The Poteen Makers

A Tale of the Royal Irish Constabulary

There have been many tales about, before and during the ‘War for Independence’ and the opinion of the force held by many of Ireland’s working-class was not exactly flattering. It was often said that the most obviously conspicuous individual in Ireland, prior to the ‘War for Independence’  was the policeman. People would say that wherever you went if the policeman was not there before you, it was because they had just been there and would be back before you decided to leave. In all of Ireland’s large cities and towns – Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Athlone, Belfast, etc., there was a police constable to be seen at every street corner, singly, in pairs, and in groups.

You could recognise the fresh-looking police who were about to start their shift, while the tired-looking police were going home to recuperate. You would have seen groups of clean, well-brushed police moving into the countryside by horse or by truck, after having heard reports of rural disturbances, while mud-covered police would be seen returning on carts or trucks, with prisoners from the nearest eviction, land dispute, or faction fight. Much like the policemen of today there were young men, with fresh, rosy complexion, and the middle-aged policemen, with wizened, stern faces, that often showed strong evidence of the many fights that they had taken part in, while the old policemen, with their deeply scarred and weather-beaten faces, paid little attention to what was going on around them becausethey were looking forward to a speedy retirement with a moderate pension. Allexamples of these were to be seen in each city, town, and village. In the ruralareas they could be found on every high road, by-way, and on the many narrow mountainpaths. Meanwhile, at every railroad station in the country they would be seenin pairs, keeping a close watch on those who arrived and departed, and taking noteson anything that may have appeared to be suspicious in the way travellers weredressed or acted.

Should a stranger adhere to the common, well-travelled tourist routes through the country he would only receive a sharp glance of inspection from the policeman. But, should a stranger leave those well-trodden paths usually followed by travellers, or make their way into parts of the country that were not often visited by strangers, you can be sure that they quite quickly became an object of intense interest and suspicion. But, should something cause even the slightest distrust of you or your business to enter the mind of the policeman, you are immediately a marked man. He will disappear for a few moments, allowing you to proceed on your journey. You might, by chance, look back and catch a glimpse of him, a mile or two away, peeping over a wall after you. In the next village, however, when you decide to stop for the night, that same policeman will reappear and, alongside the local policemen, after his coming, will be sure to watch your every move with great attention. If, for example, you would leave yourbags in the reception area of an inn and go outside for a while, the policemanwill come in to get your name, takes note of any bags you have and checks anyhotel or railway tags that may remain on your bags.

Not all these policemen were stupid because there were detectives that knew their job well and roamed both rural and urban areas of the country. This clever man can, at a glance, recognise foreign articles that a person may have and know from where they came. He will engage you in pleasant conversation, chatting about the weather, the crops, business news, and local tittle-tattle. All the while he is trying to discover just who you are, where you come from, and what is your business in that place. As you converse with him, the detective scans every inch of your body from head to feet, so he is better able to give his superiors an accurate report on your clothing and appearance. “Hat, English; coat, London-made; trousers, doubtful; shoes, American; party evidently an Irish Yankee, who might as well be looked after.

You would have learned that the majority of ‘pre-Independence’ Irish policeman, was usually the son of peasant stock. For a man who wanted something better in life than being a labourer, or a tenant, there were few options open. He could, of course, choose to emigrate to America, or enlist in the ranks of the British army, or apply for a place on the constabulary. Although emigration was, probably, the most acceptable option to such young men, many of them lacked the money to go. This left him with two courses, of which enlistment in the army was the more pleasing option since within Ireland the police are almost entirely ostracised by the people and they are left with little hope of being able to socially associate with others in the local community. Sadly, the plight of the people engendered within them a belief that any Irishman who enters the police has deserted his country’s cause and has entered the service of Ireland’sdeadliest foe. A policeman, therefore, soon found himself being avoided by his former companions, shunned by his old friends, and, just as importantly, being given the cold shoulder by the local ladies.

