One damp Wednesday morning the local district court was entertained by the prosecution of a man for possession of fifteen gallons of poteen. His excuse for this was that the poteen was kept as medicine, which he would give to his greyhounds whenever they were taken ill. Nonetheless, he faced a second charge of harbouring it.
The accused was a well-known local man called Patrick O’Brien. Justice Flaherty was in the chair and Police Superintendent Thorne was prosecuting the case. In his opening statement, Thorne told the court that Sergeant Keogh and a constable had visited O’Brien’s premises in the middle of September to begin a search. As the two officers looked around the premises, they noticed an outhouse inside of which a smaller outhouse, or store, had been built and the door to this smaller store was securely locked. This set-up made both men very suspicious of what was kept in the smaller store and asked O’Brien to open it for them to examine. Inside they found three casks, a crockery jar, an enamel measure, and a small drinking glass. One of the casks contained a liquid that smelt strongly of poteen to the two officers, and they decided to investigate further. The cask, they discovered, was fitted with a tap, and contained fifteen gallons of poteen. When they questioned the owner about what they had found it was reported that Mr. O’Brien replied, “Sure, what else can I say but admit that it was myself that made it.”
O’Brien’s solicitor, James Rowlette, pointed out toe the court that the police were actually visiting the premises in connection with reports that the defendant had an unlicensed gun with which he was poaching rabbits. He further explained that a short time prior to this visit Mr. O’Brien, who was a well-respected breeder of greyhounds, which he entered at some of the many track-meetings in the country, was approached by an acquaintance who was going to England. The acquaintance asked O’Brien if he would purchase a quantity of poteen he had, telling him that it was a great medicine for sick greyhounds. He also advised O’Brien that if he would administer a dose of poteen to a hound that was entered for a race, the animal would most certainly win. O’Brien was not a man to look a gift horse in the mouth and decided he would take the poteen of his friend’s hands. But there was too much in the cask and he decided to store what he did not need in the outbuilding and had no intention of selling it to the public.
Keogh described the shed in which they found the poteen, and he told the court that it was his belief that the defendant did not buy it but was certain that he had made it for his own use. Justice Flaherty then told the court that the two policemen had made an unusually big capture of good poteen, and it would be a pity to let it run down the drain when it could be mixed with industrial alcohol and be used car fuel. He also declared that based on the Sergeant’s description of the store in which the poteen was found, he was satisfied that Patrick O’Brien had distilled it himself. The only positive factor in the case against Patrick was the fact that there were no previous convictions against defendant.
The defence solicitor, Mr. Rowlette, pointed out to the court that severe fines were now being imposed for such offences, and that memorials sent to the Minister for Defence on behalf of some of those convicted now appeared not to secure. Moved by the appeal, Justice Flaherty imposed a minimal fine with a small amount for costs. This related to the first charge of being in possession of fifteen gallons of poteen, but the second charge was dropped
As one travels around the country you will undoubtedly discover that there are some district courts which are much busier than others, prosecuting a variety of cases including the production of Poitin. One such court was occupied by Judge Louis Walshe for several hours one day a few years ago, because there were so many cases of illicit distilling of Poitin brought before him for his judgment. The first of the defendants to be placed in the ‘dock’ was a certain Patrick Doherty, who had become a familiar face to this judge. He was a tall, heavily set man, who had an excellent reputation for the quality of his Poitin and his still never appeared to stop production, despite his claims of constant police harassment. Into the witness box strode a police constable and, taking a notebook from his pocket, he prepared to give his testimony to the court. “We received information from members of the public,” the policeman began, “informing us that Mr. Doherty employed in making substantial amounts of illicit spirits, which he would sell locally. As a result, we undertook a search for evidence that might show that this illegal activity was being undertaken by the defendant, and we discovered a barrel of ‘Wash’ in a hedgerow that separated his land from the nearby road, about 100 yards from the home of the defendant.” The continuing police testimony, however, also said that there was another house, just a few yards away on the opposite side of the road.
Patrick Doherty gave his evidence and claimed that he was totally innocent of all the charges against him and denied that he had any knowledge of the barrel of ‘Wash’ that the police said they had found, pointing out that the location of the find was open to anyone including the people in the house opposite. At the same time, he told the court that a contractor and his men had been working on mending the road and fixing the fences for several weeks past, and they had found nothing. Patrick also told the court that the police had been harassing him for several years and had dragged him in front of the court on many occasions, at none of which was he ever found guilty. This fact alone, he insisted, was proof that he had never made a ‘Run’ of Poitin in his life. While Judge Louis Walshe doubted Patrick’s innocence, he had to agree that the evidence brought forward did not allow him to convict the man and he immediately waived all charges against him and allowed him to leave the court a free man.
With Doherty’s case complete the next case was called, which involved Seam McGowan and Jimmy Dogherty, who lived to the west of the town. The police witness stood in the witness box and told the court that two police constables, who were on duty about one-hundred yards from the house, saw two persons leaving the premises and making their way to a spot in the field and, after a few moments, they returned to the house. The two constables were intrigued by this action, and they left their observation post and made their way to the spot in the field that the two people from the house had gone to. At that place they discovered a two-gallon jar of Poitin that had been covered over with a length of waterproof material like tarpaulin. Carrying this evidence the two policemen entered the house through the kitchen area, where they discovered three empty barrels that had a strong smell of Poitin about them.
The two constables went on searching the rest of the rooms in the house and in one of the rooms the found a child lying in bed. One of the constables asked Mrs. McGowan, Sean’s wife, to lift the child out of the bed so they could thoroughly search the room. But as Mrs. Magowan reached down to the bed and, as she lifted the child, a bottle fell out from where it had been concealed in the child’s clothing. Under cross-examination by the defence’s lawyer, however, neither of the two police constables could clearly identify any one of the two people they had seen leaving the house and going into the field. One of the constables also stated that Mr. McGowan was standing in the kitchen at the time he requested the child be retrieved from the bed. Furthermore, one of the accused men, Jimmy Dogherty, was bedridden and could not have been one of the two people that had been seen in the field. The defence lawyer’s questioning had shown the court that the testimony given by the police constables was unreliable in this case, and it was suggested that maybe the only person who knew something about the Poitin was Mrs. McGowan, who had been charged with nothing.
