Poteen Making – Chronicles 6

An Old Established Industry

Vulgar legend has it that it was St. Patrick himself who first gave the Irish the wrinkle how to make poteen. A ribald rhymester of the last century hoped to perpetuate this foolish notion when be introduced it into a song which bad a pasting popularity and then followed its author into oblivion. That poteen-making, however, is a domestic industry of considerable Antiquity is a fact of history. In the Red Book of Ossory, there is a description of the virtues of “uisge-beatha,” a Gaelic compound. signifying the Water of Life—and a recipe for manufacturing it from malt.

When the Anglo-Normans landed here more than 700 years ago, they found our ancestors according to their chroniclers. Adept in the art of distillation, and much given to the consumption of the product of their poteens. It is not clear, by the way, when the term ” poteen”– derived from the small pot-stills in which the Liquor is made – first came into general use, probably somewhere about the middle of the 18th century. when a band of smugglers set up large pot — stills in Co. Antrim and laid the foundations of the famous Bushmills Distillery, the oldest in Ireland.

HANGED FOR POTEEN-MAKING.

The manufacture of ‘uisge – beatha must have continued to flourish during the centuries immediately following the Invasion. for restrictions were at length imposed upon domestic distilling and the sale of spirits, by the Parliament of the Pale. It was characteristic of those times that while the poor man caught thereafter in the art of making poteen was led to the nearest tree and hanged, the nobility, exempt from any penalty whatsoever, could distil and drink away to their hearts’ content. Distilling without a licence was first made illicit in a statute passed at Drogheda in 1556, restricting the manufacture of whiskey —” a drink nothing profitable to be daily used, and now universally made throughout this realm, especially on the borders of the lrishry, whereby much corn, grain and other things are consumed.” Within a few years following the industry was established on a licensed basis, and persons were nominated in each province, who bad the sole power of grant licences.

WHEN WHISKEY WAS 3d. A GLASS.

The soaring prices of strong drink are said to be the main cause of the present alarming spread of poteen-making throughout Ireland. Too much stress, however, can be laid on this explanation. There were more illicit stills in the country when the duty on whiskey was only tenpence a gallon than there are to-day. Between the years 1802 and 1806, for instance, 13,439 stills,1,198 heads, and 9,732 worm were seized by the revenue police; and in 1811, when whiskey was only threepence a glass, we find the observant Edward Wakefield in his “Account of Ireland”, writing: – “I am convinced, whatever penal laws or regulations may be made, it is almost impossible to extirpate illicit distilleries from the mountains. It has been represented to me, and I believe with truth, that they are erected in the kitchens of baronets and in the stables of clergymen. The mountains are covered with them, and they are to be met with in the very last places where an English excise officer would expect to discover them.”

ELUDING THE GAUGER.

As in the days of soap and candle smuggling, eluding the gauger now became a fresh bond of union between orange and green, the Protestant planter of Ulster having as little respect for the distilling laws as had the Catholic Celt of Connacht. Just a century ago the poteen traffic had become so extensive, not alone in Ireland, but in England and Scotland as well, that more than half of the spirits actually consumed in these countries came from mountain caverns, lonely islets, and bogland wastes where the poteen distiller was able to evade the law and pursue his illicit industry without fear of molestation. The Government grew alarmed, and a Parliamentary Commission was appointed to investigate the subject. New regulations which were then adopted brought the abuse within bounds, in Great Britain, at all events. The success of this effort to stamp out the traffic soon manifested itself in an enormously increased demand for legally manufactured spirits.

DISAPPEARED IN ENGLAND.

In 1820 — the year before the Commission’s recommendations were given effect to – the quantity whiskey made in the ` licensed distilleries of the Three Kingdoms was 9,600,000 gallons. Within five years the output was almost doubled. In Scotland alone there were 14,000 poteen making prosecutions in 1823, but thirty years later this surprising total had fallen to less than 50! In England illicit distilling almost disappeared during the same period.

