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.
It was one of those nights when low-lying clouds virtually covered the sky, obscuring almost all the light from the moon, making the entire area dark and impenetrable. Then, in the blackness of the night, bright flames coloured red, orange, yellow, and gold stretched upwards to the sky giving light to the dark clouds as they slowly floated over the mountains, westwards. The source of those bright leaping flames shone out like a beacon from its position higher up the mountain, visible for many miles in all directions and attracting the attention of many who were living nearby. It is difficult to recall exactly what the time when I first noticed the great hullabaloo of an approaching crowd of people that awakened me from a deep and most enjoyable sleep. In fact, it was my wife that was awakened first and, in her panic, nudged me with her boney elbow until I finally opened my eyes. “What the …,” I began to complain angrily but I held my tongue when I heard the crowd approaching the house. There was a rumble that appeared to be an earthquake threatening to shake the house, followed by the sound of voices.
“Who is it, Jackie?” my wife asked. When I didn’t answer immediately, she bellowed in my ear with a voice that sounded like that of a ‘Maghery Fishwife’. “Will, you get up, Jackie, for God’s sake and see what’s happening?”
The sleep needed to be rubbed from eyes before I could get up out of bed and move to the cottage door. “Who’s there?” I shouted sleepily, and then asked my wife, “Who do you think is out there?”
“How would I know?” she replied with a hiss and a sour look that I had often seen during forty years of marriage.
“It’s just that I am wondering who it is that is making all that noise, and it’s making me nervous,” I told her.
“Now, how would I know the answer, for Christ’s sake, you gobshite?” she snapped back impatiently. “Just get your fat arse out outside and ask them ‘what the hell is going on?’”
Still rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I went and lifted my trousers from the top of the blanket box sitting at the bottom of the bed, and I pulled them on. “There had better be a very good reason for all this noise-making, Maggie. Decent people are asleep at this hour and not shouting all over the place! Is this some kind of joke? If it is, then it is not very funny, and It will be their greatest ever mistake.”
“Christ, Jackie, will you get out there and stop this nonsense?” urged Maggie.
Taking the oil lamp from the top of the ‘Tall Boy’ and, turning up the wick, I went to the front door od the cottage, quickly running my fingers through my hair to tidy it a little. I opened the door and was immediately confronted by a tall man who was making ready to rap my door with the knob-end of his blackthorn stick. Immediately I recognized the man was Seán Curran, a close neighbour and friend to both Maggie and me.
“Jesus, Jackie,” groaned Sean, “Have you not seen the great fire that is blazing up yonder.” I had not seen a thing since, until five minutes previously, I had been fast asleep until rudely awakened by Maggie. In total amazement I looked in the direction that Seamus was pointing. “It looks like it’s old Paddy-kill-the-Cats’ house that has gone up in flames!” he said.
In the hope of getting a better view I stepped out of the doorway and, pushing my way through about a dozen men or more, I reached the gable wall of our cottage. From this viewpoint I could look up the mountain to where I knew Paddy’s cottage stood, and I saw the great flames leaping angrily toward the heavens, splitting the black, overcast sky and casting a flickering light over the entire area. “What, in the name of God, has happened? Paddy’s place is an absolute inferno!” I asked.
“Sure, Jackie, who would know the answer to that question?” Sean replied. “But I have gathered a crowd of local men, as you can see, and we intend to go up to that place to see if we can save anything from those flames.”
“That sound good to me,” I assured him. “I’ll get my heavy coat and boots and follow you up there. Let’s hope and pray that old devil up there and his wife, Bessie, have both survived this disaster.” I was still pulling up the collar of my overcoat up and around my neck as I caught up with the group, and we quickly marched up the stone-covered lane toward the blazing house. When we reached the site, the flames were still leaping skyward, and the air was filled with smell of burning thatch and charred wood. The men started their work without delay by establishing a chain of men passing buckets of water from the nearby stream to the burning house. Others, armed with various agricultural tools began pulling down large burning areas of the building and dowsing the flames with water. But there was no saving the old cottage which had quickly become a burned-out ruin that was beyond rescue. With the burning thatched roof removed the glowing embers that were once wooden rafters quickly crumpled into the house, while the earth walls that had once the cottage its strength crumbled and tumbled to the ground in the heat. Even a cursory glance at what remained of the cottage, still burning, or smoldering on the ground, gave proof to any claim that if there had been any person alive in there when the fire started there was certainly no one left alive after the conflagration.
Sean’s face was grime covered by the smoke and ashes from the fire. As he approached me, I could see his weary, sad eyes seeking me out. “Ah, Jackie, it looks like Paddy and Bessie are lost to us,” he sighed as he made the ‘Sign of the Cross’. Then, he added “May they rest in peace.”
“You might be right Sean,” I answered him. “But let us both join the rest of the lads and get stuck into putting out these gorse fires before the entire mountain goes up in flames.” The flames, the sparks, the intense heat from the cottage fire had caused nearby tinder-dry patches of gorse to burst into flames. With our shovels, rakes, and every other tool at our hands every man worked together, systematically, to beat out the fires and glowing embers so that the rest of the hillside would be secure.
