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.
A warm welcome back to all my readers now that my summer sabbatical is over. To begin a new line of stories I have chosen to outline those men and women who were, and are still involved in Ireland’s Poitin making business. Each one of the stories involved in this chronicle is based on true facts, though names have been changed to protect the characters. There will be stories of Poitin men, Poitin Women, the Informers, the Gaugers (Revenue and Excise men), the Police, the Courts, and all who are involved in the illicit industry that continues to prevail. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as you have apparently enjoyed my previous tales. So let us begin with …
Anyone who has read about Ireland, its customs and traditions has heard the word Poitin (Poteen), which is the name given to the illicit, but very popular, spirit that is distilled in many areas of the country. There are many stories and customs surrounding the manufacture and distribution of this favoured beverage, but little is known about the men, or families, who distill the spirit. The stories included in this short book are taken from recorded facts, with some necessary changes made to protect the innocent.
As well as being known as the ‘Isle of Saints and Scholars’, Ireland is famed for its rugged coastlines, remote misty mountains, wide and treacherous boglands and for the great expanses of forests and woodlands. It is in the remote areas like these that the manufacture of Poitin has gravitated in modern years. Sadly, there are many places within the country where you can purchase Poitin legally, and cleverly presented in designer bottles to give the impression of age. But these legal Poitin brands are generally expensive and, from my own personal experience, they taste nothing like the ‘real stuff’. Like everything that is yellow is not necessarily gold, everything that resembles Poitin is not necessarily Poitin.
Thankfully, the illicit spirit is still being produced by master craftsmen in large quantities from many old stills that have been long hidden in almost every county in Ireland from Armagh to Wicklow. The craft itself has often been handed down from father to son over the centuries and demand is still strong despite the illegality and the attraction of designer bottles and advertising. Nevertheless, the law enforcement agencies on the island of Ireland continue to strive hard to wipe out the cottage industry, with the assistance of the customs and excise authorities. This, however, is the way it has been for several hundred years, but the trade still survives and the main areas of production remain in the isolated and remote rural areas of Ireland. In mountain areas, woodlands, and boglands the stills have been hidden and using more modern methods of production they have become harder to detect. But touts (informers) remain the scourge of any secret enterprise and are an ever present threat to the liberty of the ‘Poitin Men’.
Our first story could be subtitled “The Sergeant’s Embarrassment,” and concerns a man who lived in County Donegal and was well respected by all his neighbours in the small village where he lived. He was recognised as a fine, good humoured man, who did everything in moderation and who went to Mass and the Sacraments on a regular basis. The man man was also a committed ‘Pioneer’, which is a member of the Catholic faith who vows to refrain from drinking or using alcohol in his life and proudly sports a sacred heart badge on his left jacket lapel to publicize this fact. As you can imagine such men as this are a rarity in Irish society and the sixty-seven-years-old Hugh Trevor was considered to be rather saintly.
It must be said that any sane person would never have even considered Hugh to be a candidate for the post of Poitin manufacturer, or distributor, especially because he had sworn himself off alcohol of any kind. But the new sergeant who had recently taken over the local police station was suspicious of everyone. He knew that there was a still in the district producing a good type of the spirit and he was determined that he would destroy that still, bringing the ‘Poitin Men’ to justice. The only assistance he needed in his crusade, the sergeant had decided was a reliable tout to feed him information.
Police sergeant Grimason was a man who was determined to reach the pinnacle within the police force, and he saw the elimination of local Poitin makers to be his best route to such a position. However, in the few weeks that he had been stationed in the district he had succeeded only in securing petty convictions for possession of small bottles of Poitin, which caused no anger among his superiors. Neither had his efforts to recruit any informants borne fruit and he was beginning to become somewhat disconsolate about his hopes for advancement. But Grimason was not a man to give up easily and he decided he would double his efforts to recruit some reliable touts to assist him.
Samhain arrived and everyone in the district, including Sergeant Grimason, knew that as well as it being the season for fairies and demons, it was also the signal for increased Poitin production in the run-up to Christmas. One night, as he was standing outside ‘Rooney’s Public House’, when he noticed a small, thin man staggering from side to side toward the front door of the pub. As he made to pass by Grimason, the Sergeant took a tight hold of the man by the shoulder of his coat and pulled him to the wall. “Murphy, isn’t it?” Grimason asked.
“Ah, Sergeant, you know me well,” Murphy answered.
“Aye, that’s true,” said Grimason. “But I also know that you can’t afford to buy the amount of drink you must have imbibed this night. I also know that is not whiskey that I am smelling off your breath.”