Once again Judge Walshe had to agree with the suggestions put by the defence, and he dismissed the charges against Jimmy Dogherty. But in the opinion of the judge Sean McGowan was engaged in the illicit distillation of spirits, and from previous experience he knew that they would never get McGowan to admit his guilt. McGowan was given a custodial sentence of one month and one day, but he would allow him to appeal the decision if he so wished. Sean was happy to get away so lightly and, knowing that an appeal if lost could increase his jail term and impose a fine, he decided not to accept the judge’s offer
Following this case there were two other local men, Daniel, and Neil Dougan, brought before the court, and a Customs and Excise Officer made his way over to the witness box to give his evidence in this case. The ‘Revenue Man’ (Gauger) began to describe how he and his colleague were investigating based on information received, which told them that an illegal still was operating somewhere in the area. So, the previous Sunday morning they had gone out early to begin their investigation and, within the hour, their attention was attracted by a fire on the high hill above them and using all the cover available to them the two ‘gaugers’ made their way uphill until they were only fifty yards from the spot where a still had been set up.
As they moved stealthily toward their quarry there was a loud crack as a twig broke underfoot and the Poitin makers realised that they were under observation. One of the men suddenly grabbed the still and carrying it on his head, and he ran off into the cover of some trees. Meanwhile, his partner in crime tried to salvage as much of the remaining equipment as he could carry before he too could make his escape. The ‘gaugers’ were ready for just such a move by their targets and quickly gave chase, and free of any equipment they quickly caught up with both men before they had managed to get any distance away.
In the subsequent search after securing the men, the two gaugers discovered two gallons of ‘wash’ and with this evidence the revenue men arrested and charged both men. Though happy with their case, under cross-examination by the defence the revenue officers were accused of using underhand methods and of abusing the two defendants after their arrest. One of the ‘gaugers’ answered by telling the court that it was he who had chased after Dan Dougan, who had gathered the equipment and ran off like a hare at a ‘Coursing Meet.” He testified that Dan had just finished a Poitin ‘Run’ when they were discovered and as he ran away, he dropped the equipment that he was carrying away from the scene. As a means of stopping his escape the revenue man said that he reached out a stick in the hope that he could hook him around the neck, but he only caused the prisoner to trip and fall. The witness insisted, however, that neither of the prisoners had been abused by being hit on the head with clubs. The defence team, while not denying that their clients were producing Poitin, they denied that they were not important enough to be imprisoned. The judge responded,” These are the people that the Revenue are after for they are the real evil-doers and need to be put away if we are to stop this terrible trade in illicit spirits.” With these words he sentenced both men to two months in prison with hard labour. At the same time, the judge praised the two revenue officers for their vigilance and professionalism.
You could guarantee that at least once every month the wilder areas of South Armagh would get a visit from the Customs & Excise men, or ‘Gaugers’, as part of their efforts to seek out and remove all illicit Poteen Stills that were spread all over the area. They were not always successful in their searching, and, on many occasions, they would meet resistance from the poteen makers, especially if they were in the middle of a ‘poteen run’. But, for the most part, the ‘Gaugers’ found that their expeditions into these country areas were uneventful because the local community was close-knit and the ‘Revenue Men’ could not enter the area without their transport and themselves being recognized by some person or other. By various secret means these locals would track the path taken by the ‘gaugers’ and make their presence known throughout the district.
There were occasions when the customs and excise men could launch a surprise raid on suspected poteen makers, who were usually informed upon by a local ‘tout’ (Informer). These were, of course, targeted raids in which the names of offenders and the location of their stills were supplied to the ‘Revenue Men’. On one dark autumn night officers Paddy Flaherty and Tommy Townsend set out to observe reported activity that said there was an illegal still established in the mountain area close to the border with the Republic of Ireland.
Both Paddy and Tommy were experienced officers and used to undertaking night-time observations under difficult circumstances. But that night was a clear star-filled one and the half-moon gave them excellent light to see. Quietly the two officers made their way up the mountainside, keeping alert to the slightest sound that might indicate the nearby presence of the suspected poteen distillers. The sweet smell of the escaping vapour would be a tell-tale sign for them, as would the strong odour of the turf smoke from the turf-fueled fire built under the still. It was just after three o’clock in the morning when Paddy Flaherty first noticed a dim, flickering yellow light ahead, which indicated there was a fire burning. They decided to move more towards the right of where the fire was, which would allow them to approach their target through a thick covering of pine trees.
This far up the mountain the wind was a good deal stronger and both men could clearly smell the smoke from the burning turf and were more convinced that they had caught their prey without being seen by them. Closer and closer to the target the two excise men crept and soon they began to hear voices talking to each other. From their vantage point Tommy had the best view of the fire being reflected off the large rocks that provided shelter for what the two officers believed was an active poitin still. With stealthy steps they pushed forward until they were only a few feet from the Still itself, and they could clearly hear the voices of two men talking to each other. “Ah, sure, it’s running clear as the finest well-water, Frank!” said the deep voice a man who sounded much older than his companion.
“Aye! Only it’s a hell of a lots stronger than well-water and worth a lot more money when we get it out there,” laughed the man who was undoubtedly called Frank.
Then like dark spirits the two revenue officers burst into the middle of where the men were sitting, and with a loud roar Paddy called out “You are under arrest! Sit your ground and don’t move!” He might have saved his breath since neither of these poteen distillers were about to allow themselves to be taken into custody quietly. But, without first securing their prisoners, the two excise men immediately began to put out the fire under the still and to dismantle the equipment. As the officers worked on the still the two prisoners decided that this was the opportune time for them to make their break for freedom and rapidly got to their feet. Officer Townsend saw them move and immediately shouted a warning to Paddy. “They’re off!”