Slowly the sky began to lighten as the new day began to dawn from the east just as the last flames of the burned-out cottage were dying, leaving only embers of wood that glowed red when the morning breeze blew over them. There was nothing left of the building that had once been a home to the elderly couple, who were so well-known in the area. Scattered about the place were the broken, charred and still smoking remnants of furniture that had once filled the rooms of that small comfortable home. “Whatever will we do with Paddy’s sheep, now that he is gone?” I asked as the problem first entered my mind.
Sean shrugged his shoulders and suggested, “Why don’t you take Paddy’s sheep and graze them with your own, Jackie?”
“And then what?”
“Well, at the next fair day you could sell them, and you could give the money to a charity, naming Paddy and his wife as the benefactors.”
“By Jesus, Sean Curran and Jackie Murphy, you will do no such thing!” came a voice from somewhere behind us. “The first man who dares to put a hand on just one of my sheep, I’ll crown him with my ‘Plant’. (Blackthorn Stick)” Taken by surprise I turned to see who had spoken. About fifty feet away, in the direction from which the voice came, there was a group of furze bushes and from the middle of these Paddy Dillon stood up with Bessie at his side, and both were looking in my direction. They were standing upright, rigidly and were wrapped in white bedclothes like no ghosts in that early morning light, with the grey smoke from the ruined cottage drifting over them.
Both Sean and I stared at the two figures whom we had been sure were buried in the ruins somewhere. “Christ, Paddy! Where did you and Bessie spring from? We were sure you were both dead!” I told him.
At this point, the most unnerving thing for me was that the two people that I had assumed to be dead were now actually walking toward me. Paddy called out to me, “It wasn’t for any lack of effort on the part of the all-consuming flames, for they wanted to consume us as well as our home. But we managed to scramble quickly out through our bedroom window to safety. When we found a secure place, we just lay down until we heard voices.”
“But what happened, Paddy? How did the fire begin in the first place?” I asked.
“Ah, sure, it was all down to Bessie and her novenas,” he answered. “She always lights one of those damned candles she buys from the chapel, and she starts to say her prayers for continued good health and for the souls in Purgatory. But we were very near joining them this night!”
“Come on, now, both of you,” I replied. “We will get you some warm coats to wrap yourselves in and then we will go down the lane to any house and get some hot tea with buttered bread. We will get you settled comfortably and then we can talk about what can be done to help you to get your lives back on track.”
Seamus Curran was a popular businessman in the town and the news of his sudden death came as a terrible shock to everyone who knew him. From every corner of the town and outlying district people came to the house where his body was being waked to pay their respects to their friend and the family he had left behind. After first visiting Seamie lying in his coffin most of the mourners were crowded into the front room of the house, where they had a smoke, drank a little whiskey to the man’s memory, and recalled stories from the man’s life.
It was well after ten o’clock when Hughie McCann, the local undertaker, came into the room and was immediately handed a cup of tea, for the poor man had ‘taken the pledge’ twenty years previously. But Hughie had barely gotten his backside settled in the chair before several men in the room began to press him to relate a few of his stories to entertain everyone. He knew that a few humorous stories would shorten the long night ahead of those who would be sitting up with the deceased until morning. So, Hughie cleared his throat and told them all that he would do his best, although everyone who knew Hughie also knew that his ghostly tales were always the best. On this occasion, however, Hughie began with a song and encouraged everyone to join in and, when he had finished the gathering called for another.
In the kitchen of the wake house many of the neighbour women had joined together to supply the food for those who attended the wake. Among the women there was one who had three daughters of marriageable age and a good match was sought for each. The mother, of course, knew Hughie McCann well and she was aware that he was an unattached male who was well on in years and had never once thought of marriage. She spoke quietly to a woman friend standing beside her in the kitchen. “Sure, wouldn’t I be a happy mother if I could get your man McCann to take one of my daughters as a wife,” she said. “He’s a man with plenty of money behind him and a good business to give him a good living. Would you speak to him? But don’t mention my name.”
A short while later the woman approached Hughie McCann with a fresh cup of tea in her hand and casually mentioned that she knew a fine and beautiful girl who would make him a good wife. “You know, Mr. McCann, you are no spring chicken, and you are not getting any younger. It is time you got yourself a good wife, before it’s too late.”
Hughie rose up from his chair, his eyes filled with anger and told her bluntly, “There is not a woman yet born who I would even consider marrying, and not even two hundred wild horses would ever be able to drag me to the altar to do so!”
The mother of three daughters had heard him speaking and was deeply insulted by his words and, being the type of woman she was, she was not going to let him get away with it. “May bad luck follow you, for you are an insignificant wee brat of a man!” she told him. “You could have gotten yourself a beautiful young bride whose shoelaces you are not fit to tie, Hughie McCann! But all you will be left with are the corpses you have put in cheap old coffins that you hammer together. It’s like the dead burying the dead.”
“Allow me to tell you something,” retorted Hughie, “I would rather have the dead about me than many of the living any day, especially when the living people are like yourself. The dead have been good to me over the years, may they rest in peace, employing me to build their coffins, for when all is said and done the living would rather avoid me.”