“Whiskey?” exclaimed Murphy. “Not at all, Sergeant. It’s the smell of half a dozen glasses of the ‘’Cratur’ that’s keeping me warm this night.”
“Is that right?” asked Grimason. “Then it’s a night in the cells for you, wee man.”
“Not tonight, Sergeant,” he replied. “It’s Rooney’s pub for me, so come on in and I’ll buy you a glass.”
“No! There will be no pub for you, Murphy,” said Grimason. “It’s down to the station with you.”
“Why? What have I done?”
“Drunk and disorderly!” Grimason told him.
“Drunk maybe,” agreed Murphy. “But I’m never disorderly. Anyway, sure, why would you want to arrest me when I haven’t done anything wrong?”
“You’ve been drinking Poitin, an illegal drink!” the sergeant told him. “Now, if you were to tell me where you got it I might be persuaded to forget everything.”
“You’re a big man sergeant! Brave enough to arrest me but do nothing to the likes of Hugh Trevor, and him with gallons of the stuff. But you are as bad as the rest, for you think butter wouldn’t melt in Hugh’s mouth,” slurred Murphy angrily.
“But Hugh Trevor is a ‘Pioneer’,” laughed Grimason.
This attitude angered Murphy even more than before and he snapped, “Aye, he is! And he is at Mass every Sunday eating the altar rails, but that doesn’t make him a saint. I know that he gets through a fair bit of the ‘Cratur’.”
“Do you know if he is selling the stuff?”
Murphy now had the sergeant’s full attention and he told him, “Christ, with the amount he gets the same man could supply all of the county!”
This was just the type of evidence that Sergeant Grimason had been seeking, and he sent Murphy home, determined that he would raid the Trevor house the next day. So, early the next morning the Sergeant applied for and gained a search warrant to search Hugh Trevor’s home. He gathered one of the constables and together they made their way to Hugh Trevor’s home, where they knocked loudly on the front door. Hugh, of course, was a little bemused to see two policemen at his front door when he went to answer their knocks, and he was even more mystified when they presented him with the search warrant. “What is going on?” asked Hugh.
“I can’t discuss that, at this moment. There’s the search warrant and now if you would just let us do our work, Mr. Trevor,” Grimason told him in his usual gruff manner.
For the next hour and a half Hugh and his wife watched in silence as the police officers searched every room in the house, every cupboard, wardrobe and drawer thoroughly. It was with great relief to him that Grimason search produced nothing incriminating and he was pleased to see the Sergeant speaking to the constable about returning to the Station. In the hallway, just as he prepared to leave the house the Constable stood on two loose floorboards and Grimason insisted they pull them up to search under the floor. Naturally, it was the Constable who carried out all the work connected with lifting the floorboards and, as soon as this was achieved, a huge smile broke across the Sergeant’s face. There, in the vacant gap below his feet, lay two ‘Jerry Cans’ lying on their sides. Turning to Hugh, Grimason asked, “What is in those?”
Without hesitation, Hugh told him, “About nine litres of Poitin.”
In a clear officious voice, with a notebook in his hands Grimason announced, “Hugh Trevor, you are under arrest for having illegal spirits in your possession and in such quantities to suggest you may be distributing the same illegal spirit to persons unknown. Constable, place the prisoner in custody and we shall return to the Station.”
“Sure, don’t be a ‘Bollix’ all your life, Grimason,” said Hugh in a very calm manner. “This is all for personal use!”
“Ha, ha,” laughed Grimason, mockingly. “But you don’t drink alcohol! Now let’s go!” Then,as he escorted the prisoner out of the house he turned to the Constable and told him to bring the evidence with him, making sure that they were moved in line with correct evidence gathering procedures.
It was only a few days after his arrest that Hugh Trevor was brought before the District Court, where Judge Thomas Campbell sat at the bench. In the dock the prisoner stood patiently listening to the charges being made to the court. When he was asked how he pleaded to the charges Hugh replied confidently, “Not Guilty!”
Sergeant Grimason was now called by the prosecution and placed in the witness stand. From the notes he made in his notebook he related his testimony to the court and under questioning from the prosecution barrister he confirmed that that Mr. Trevor had full knowledge that the containers held nine litres of Poitin.