Quick as a flash Paddy Flaherty threw himself at the nearest escapee and brought him to the ground, while Tommy had to pursue the other man for several yards before getting a grip of his coat and bringing him down. As Paddy and his prisoner fell to the ground the fists began to fly and a bitter fight between the two men was soon in full flow. Tommy Townsend successfully avoided the first swing made by his prisoner toward him and launched a full-blooded punch of his own, which caught the man squarely on the chin and caused him to stumble. It was soon clear that neither prisoner was about to surrender their freedom easily. The two excise men were hampered in their struggle with the prisoners because they had no weapons that they could call, neither guns nor batons. The two escaping prisoners, however, filled their hands with large, sharp-pointed stones that abounded on the ground there and they began to assault the officers with them. Despite the difficulty the two officers fought on bravely to keep a hold on to their prisoners. Their efforts were, however, to prove insufficient and they were finally overcome by the illegal poitin distillers.
Paddy Flaherty had received severe abuse from the hands of his prisoner, who armed with a sharp rock made several deep cuts and bruises. The excise man was knocked unconscious after suffering a heavy blow to his head that left a long, deep gash that bled profusely. Meanwhile, without Flaherty’s assistance, Townsend alone had to face both prisoners attacking him with stones and with kicks to his body. Tommy suffered a broken nose from a kick to the face, and shoulders and hips were badly bruised by the boots of the two prisoners. In this way the two poitin makers escaped their captors and left them bleeding heavily from their wounds.
With great difficulty the two excise men struggled to regain their feet. Recovery from their beating was slow and wracked with pain they gingerly made their way back to safety. At the police station they arrived in a state of delirium from the loss of blood they had suffered, and their colleagues quickly ensured that they were taken to the hospital emergency department. On arrival at the hospital Paddy Flaherty once again fell into an unconscious state and was placed under the care of hospital staff in a private ward.
It is not surprising to learn that there was great anger among the other excise men of the district, who now joined with a considerable force of policemen and were determined that the men who had assaulted Paddy and Tommy would be brought to justice. With such a number of men it was decided to undertake an area-wide search for those men who had been making illegal spirits on the night the excise men were attacked. Every house in the district was visited by the police and a local small farmer, John Lydon, was interviewed. When he could not satisfactorily explain where he had received the various cuts and bruises that were evident on his body, particularly his face and hands. Mr. Lydon was taken in for questioning by the police and after some interrogation he eventually gave up the name of his friend and neighbour, Frank Keady. Both men were now arrested and charged with causing grievous bodily harm to the two excise men. Additionally, they were charged with conspiracy to distill illegal spirits that were to be sold to the public. Both men insisted that they were innocent of any charges, but it was obvious to all that the two excise men had given as much punishment as they had received. More importantly, Paddy and Tommy could identify both assailants.
One evening Sergeant Brennan was manning the front desk of the police station when an obviously irate and breathless Jimmy Lennon burst through the main door. “In the name of Jesus!” exclaimed the Sergeant.
“Hold on, Sergeant, ‘til I catch my breath,” panted Jimmy.
“By God, man dear, I thought you were going to take that door off its hinges,” scolded Brennan.
It took Jimmy a moment or two to gather himself before he was ready to explain the purpose of his visit. “My family’s destroyed!” Jimmy wailed. “That blackguard Micky McMahon from ‘The Hill’ has stolen my sister away, and the beast even assaulted my own wife!”
Brennan was shocked by this revelation and he asked Jimmy when had all of this happened. “This morning, when he knew I would not be around. That gobshite didn’t want to meet me face-to-face, for I would have fixed him for sure. But he left my wife in an awful state and our four wee children are completely destroyed by the experience. I want something done about this, Sergeant!”
“First we will get a statement from you about the facts, and then my constable and I will go and see what this McMahon fellow has to say for himself. Now, in your own words, clearly and slowly tell me what happened and I will write it all down,” said Sergeant Brennan.
It took an hour for Jimmy Lennon’s statement to be finalised and signed by him. From what he had heard, the Sergeant believed that there would be some very serious charges to be brought against Micky McMahon and that he would need his Constable to help him bring in the violent blackguard. “Get your coat, Constable,” Brennan instructed the young policeman who was now manning the front desk.
“What’s happening, Sergeant?” asked the Constable.
“We have to go up the ‘Hill’ and arrest Mickey McMahon for kidnap and assault.”
“Kidnap and assault? Micky McMahon?”
“I know its hard to believe, but accusations have been made,” replied Brennan.
“And Jimmy Lennon made the accusation?”
“Sure Jimmy Lennon wouldn’t know what the truth was, even if it bit him on the arse” commented Constable Wright.
“Don’t I know the sort of Jimmy Lennon?” the Sergeant grimaced. “But we still need to investigate the accusations. So, Come on. The quicker we get there the quicker we’ll be done.”
On the way to ‘The Hill’ Brennan explained that they should take things very easy when talking to Micky if they wanted to ensure things did not get out of control, and cause somebody to get hurt. In the small, outdated police car Brennan brought Wright with him to the McMahon home. It was a single-storey home that needed a bit of ‘tender loving care’ done to its exterior, but was generally well maintained. Sergeant Brennan marched right up to the front door of the house and knocked on it heavily with his hand calling out loud, “Police!” But despite his efforts he did not get a reply although there was something about the place that made him certain that someone was inside. He marched around to the rear of the house and, seeing a bedroom window open, he clambered in and began his search in such a way that anyone who was in the house would know he was there.
It was not a large house and he quickly made his way through to the kitchen, the door to which was closed against him. Grabbing the door handle, Brennan tried to push the door open but it did not budge and, when he forced it with his weight, he found the door obstructed by a heavy chair. Standing with a look of fear and amazement on her face was Molly Maguire. Sergeant Brennan was totally astonished by her presence in the house of Micky McMahon because she was the sister of Jimmy Lennon who had allegedly been kidnapped by McMahon. As he came to his senses again, the Sergeant began to notice the familiar, strong bouquet of Poitin assaulting his senses. In front of him, on the kitchen table, Brennan saw three open bottles, all of which contained remnants of Poitin and were, undoubtedly, the source of the strong odour.