The angry woman was not finished with what she wanted to say and told him, “That would be right! Sure, you are half-dead yourself, and it is with the dead you should be, and not with the living. Why don’t you just get out of here and look to the dead for company?”
“You can be sure, if I knew how to find them, I would go there,” Hughie answered tersely.
“Ah, you could ask them over for supper!” she laughed.
Hughie did not reply to her and walked out of the kitchen door and, in a loud voice that all could hear , she called out, “Men, women, and children, and for all those for whom I built a coffin, listen to me now as I issue an invitation for you all to come to my home tonight and partake in a feast that I will give in your honour.”
All those people standing around the coffin in which the corpse was laid out were totally dumbfounded when the dead man appeared to smile as Hughie spoke. In terror each one standing there took to their heels, and Hughie McCann hurried out of the wake house, making his way back to his work premises. But as he passed a public house he went in and purchased a bottle of whiskey, which he put into the pocket of his jacket before he moved on. When he reached his workshop, however, he saw that the interior lights were switched on. He knew that he had closed-up the workshop securely before he had gone to the ‘Wake house’. What he saw now concerned him, for he thought that thieves may have broken into the shop and night set fire to it. He stopped and hid himself in a dark shadow covered corner of the building opposite the shop to confirm his worst fears. However, all that Hughie could see were crowds of men, women, and children walking quietly toward his workshop, which they entered, one after another. As he watched, Hughie unexpectedly felt a tap on his shoulder and heard a voice asking, “Is this where you have been, and all of us waiting for you to make an appearance? Now, this is not polite way to treat your guests, so, come on now with me.”
As Hughie entered the shop with the man, it quickly became clear that a large crowd of people had gathered there. As his eyes scanned the faces in the crowd, he recognized several of his former and other people he had known in the past, all of whom were singing, dancing, and chatting among themselves. At that moment a man came out from the crowd and made his way up to Hughie and asked, “It seems you do not know me, Hughie McCann?”
“No,” replied Hughie answered, “I don’t know you! Sure, how could I?”
“There was a time when you knew me well,” said the man. “Even now you will recall who I am, for I am the first man that you built a coffin for. It was me that gave you a start in the undertaking business.”
Another man approached and he was very lame. “Do you know who I am, Hughie?” he asked.
“God forgive me, but I don’t,” replied Hughie.
“Jesus, man!” gasped the lame man. “Sure, I am your cousin, and it is not long ago since I died.”
“Of course, you are!” Hughie beamed with delight. “Now I recognize you and I can clearly remember how became lame. But how will I ever get all these people out of here? What time is it now?”
“It is early yet, Hughie! Sure, it’s hardly eleven o’clock,” replied his cousin. “Just make them all feel welcome and entertain them.”
“But I don’t have any money on me now to get food or drink for them. Anyway, it’s almost midnight and all the stores are closed,” Hughie told him.
“Well, just do the best you can!”
The fun and the dancing continued unabated and, as Hughie looked around the room, he caught sight of a woman who was standing in the far corner of the room. She was looking very shy and was not even trying to join in the festivities. “Why is that woman not joining in the fun?” asked Hughie. “She is not dancing and enjoying the craic like the others.”
“Her?” replied Hughie’s cousin pointing in the direction where the woman was standing. “Sure, that woman is not long dead. In fact, you donated a coffin to the poor woman because she did not have the money to buy one.”
“Well, the poor woman is afraid you will ask her for the money, or that you might even let it slip that she had not paid for her coffin,” the cousin added.
The best dancer in that room was Johnny Braden and he had died at least two years before this. Playing the fiddle was Tommy Riley, who had chosen to make a fiddle for the occasion rather than bring one. He peeled off what little flesh was left on his body and rubbing up and down he made music, for each rib gave a different note. To everyone’s surprise the music Riley played was excellent and, without doubt, the best Hughie had heard play. Then, everyone in the room decided to follow Tommy Riley’s example, pulling off what flesh remained on them, and they began to dance in their bones. You can just imagine the scene in front of Hughie as these skeletons danced their jigs, reels, and hornpipes. When they would accidentally clash against each other the air was filled with the loud rattling of bones, and the rush to put them back in place again.
Hughie McCann’s mind was filled with the desire to just survive the night, although there was no sign of daylight breaking. Meanwhile, ‘Big Alo’ Sullivan was moving around the room suspiciously, and Hughie remembered him well because he had been married twice in his lifetime, and his two wives were accompanying him. The undertaker watched as ‘Big Alo’ took the second wife on to the dancefloor, and they began to dance so well that the entire place was delighted, the skeletons all applauding and calling for more. Unfortunately for ‘Big Alo’ and his partner they danced too well for one of the guests, who was his first wife and she had become filled with a jealous rage. She ran on to the dance area and taking ‘Big Alo’ by the arm shouted that she had more of a right to dance with him since he had married her first.
“Catch yourself on,” screamed the second wife. “It is me that has the better right. When he married me, you were already dead, and he was free to marry whoever he wanted to! And besides that, I am a much better dancer than you! So, whether you like it or not I shall dance with him!”
