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)

Battle for the Still – Chronicles 3

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.

Images of Ireland Past

  1. The Drink

Unfortunately Ireland and the Irish have a reputation for taking strong drink, but it is over exaggerated. The following is a “Photo History” Ireland’s long association with alcohol of all sorts.

There was the legal enjoyment that occurred inside the pubs after the drink had arrived and the most popular drink was always the “Stout”, made by Arthur Guinness and Co.

Then there is the illegal side – The Poteen, Mountain Dew, The Cratur, Moonshine, and a host of other names that give the illicit stills production a title.

A Shebeen (Illegal Drinking Den)

Poteen

A poem by “Barney Maglone” aka Robert Arthur Wilson (1820-75)

Of all the navygations
That ever left the shore
I tell this mortal nation
‘Tis potheen I adore.
I have the tender crathur
All in her punchy dhress
And when she’s mother-naked
I love her none the less.
If she had but a night-dhress
Of Shugar on her skin,
I’m not the boy that would refuse
To take the swate one in.
Well I mind the lively night
Her mother, Sall, lay in;
How did I press the babe
Between my nose and chin.
An’ if she was ould as
Methoosalem’s first hat,
I’d love her as the crame’s loved by
That sleekit bastem, the cat.
If mighty Dutheronomy
That hayro of renown,
Likewise July-us Saizer
That won the British Crown –
If Hector an’ bowld Vaynus,
With Lusy-an the ass,
Also Neb-you-codnazzur,
So mighty at the grass –
Were all with Martin Luther,
With Gladstone, and with Lowe,
I’d box them left and right afore
I’d let my charmer go.
It’s thrue she has been thricky,
As Irish maids do be;
An’ I must own that sometimes
She’s played a prank on me.
She rowled me in the soft mud
One night she got me down,
When I was just meanderin’
About a mile from town.
She gave my eyes a paintin’
And gave my nose a swell,
Another winther’s evenin’
When huggin’ her too well.
But all these lovin’ capers
I aisily forgive
An’ if she knocks my branes out,
I’ll love her while I live.
I’d face the French and Prooshans’
An’ the Permissive Bill,
Afore, I’d lose my darlin’
The daughter of the still!

End