Molly looked at the tall, burly policeman with pleading eyes and she began to tearfully tell him, “They are not mine, Sergeant. Mick McMahon and another man have been up all night making Poitin, and now he has gone to sell it.” But Brennan showed little interest in her obviously false story. Molly now went further by saying, “That damned blackguard even locked me up here in the cottage as a prisoner until whatever time he returned. I just thank God that you save me, Sergeant.”
“Aye! You are safe enough now, girl,” Brennan told her coldly, as his eyes scoured the room for some evidence of what had happened.
“I can show you some other things that will prove what he has been up to, Sergeant,” urged Molly.
Brennan summoned Constable Wright into the house after first opening the front door. “Bring in some of those evidence bags and we can gather a few things. You finish off looking in the house for more evidence, while Molly takes me to see irrefutable proof of McMahon’s crimes.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” replied Wright.
The Constable watched as Brennan went out of the back door with Molly at his side, and she was chatting to him, giving him directions with her hands. “It’s just over there, beside that hawthorn bush,” Molly told him and began to lead the way. When they arrived at the thick bush and hedgerow, Sergeant Brennan began to search among the close-knit branches. It didn’t take him long to find a metal milk churn and, with Molly’s eager help, he dragged it into a clear space. “Didn’t I tell you, Sergeant?” Molly said triumphantly.
“Well, let’s have a look at it first, shall we,” replied Brennan cautiously. Then, using both hands he succeeded in forcing off the lid of the churn and he became engulfed in a sweet, strong smell and when he looked inside the churn he found it was full of ‘Wash’ in a state of fermentation. This was evidence that this Micky McMahon was preparing the mix for a second run of Poitin for his customers. That same evening, when he arrived home, McMahon was arrested for illicit distillation of spirits and several additional charges.
In due course, in the District Court, Micky McMahon was defended by Joe Geary, a much respected and successful local solicitor. In his opening statement to the court Mr. Geary reminded them that his client had been arrested and prosecuted three years previously for making Poitin. He told them that on that occasion Micky was convicted of the offence, but was arrested a year later on similar charges, which were dismissed when it was discovered that Micky had been ‘set-up’ by persons unknown. Mr. Geary made it clear that it was his case that the charges against his client were also a result of someone ‘framing’ Mr. McMahon. He alleged that Micky had been having an extra-marital affair with Molly Maguire for several years, until two years ago, they fell out. Micky admitted that, four years previously, had left her husband and began living with Micky in his house. Micky declared that she had been a difficult woman to live with and they had separated several times, with the last and worst argument occurring about eighteen months previously. On that occasion, Micky testified he had become tired of Molly’s argumentative ways and began to become closer to his own wife. “When Molly found out,” said Micky, “She swore that she would get me back for treating her so badly. She could have gotten into my house quite easily and ‘planted’ all this so-called evidence.”
In his summing up the judge, Gerard McElroy, commented that it was very strange that Mrs. Maguire had not answered Sergeant Brennan’s calls when he entered the house. This would have been easily done even if the accused had locked her in the house. Judge McElroy also suggested if the Poitin had been ‘planted’ then such behaviour was consistent with Mrs. Maguire’s previously alleged conduct. He did point out, however, that Mr. McMahon had failed to give any definitive proof that she had been guilty of such deception. In the end, Micky McMahon, was fined what could be considered a nominal amount for the offence with costs. Although she wasn’t found guilty by the court, Molly Maguire was ‘Sent to Coventry’ by the local community.
A warm welcome back to all my readers now that my summer sabbatical is over. To begin a new line of stories I have chosen to outline those men and women who were, and are still involved in Ireland’s Poitin making business. Each one of the stories involved in this chronicle is based on true facts, though names have been changed to protect the characters. There will be stories of Poitin men, Poitin Women, the Informers, the Gaugers (Revenue and Excise men), the Police, the Courts, and all who are involved in the illicit industry that continues to prevail. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as you have apparently enjoyed my previous tales. So let us begin with …
Anyone who has read about Ireland, its customs and traditions has heard the word Poitin (Poteen), which is the name given to the illicit, but very popular, spirit that is distilled in many areas of the country. There are many stories and customs surrounding the manufacture and distribution of this favoured beverage, but little is known about the men, or families, who distill the spirit. The stories included in this short book are taken from recorded facts, with some necessary changes made to protect the innocent.
As well as being known as the ‘Isle of Saints and Scholars’, Ireland is famed for its rugged coastlines, remote misty mountains, wide and treacherous boglands and for the great expanses of forests and woodlands. It is in the remote areas like these that the manufacture of Poitin has gravitated in modern years. Sadly, there are many places within the country where you can purchase Poitin legally, and cleverly presented in designer bottles to give the impression of age. But these legal Poitin brands are generally expensive and, from my own personal experience, they taste nothing like the ‘real stuff’. Like everything that is yellow is not necessarily gold, everything that resembles Poitin is not necessarily Poitin.
Thankfully, the illicit spirit is still being produced by master craftsmen in large quantities from many old stills that have been long hidden in almost every county in Ireland from Armagh to Wicklow. The craft itself has often been handed down from father to son over the centuries and demand is still strong despite the illegality and the attraction of designer bottles and advertising. Nevertheless, the law enforcement agencies on the island of Ireland continue to strive hard to wipe out the cottage industry, with the assistance of the customs and excise authorities. This, however, is the way it has been for several hundred years, but the trade still survives and the main areas of production remain in the isolated and remote rural areas of Ireland. In mountain areas, woodlands, and boglands the stills have been hidden and using more modern methods of production they have become harder to detect. But touts (informers) remain the scourge of any secret enterprise and are an ever present threat to the liberty of the ‘Poitin Men’.
Our first story could be subtitled “The Sergeant’s Embarrassment,” and concerns a man who lived in County Donegal and was well respected by all his neighbours in the small village where he lived. He was recognised as a fine, good humoured man, who did everything in moderation and who went to Mass and the Sacraments on a regular basis. The man man was also a committed ‘Pioneer’, which is a member of the Catholic faith who vows to refrain from drinking or using alcohol in his life and proudly sports a sacred heart badge on his left jacket lapel to publicize this fact. As you can imagine such men as this are a rarity in Irish society and the sixty-seven-years-old Hugh Trevor was considered to be rather saintly.