In Ireland, however, the efforts at suppression were much less successful. The reasons for this were several, but the principal one seems to have been that Inland Revenue police were utterly unable to cope with the work of detection, which, down to 1851 they alone were responsible for. In that year the constabulary were called in to their assistance and taking up their new duties in true R.I.C. fashion, prosecutions became suddenly more frequent, and poteen stills more of a rarity.

EMPLOYMENT OF R.I.C.

Hitherto, as implied by Wakefield in the extract just quoted, the illegal traffic had not been confined to any particular class, and magistrates and landlords had their own reasons for turning their heads away should they chance upon a still full blast. The Inland Revenue Commissioners had evidently this fact in their minds when including the following adroitly-worded passage in their annual report for 1870: “There can be no doubt that the moral effect of the employment of a force (The R.I.C.) so much respected and so closely connected with the magistracy and the Viceregal Government will have great influence on some classes in Ireland who have hitherto been too much to look with indifference upon the Revenue laws” The co-operation of the landlords was at length secured, and poteen making in Ireland continued to wane until its sudden revival in recent times.

SOME ARTFUL DODGES.

A regular literature—probably buried in the pages of defunct Irish magazines – must have grown up around the subject of poteen making a few generations ago, when the majority of Irish farmers were their own distillers, and many of them retailers of unlicensed spirits—when Lever sang: –

I was a monarch in state

Like Romulus or Julius Caesar,

With the best of fine vittels to ate,

And drink like great Nebuchadnezzar,

A rasher of bacon I’d have.

And statues the finest was seen, sir,

And for drink, it’s no claret I’d crave,

But a keg of old Mullen’s poteen, sir,

With the smell of the smoke on it still.

A law was passed imposing a heavy fine on any townland in which a poteen still was discovered. But the artful construction of private distilleries on the boundaries drove the proverbial coach and four through that statute. Stories, too, could be told of how revenue officers used to be kidnapped and kept in close confinement for weeks together, in order to prevent their giving evidence at Petty Sessions prosecutions. After the R.I.C. took to tracking down poteen makers in the fifties they would pay handsomely for information regarding the whereabouts of a still. Not infrequently it was the owner himself who would put them on the scent and then draw for a worn out and worthless apparatus as much ‘Castle Money’ as could buy him a new one.

TERENCE O’HANLON.

“Sligo Champion” Oct 1900 (Downloaded from BNA, Aug.2021)

The Witches of Islandmagee

A Story of County Antrim

The story of the ‘The Witches of Islandmagee’ is a strange tale, which has become very famous in the history and folklore of Ireland. It’s a story is located on the small Islandmagee peninsula, that lies along the east coast of County Antrim, and it is famed for being the last recorded witch trial held in Ireland. Although a witchcraft statute had been passed in Ireland in 1586, the record shows that not too many actual witch trials were conducted in any areas of the land. In fact, the record shows that only three witch trials were held, in which eleven individuals were accused of the crime of witchcraft. It is, however, the Islandmagee witch trial that stands out among them all because of the intensity of feeling it caused in a small, tightly knit community that numbered some three-hundred people of Scots-Presbyterian descent.

During the time of the ‘Tudor Plantation’ in Ireland Scottish Protestants, mostly from the Scottish Lowlands were encouraged to take up land that the crown had confiscated from Irish lords that had risen in rebellion. Among these new Scots-Presbyterian settlers there was a widely held belief in the existence of witchcraft, and they brought their superstitious ideas with them to Ireland. In Scotland, the hunting and destruction of witches was far more widespread than that carried out in England. In fact, Scotland was widely recognised as being one of the most vicious anti-witch countries in Europe. There was a total of approximately 3,800 people prosecuted in the Scottish courts, and more than three-quarters of these were put to death by strangling and/or burning. In England, and so by extension in Ireland, however, there was ‘Common Law’, which meant that those convicted in those courts of witchcraft could only be hanged. In Ireland, such trials were few in number, but there is an account of a trial that was held among the English ‘Planter’ community that lived in the Youghal area of County Cork, during 1661. Fifty years later, in March 1711, eight women were taken into custody and brought before the court at Carrickfergus, Co.Antrim. The subsequent trial was a major sensation at the time, shocking everyone when all eight women were found guilty of the demonic possession of the body, mind, and spirit of a local teenage girl. The judgment levied on them was that they were put in the stocks, where the public could throw stones and rotten fruit at them, prior to them being taken to serve a year in jail.

