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.
Copyright Sept 2021; Pinebank Publishing. All rights reserved