It must be said that any sane person would never have even considered Hugh to be a candidate for the post of Poitin manufacturer, or distributor, especially because he had sworn himself off alcohol of any kind. But the new sergeant who had recently taken over the local police station was suspicious of everyone. He knew that there was a still in the district producing a good type of the spirit and he was determined that he would destroy that still, bringing the ‘Poitin Men’ to justice. The only assistance he needed in his crusade, the sergeant had decided was a reliable tout to feed him information.
Police sergeant Grimason was a man who was determined to reach the pinnacle within the police force, and he saw the elimination of local Poitin makers to be his best route to such a position. However, in the few weeks that he had been stationed in the district he had succeeded only in securing petty convictions for possession of small bottles of Poitin, which caused no anger among his superiors. Neither had his efforts to recruit any informants borne fruit and he was beginning to become somewhat disconsolate about his hopes for advancement. But Grimason was not a man to give up easily and he decided he would double his efforts to recruit some reliable touts to assist him.
Samhain arrived and everyone in the district, including Sergeant Grimason, knew that as well as it being the season for fairies and demons, it was also the signal for increased Poitin production in the run-up to Christmas. One night, as he was standing outside ‘Rooney’s Public House’, when he noticed a small, thin man staggering from side to side toward the front door of the pub. As he made to pass by Grimason, the Sergeant took a tight hold of the man by the shoulder of his coat and pulled him to the wall. “Murphy, isn’t it?” Grimason asked.
“Ah, Sergeant, you know me well,” Murphy answered.
“Aye, that’s true,” said Grimason. “But I also know that you can’t afford to buy the amount of drink you must have imbibed this night. I also know that is not whiskey that I am smelling off your breath.”
“Whiskey?” exclaimed Murphy. “Not at all, Sergeant. It’s the smell of half a dozen glasses of the ‘’Cratur’ that’s keeping me warm this night.”
“Is that right?” asked Grimason. “Then it’s a night in the cells for you, wee man.”
“Not tonight, Sergeant,” he replied. “It’s Rooney’s pub for me, so come on in and I’ll buy you a glass.”
“No! There will be no pub for you, Murphy,” said Grimason. “It’s down to the station with you.”
“Why? What have I done?”
“Drunk and disorderly!” Grimason told him.
“Drunk maybe,” agreed Murphy. “But I’m never disorderly. Anyway, sure, why would you want to arrest me when I haven’t done anything wrong?”
“You’ve been drinking Poitin, an illegal drink!” the sergeant told him. “Now, if you were to tell me where you got it I might be persuaded to forget everything.”
“You’re a big man sergeant! Brave enough to arrest me but do nothing to the likes of Hugh Trevor, and him with gallons of the stuff. But you are as bad as the rest, for you think butter wouldn’t melt in Hugh’s mouth,” slurred Murphy angrily.
“But Hugh Trevor is a ‘Pioneer’,” laughed Grimason.
This attitude angered Murphy even more than before and he snapped, “Aye, he is! And he is at Mass every Sunday eating the altar rails, but that doesn’t make him a saint. I know that he gets through a fair bit of the ‘Cratur’.”
“Do you know if he is selling the stuff?”
Murphy now had the sergeant’s full attention and he told him, “Christ, with the amount he gets the same man could supply all of the county!”
This was just the type of evidence that Sergeant Grimason had been seeking, and he sent Murphy home, determined that he would raid the Trevor house the next day. So, early the next morning the Sergeant applied for and gained a search warrant to search Hugh Trevor’s home. He gathered one of the constables and together they made their way to Hugh Trevor’s home, where they knocked loudly on the front door. Hugh, of course, was a little bemused to see two policemen at his front door when he went to answer their knocks, and he was even more mystified when they presented him with the search warrant. “What is going on?” asked Hugh.
“I can’t discuss that, at this moment. There’s the search warrant and now if you would just let us do our work, Mr. Trevor,” Grimason told him in his usual gruff manner.
For the next hour and a half Hugh and his wife watched in silence as the police officers searched every room in the house, every cupboard, wardrobe and drawer thoroughly. It was with great relief to him that Grimason search produced nothing incriminating and he was pleased to see the Sergeant speaking to the constable about returning to the Station. In the hallway, just as he prepared to leave the house the Constable stood on two loose floorboards and Grimason insisted they pull them up to search under the floor. Naturally, it was the Constable who carried out all the work connected with lifting the floorboards and, as soon as this was achieved, a huge smile broke across the Sergeant’s face. There, in the vacant gap below his feet, lay two ‘Jerry Cans’ lying on their sides. Turning to Hugh, Grimason asked, “What is in those?”
Without hesitation, Hugh told him, “About nine litres of Poitin.”
In a clear officious voice, with a notebook in his hands Grimason announced, “Hugh Trevor, you are under arrest for having illegal spirits in your possession and in such quantities to suggest you may be distributing the same illegal spirit to persons unknown. Constable, place the prisoner in custody and we shall return to the Station.”
“Sure, don’t be a ‘Bollix’ all your life, Grimason,” said Hugh in a very calm manner. “This is all for personal use!”
“Ha, ha,” laughed Grimason, mockingly. “But you don’t drink alcohol! Now let’s go!” Then,as he escorted the prisoner out of the house he turned to the Constable and told him to bring the evidence with him, making sure that they were moved in line with correct evidence gathering procedures.
It was only a few days after his arrest that Hugh Trevor was brought before the District Court, where Judge Thomas Campbell sat at the bench. In the dock the prisoner stood patiently listening to the charges being made to the court. When he was asked how he pleaded to the charges Hugh replied confidently, “Not Guilty!”
Sergeant Grimason was now called by the prosecution and placed in the witness stand. From the notes he made in his notebook he related his testimony to the court and under questioning from the prosecution barrister he confirmed that that Mr. Trevor had full knowledge that the containers held nine litres of Poitin.