“Ah, shut your beak you old crow!” the first wife screamed. “Sure, you wouldn’t even been here dancing tonight at all if you had not been able to borrow another woman’s shin bones!”
‘Big Alo’ stared down at his two wives and asked the second wife, “Have you someone else’s shin bones?”
“Aye! Of course, I have. Didn’t I borrow them from a neighbour woman?”
“Tell me, who owns the shin bones?” asked ‘Alo’.
“They belong to Katie Murray, but she didn’t have a good name about her!”
“But why did you not come on your own two feet?”
“Well, you see, I hadn’t a good name about myself either, but I was put under a curse that whenever there was a feast or a ball, I wouldn’t be able to attend unless I could borrow a pair of shins,” she told him.
As the blush of embarrassment rose in his face, so did ‘Alo’s’ anger. Much to his shame he had been told that the shin bones he had danced with had been borrowed from a woman who did not have a good reputation. In his anger, ‘Alo’ lifted his hand and slapped his wife, sending her spinning into a corner, much to the disgust of the woman’s friends and relations in the room.
“We cannot let him get away with that!” said one of them. “We have to knock some manners back into him!”
They all came together like a mob and because they no weapons, they pulled off their left arms to strike and slash at anyone who got in their way, and a terrible fight began. Hughie McCann, in the meantime, stood in silent amazement as the battle was launched, but he soon became concerned at the prospect of being killed in the bitter struggle. ‘Alo’ was busy dodging the various blows that were being aimed at him, and he accidentally on Hughie’s toe. Caught by surprise, and in pain, Hughie struck out with his fist and knocked ‘Big Alo’s’ head clean off his shoulders, causing it to roll to the far side of the room.
When ‘Alo’ realized that he had lost his head he rushed to recover it and used it to strike out at his attacker. His strike was true, knocking Hughie under a bench and being at a disadvantage, he found himself being throttled by ‘Big Alo’’. Hughie’s throat was being squeezed so tightly that he lost consciousness and could remember nothing more. But when he did come to his senses again, the following morning, his apprentice found him stretched out under the bench with an empty whiskey bottle under his arm. The poor man was bruised from all the pounding he had received, and his throat was very sore from the way he had been throttled by boney hands. But Hughie did not know how all the previous evening’s festivities had ended, or when his guests had left.
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.
Young Tony Cullen, if you have never heard of him, was descended from a long line of ‘Poteen-Makers’. It is not surprising then to learn that he was a young man who was filled with a practical wit, wisdom, cunning, and a fertile mind that would help him get out of many dangerous situations. His talents had been sharpened by the experiences of family created from generation to generation in handling trouble, building a bank of craft and guile that was handed down from father to son. There was not a trick, an evasive movement, plot, scheme, or maneuver that had been used and perfected by his ancestors that Tony could not immediately recall, to serve his own ends.
At the time of this story, Tony was just a gorsoon of sixteen years, but you shall see that even at this young age he had a mind that had been well-trained over years of practicing all the resources he needed to meet the vigilance, and stealth of his greatest predator, the Excise-man or Gauger. Thankfully, Tony’s talents were not totally reliant on his knowledge gained from his forefathers. These things, because of their age, provided little defence against the constantly changing, ingenious methods employed by the enemy to improve his stalking and capturing methods. But every new plan put into practice by the gauger was often met and defeated by a counterplan that was equally novel. The only difference between the two being that the gauger devises his plan after mature deliberation, while the counterplans employed by Tony were necessarily rapid and automatic reactions. In fact, the hostility between the gaugers and the illicit distillers continued through such strategies, which are filled with duplicity, adroitness, and unexpected turns of events. There would, indeed, be little hope of success for either side if they were to constantly rely on obsolete tactics and maneuvers. It must be said that the contest between the Customs & Excise, and the moonshiner is a full-blooded contest between mind and mind, between wit and wit, and between rogues and knaves.
The history of Ireland is filled many varied encounters describing the practical cunning, which is a part of the relationship between the ‘Poteen Maker’ and his eagle-eyed foe, the gauger. Stories of such encounters throw a light upon the national character of our people. They also demonstrate the readiness of Irish wit, the fertility of invention, and the irresistible humour which is so much a part of our lives no matter how difficult or critical that life may be. Indeed, it is the character of the ordinary, everyday Irishman to rise up and face the encounter and laugh at it or face down the difficulty until it is overcome.
Our short story begins with two men, dressed as gentlemen, riding along a remote by-road. It was a chilly October morning, and the air was remarkably clear, keen, and bracing. A hoar frost had set in over the previous few nights and lay on the fields around them, gradually melting in the heat of a sun that gradually rose in the sky. It being autumn, of course, the sun’s beams didn’t reach all the way into the valleys or the sides of the hills, and with evening’s return the feathery whiteness would again begin to cover everything.