Undoubtedly, any Irishman who enlisted in the British army in those days would have been treated in the same way at his old home. The only saving grace for the Irish soldier was that at enlistment he usually left Ireland with no intention of returning, which makes his case materially different from that of the police recruit. So, why would a young man choose the police as a career at this time? There may have been the obligation of a son to support aged parents or to be the financial support of a family of young brothers and sisters. Such things as these often determined his choice to enter the police force, where he would become a ‘social leper’, who was hated by his countrymen with a hatred that knew no bounds. From the first day he put on his neat blue uniform and saucer-like cap, the R.I.C. constable, in the troubled Irish counties in the west carried his life in his hand. Every hedge had to be scrutinised carefully because, behind it, there might be an assassin lying in wait. Every division wall was watched for suspicious indications of an enemy’s presence, his alertness being concentrated by the knowledge that he is protecting his ownlife.

The policeman is compelled, by the instructions of his superiors, to undertake duties that he feels are obnoxious and very much against his own sense of justice. Moreover, he is forced to risk his life and limbs to carry out these repugnant orders. Consider when a bad year comes, causing a tenant to fall into arrears and cannot pay his rent. In such cases, it was common for the landlord’s agent to decide on evicting the defaulting tenant and he normally sent for the police as back-up. The constables would arrive in force, but the tenant had anticipated their arrival and had collected a crowd of his friends to assist him. The hut was closed and barred, while inside there were normally ten or more men and women, who were determined to resist the eviction for as long as it was of any use. Then, as soon as the police appeared at the scene, a loud cacophony of Irish voices would begin, hurling fearful curses and insults at those trying to carry out the eviction, immediately succeeded by showers of stones and rocks being thrown by those supporters of the cabin’s defenders. The police would draw their clubs and rush at the objectors, striking right and left at the heads of the gathered crowd. Unsurprisingly, a desperate battle would soon ensue, in which the police were usually victorious, and succeeded in driving the shouting rabble to a safe distance from the cottage. When this was achieved, the police would leave some of the force to keep them away, while the remaining policemen would return to force a way into the besieged cabin. A beam, handled by several pairs of strong arms, would be erected and would speedily demolish the miserable pretence of a door. Once this entrance was achieved the police would go into the cabin and were quickly met with fists, clubs, stones, showers of boiling water, and other effective and offensive means of defence. And yet, after a stubborn contest, the cabin was finally cleared of its defenders and the furniture, ifthere was any, was set out on the road. Thereafter, the thatched roof wouldhave been torn off and scattered on the ground, the walls levelled, and thepolice, battered with sticks and stones, scalded, burned, would return toheadquarters with their prisoners in tow. On many of these occasions apoliceman was killed, and his killers would often defend themselves by statingthat it was entirely the fault of the policeman. In a court near Limerick the defendantsof one such incident stated, “We neverintended for to kill him at all, but his skull was too thin entirely for aconstable and broke with the beating he was after getting.”

Firearms were not often used in these encounters between the police and the ordinary people of the district, for such battles always took place in daylight. But, when an eviction promised to be of more dangerous than usual, the police would carry rifles, with strict orders given that they were not to use them except in a dire emergency. There were, therefore, instances when a policeman was beaten almost to death without resorting to the use of his gun. During their ordinary day-duty, the police carried only a short club or revolver, which was hidden under his coat. But at night, the country constables were armed with rifle and bayonet, and they would patrol the roads in pairs, with one walking on each side and as close as possible to the hedge or wall.

It was said at this time that despite the extraordinary difficulties and unceasing dangers of their work the Royal Irish Constabulary continued to follow their orders scrupulously. The record of the time does suggest that any instances of treachery to the government among the constabulary were few and far between. Furthermore, there were plenty of men who sought service in the police force with applicants far outmatching vacancies. The force’s physical standard for applicants was so high, in fact, that they were often hand-picked men from the rural areas of Ireland, whose average grade of intelligence was at a higher standard than that existing among the ordinary Irish peasantry, from among whom they were chosen.

