of the approaching storm. The old clock in the hall had just struck nine o’clock when Bob put on his coal-black coat, and he readied himself to attend to the Curate’s message.
“Listen to me now, Bobby darlin’,” said Bob’s wife quietly as she handed him his hat, after she had taken it from the hat-rack. “Will you just go straight there and come straight home again, won’t you Bobby darlin’? You’ll not go near, the you know where?”
“What are you talking about, woman?” he replied rather tersely and snatched his hat from her hand.
“Ah, Bobby, sure you’ll not go near the pub at all?” she asked, in a pleading tone of voice, as she moved her hand away to avoid her husband’s grasp.
“Now, why would I want to be doing such a thing, woman? Just give me my hat, for God’s sake, so I can be on my way! It’s already late.”
“But, Bobby, will you not just promise me you won’t? Now promise me, darling!” she pleaded with him as tears filled her eyes.
“Ay, ay, of course I’ll promise you. Sure, why would I not?” he replied in a way that showed his frustration with his wife’s constant pleas.
“Ah now, Bobby, I hear you talking, but you’re not giving me your solemn promise,” she pressed him.
“Listen, woman!” said Bob, “May the devil take me if I should take a single drop of drink until I come back home again!Now, will you give my head a bit of peace now?”
“It will my darlin’,” she smiled, “and may God keep you safe.”
With this parting blessing from the lips of his wife, Bob Harte went out of the door, breathing a lot easier as his wife closed the door behind him. The night was, by this time, quite dark as Bob stepped out on to the street, while his wife, contented by her husband’s promise, returned to her armchair in the living room, where she resumed her knitting and would wait until he returned. These last few weeks she had been very worried that, perhaps, Bob had taken to drinking much more often. This would, of course, be inconsistent with his apparent reformation from previous indiscretions. Her deepest fear, however, was the temptations provided by at least a half-dozen public houses that he would have to pass on his way to the curate’s house, which stood at the other end of the town. Despite the lateness of the hour, these ‘pubs’ would still be open for business, and they gave off a sweet aroma of whiskey and porter, which smelled so enticing to a drinking man. But, true to his word, Bob continued on his way, passing each of them without once turning his head in their direction. Bob deliberately put his hands into his coat pockets and looked straight ahead as he walked, whistling a merry tune to himself, and thinking only of his forthcoming meeting with the curate and the fee that he would get for the work he would be asked to do. In this manner Bob made his way, safely avoiding all temptation, to the curate’s house feeling very pleased with himself.
At length, Bob reached the curate’s house and knocked on the front door, which was answered by the housekeeper. She informed Bob that the curate had been called out unexpectedly to attend to a very ill parishioner, but she told him that he could sit in the hall and await the curate’s return. There Bob sat in a large blood-leather armchair amusing himself by reading some magazines, that lay on the hall table, and biting his nails until the clergyman returned home. The minutes passes slowly into hours as he waited and waited. But, it was not until almost half-past eleven that the cleric returned home, and it was just gone midnight when Bob finally set out on his journey home. By this time, however, the storm clouds had gathered to a deep, pitch darkness and the roars of thunder could be heard above the barren rocks and hollows of the distant mountains. Pale, blue lightning flashes broke the darkness, reflecting upon the rain soaked facades of the houses. Bob was fully aware that, by this time of the night, every door in the street would be closed and securely locked. But, as he trudged his way home, Bob’s eyes strained through the gloom as he sought out the public-house which had once belonged to late friend, Paddy Slane.
When he came to the building, Bob noticed a faint light making its way through the slats in the window shutter, as well as the frosted-glass panes over the door-way, which created a sort of dull, foggy, and mystical halo about the front of the public houses. Now that Bob’s eyes had become very much accustomed to the darkness of the night, that faint halo of light was just enough illumination to allow him to see a strange figure of a man before him. The closer that Bob came to the strange man he began to notice that the man was wearing a type of loose overcoat, which was tightly pulled around him as he sat upon a wooden seat that was firmly fixed into the pavement below the pub’s huge main window. The seated figure was also wearing a large, broad-brimmed hat that hung very much over his eyes, and he was smoking a long, strangely shaped pipe.
On the seat, at the side of the stranger, Bob could just discern the outline of a glass and, also, a half -bottle was dimly noticeable on the pavement, just to the side of his foot. The longer that he watched this strange figure, the more certain he was that there was something extremely odd about him. This stranger had the appearance of travelling man, who had simply stopped to refresh himself on that wooden bench in a rain-soaked street. At first, Bob thought it was likely this stranger had been drinking in the pub when it closed for the night. He thought that, perhaps, this stranger had taken what remained of his drink out to the seat, where he could enjoy it as he watched the lightning flashes light up the sky. At any other time, it is likely that Bob would have given the stranger a friendly greeting as he passed him by. On this particular night, however, Bob Harte was feeling quite low in his spirits, and was certainly not in any kind of mood to be genial to any stranger. Just as he was about to pass the seated man without greeting him, the stranger lifted his half-bottle of whiskey and, without removing the pipe from his mouth, he beckoned Bob over to him. At the same time, with a slight nod of his head, and a shrug of his shoulders, the stranger indicated he wanted Bob to share his seat and his bottle.