One of the two horsemen reached a turn in the road, which skirted the brow of a bank on his right. It had a moderate degree of a slope, but the ground flattened out at the base and was studded with furze bushes, which grew so close together and level with each other that you might have thought you could walk upon their surface. As the riders reached this point, they noticed that some two hundred and fifty ahead of them a young boy coming toward them with what appeared to be a keg on his back. The eyes of one of the riders immediately lit up with a sparkle of excitement that marked him as a well-practiced gauger. For a moment he drew up his horse, giving away the fact that he had located a likely suspect. But that short, swift action had also alerted the young lad of possible danger. No sooner had he noticed the horse being drawn up that he crossed the ditch and disappeared down the bank into the forest of furze. Immediately the two horsemen galloped to the spot where he had gone down the bank and pursued the young boy by following his movements, all of which took only a minute or two.
“Aye, we have him!” called out the gauger. “We have him, and he cannot escape us!”
“Just speak for yourself, Sinton,” replied his companion. “As for me, with not being an officer of His Majesty’s Excise, I totally refuse to take any part in the pursuit of that boy! It is a fair contest, so fight it out among yourselves. At this moment I am with you only out of curiosity.”
The companion had hardly finished speaking when they heard a ice singing the following lines. Curiously, it appeared the singing was being performed in a hearty and hilarious spirit, with a devil-may-care attitude and no sign of apprehension. The voice sang out –
“Oh! Jimmy she sez, you are my true love,
You are all the riches I do adore:
I solemnly swear now, I’ll never have another,
My heart is fixed to never love more.”
The music then changed to a joyous whistle and suddenly the two horsemen were confronted by a young man, who was dressed in an old red coat, patched with grey material. The youth, when he saw the two riders, showed his natural and complete surprise at having come across them. He stopped whistling immediately and with firm respect put his hand to his hat. In a quiet, deferential voice he greeted the men, “God save you, gentlemen.”
The gauger stared down hard at him and asked, “Boy, where is that fellow with a keg on his back? He crossed over there just a moment ago.”
With a deep and puzzled look in his eyes, the boy asked, “When? Where? sir?”
“Where? When? Why it was but a minute ago, and it was here in this place!”
“Right, sir! And was it a whiskey keg, sir?”
“Boy! I am not here to answer your questions,” replied Sinton tersely. “By God, you young blackguard, are you trying to examine me, for I’ll not have it! Now, look boy! Where is the lad with the keg on his back?”
“A lad?”, he asked again. “I did see a lad, sir, but there was no keg on his back. Did he have a grey frieze coat on him?”
“He had!” Sinton replied eagerly.
“And it was a little bit short about the skirt. Wasn’t it, your Honour?”
“There he goes again!” sighed Sinton in frustration. “Damn you, boy! Unless you tell me where he is in one half-second, I shall lay my whip across your shoulders!”
“But I didn’t see any keg, Sir! The last keg I seen was – “
“Did you see a boy without the keg, who answers the description I gave you?”
“Sure, you gave no description of it, sir. But even if you did, how could I tell your honour anything about it when I didn’t see it?”
“You villain! Where is that lad?” shouted the gauger in his anger at the young man. “Where has he gone? You admitted you saw him. As for the keg, it cannot be far from us here, but where?”
“Aye, you’re right! I did see a boy with a short frieze coat on him, and him crossing the road down the other side of the ditch,” the boy replied. It was, however, all too obvious that such a lie would never stand up to questioning, for the road was no more than a slight mound that ran down a long field, on which there was not even the remains of a shrub.
The Gauger looked at his companion in total dismay and, turning back to the boy, said “Come on, boy, you know that is a black lie you are telling me. Can you not see that even a rat could never have run off in that direction without me seeing it?”
“By God, your honour, and I saw him,” gasped the boy. “With his grey coat upon him that was a little too short in the tail, and that was better than half-an-hour ago.”
“The lad of whom I speak, you must have met,” Sinton pointed out through gritted teeth. “For Christ’s sake, it is not five minutes ago. No! It’s not more than three minutes since he came inside the field!”
The gauger began to take a closer look at the boy for a moment or two and, pulling a silver coin from his pocket and said, “Listen to me, my boy! Let’s have a wee word in private.”
The gauger had taken note of the cautious distance at which the boy had kept, and just out of reach of either him or his companion. It began to dawn on him that, despite appearances, this lad might be the smuggler he sought. The more he thought about this possibility the more it became uncertain, especially when the time given to make himself and the keg invisible was too short. Then Sinton thought back on just how this lad had sung his song so cheerily and had, without pause, changed to a light-hearted whistle. Moreover, there was the natural and total surprise that the boy had shown, alongside his respectful and deferential manner. Combining all these things in his mind the gauger was still left in a quandary. Maybe, the gauger thought, the boy’s reluctance to approach closer had come from fear of the whip that he had been threatened with. Nevertheless, Sinton was determined to resolve the problem and, with the aim of getting his hands on the boy, he showed him a silver coin and began to speak more gently to him.
The boy saw the silver glint of the money and appeared to be instantly attracted to it, and he approached it like prey being tempted forward by an irresistible bait. The gauger was, nonetheless, surprised by the boy’s reaction, but he made ready to seize the lad when he came close enough. “Come now,” encouraged the gauger as he began to unbutton the boy’s coat. “You will strip!”