There were no questions from the defence barrister, who decided to put Hugh into the witness box to answer the charges made against him. He immediately confirmed all that the Sergeant had said and again admitted that he was in Possession of nine litres of Poitin, but he informed the court that it was all for his own requirements. “My solicitor has already presented to the court medical evidence detailing my many years of suffering from painful arthritis, which has worsened as the years have passed. But I discovered that just by rubbing Poitin into the inflamed joints gives me effective relief from the pain. Such is my pain, however, that I have progressed from rubbing small amounts into the joints to bathing in the spirit, and that is the reason that I purchase so much. It is the only treatment that works for me in my present condition. I have never drank a drop of the spirit and I have never had the inclination to sell it to others.”
After Judge Campbell had deliberated on the case he came to the decision that the balance of truth was on Hugh Trevor’s side. He dropped all the charges against him and ordered that the nine litres of Poitin in his possession be destroyed under police supervision. At the same time, the Judge advised Hugh to seek a new and legal treatment for his arthritis, because the next time he was caught with such an amount might result in a different verdict.
These are new stories brought to you by the team at ‘Ireland’s Lore and Tales’
My sabbatical is over and it’s time to get writing once again. The difference in these stories and recollections are that they are for the most part factual, taken from records with only names changed to protect the innocent. We hope to take things from the way life was in the past, the not so long ago, and the last fifty years, and relay them to you because they have, in all probability, never been read or heard by you before.
We shall take you on a journey in which you will occasionally find that truth is often stranger than fiction. And so, we will begin the Chronicles in August 2021.
For many years before Ireland became free of the British Crown and its oppressive offices, the vast majority of the population held a particular revulsion of men in uniform. Though these groups included soldiers, sailors and policemen, the most severe treatment was reserved the members of the Royal Customs and Excise. Even in these modern times, in certain places the men of the Customs and Excise, whether Royal or not, continue to be reviled by a wide variety of social classes on this island. Although these men do not raise their hands against all men, it can be truly said that almost every man’s hand is raised against them. Most will smile cordially at the ‘Revenue Man’, but those officers are very much aware of the unmitigated hostility that those same people hold against them throughout their career. Those people look upon the smuggler as a ‘Robin Hood’ figure who supplies untaxed goods such as alcohol, tobacco, and luxury items. The ‘Revenue Men’ are seen as the evil forces of the law who try to stop them.
Known to the old-time Irish smugglers as ‘Guagers’, the ‘Revenue Man’ has often wrongly been depicted as being a ludicrous figure of a man. Those many occasions on which the ‘Revenue Man’ showed generosity, a sense of justice, and a certain abandonment of the strict rules have, for the most part, been entirely forgotten by writers. In this story we will see reasons as the why ‘Gaugers’ should not be the butt of ridicule, and that their virtues should not be ignored.
Our story begins one foggy November evening many years ago as two men made their weary way along a muddy road that wound its way through the wild mountains that stood guard over a remote area of Ireland’s far west. Now, as then, it was a wild, savage, and lonely scene that surrounded these two men. Ahead of them, in the far distance, they could just see the wild, heaving waters of the broad Atlantic Ocean, upon which the lowering clouds appeared to be settling themselves. Scattered over the surrounding moorlands arose a variety of misshapen rock formations, like large fingers of stones that have been carved by the winds and rains into a vast range of picturesque shapes. Around their bases and within their niches grew thick holly bushes and hardy mountain greenery. On the highest peaks of the nearby hills roamed herds of sheep and goats, scampering from place to place as they took full advantage of their freedom.
These two men, each of whom was leading a small pony that bore an empty sack along that difficult road, were widely different from each other in both form and appearance. One of the men was a small thickset man whose broad shoulders and muscular limbs showed that he possessed a degree of strength. But he was a man who also possessed soft, blue eyes and a kind, good, humoured face that would convince any observer that this man’s strength and muscular arms had never been involved in any act of violence. He was dressed in a heavy brown jacket and corduroy trousers, while on his head he wore a broad brimmed, tightly woven straw hat that made him look like an outcast from the American ‘Wild West’.
This man’s companion, however, made a much stranger and unseemly figure of a man, being taller than his friend. In fact, he would be considered to be taller than the great majority of local men. His arms hung loosely together and seemed to accompany his extremely thin body with some reluctance, being literally nothing more than skin and bone. His head was a conical shape, thinly covered with rusty coloured hairs than were so thin they waved about his face in the light evening breeze. The tall man’s complexion was a greasy, deathly yellow colour, and highlighted by his rheumy sunken eyes, his highly prominent nose, the thin livid lips, half showing a few of his rotten, well-spread teeth. In fact, he could have been held up as an excellent example of how disease and misery can affect the human body. He moved like a human skeleton and the pony that he led was hardly able to keep pace with the swinging unequal stride of that gaunt man, whose fleshless limbs did not fill the clothes that flapped and fluttered around him as he strode along that chilly moorland path.