Witches and witchcraft had always been an integral part of Irish folklore, but the image portrayed by the folklore tales was that of a witch that was non-threatening to ordinary mortals. We have all heard the stories that tell us about witches stealing the ability for churning milk into butter, or other tales saying that they had the power to turn themselves into hares and steal the butter that had already been made. It was, however, the Scottish ‘Planters’ who brought their beliefs about witches to Ireland, introducing the witch as a malicious, expert in magic that was extremely dangerous to ordinary mortals. Thankfully, the ‘Trial of the Islandmagee Witches’ was well recorded by the authorities and the media of the day, which has provided modern researchers with ample primary historical resources to aid their studies. These include statements from the trial of the main characters, copies of newspaper articles at the time, pamphlets that were produced, letters, correspondence and legal depositions from witnesses. From all these documents it has been discovered that the origins of the case can be traced back to the previous year, 1710.

We are told that it was in 1710, that a young 18-year-old girl called Mary Dunbar arrived in Islandmagee from her home in Castlereagh, which lay at the edge of Belfast. It is suggested that the young girl had come to stay and help in the home of her cousin, Mrs. James Haltridge, whose mother-in-law had recently died. At the time of the woman’s death, it was alleged that her passing had been brought about through the black arts of witchcraft. Witnesses further alleged that Mary soon began to show signs that she, herself, had been possessed by an evil demon. These signs included Mary issuing threats to people, shouting, swearing, blaspheming, and throwing Bibles everywhere. On those occasions when a clergyman approached her to help, Mary would suddenly be overcome by violent fits, accompanied by vomiting various household articles, such as pins, buttons, nails, glass, and wool. In her statement to the court, Mary Dunbar claimed to have seen eight women appearing to her in spectral form, and this evidence alone would prove to very important at the trial. ‘Spectral evidence’ was a tactic used by the prosecution lawyers in cases, where the possessed person claims to have seen and been attacked by the witches, which then caused his or her possession in spectral form.  This sort of evidence had been common in England in earlier trials but, by the time of the Islandmagee case, this type of evidence was rarely used because it had become less and less convincing in witch trials. ‘Spectral Evidence’ would, nevertheless, become one of the main proofs of guilt that were brought against the eight women in the trial of 1711. The main problem about such proof was that Mary would have been the only person to have seen this spectral possession occur. But Mary Dunbar was a relative stranger to this area, and she would never have seen any of these women before. However, this evidence was sworn to be true by her, and the trial jury in Carrickfergus chose to believe her. There were other types of ‘proof’ offered by the prosecution, of course, including their apparent inability to say, ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. And the authorities went even further to prove their case against the women by setting up a form of the identity parade, in which Mary Dunbar was blindfolded while a line of women came in to touch her. It was believed that the demoniac would go into terrible fits if he or she was touched by a witch, and Dunbar apparently succeeded in picking out the eight women that she had claimed to have bewitched and attacked her in spectral form.

Alongside the witness testimony, the character of the accused women themselves was also important in them being convicted. These women were all from the margins of society in the small community and were suffering from an impoverished life. It is said that some of them claimed to possess some form of witches’ craft. But, in Irish folklore, there was the character of “The Wise Woman”, who knew about love potions, healing plants, and various natural remedies that the people of their community sought. They were not witches in the true sense of the word but would have been readily accused of witchcraft by some. This was especially true in an age when the widespread belief was that a witch looked like a wizened old crone, much like the image we have of witches today, and these eight women apparently fitted that description.