                            A Captured Still

It was noticeable that the police would take on any service cheerfully, without much concern for how hard or perilous that work maybe. But, there was one task which the police force in the western counties hated to undertake, which was any mission that would take them into the mountains to seize illicit stills and arrest distillers of poteen. These expeditions usually meant days and nights of hard climbing, watching, waiting, and spying on suspects. Quite often these efforts would gain no result, because when the spot where the still has been was surrounded, with the police thinking they have the lawbreakers in their trap, the ‘poteen men’ would discover the police plan and escape along some path unknown to the lawmen. Behind them would be left nothing but “the pot and the smell” as signs that they were there and what they were doing. Disappointing results were a good reason for policemen to dislike the duty, but a more important reason was the unusual degree of danger that attended such expeditions. In the mountains of Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Clare, and Kerry, the illicit distillers usually owned firearms and are well practised in their use. Moreover, these men felt no more compunction for shooting a policeman than for killing adog.

The extremely rugged character of the Mayo mountains offered the illicit poteen makers many opportunities to practise their craft in safety and secrecy. The entire neighbourhood would be on the lookout for the presence of police, and there were always friends able to give the alarm to the distillers. Once an alarm was received they would hide the still in the ground, or in a convenient cave, which usually took them just a few minutes. Once their equipment was safely hidden, the distillers would immediately take up their weapons and turn their attention to shooting at the police from well-camouflaged positions. The entire enterprise provided the distillers with so little risk to themselves and so much discomfort to the constables that the latter frequently gave up thechase on the very slightest of provocations.

Close to Derryclare Lough, which lies in the Connemara National Park, and almost under the shadow of the Twelve Pins, there stands by the side of an arrow road a small crudely-made monument of uncut stones, on top of which stands a rough wooden cross. Such heaps of stones are common along Ireland’s west coast, and they customarily mark a family memorial. It begins with each family member and each friend who attends the funeral placing a stone upon the crude monument. In some parts of the country every relative and friend who subsequently passes that spot places a stone on the common pile, and by doing so cause the heap to constantly grow. The monument that I mention is no different in any respect from many others in the Connemara area. But before this monument, in the summer of 1886, an old peasant woman knelt there all day long. Regularly, every morning she would come to this place from her cabin in a nearby glen and spend every daylight hour there in prayer before the wooden cross. It did not seem to matter to this old woman if the sun shone, or the rain poured from the skies. When the sun shone, the hood on her tattered cloak would be thrown back to expose her white hair, but the rain forced her to draw the hood forward as shelter. Whether it rained, or the sun shone, however, that old woman was always there, with her lips silently moving in prayer as the beads slipped through her withered fingers. So engrossed was she that no voice and no question could divert her from her devotions. She never looked up, nor did she ever take the slightest notice of any remarks that were addressed to her, and she was never heard to speak aloud. One day every week groceries were sent to her cabin from the nearest police station and were left within. The men who brought these provisions would then depart immediately, for this old woman never gave them any word of thanks or any expression of any gratitude she felt. Although this ritual had been happening for many years, the constables, who had been sent to deliver the allowance made to her by the government, never tried to compel her to speak to them.

The old woman’s story was first recorded by a Sergeant of Police and provides the reader with a painful illustration of the poteen trade in the mountains of the west. In the year 1850, while the country was still suffering from the effects of the “Great Hunger,” she lived with her husband, Michael Murray, and their four sons, on a little farm near Derryclare Lough. Year after year the crops had failed them, but the little family had held together, starving and foraging faring to keep themselves alive. In 1850, although the country was generally beginning to recover from the famine, this part of Connemara was still suffering, and it seemed likely that the crop would fail again, bringingthe evils of starvation and disease face to face with this hapless family.

The four boys were all well-grown boys, who were accustomed to the hard life of the Irish peasantry, and they were willing to work if any could be found for them. All four sons left their home, the eldest went to Galway, while the other three went to the sea-shore, where they found temporary employment in the fisheries. While they worked away from home, these three brothers learned the secrets of the illicit distiller, and after gathering enough money to buy a small still, they returned home with it. The home-place was, fortunately, sited in a secluded quarter of a district that was rarely visited and they managed to persuade the old man to join in the illicit distilling business with them. The risk of detection by law officers appeared so small in those days, especially when compared with the profits that could be gained, that against the prayers and entreaties of the woman, the small still was established in a nearby hollow and the manufacture of the poteen began in the largest quantities that their limited resources would allow them. But, over the next number of years, their product found a ready outlet in the neighbourhood, and the O’Malley family prospered beyond their dreams. The three sons were all married to local women, and their families grew up strong and healthy around them.