As the two men and their ponies proceeded along the road, they were able to walk side-by-side and enjoy a good conversation with each other. The smaller of the two men pushed forward and renewed a conversation that had been interrupted some yards earlier as the path had narrowed to only allow passage in single file.
“You were saying, Shane,” said the small fellow, as he came up alongside of his lean, taller companion. “You were saying about that face of yours being the means by which we can keep the ‘Guagers’ from our wee bit of baccy (tobacco).”
“Aye, not one of those ‘gaugers’ will ever get a smell, never mind a squint, at even one bit of that baccy,” Shane promised, “as long as I am with you. In all the twelve months that I travelled with Tim Casey there was not one ‘gauger’ who even suspected the man. If that ‘buck eejit’ of a man had taken me with him that day, his load of best Brandy would still be his and he wouldn’t be sitting in a cold jail cell. If I had been with him, he would now be sitting at his own table, in front of a blazing fire, tucking into a good steak!“
Paddy Corr laughed heartily at his companion’s comment and then roguishly told the taller man, “The worry on my part is that it wasn’t much of Tim Casey’s profits that came your way, more like the cheap change, and that was what caused the poor man’s fate to change.“
“It’s you that could be laughing heartily on the other side of your mouth, Paddy Corr, should a ‘gauger’ got a sniff at your taste of ‘baccy’,” Shane replied. “There’s no doubt that he would take all that you have if I was not there to frighten him off, just like I have done, so often before.”
“But could we not just put our ‘baccy’ in a couple of panniers on the backs of our ponies, put a few fish and oysters on top, and pretend that we have just been out fishing?”
“I know what I am talking about, mark my words, Paddy Corr. I was taught the trade by an old man whom the devil could not out do when it came to committing a bit of roguery. So, Paddy, put your goods in the pony cart and spread an old sheet over them. Then I will lie down on that and you can tell any ‘gauger’ that we meet that I was on my way to the fair in Ballintree when I came down with a bad fever. You tell them that, as an act of mercy for my poor mother, you are taking me home. Say that it was Father Brady who had seen to me, and that he had said it was the worst case of the spotted fever that he had seen in the country for almost ten years. By Jaysus if that doesn’t frighten the nosey bastard, then you can be sure that someone has sold you out, and me alongside you“
By this time, they had reached a deep ravine, through which a narrow stream pursued its slow, murmuring course. At this point they stopped, left the horses, and, gathering up some empty sacks, they walked on until they reached the edge of a steep cliff. In the dark void below, them could be heard the great, hollow roar of the heaving ocean, as its waves smashed against this towering granite barrier. All along the dark outline at the foot of the cliffs great mounds of foam were created, as the snowy-white crests of never ending wave formations angrily vented the last vestiges of their strength in constant flashes of phosphoric light, that sparkled and danced splendidly to the wild and sullen music of the crashing sea.
“Jaysus, Paddy,” said Shane loudly, “watch where you’re putting those feet of yours. Better take it easy friend, for one little mistake might just send you, arse over tit, two hundred feet down to where you could become supper for the sharks. There are very few that would dare venture down here, wee man, except for the odd wild fox and the honest smuggler. God help them, for they are both poor persecuted creatures, but the ‘Big Man’ has given them good helpings of gumption that allow us to find a place of shelter, where we can enjoy the rewards of our good work. Glory be to his holy name!”
Shane knew this place well and was not far short with his estimate of the sheer cliff’s height. The fearful cliff overhung the deep Atlantic Ocean, and a narrow pathway wound its way, snake-like, round, and beneath so many terrifying precipices. It was likely, that if Paddy Corr had realised his predicament in the clear light of day, he may have been so frightened that he may have slipped in his fear and became a cold meal for sharks, just as Shane had intimated. Being ignorant of his frightening situation was the thing that saved Paddy’s life. Shane, meanwhile, had an inherent knowledge of this secret pathway, and a limberness of muscle unknown to most men. It was his ability to move so assuredly and smoothly that allowed him to swiftly follow every twist and turn of that treacherous path as it wound its way downward.
As the two men moved down the path the wild sea birds were disturbed from their sleep and swept past them from their nests, screeching cries of alarm that aroused others that were resting farther down the path. As they moved around the foot of the cliff, where the projecting crags formed the sides of a little cove, a harsh and threatening voice demanded “Who goes there?”