“Why should I?” shouted the boy. On his face was an expression which would have kept an artist busy trying to capture the perfect picture of curiosity, perplexity, and wonder.
“Why should you?” asked Sinton. “You shall see. In fact, we shall all see!”
“Now, sir, you’re not thinking that I might have hidden the keg about me?” replied the lad with an expression of complete simpleness, and an innocence that would have made man, other than a gauger, give up the cause. He saw nothing hopeless in this situation and he was determined to break this boy.
“No,” replied the gauger. “Not by any means do I think that! You young rascal.” He then turned to his companion and said, “See here, Cartwright! The keg, my dear.” He laughed and returned to the boy and told him, “It would be very cruel of me to suspect you of anything but the purest simplicity.” The, he began to pull at the boy’s coat and exclaimed, “Aha! Look here Cartwright. There’s a coat, there’s thrift, and there’s economy for you!” Then, turning again to the boy he told him, “Come on, lad, tuck on! Tuck on, and I will help you. Up with your arms now and straighten your neck. Take my word for it, but it will be straightened and stretched yet, my boy!” Laughing loudly, Sinton turned to his companion once more and asked, “Cartwright?Did you ever see such a change in your life being made so quick, complete, and unexpected?”
Cartwright was certainly surprised when he saw the boy’s red coat, when turned, became a comfortable grey frieze. It was in every detail exactly like the one he had seen on the lad who had been carrying the keg. As he examined the lad and his coat more closely, Cartwright instantly recognized him as one and the same as he had seen. But his only interest in this exercise was the simple pleasure felt by any observer of character and humour. The gauger, on the other hand, having almost cracked the case and being on the scent of the keg was in his glory. It was indeed a rare treat for him to come face to face with such an able opponent as Tony Cullen. “Now, young man,” Sinton addressed him, “don’t waste any time in telling us where you have hidden that keg.”
“Ah, sure, your honour, I have already told you there isn’t a bit of that keg did I hide from you! Didn’t the damn thing roll off my back and I lost it. Sure, wasn’t I looking for it myself?” Tony replied and he moved closer to a thin hedge, as if he was going to search there. But the hedge was so thin that it was immediately obvious that the keg could never have been hidden in that location.
Sinton smiled at his companion and asked, “Cartwright, did you ever see anything like this ripe rascal we have before us, and can you see what he’s at?” He pulled the lad closer to him and told him, “Listen to me you little gobshite, don’t think you can fool me, so get here beside us and start the search.” In a quiet aside to Cartwright he whispered, “You can be sure that whatever way he takes us from here is not the right way.”
Returning his stare to the boy he told him, “On your way boy, we shall all have a wee look about us first, just to see if we can find any signs.”
The boy walked toward the two men quietly and began looking about him, as if searching for the keg. But it soon became clear to the two horsemen that he was not serious about trying to find the missing keg and Sinton finally stopped him and commented sarcastically, “Look at yourself boy! You really do look a fool! Sure, you can’t tell your right hand from your left!”
“Aye, I can!” insisted young Tony and, holding up his left hand, he told Sinton, “There’s my right hand.”
Sinton smiled and asked the boy, “And what do you call the other?”
“Sure, that’s my left. Didn’t I tell you I knew?”
Both the gauger and Cartwright gave a hearty laugh. “Now, that’s carrying idiocy too far,” Sinton laughed. “Why don’t you show us how you worked that one out?”
Tony stood up defiantly to the gauger and told him, “Now, that’s easy enough. It is because I am left-handed this must be the right hand.” He demonstrated this with his left hand and told the gauger, “And that’s the way of it, whatever you might say.” The boy began to smile with an appearance that hid the sarcasm of his comment. The gauger and his companion simply stared at each other in disbelief.
“What the devil?” Sinton exclaimed, “We just can’t stand here all-day wasting time! Right, boy! Bring us to that keg now!”
But before the boy could answer their conversation was interrupted by a loud, long, hearty laugh that caused Sinton to look at his friend questioningly. “What the hell is the matter, now? What is the big joke?” Cartwright couldn’t answer, for he dismounted horse and was walking to and fro’ in convulsions of laughter with his body bent double, and his hands clapping like those of a madman in a fit of excitement. “Christ man, what is it?” demanded an angry Sinton. “Cartwright!” he shouted at him, “Will you tell me what it is?”
“Oh, dear,” Cartwright said as he tried to catch his breath. “I am laughing and weak from it all!”
“It must be very funny! Are you going to keep it to yourself?”
“Indeed, it is, my friend, and I shall keep it all to myself,” Cartwright laughed. “It is obvious that your much vaunted wisdom has been stretched too far in this case, and you must now content yourself with the idea od being beaten. Be assured, friend, I will not interfere in this any further.”