Bob watched as the man shifted along the seat to the end, making room for Bob to sit down. There was a wonderful aroma of malt whiskey coming from the area where the man sat, and Bob was sorely tempted by it. But he recalled the promise he had made to his wife, which reinforced his will-power just as it began to weaken, and he politely told the stranger, “No. But, I thank you for your kind offer, sir, but I cannot stop for a drink this night.”
The stranger, however, was not to be so easily placated, and he beckoned to Bob even more vehemently. He pointed to the empty space on the seat beside him, as if commanding Bob to sit. This time he gave the strange man a smile as he, once again, began to excuse himself, “Thanks again for your very polite offer, but I’m very late as it is, and I don’t have any time to spare. So, I wish you a very good night.”
Jingling his glass against the neck of the whiskey bottle, the stranger was suggesting that Bob could at least swallow one mouthful of the whiskey without losing much time. He was sorely tempted, and he wondered what harm a mouthful of whiskey would him. Although his mouth watered at the prospect, he remembered the promise that he had made. Bob shook his head strongly to demonstrate that his decision was now final and, there was nothing that would move him from his resolve. But, as Bob walked on, the stranger arose from his seat with his pipe still in mouth. He had the whiskey bottle in one hand, the glass in the other, and he now began to follow close behind the sacristan. This now caused Bob some major concern, and he quickly became very suspicious of the stranger’s intentions.
Bob now began to quicken his step and listened intently as the stranger followed close behind him. The sacristan now began to feel very anxious about this pursuit and he nervously turned around to face the stranger. He was still very close behind Bob, and he was continuing to invite him to share in his liquor, with increasingly impatient gestures.
“I have already told you,’ said Bob, who was both angry and frightened, ‘I don’t want a drink and that’s final! Now just go away! Take yourself and your whiskey bottle and go!” The stranger, however, continued to approach him very slowly, causing him to become irritated and angrily he shouted at him, “In God’s name, get back from me and stop tormenting me in this way!”
But, even as he spoke these words Bob recognised that his words and attitude had only increased the anger building within the stranger. In response to Bob the stranger began to shake the whiskey bottle toward him with violent, menacing gestures. Bob continued hastily on his way and the distance between him and the stranger increased considerably. As they both continued along the street Bob could see the stranger following behind, because his pipe gave off such a warm, wonderful red glow, which duskily illuminated the stranger’s entire figure despite the darkness of the badly lit street. Bob stopped again and called out to the stranger in a rage, “I just wish you would go to the devil, whoever you are!”
“Just get away from me!” he shouted as he hurried away. But, as he walked and looked back, over his shoulder, to discover that much to his dismay, the infuriating stranger was as close as ever to him.
“Damn you to hell,” cried out Bob in desperation as he began to feel himself almost overcome with fear and rage. “Just what is it you want of me?”
The strange man just ignored Bob’s anger in Bob’s voice and approached him even more confidently than before. He continued nodding his head and extending both glass and bottle toward Bob as he moved ever closer. Then, out of the darkness behind the stranger , Bob noticed a large black horse following them in virtual silence.
“You can keep your temptations to yourself, you devil, for there is nothing but a dark evil that surrounds you,” cried Bob Harte as he felt a real sense of terror spread rapidly through his entire body. “Will you just leave me alone?” he called out aloud as he fumbled through his confused mind for a suitable prayer to rescue him from what was, he thought, a servant of Satan. Realising that he was now very close to his own front door, Bob quickened his pace to a jog rather than a walk.
As he came to the front door of his house, Bob hammered his fist upon it and called out, “Let me in, let me in, for God’s sake! Molly, please open the door!” He was breathing heavily by this time and, weak with exhaustion, he leant his back against the heavy wooden door. From the street the strange man now confronted him and, although there was no longer a pipe in his mouth, a dusky red glow still lingered around him. From the depths of his body the stranger uttered some indescribable, cavernous sounds, which imitated closely the growls of a great wolf, or some other indescribable beast. Meanwhile, just as he uttered his strange howl, he poured some of the liquid from the bottle into the glass.
Hysterical with fear, Bob kicked at the front door with all the force he could muster and, despairingly, he tearfully screamed, ‘In the name of God Almighty, once and for all, leave me alone!’
After Bob had recovered he was told that it was likely the strange figure of a man, who had sat upon the wooden seat outside Paddy Slane’s ‘pub’ was actually the spectre of Paddy’s suicide. It was suggested to Bob that this spectre had been summoned by the ‘Evil One’ to lure the church sacristan into abandoning the promise that he had solemnly sworn to his wife. The person who interpreted Bob’s encounter with this evil spectre suggested that if the apparition had succeeded in his task, it is more than likely that the ghostly, black horse that had appeared would have carried a double burden back to the underworld.
As a matter of proof that these events happened as described, the old thorn tree which overhung the front door of the house was found, in the morning, to have been blasted with the infernal stream of fire flung by the evil spectre from the glass. It looked just like a lightning-bolt had scorched the front of the house, and it was to remain in that condition for several years, because people of the town were too afraid to repair the damage they believed had been caused by the ‘fires of hell.”.