The voice echoed along the receding wall of rocks and sounded like the challenge from a huge guardian that was conducting its nightly patrol of the area. Those loud words blended with the sound of beating wings, and the frightened cries of sea birds. The horrid sounds of these cries were multiplied a thousand-fold, almost as if all the demons of Hell had chosen to gather in that lonely place at that hour and add their shrieks of terror to the wind.
“Who goes there?” demanded the guardian of this wild place and once again brought about a cacophony of terrifying noises.
“A friend, my old pal,” Shane answered. “Peadar, big man, what powerful lungs you have! But keep your voice a little bit lower, my friend, or you might awaken the Guagers and they could grab you when you least expect it.”
“Shane Fee! You, old thief!” the guardian replied. “Is it yourself?” Both men laughed and big Peadar turned his attention to Paddy, saying “You, wee man, take care of that tall, pasty-faced schemer doesn’t take advantage of you. But I will shake your hand in the knowledge that Shane will yet come to a nasty end. Not another creature, except maybe a fox, could creep down that cliff in the full dark of night. But I know what saved your arses. Fate says the man that’s born to be hanged will not be drowned!“
“By Jaysus, Peadar,” said Shane, who was rather annoyed by the manner in which the big guard had made fun of him, “do you carry that big gun over your shoulder to convince people that you are not the wee woman that you truly are? Aye, just like a woman you wave the gun about and scare every bird on the cliff with your bull-roar of a voice! Now, make way there, you big gobshite, or I’ll stick that gun’s barrel up your arse and pull the trigger!”
“Away to the boss, bucket mouth,” replied the big guard. “I swear that, as sure as there is an eye in a goat, after you have danced on the gallows, you blackguard, I will buy your corps from the hangman and use it as a scarecrow!”
After they had moved on a few paces along the narrow ledge that lay between the steep cliff and the sea, Shane and Paddy entered a large cave excavated from the rock, which seemed to have been formed some kind of volcanic activity when the world was young. The path running through the cavern was covered with fine sand that had been hardened by frequent pressure, and it caused the sounds of their feet to reverberate in the gloominess. Ahead of the two men a strong light gleamed, piercing the darkness, and partially revealing the walls of the cavern. The far space beneath the lofty cavern roof, was impervious to the powerful light and extended onward, dark, and undefined. From this darkness came the sound of human voices shouting and laughing uproariously. As Paddy and Shane moved onward a strange scene burst into view.
Before a huge, blazing fire which illuminated all the deep recesses of the high over-arching rock that rose to form the lofty roof of this Gothic cathedral, sat five strange and unkempt men. They were wild-looking men who were dressed in a variety of seamen’s clothing. Between the men was a large sea-chest, upon which was placed a large earthenware flagon, from which one of the men, probably their leader, poured sparkling amber liquid into a single glass that was quickly passed around each of them. As they drank, the men joked, laughed, and sang loudly echoing throughout the expansive cavern.
“Well men!” said Shane loudly as they approached the group of men. “Ah! Mister Cronin, it looks like you and the boys are having great fun. Let’s all have another glass of Brandy and we can all laugh and sing together. How is it with that big hound of a dog, that knows how to bark so well at those dirty, plundering thieves of Guagers?”
“Ah! sure you’re very welcome, Shane,” replied Cronin with a large smile across his face. “The customer you’ve brought us may be depended upon for his discretion, I hope. Sit down, boys.”
“We thank you,” Shane answered. “As for being dependable, there is no more decent man in this land than Paddy Corr, that stands here.”
“Come on boys and get yourselves a wee drink of our best Brandy, while I help you to some ham,” the smuggler offered. “I know you Shane Fee, you have the stomach of a shark, the digestion of an ostrich, and the good taste of the connoisseur.”
“By God, that’s a compliment when it comes from your mouth, Mister Cronin,” replied the much-flattered Shane. “Gentlemen, here’s a toast to free trade among honest men, and hang all informers from the highest trees! By all that’s good!” he said, smacking his lips, “But that’s the quare stuff! It brings a powerful warmth to the stomach!”
“You are welcome to our home, Paddy Corr,” the leader of the group spoke loudly, “there’s a roof over our head, the rent is paid, and the barrels of best Brandy have not been watered down. So, eat, drink, and be merry. When the moon reaches its highest point, we can proceed to business.”
Paddy, being the gentleman that he was, made ready to thank his host until Shane Fee again interrupted. “I have never saw a man, himself and his friends. Drinking and womanising on land and spreading the sails of that boat of yours ‘The Black Widow’ over the sea. By the Devil, if I had Donald the Piper beside me, and that barrel of Brandy, sure I’d drink and dance until morning. But here’s to God’s blessing on us all, and success to our trip, Paddy, my friend.” And with those words he drained his glass.