There were no questions from the defence barrister, who decided to put Hugh into the witness box to answer the charges made against him. He immediately confirmed all that the Sergeant had said and again admitted that he was in Possession of nine litres of Poitin, but he informed the court that it was all for his own requirements. “My solicitor has already presented to the court medical evidence detailing my many years of suffering from painful arthritis, which has worsened as the years have passed. But I discovered that just by rubbing Poitin into the inflamed joints gives me effective relief from the pain. Such is my pain, however, that I have progressed from rubbing small amounts into the joints to bathing in the spirit, and that is the reason that I purchase so much. It is the only treatment that works for me in my present condition. I have never drank a drop of the spirit and I have never had the inclination to sell it to others.”
After Judge Campbell had deliberated on the case he came to the decision that the balance of truth was on Hugh Trevor’s side. He dropped all the charges against him and ordered that the nine litres of Poitin in his possession be destroyed under police supervision. At the same time, the Judge advised Hugh to seek a new and legal treatment for his arthritis, because the next time he was caught with such an amount might result in a different verdict.
“The very woman for Joe,” replied Mick. “Do you recall that, over in ‘Derryvore’ townland, there is a well matured lady by the name of Sara, who lives with her brother, John?”
“Aye! You mean Sara McCree?” smiled Kathy.
“That’s the girl!” said Mick. “Only last week I was having a pint with him in the ‘Pheasant Pub’ and John was telling me that he has took a notion for a woman and would like to marry her and have her move in. But Joe told me that his sister Sara had not the least notion of moving out of the house, and her just over forty. It’s his sister and he can’t just throw her out. Yet, I’ve heard it said that Sara McCree is not a woman who would turn her back on a man who could put a roof over her head and provide her with some degree of comfort.”
“Well matured is the right description, but that Sara has a bit of a history behind her some people say,” Kathy remarked. “It seems that a few years back she went off to England quite suddenly and left a little bundle with the ‘Good Shepherd Sisters’ in a convent. But the woman never married and that’s for certain.”
“Well, I bet you that Bud doesn’t know that and if they marry it won’t matter. Anyway, Bud never married, for he has never left the district except once or twice to go to Dublin for an All-Ireland final. He could hardly have gotten himself hitched in one night and, besides, have you ever seen another face as bad looking as ‘Bud’s’? He has hardly a bar in his grate and any teeth that have survived are as black as your boot,” laughed Mick.
“Aye,” laughed Kathy, “and the hair on his head, what’s left of it, standing uplike the quills of a porcupine!“
His family had christened him Edward, but we preferred to call him ‘Mitch’ because he was always playing truant from school, which where we live is known as “Mitching.” He was the life in our small group of boys as we played in the fields and streams around our homes. But as ‘Mitch’ grew older he gradually became a pale, thin version of the athletic young man that he had once been. By the time he had reached his mid-thirties ‘Mitch’ had become a sickly-looking man, ashen-faced, and with a feeble constitution. His hair was light auburn in colour and he preferred to keep long, as he had done in his youth. He also had a beard that he chose neither to shave or trim in any style, leaving it to grow wildly across his lower face. Strangely, his hands were a pale colour and looked to be delicate. Indeed, they were soft and not at all hard, or coarse, as you would expect the hands of a labouring man to be. But, as a young boy he had learned the trade of a tailor from his grandfather, in which trade he excelled. ‘Mitch’ now earned a very good living from his trade and had built up a good reputation for himself throughout the area for the quality of his workmanship. We remained close to him as we grew up and were full of admiration for his tailoring talent. There were, however, some who thought him to be something of a miser, hoarding his money rather than spending it freely like other men who spent their time in the ‘Bookie Shops’ and public bars of the town. But, ‘Mitch’ was a sensible, sober and rational man, who had more to interest him than the greyhounds, the horses, or the ‘Gargle‘ (drink). Nevertheless, much to the amusement of many, he insisted that he could see and hear the fairies that lived around his workshop, the town and the district. Whenever he met and confronted anyone who voiced any doubt about his spiritual talent his eyes would fill with a frightening wild, hollow look. At the same time, his normally friendly facial expression would become suddenly dark and his brow furrowed deeply.
Whenever his name was mentioned some would simply say, “Poor Mitch Curran, sure his head’s away with the fairies.” But, in my opinion, there was no man in the town who looked less like he had mental problems than ‘Mitch’ Curran. If ever a man enjoyed the ‘craic’, loved to hear a joke or could tell a humorous story it was ‘Mitch’. He could never have been described as an unhappy man in any manner or form, and it just appeared to be a natural talent that allowed him to hear and speak to the fairy folk, and sure he was not doing anybody any harm. Strangely, ‘Mitch’ was a man who did not seem to feel pain like the rest of us, or even experience the slightest tinge of fear, and I often wondered was this because of the close relationship he had developed with the ‘Good People.’ In fact, I was certain that this was a result of the fact that ‘Mitch’s’ relationship with the fairy folk appeared to be both intimate and friendly, and he would converse with them for hours. Any person who saw these conversations take place would tell you that they were terribly one-sided affairs. But, they would also admit that the discussions did appear to give ‘Mitch’ a great amount of pleasure, causing him to laugh loudly and joke the entire time that he talked with the ‘Good People.’
There were many occasions, when I was at a loose end, that I would call into ‘Mitch’s’ workshop just to see how he was keeping. “Well, Mitch, have you seen your fairy friends today?” I would ask him.
“Aaah, Jimmy, would you whisht (be quiet). Can’t you see them yourself? There must be two dozen or more running around this place and keeping me back from my work,” he often replied.
No matter how hard I looked I could not see them. They were totally invisible to me despite ‘Mitch’ constantly insisting, “There’s the oul’ fella, sitting on top of the machine for he loves to feel the vibrations through his body when I am sewing. But, they are all having a bit of a tough time at the minute. There’s nothing to worry about, however, for they are all great wee schemers, the lot of them. They’ll soon find a way to be right again. Look, there’s one them now and he’s unravelling my silk threads!” he told me as he waved his hand at a bunch of thread bobbins, just as he would to wave away a fly.