The eldest brother, John O’Malley, had made his way to Galway City, and by a great stroke of good fortune, he succeeded in obtaining a place in the Royal Irish Constabulary. At the home-place, John’s family knew nothing of what had happened, for he did not communicate with them in any shape or form. Directly after he had enlisted he was sent to County Wexford, which lies on the opposite side of the island, and caused him to almost forget his old home and the life he had lived there with his brothers. But, because he proved himself to be both intelligent and capable, John was rapidly promoted to the rank of sergeant and was ordered to County Galway. Almost as soon as he arrived in his new post at the barracks in a small village in Connemara, police informers brought intelligence about an illicit still that was working in a place near the TwelvePins. O’Malley was immediately ordered to set out with a strong party of police to seize the still, and, if possible, arrest the criminals running the operation. The names of the offenders were not given by the informers, but the location of the glen, where operations were being carried, out was described with such precision that O’Malley, who knew every foot of ground in the area, drafted plans for an operation that would make it practically impossible for the illicit still workers to escape the police.

As planned, before dark one evening, a party of twelve mounted policemen armed with rifles started out from Maum, which sat at the head of Lough Corrib. They travelled all night, and by morning Sergeant O’Malley had positioned his men around the glen that the arrest of the criminals looked to be a certainty. In the dim light of early dawn, before any objects could be distinctly seen, several men were seen entering the glen, and, at a given signal from O’Malley, the police rapidly closed in on the little shanty where the still was operating. A desperate fight ensued between the two groups, and SergeantO’Malley was shot dead by one of his brothers without even knowing whose hand had pointed the weapon. Two of the O’Malley brothers were killed by the police bullets, and a constable was mortally wounded. Michael and his remaining son were taken alive by the police and were subsequently tried for murder. It was only when the charges were read out against them that they learned, for the first time, that the dead Sergeant was their own son and brother.

The raid and the casualties of the fire-fight attracted wide attention in the country and both men were hanged. Mrs O’Malley was totally devastated by the entire action, which, with a single blow, had deprived her of a husband and her four sons. For several months afterwards, she was driven almost insane by the memory of that day, but the anger soon passed away. Then, as her clouded brain became calm and clear, it became occupied with one idea, to the exclusion of all others, namely prayer for the happy repose of her dead husband and sons. While the body of the Sergeant was buried near Maum, O’Malley and his three sons were buried together under the cairn in a long disused churchyard, through which the road passed. It was a churchyard like thousands more in Ireland, where the grave-stones are hidden by overgrown nettles and weeds. There, with a love stronger than death, that poor old woman went every day, and, untiring in her devotion, she spent the rest of her life reciting the prayers for the dead.

How To Treat the Fairies

A Lesson Learned

In Ireland it is customary for the people to treat the fairy folk to many little acts of kindness. One example of this occurs when a cow is milked, and care is taken to let the first couple of draws from the udder are permitted to drop upon the ground for the “wee folk” to enjoy. Meanwhile, the poteen-makers at their illicit distillation sites also pay attention to the same “wee folk”. The very first, and best part, of the liquor which comes from the worm is always thrown to them in salutation. The Poteen-makers use a small tin measuring cup (a tionaiceen) to treat friends who may visit the still-house where
illicit distillation is carried on, including the fairy folk.

toinaceen
Toinaceen

My uncles all went shooting game birds in the hills of Tyrone, developing good relations with several small farmers in the area. It was well-known that many of these small farmers used the illicit distillation of Poteen to increase their income. Among these men was ‘Pure Paddy’, so named because of the quality of the liquor that he distilled and sold. At one time I had the distinct pleasure of being with Paddy as he worked at the still, which was well hidden in the nearby turf-bog. It was during this visit that I noticed Paddy throwing a cupful of poteen behind the still to the right, and another to the left. “Why do you do that ? ” I asked the old Poteen-maker.