Then, after many successive rounds passed by the emaciated looking Shane Fee became totally intoxicated, and he called out at the top of his voice, “Silence now, boys, until I give you a song.” In a squeaking, non-melodic, and out of tune voice he began to sing:
“Ah, will you come to the bower,
O’er the deep and thunderous ocean,
Where stupendous waves roll,
In deep and thunderous motion.
Where the mermaids are seen,
and the fierce tempest gathers,
To Ireland the Green,
Dear home of our fathers.
Will you come?
Will you? Will you?
Will you come to the bower?”
It was early on a clear sunny morning, soon after this, that a man with a pony and cart was seen entering the town of Kilferns from the west. He walked slowly in front of the animal, which appeared to be very reluctant to allow himself to be dragged along at the full length of his halter. On the small cart was laid a quantity of straw, upon which lay a human form. It was a long body of a grown man being, whose feet extended over the rear of the cart, and was covered with old flannel quilt. The man’s face, as it appeared above the tattered hem of the quilt, looked to very ill and malnourished, which seemed to be causing him some pain. His distorted features showed the terrible pain he was enduring, and as the small cart jolted along that rugged path, he groaned hideously. This miserable human being was, indeed, Shane Fee, and he who was leading the pony was none other than Paddy Corr. By this manner, Paddy was trying to smuggle his “bit of baccy,” which he had concealed in well-packed bales beneath the sick bed upon which Shane lay, simulating his grievous illness.
As they continued along the road, Shane uttered a loud groan, and with such a sound of real agony that it startled Paddy. He was so sure that Shane’s cry of pain was real, that he rushed to the back of the cart to see for himself if his companion was still alive. Shane, however, was very much alive and none too pleased that Paddy had left his post. “For God’s sake, Paddy,” he growled in a deep voice, “it’s not that far now until we come across that thieving and scheming Guagers. Back to your post now and make ready to carry out our plan. Don’t forget now, that it is the spotted fever I have.”
As Shane had said, a short time later, they came upon the ‘Excise Man’ on the street. Nervous about being able to act out his role caused Paddy to avoid looking at the man. This aroused the suspicions of the Guagers, who brought the traveller and his cart to a halt. “Well, wee man,” he greeted Paddy, “where are you from, and just where would you be heading?“
“Oh, sir, may the good Lord bless you, for you must be one of the good ones, asking after the health of a poor shore fisherman like me. But, sir, it isn’t so much where I come from as where the body in the cart will die on me.”
“How far are you taking him?” asked the ‘Excise Man’.
“Sure, wouldn’t I like to know that myself. I would get down on my two bended knees and pray for your soul, sir, if you could give the answer to that question. Didn’t I forget to ask the poor creature where he should be buried when we came away, and now he can’t string two words together.”
The Guagers listened intently to what Paddy told him, but he was becoming very suspicious of the way he was delaying in answering his questions. “Come on now, where is it that you live?”
“Ah, Jaysus, sure it’s your way of talking that has me entirely confused. But if you want to know where my woman and children are, it is that way. To the west in Ballintee, Surely you have heard of Ballintee, Sir?”
“No,” came the reply.
“Well, no matter, sir, for if you had been there you might have got the sickness, God forbid. Stay away from that place, for it would be better if you talked to the man there and ask him to offer up a rosary for you. It would be cheaper than having to send for Doctor Crummy.”
“Perhaps I should just search the cart. Maybe you have some soft goods concealed under that sick man,” said the Guagers, as he came closer to the cart. “It wouldn’t be the first time that I caught a smuggler and his wares in such a situation.”
“There’s not even the smell or taste of any goods under that man, but your welcome to look if you wish to disturb him. As for catching a smuggler, I would say the only thing you’ll catch under him is the spotted fever.”
“Fever!” repeated the startled Guagers, taking a step or two backwards.
“Aye, the fever, sir! Didn’t Father Brody prepare him and tell us that he had the spotted. He said he had never seen worse, and that it could destroy a thousand men! Come on, sir, take a wee look in the poor man’s face, and then lift the dying creature out of his resting place. He that came that came all the way from the hill country to fulfil a dream of his, to sort out a Mass for the soul of his wife at Ballintee. Aye, sure just you go ahead and throw him out of the cart and on to the road, and let his blood, a stranger’s blood be on your conscience, and his fever in your body.”
Paddy Corr had played his role very well and had brought out the Guagers fear of the dreaded fever, which saved his load of ‘baccy’ from being discovered and confiscated. Nevertheless, both men decided it was too dangerous to search for a buyer in Kilferns and directed their path toward the nearby coastal town of Carnbay, that lay further east.