“Get away out of that you wee devil, or I will leave a mark upon you that will never go away. Get out of that, you wee thief!“
Now, throughout my life I had heard many different tales about the ‘Good People’ that would encourage a man to be extra-careful in any dealings he might have with them. On one occasion I asked him, “Mitch, are you not afraid of the fairies at all?“
“What? Am I afraid, you’re asking me?” he answered with a loud laugh. “Sure, why would I need to fear them, for they have no power over me! None at all!“
“Of course,” he replied in a matter-of-fact manner that made me feel that I should have known this all along. “Didn’t my da tell the priest who christened me to include the special prayer against the fairies. You know, a priest cannot refuse the prayer to anyone when it is asked of him. So, I got the special prayer and, thanks be to God, that priest did what was right.“
I was puzzled for a moment and watched him as he was then apparently distracted by fairy activity elsewhere in the shop, and shouted at the them, “Will you leave all that stuff alone, you imp. You are the thief of all thieves!“
Having said this, ‘Mitch’ then returned his attention to me saying, “It was a good thing indeed, for those fairies wanted to make me their king!“
To be honest with you. I almost fell off the stool with the shock of what he had just revealed to me but, somehow, I managed to maintain my composure and asked him calmly, “Is that really possible?“
“Isn’t it me who is tellingyou it is? Now, if you don’t believe me then you can ask them yourself and they will tell you the truth of it!“
I decided that best thing that I could do at that time was to look all around me, even though I knew I would see nothing. But, I had seen ‘Mitch’s’ temper flare with the others who had doubted him and who had tried to take ‘a hand of him’ (make fun). Not surprisingly I decided to accept what he had told me and continued to ask him questions about his little, invisible friends, I chose to continue my enquiries with him. “What size are they, Mitch?“
“Och, sure they’re only wee boys, wearing green coats and the prettiest of little brogue shoes that a man ever set eyes on. There’s two old friends of mine, there,” he pointed toward a shelf of cloth lying in rolls. “They’re running on top of that cloth there. The one with the grey beard is the oldest of them and goes by the name, ‘Munchy’. The other one, with the small green bowler hat is called ‘Cheeks’ and he can play the Uileann pipes (Irish Bagpipes) like an angel.” ‘Mitch’ looked over to the rolls of cloth again and he called, “Cheeks, give us a wee tune on those pipes of yours, you blackguard. Play the ‘Stalk of Barley’.” Then he turned to me and hissed,” Now, Jim, whisht and listen!” While he continued his sewing, ‘Mitch’ beat time to the music with his feet on the wooden floor and seemed to be enjoying every note as if it was real, but I heard nothing.
This was not the only time that I visited Mitch in his workshop and I was not the only person to spend some time with him there. But, every time I had gone to his workshop I tried to hear the faintest sound of fairy voice, but I heard and saw nothing. Even as I sat there listening, ‘Mitch’s’ tongue never once ceased moving in his head. His wife once told me that there were many nights, after ‘Mitch’ went to bed, when he would awaken from his sleep and appear to brush the bedclothes as he made efforts to clear away the fairies from his bed. “Get out of here!” he would shout at them. “You shouldn’t be in here and, ‘Christ’ what time is this for you to begin playing those damned pipes? Get out and let me sleep, for I am completely knackered.” But, if they did not go away immediately he would shout at them again. The only noise that ‘Mitch’s’ wife could hear, however, came from her husband.
“Now, if you go away and leave me in peace to sleep, then I will give you a wee surprise tomorrow,” he would try to sweeten them. “I will get the wife to make a big rice pudding and we will share it between us. You know you love rice pudding and, if you do what I ask, you will be licking the bottom of your bowl.“
Turning to his wife, who was now wide awake, he would sleepily tell her, “They are not bad wee men, darling. Look at them all leaving quietly except for ‘Old Red’ over there. You know, it’s the aches of his old age that makes him want to sleep in the same bed as myself.” His wife, of course, could see nothing and would angrily pout as her husband put his head down on the pillow again, pulled the bedclothes closer around him, and returned to a peaceful sleep. Mrs. Curran could not, unfortunately, do the same. When she was awakened it could take her an hour or more to get back to sleep again and, even then, there would only be an hour or two until she had to rise and prepare breakfast.
Just adjacent to the town’s boundary stood the house of Frankie McCann, where I had spent many happy nights with very close friends, playing cards. It was a comfortable, warm cottage in which the fire was never allowed to die in the hearth and the kettle was always on the boil. The far gable-end of the house from the entrance gate was partly built into a grass covered mound that was said by some to be a home to the fairy folk. For many of the townspeople, however, McCann’s house was not only a place for fairies, but it was said by them to be haunted by the spirits of unbaptised children that were buried on the southern side of the mound. The gossips said that none but the brave, the McCann family and unbelievers like me, dared to enter the property. It must be said, however, that in every way possible such rumours were nearly as good as a burglar alarm for keeping undesirables away.
Frankie’s child had been sickly baby since birth and even the doctor was not sure about exactly what was making her so sick. It was almost mid-summer, when fairies are at their most lively, that the child once again took a fever and began to cough harshly. One evening, around dark, we had gathered for a hand of cards in the house and we heard the strange sound of wood being sawed coming from the grassy mound. Puzzled by the noise we put our cards down on the table and decided that we would search for the source of the noise. On the mound, however, there were only white-thorn trees growing on the mound, and no local man in his right mind would even consider risking his life by sawing down one of those fairy trees. More puzzling to us was the fact that it was very late in the evening for any person to be sawing anything, which was also cause for concern.
There were seven or eight of us and we worked together to scour the entire property to find the source of the noise, but we found nothing. Other than ourselves we could find no other person, spirit or creature thereabouts. So, with nothing to be seen around the mound we returned to the house and sat down to resume our card game. But, we had no sooner sat down upon the chairs when the noise was heard once more, and this time it was much nearer to the house. We rushed from our seats into the darkness outside in the hope of catching the rascal off guard. Once again, however, we saw nothing untoward.