In small villages and towns, the reputation of a person, or a family, is always well known. If a person had a less than perfect reputation and some act of misfortune happened within the community, then that person and his family would be suspected and even accused of being the guilty party. In this case, the misfortune that had occurred was the bewitching of Mary Dunbar, and some of these women already had the reputation of using witchcraft. Moreover, these women appeared to fall short of the ideals of womanhood espoused by others, which helped to fuel the suspicions of them being witches. Several of the women, for instance, were accused of drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco and swearing, none of which met the expected requirements for being considered a lady. On the other hand, Mary Dunbar was an intelligent, attractive young lady from a good family.

There is no record of what happened to Mary Dunbar or the eight women after the trial in Carrickfergus. Unfortunately, the public records office that held many Church of Ireland records was burned down during the Irish Civil War (1922-1923). According to the Act of 1586, the eight women would have been put in prison for a year and pilloried four times on market days for a first offense. However, we have no knowledge what happened to any of them after their sentence was served, for they simply disappeared from the historical records. As for Mary Dunbar, it is widely considered that she had made the entire thing up, for some reason or another. After all, she was not the first demoniac in England and Scotland to do such a thing and, being an intelligent young woman, such precedents would have provided her with an excellent example to follow.

Prime examples of misleading evidence were seen during the witch hunts and trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, and in Scotland in 1697, where an eleven-year-old girl called Christian Shaw, who was the daughter of the Laird of Bargarran, complained that she was being tormented by a group of local witches. She said that these witches included one of her family’s servants, Catherine Campbell, whom she had reported to her mother after witnessing her steal a drink of milk. As a result of Christian’s statements Seven people (Margaret Lang, John Lindsay, James Lindsay, John Reid, Catherine Campbell, Margaret Fulton, and Agnes Naismith) were found guilty of having bewitched the child and were subsequently condemned to death. One of this group went on to hang himself in his prison cell. It is also believed that Agnes Naismith may also have died while she was imprisoned. The remaining five accused were hanged, and their bodies burned on the ‘Gallow Green’ in Paisley on 10th June 1697. This proved to be the last mass execution of ‘witches’ in western Europe.

It is very likely that Mary Dunbar had learned the part of a demoniac from accounts she had heard or read about events in Salem or, more likely, Scotland, from where people were pouring into the ‘Ulster Plantation’ at this time. Maybe she sought fame or was simply doing the same thing that she is accusing others of doing. But, because it would not be considered her fault, there would be no moral responsibility attached to her actions. And, because she claims that it is someone else who is doing these things to her, she can comfortably break the type of behavioural constraints that were placed upon her as a female at the time.

As far as seeking fame is concerned, Mary Dunbar was a stranger in that community and may have felt that she was invisible and undervalued. She may have seen her accusations as being an opportunity to make herself visible in that community and her cousin’s family, as well as being able to act in ways that would normally be socially unacceptable. Whatever Dunbar’s reasons, it seems incredible to modern society that she should have succeeded. While it is easy to dismiss the people of that time as being blatantly ignorant, or disastrously superstitious, we must understand how things were in those days. Dunbar’s accusations made complete sense to the people, especially when they are supported by members of the clergy and the medical professions. In fact, doctors were called in to examine Mary Dunbar’s condition and concluded that her condition did not have physical causes but was due to supernatural influences.

Although the ‘Islandmagee Case’ was the last witch trial to be held in Ireland, there continues to be a belief in witches and witchcraft. There may have been no further prosecutions in Ireland for witchcraft since 1711, the Act of 1586 continued to be on the statute books until 1821, when it was finally repealed. There is little doubt that some cases did make it to the court, but the judges of the day would reject them because they were better educated and did not believe in such superstitions. There remains some belief in such things, with ‘Fairy Doctors’ and ‘Wise Women’ being asked to cure ‘fairy attacks’, and to perform traditional rites to remove curses and bewitchments. Such people are very small in number, compared to many years ago, but they are a sign that belief in witchcraft is not yet dead in Ireland.