It was late in the evening as the small party entered the town. Fortunately, Shane could read quite well, and it was he who noticed a sign for a guesthouse with adjacent stable for the pony. He told Paddy that they would spend the night there, and then told Paddy to visit the only tobacconist in town. But Paddy felt it strange that Shane chose not to accompany him.
The shop owner, Mister Parsons, had just finished dealing with several customers, as Paddy entered. He waited until the customers had exited the store before greeting the owner, “Well, big man, how’s business?” Mister Parsons was startled by such a rude greeting from some person unknown to him, when a more formal greeting would have been appropriate. The shopkeeper looked at the new visitor with an expression that showed his distaste for those he considered to be of a lower class. At first, he ignored the small man’s presence in the shop, but, after a moment he acknowledged Paddy and asked, “What can I do for you?“
Paddy Corr said nothing but stood there with his mouth gaping widely. Mister Parsons immediately added, “I believe you have come from the west?“
Paddy now came to his senses again and replied, “Sure enough, from the westernmost part of the west. By the grace of God, I have made it this far on honest business and would like to speak to you.”
Mr. Parsons now showed a great deal of interest in what this strange, short visitor and asked him, “I have no doubt that you have brought something in my line of business with you?”
“Indeed, I have,” replied Paddy. “I have the best bit of tobacco that you have ever seen, or smoked, and that’s no idle brag. The man from whom I received it that a sweeter taste had never left the hold of his ship. Now, I will give it to you dog cheap, only because it has travelled such a long way.”
“I don’t think you have been very long in this business,” said Mister Parsons.
“That’s true. This is not something I have done before, in all my life, short though it has been,” Paddy told him.
Mister Parsons smiled inwardly to himself, because if the man before him was inexperienced in running smuggled goods, there might just be a profitable deal to be made. He told Paddy that he should bring the goods privately to the back door of his premises. Paddy, with his fear of the Guagers still very much on his mind, wasted no time in carrying out the instructions. But, when Mr Parsons examined the packages brought by Paddy, the shopkeeper had a deeply disappointed expression upon his face, and exclaimed, “This stuff is no good, young man! It is entirely damaged by sea water and will never do.”
“Sea water? I don’t think so!” replied Paddy. “Not one drop of water, salt or fresh, did ever touch my ‘baccy’. The boat, ‘The Black Widow’ that brought it could skim along the waves like a seagull, and I can assure you that there are two things she never yet let in, namely water or ‘water-guards’. Water drips off her as it does a duck’s back, and the great wolfhound on her deck keeps the at a good distance.” This was information that Paddy had simply gleaned from talking to Shane as they journeyed along the road, and in the smugglers’ cave.
“Ah, don’t you be trying to hoodwink me with your knowledge of the sea, for you cannot teach me anything about my own business. So, take it away, for no man in this trade would take it on. But I’ll tell you this, I will do you a favour rather than let a poor, ignorant man fall into the hands of the Guagers. I shall give you five pounds for the lot.”
Paddy was in shock at the man’s meagre offer. He had hoped to at least double his investment, but he now saw a huge loss being the only results of his dealings. “Oh, my darling Jenny!” Paddy began to cry, swinging his body from side to side in his grief, “My sweet Jenny! What will you say to your man, after him throwing away a half year’s rent that should have been given to the agent? O! what will you say, sweetheart, but that I made one stupid eejit of myself, for listening to Shane Fee, that lousy schemer! And what shall our wee Sheila say when I when I won’t be able to give her a dowry and when Tim Murphy won’t take her without the cows that I won’t have to give her? O, Mister Parsons will you not show me some mercy and don’t short-change or cheat me for God’s sake? Give me the ten pounds that it cost me, and I’ll pray for your soul, always. O! Jenny, Jenny, I’ll never be able to face you, or Sheila, or any of our neighbours again. At least not without the ten-pound note.“
“Well, if you don’t give me your tobacco for less than that, you can call on Mr. Burton, at the other side of the bridge. He deals in such goods too. Although I cannot do more for you, you could go farther but you might also fare worse,” warned Mister Parsons and directed Paddy to Mr. Burton, who was, in fact, the excise officer.