Several of us were standing together upon the grassy mound when we heard the sawing noise coming from a small hollow about one hundred yards from where we stood. Although the hollow was completely open to our view and we could hear the noise clearly, we could see no sign of a perpetrator. We moved closer to the hollow in the hope that we would finally discover who, or what, was making this strange noise. But, when we arrived at the hollow we could still hear the sawing noise, only now, added to this, there was the noise of nails being hammered into timber. It was now time, we decided, to send for ‘Mitch’ Curran’s assistance and we sent Tommy Bell to fetch him. Tommy’s task didn’t take him very long to complete and ‘Mitch’ was soon at our sides. As we expected, almost without hesitation, ‘Mitch’ announced the solution to our puzzle. He informed us, “It’s the fairies making the noise. I see them all and they are very busy.”
“But, what are they doing?” I asked him.
“They are building a coffin for a child,” he said almost in a whisper. “The body of the coffin is built and now they are finishing the lid.”
The breath rushed out of my body with the shock of what I had heard. My mind began to struggle to decide if what Mitch had said was true or not. Later, that very same evening the sickly child passed away and was grieved by the child’s loving parents. The next evening Frankie’s brother arrived at the house and, bringing a worktable outside, he began to construct a coffin for his niece. Those who heard the uncle working on this task at the back of the house agreed that the sawing and hammering sounds were exactly the same as those noises that were heard the previous night.
In Gaelic mythology ‘Cailleach is’ Irish for “hag”. A divine hag, a creator deity and weather deity, and an ancestor deity. In Irish lore, she goes under many names, including Digde, Milucra, Birog, Buach, etc. The word itself is found as a component in many Terms, such as cailleach-dhubh (“nun”); cailleach-oidhche (“owl”); cailleach feasa (“wise woman, fortune-teller”); and cailleach phiseogach (“sorceress, charm-worker”).
The Cailleach displays several traits that would be typical of winter, herding deer, she fights spring, and her staff freezes the ground. Alongside and in partnership with the goddess Brighde, the Cailleach is seen as a seasonal deity or spirit, ruling the winter months between Samhain (1 November or the first day of winter) and Bealtainn (1 May or the first day of summer), while Brìghde rules the summer months between Bealltainn and Samhainn. It is said that the Cailleach turns to stone on Bealltainn and takes human form again on Samhainn, just in time to rule over the winter months.
Depending on local climate, the transfer of power between the winter goddess and the summer goddess is celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brìghde (1 February) at the earliest, Latha na Cailliche (25 March), or Bealltainn (1 May) at the latest, and the local festivals marking the arrival of the first signs of spring may be named after either the Cailleach or Brìghde. Là Fhèill Brìghde is also said to be the day when the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure that the weather on 1 February is bright and sunny so she can gather plenty of firewood to keep herself warm in the coming months. As a result, people are generally relieved if Là Fhèill Brìghde is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep, will soon run out of firewood, and therefore winter is almost over.
Traditionally, in Ireland, the first farmer to finish the grain harvest made a ‘Corn Dolly’, representing the Cailleach, from the last sheaf of the crop. The figure would then be tossed into the field of a neighbour who had not yet finished bringing in their grain. The last farmer to finish had the responsibility to take in and care for the corn dolly for the next year, with the implication that they would have to feed and house the hag all winter, so the competition was fierce to avoid having to take in the Old Woman.
There are some who believe the Old Irish poem, ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beara’ speaks of Cailleach. It was said that she had fifty foster-children in Beare. She was said to have had seven periods of youth one after another so that every man who had lived with her came to die of old age, and her grandsons and great-grandsons were tribes and races.
When a cow becomes dull, refuses to take food, moans, and gives other indications of suffering peculiar pain, the conclusion at once arrived at is that “she’s shot,” or, as is expressed in Irish “tá sí cáithte.” The allusion is to the sídheóga, or fairies, and the belief is that they have shot the cow.
There are peculiar symptoms which proclaim unmistakably that the cow has been shot, the principal being swelling of the body and painful moaning. Only the village ‘Cow Doctor’, however, can tell definitely. I often saw these ‘handy men,’ as they are not unfrequently called, diagnosing, and helped them to perform the cure ceremony which, I venture to say, is one of the strangest ever recorded.
The doctor stands at one side of the cow, his assistant at the other. The assistant procures a pair of tongs and a red turf coal, and slightly burns the ‘sign of the cross’ on the hair of the cow’s side. He then hands the tongs across the cow’s body to the ‘doctor’, who burns similarly the ‘sign of the cross’ on the other side, after which he passes the tongs over the cow’s back to his assistant again. This is repeated three times, and the first and principal part of the ceremony is concluded by making the ‘sign of the cross’ with the coal on the cow’s nostrils.
The second part is rather in the nature of a ‘test’ than a ‘cure’. The doctor ‘measures’ the cow with his arm from ‘elbow’ to the ‘point’ of his fingers, beginning at the cow’s tail and going towards the horns. The ‘measurement’ is also repeated three times, and if the cow is to get better, the second measurement should be shorter than the first, and the third shorter than the second, etc. Should the ‘cure’ fail – and it never fails if the cow suffers from ‘shot’ and the doctor is called in time – the owner is requested, in order to prevent a fatal termination, to “Tabhair do Mhártan i,” which means, “Giver her to Martin,” meaning St. Martin. The invariably acquiesces, and then a ‘nick’ is cut in the animal’s ear. Blood flows and death is averted. The animal can never afterwards be sold but must be killed and eaten as a feast on St. Martin’s Eve, not necessarily for many years afterwards.
In the north of Ireland, the practice is somewhat different. The owner is not prohibited from selling the animal, and instead of giving it to ‘Martin’, some member of the family who is considered ‘lucky’ is presented with it. It is no uncommon thing to see several animals, particularly cows and sheep, at fairs with incisions in their ears, or a piece cut out. If there are many incisions it is regarded as a sign that the animal is of delicate constitution, with the result that there is a reduction in the price.
The number of incisions shows the number of times the animal was in danger of death.