In a tight contest of minds, like this was proving to be, between Tony Cullen and the gauger, even an out of place glance by Cullen might give an opponent like Sinton the upper hand. Young Cullen, therefore, maintained a simple and vague expression on his face while he talked, except when it came to the question of his right and left hand. In fact, such was Tony’s ability that Sinton, who watched his opponent with his sharp eyes, noticed nothing out of place. Cartwright, however, was not so easily fooled by Young Cullen and, as he was laughing, he noticed the boy’s eye fixed upon a mark that was barely visible in the hoar frost. This mark stretched down to the furze bushes that grew at the foot of the bank upon which they stood.
When Sinton noticed the mark, just like a hound on the scent of a fox, he followed its path downward toward the furze, into which the lad trundled the keg, where it settled and was almost invisible to the eye. After he had done this, Tony had turned his frieze coat, which he had made for just such an occasion. This change had barely given him time to advance toward the two horse riders. Nevertheless, the lad had managed to change his appearance and his manner to such a degree that he managed to pass himself off as a simple Irish peasant. The two horsemen, at first, could not see how the boy could have carried the keg down to the furze cover, hide it, and return so quickly to the spot where they met him. Such an accomplishment by a young lad appeared to be so impossible that Sinton could never suspect that the whiskey was lying in such a place. But the gauger had triumphed and self-satisfaction about his own cleverness was reflected in his face. Tony’s face, however, had lengthened considerably in the knowledge of his enemy’s victory. He was feeling rueful and mortified at the loss of his keg, and he could hardly tolerate the joy and confidence being shown in front of him.
Sinton saw the gloom in the boy’s face and wanted to mock him further. “Who is the sharpest wit now, my clever boy?” he said. “Who has the last laugh now, as matters stand?”
“Well, enjoy it while you have it, for you might never see it again,” said Tony.
“Tell me boy, what is your name?” asked Sinton.
“They call me Barry Kerrigan,” lied Tony without flinching. “I am not ashamed of that, nor am I afraid to tell it to you, or to any man.”
“One of the Kerrigans of Kilcoghlan?”
“Aye, I’m one of the Kerrigans of Kilcoghlan,” answered the boy.
“Sure, I’ve heard of that family,” said Sinton, “and they are decent people in their own way. Now, don’t be getting angry at your own failings and let me know where you were bringing this Poitin?”
“I will tell you this much,” said the lad. “I was bringing it to a better man than ever stood in your shoes.” Defiantly he looked at Sinton and added, “At least he is a real gentleman.”
“Is that right?” replied the gauger. “Well, tell us who this real gentleman is?”
“His name is Sinton!” Tony said proudly. “Gauger Sinton!”
Despite being totally surprised, Sinton showed no emotion, but fixed his eye upon the boy. For upwards of a minute his piercing stare continued, waiting for the slightest sign that may show the boy up for the liar he was. But Tony did not flinch and just stared back at his enemy with a look that betrayed his anger. It appeared that the detection of the keg had caused him to forget or abandon his attitude of cunning that had previously served him so well. But the gauger was beginning to believe the boy was speaking the truth as he knew it. The boy had lost his temper and was now, possibly, off his guard. “Well, lad, what you have said so far is very good, but who sent the keg to Sinton?”
Cullen turned to his opponent with a look of contempt for a man who would think that he would answer such a question. “Do you think that you can make me turn informer? Thank God, there are none of that kind in my family!”
“Do you know this man, Sinton?” asked the gauger.
“Now your honour, how could I know a man that I have never seen or met?” Tony angrily replied. “But there is one more thing that I don’t know, and that is if you have the right to take my whiskey or not?”
“Well, let me just ease your mind on that question by telling you that I am Sinton!”
“You, sir?” Tony asked with well-feigned surprise.
“Yes,” smiled the gauger. “I am the man that you were taking that keg to, and now I will tell you exactly what I need you to do now. You will go to my house from here, and with as little delay as possible. There you will ask to see my daughter, Miss Sinton, and present this keg to her, telling her that I wish her to put it in the cellar. She will know what key to use, and you can tell her I want the keg placed to the right of the five-gallon keg that I seized last Thursday. After this you can tell her I want her to give you breakfast.”
“Of course, your honour” Tony replied hesitantly, as if he still had misgivings. “I suppose I must be somehow …?”
Sinton, however, interrupted and impatiently asked, “My God, boy, what the hell are you grumbling about now?”
Cullen continued to view the gauger with suspicion and, as he lifted the keg, he asked, “And do I not get anything for all the work I have already done, and that which you still want me to do?”
“Here!” smiled Sinton as he threw him a silver half-crown. “Take that, along with the breakfast you will get, and be off with you! Stop! Cartwright, my friend, will you dine with me today and we shall open the keg? I can guarantee the quality of this stuff, for it’s not the first keg that I have received from the same quarter.”
“I will be there, friend, to open the keg,” Cartwright replied.
“Right, boy, get going and tell my daughter that a friend, even a friend or two, will be dining with me today. That’s all! You can go.” Sinton instructed Tony and he watched for a moment as the boy went on his way before riding off.
Cartwright now spoke to Sinton, warning him, “Surely, you are not giving that boy yet another chance to trick you out of your winnings?”
“There’s no chance of that,” laughed Sinton confidently, “That young blackguard was telling the truth, for all was lost to him when we found the keg. That was the straw that broke him, and, in his anger, he wasn’t able to deceive us anymore.”