He had just thrown the first cupful  and he shook his head disappointedly as he threw the next into some bramble bushes that were growing adjacent to the still. “For heaven’s sake, Paddy!” I exclaimed, “Why waste the stuff like that?”

But, sure, I’m not wasting it!” said the old man, looking at me in a very odd manner, “if you only knew it.”

But, you are throwing it away,” I insisted. “Is it not a waste for you to throw it all around yourself in that fashion?”

To tell you the truth, boy,” he replied, “they’re welcome to it and as much more as they want. But, they’re not greedy in any way, you can be guaranteed of that.”

They, they? ” I demanded. ” Who in the name of God are they? ”

They’re the wee folk boy, who else? And those poor creatures need it too, for I’m sure that they must be feeling the cold.”

Oh, you mean the fairies, I suppose?” said I.

That’s right, young man.”

And do you really believe in fairies?” I asked him.

Believe in them,” he laughed. “Of course, I do, and why wouldn’t I? ”

Oh, surely, you can’t be so foolish,” I scoffed.

Foolish! By all that’s holy! Sure, it’s those people that don’t believe in them that are the true fools, I’m thinking.”

And you imagine that they drink the poteen you throw around you in that way?

Ay, they drink my poteen, and they are glad to get it,” said the old ‘moonshiner’ emphatically.

“Then,” said I, “suppose what you say is true, what would happen if you did not treat your invisible wee friends?”

By Jaysus, son, there would be open blue murder about it, without any doubt at all. Sure, they’d be so angry that they would curse the still with bad luck and, maybe, the whole lot of the poteen would be spilled, or worse, the police would get it.”

Has anything like that ever happened before?” I asked him.

Aye, of course there has! Sure, how else would we know what would happen?”

I must admit that I was convinced in the truthfulness of the old man, but I wanted to hear more about such encounters with the fairy folk. I wanted to know if he had personally met with any “bad luck” himself because he had failed to give a hospitable offering to his exacting and easily angered, though easily appeased, friends, the “little folk.” To get him talking, therefore, I began by remarking that he must have had some personal experience of such things since he spoke so knowledgeably about such things. “Aye, indeed, young man, I’m sorry to say, and I’ll be sorry while there is still breath in me body. I have experience of just how unlucky it is for a man to be miserly with the ‘good people’,” said he.

Tell me all about it,” I asked him anxiously and earnestly.

Now, there’s not much to tell, young man, but I’ll tell you about it anyway.”
StillOne night,” he began, ” I was making my first brewing in this very same place where we are now. But, in those days I was young and foolish, and I would not take the advice of old Micky Whelan when he told me to treat ‘good people’ well. The answer I gave him was that they would go to the devil before I’ll give a drop to them, or anyone living or dead, until I have the money in my hand for it first. When I said that, of course, Old Micky spoke out, and he told me that I would rue those words. Then, blessing himself he got up and left me, a little frightened. There were a couple of the neighbours here, too, and they went away with him. Well, there was not one left here but myself, and I thought to myself that I would take a wee drink to keep up my spirits, for you can see, yourself, it’s a lonely place here for one to be with oneself, without a living soul to speak to. But, by all that’s holy, wasn’t left long without plenty of company, although it was the kind that I would have rather not had. Because, as quick as you could clap your two hands together, I heard the rasp of the bow across the strings of a fiddle, up there in the bushes, and with that the prettiest and the liveliest tune that I ever heard filled the air. The first thought that came into my head was that the lads had fallen in with ‘Blind Dominic’ the fiddler, when they were leaving the still-house, and that they sneaked back with the fiddle into the bushes to try and frighten me. So, I shouted out angrily that it would be better for them to come here and give me a hand, rather than going on with their nonsense, for if they were trying to frighten me they wouldn’t manage to do it. Well, suddenly I heard three or four shouts and the sound of dancing keeping time to the tune, and fine dancing it was. I began to mock it and told them they were very merry and that maybe it was the police they wanted to bring down on me with their nonsense. Well, I can tell you, the words were not right out of my mouth, when up struck another fiddle right beside me, and it wasn’t long until another began, and another, and another, until there were fiddles playing all around me everywhere, and the shouting, and the cheering, and the laughing began in earnest. By Jaysus, I thought to myself, it is the strange creatures about, but I’ll not let on that I’m one bit afraid of them and maybe they would not harm me. So, I jumped up and declared loudly that it was great music and I began to dance on the flagstone beside the fire in a very lively fashion. With one voice the entire company shouted out at me, calling me by name and telling me that I would rue it. Sure, they were now making a great hullabaloo, and right in the middle of it I got two smart blows, first on one cheek then on the other. It was then I began to think that it was time for me to get out, but I decided that I would take the keg with me, no matter what happened. So, putting the keg on my back, I took to my heels as quickly as I could. But, I hadn’t gone more than three steps when I tripped, and fell, and the keg was broken into smithereens with every blessed drop spilled. Let me tell you, that’s when the commotion began in real earnest and ten times greater than before! You could hear the glasses, and the tin cups, and the mugs rattling against one another, and the shouts and the bustle of the wee-folk as they jostled one another trying to see who could get most of the drink that was spilled. Not even a half-penny’s worth did I get, but I heard as much as did me, and away I ran towards home as fast as my legs could carry me and not once did I look around until I reached the house. I can tell you that I never again forgot to give the good people a drink after that. And you can be sure when one does show them some hospitality they don’t forget it neither. It’s many a good turn they did me, but there was one turn in particular, and if you’re not afraid that the police will come on us I’ll tell you something about it.Police Raid“I will risk the police, Jimmy,” said I as I sat down on a vacant three-legged stool, which stood beside the blazing turf fire under the still. 