Feeling very deflated by his experience with Mister Parsons, Paddy cautiously proceeded across the bridge until he reached a house with a big green door and a brass knocker. Paddy hesitated when he saw that the building was not a shop or advertised any business enterprise. When assured that this was indeed the house of Mr. Burton, he went up to the door, and gave the door three loud knocks with the butt end of his Blackthorn stick. The knocks were so loud they could have awakened the dead, but it had the desired effect of rousing Mister Burton, who was angered at the loudness of the rapping and went to see just who had created it. “In the name of God, man, are you wanting to break my door down with that brass knocker, or what?”
“Ah sure, I’m sorry for being so noisy,” said Paddy as he removed his broad-brimmed hat and tried to hurriedly shine his shoes on the backs of his trouser legs. “I’ve never seen such a large knocker on a door before this night, and sure I wouldn’t have troubled you at all, only I have some fine goods that I have been told would suit you. You can have it for next to nothing because I don’t have the heart to go on any farther. My pony is almost done and I’m shite scared of being caught by the Guagers.”
“May I just ask you, who sent you here to sell smuggled tobacco?” asked the astonished Guagers.
“An honest man, but a bad buyer, who trades the other side of the bridge. He would only give me five pounds for what cost me ten pounds. I wish I had never started all of this! I put a half year’s rent into this! My thirteen female children and my poor wife, God help them, will be soon be out on the roads. I’ll never go home without the ten pounds in my pocket. Damn to you, Shane Fee, you sickly faced blackguard, that brought me into smuggling. O! Jenny, I will have to go soldiering with a gun on my shoulder.”
“Shane Fee!” exclaimed the excise man. “Do you know Shane Fee? I’d give ten pounds just to see that villain.”
“I do sir, and it is myself who could put your finger on him, if I had you in Ballintree. But just I was leaving the place, he was lying under an old quilt, and I heard him telling someone that the priest said he had spotted fever enough for a thousand men.”
“That villain will never die of the spotted fever, in my humble opinion,” said the Guagers.
“You’re a good judge, sir. Sure, didn’t I hear the rogue himself say, ‘Bad luck to that thief of a priest, and him telling me that I would die of a stoppage of breath!’ But won’t you just allow me to turn in the wee bit of tobacco?”
The excise man was now extremely angry at the underhand way that Mister Parsons would attempt to bring ruin to this wee man, just because he didn’t get his way. Mr. Burton was now determined to punish that crook’s treachery. “Listen to me, wee man,” he said to Paddy, “I am the exciseman that you dread so much, and I am sworn to do my duty, and confiscate that bit of tobacco. But it is common justice that the treacherous blackguard that sent you here should be punished. Go back to him now, quickly, and tell him that he can have the lot at his at his own terms. I will be close behind you and give him the proper reward for his treachery. Do this job right, and I promise, on my word, that I shall give you ten pounds more, and you will make the profit you need.” Paddy threw himself to his knees, and lifted his hands in prayer, but he could not speak. The terror and delight of this moment, however, made him unable to utter a sound.
“Get up, I say,” exclaimed the excise man, “up now and get going. Go now and earn your ten pounds, while getting a sweet revenge on the thief that betrayed you.”
Paddy rapidly made his way back to Mr. Parson’s shop, muttering a prayer of thanksgiving beneath his breath, “What a real gentleman, and may the Lord make his soul a comfortable bed in Heaven.” Then he turned his mind to Mr. Parsons, muttering, “Now, that cheating villain of a man. He thought he was sending the fox to mind the hens sure enough. May he be hung high, the blackguard and informer. He’ll suffer for his sins this day.”
When they met again Mister Parsons asked Paddy, “Have you seen that gentleman I sent you to?”
“Ah, sir, when I came to the bridge an looked about me, I began to suspect everyone I met was a thief or a Guagers. Then, after I stood there a while, quite distracted with fear and nerves, and I forgot the man’s name. So, I came back again to ask you, if you would please …”
“You had better take the five pounds I offered if you don’t want any more bother. There’s a Guagers in town, and your situation, therefore, is very dangerous.”
“Oh my God, a Guager’s in town!” cried Paddy. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, what’ll I do now? I’m done, surely to God. Take it for what you like, and should you ever have trouble like this, you be comforted in that you had a poor man’s blessing. I give that to you on my knees and may it help you along the road of life.“
With the deal done the tobacco was brought inside the premises and placed it among Mr. Parson’s other contraband goods. Paddy placed the five pounds in his pocket, and, in that moment, Mr. Burton burst into the room. The Tobacconist’s business and reputation was destroyed. Parson’s was subjected to a heavy fine, and the community would have nothing to do with him because of his treachery, causing him die in extreme poverty. The man’s family and descendants were destined to become homeless wanderers. There was to be no forgiveness for the family of the only informer that ever disgraced the district.