“Well, I’ll tell you, Sinton. I don’t trust that boy one inch,” Cartwright warned his friend.
“I suppose I should not trust him myself, but these Kerrigan people are well-known poteen makers and not criminal masterminds. They usually send me a keg or two every year about this time to help my attention wander away from their trade. I watched that boy’s attitude and he never flinched once. The keg of poteen was coming to me, and I have no doubt of that.”
“Nevertheless, I still do not trust him. Mark my words, he’s a trickster,” warned Cartwright.
Tony Cullen, in the meantime, had been having a quiet conversation with himself and wondering if he had really sold Sinton on the idea. He spat on the ground and muttered, “May bad luck be with you the rest of your life, Sinton. Good luck appears to follow you, but you never know, a lucky shot from behind a hedge or a break-neck fall down a cliff, or something of that nature might just happen. If that old moonshiner hadn’t his hooks into you, hard and fast, you would never have allowed me to walk away with the poteen.” He laughed quietly to himself as he told himself, “By God, wasn’t I the clever one for mentioning the Kerrigans, especially when I had heard Barney Kerrigan say that he would be sending a keg to the gauger some time this week. That Sinton didn’t think I knew him because he didn’t recognize me. Indeed, it has been a long time since those hawk eyes of his had caught sight of me.” Then he halted a moment and asked himself, “What if they now decide to follow me and ruin all my plans? I have to stop them from having any suspicions about me before I go any further along the road.”
Tony Cullen wheeled around just as Cartwright and Sinton had done the same, for the gauger wanted to question the boy a little more. He had not, however, expected the boy to be coming toward him. “Gentlemen,” said Cullen, “How do I know for certain that either of you are Mr. Sinton, and that the house you are sending me to exists and is his? One thing I do know for certain is that if the whiskey is delivered to the right man, then I will have to leave the country!”
“You, boy are either a bigger villain or more of a fool than I first thought you to be,” said Sinton. “But what proof can you give me that you will bring the keg safely to its destination?”
“Well, if I knew for certain that you are Mr. Sinton, I would be happy enough to leave the poteen with you, and I would even do without my breakfast. So, gentlemen, please tell me the truth, for if I fail, I will surely be murdered.”
“Listen, you damned fool!” said the gauger, losing his patience with the boy because he still thought Sinton was lying. “You only have to go into town and ask for Mr. Sinton’s house!”
“Isn’t it the great fool I am?” exclaimed Cullen. “What you say is true, and I never even thought of it. I’m truly sorry gentlemen, and I hope that you are not angry with me, because it is myself that will be killed and quartered if I allow anyone to make a fool of me.”
“Just you do what I ask,” Sinton told the lad. “Ask for Mr. Sinton’s house and you can be certain that the poteen will reach him.”
“Yes, Sir, and thank you. I should have thought of that myself,” Cullen said and began his journey again.”
As Sinton and his companion started their journey once more, the gauger turned to Cartwright and asked him, “Are you satisfied now?”
“I believe I am,” replied Cartwright. “If the lad’s intentions had been dishonest, instead of returning to make sure that he was not being deceived he would have made the best of his escape from us. But a rogue will never or, at least, seldom voluntarily puts himself in the way of danger, or possible detection.”
Sinton had to agree with his friend’s line of thought and that same evening, at about five o’clock, the two men arrived at the gauger’s house in the company of two others. They were all looking forward to a night of good cheer in Sinton’s home. The chill of a cold frosty evening had given them l a wish for a warm, comfortable room, in which they could enjoy a blazing fire and a good dinner. Then, no sooner was the food eaten than the tablecloth was removed, and glasses set for Sinton and his guests. Being the host for the evening, Sinton asked his daughter to assist the servant in breeching the keg, “The keg in the cellar that was left there by the young country lad.”
“A keg?” she asked.
“Yes, Maggie my love, a keg.”
“But Father there was no keg that came here today!”
Sinton and Cartwright both groaned, simultaneously, “No Keg?”
“No keg,” Maggie agreed, “but there was a country lad who came and told me that you said he had to get the five-gallon …”
“Oh no!” Sinton cried out, interrupting his daughter. “Christ Almighty! He has done me over!”
“He bought and sold you,” said Cartwright, adding insult to injury.
“Continue, Maggie, I have to hear everything,” urged a deflated Sinton.
“Well,” Maggie began. “He said that you had instructed him to get the five-gallon keg for Captain Dalton.”
“And did he take it?”
“Yes, father, the lad took it, for I had no reason to doubt him.”
“But Maggie, my dear child, surely, he brought a keg with him and left it, and it is now in the cellar?”
“No, Father! He brought no keg here. But he did bring the five-gallon keg that was in the cellar away with him.”
“Sinton, old chap, pass around the bottle!” laughed Cartwright.
“That damned, slippery rascal,” smiled the gauger. “We shall all have a drink to the boy’s health.”
With that, all the men raised their glasses and drank the health of the country lad who had craftily bought and sold the gauger.
CopyrightSept 2021; Pinebank Publishing. All rights reserved
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.