Well, then,” began the old moonshiner, “One night, about the middle of December, I was making a brew for Christmas. It was about seven or eight o’clock in the evening, or thereabouts. My partner, Mickey, that I told you about a while ago, was just after leaving me to get something to eat, for he hadn’t had a bite of food since the morning. There wasn’t one person with me in the still-house but myself. Well, boy, I was sitting here just where I am now this minute, and smoking quite contentedly, while I was watching the Poteen running from the worm into the keg in case there would be any chance of it becoming white. Well, if it did turn white I would throw some water on fire to cool it down a little, and some more on the worm until it cooled, just as you saw me doing a while ago. Well, I wasn’t long sitting that way, when three shots from a gun went just over my head, one after another. Believe me when I tell you that I jumped up quick and sudden onto my feet. At first, I thought it was the police, for that’s what they generally do when they are intent on making a seizure. Well, I took to my feet mighty fast, you can be sure that I never once looked around me until I got to the top of that hill over there. It was only then that I felt brave enough to look around, but the devil a one could I see at all. I had a full view of the still-house, and all around it, but not a person I could I clap my eyes on, only everything just as it was. Well, back I came to the still-house again, but you can be sure that I kept my eyes sharp about me until Mickey came. When I told him the story, he looked at me, and he said that the faster we are out of this the better we’ll be. I asked Mickey what it could have been, and he simply told me that it is well known to me. He also said that I would see the lads before the morning. So, I told myself, that we should waste no time lifting the keg out of this place even though it was not yet three quarters full. Well, boy, to make a long story short, we cleared away everything and hid them in the bog over there. Then we went home, and we were only just sitting down at the fire when we heard the troop, the tramping of the revenue horses, as we thought it was the revenue police. Well, young man, as I said, we heard the tramp, tramp of the horses’ feet on the road, and the clattering of bayonets and swords, and the creaking of the saddles, and the orders of command, as if there was a whole regiment of horsemen and horses on parade. Mickey was totally surprised that what I had said had now come to pass, and he went with me to the door to have a look. It was a fine clear moonlight night, just like it is tonight, but as we looked out there wasn’t the devil of a horse or rider to be seen, although we could still hear the thud of the horses’ hoofs, and the clashing of the swords plainly. Were we frightened?  By God, you may be sure that we were in a way, and, in another way, we were not, for you see we knew well enough that this a sign from the ‘good people’ telling us that the revenue men were coming. Sure, they did come a very short time later. But, although they searched every hole and corner in the place, they never discovered the place where we hid the keg and things. So, you see, you will never lose much by being kind to the good people.