My Culture Spot

29. Jun, 2020

The following is an old Irish tale that is told of a young man who was kidnapped by the fairy folk, who left a copy of his body in his place. The discovery of this false body encouraged the family to believe that the young man had died, just as it was meant to do. The day of the boy’s funeral was sad for all those family members, neighbours and friends who were in attendance and that same night the young man’s father had a disturbing dream. In this vision he saw his ‘dead’ son appear to him and reveal that he was not dead but had been kidnapped by the Sidhe (Irish Fairies – pronounced ‘Shee’). He appealed to his father to come and rescue him by making his way to the Cross in the nearby village at midnight on Midsummer Night’s Eve, bringing with him some trusted friends, a black-handled knife, and some whiskey. In the dream the boy explained that his father was to wait until he would see his son pass by on a fairy horse and then cut off the animal’s right ear. The father was warned that only by following these instruction could he successfully release the boy from the Sidhe. So, when Midsummer Night’s Eve arrived the boy’s father and his trusted friends gathered at the Cross as he was told. The party waited but they did not see the fairy host riding past, and the son was lost to his family for all time. Unknown to the father, the spell had not worked because the scheme had been cursed by the presence in the group of a man who had murdered three other men.

A familiar Irish fairy tale which, like most Irish fairy tales, does not have a happy-ever-after ending. Unfortunately, there is another common tendency in that those who read these stories often consign them to tales of fantasy. In these modern times of the twenty-first century, however, there has been a rebirth of interest in such stories because they are considered to be tales of mystery and imagination and categorised as “Young Adult Fiction.” But for many readers of Irish Fairy Folklore this is a great error because there is evidence that not all folklore stories can be simply assigned to the category of fictional fantasy. In fact, some of the tales told may have some degree contained within them. Consider the following story that was related by Elizabeth Andrews in her book “Ulster Folklore” –

“In the time of the press-gang a crowd was seen approaching some cottages. A great alarm ensued, and the young men fled; but it was soon discovered that these people did not come from a man-of-war – they were fairies.

A terrible story, showing how the fairies can punish their captives, was told to me by an old woman at Armoy in County Antrim, who vouched for it as being ‘Candid Truth’. A man’s wife was carried away by the fairies; he married again, but one night his first wife met him, told him where she was, and besought him to release her, saying that if he would do so she would leave that part of the country and not trouble him anymore. She begged him however, not to make the attempt unless he were confident he could carry it out, as if he failed she would die a terrible death. He promised to save her. He promised to save her, and she told him to watch at midnight when she would be riding past the house with the fairies; she would put her hand in at the window, and he must grasp it and hold tight. He did as she bade him, and although the fairies pulled hard, he had nearly saved her, when his second wife saw what was going on, and tore his hand away. The poor woman was dragged off, and across the fields he heard her piercing cries, and saw next morning the drops of blood where the fairies had murdered her.”[1]

The reader can undoubtedly see the similarities in both stories, but the former tale appears to have some historical proof of its veracity as reported in ‘The Kerry Evening Post’ of 1st July 1837. Under a heading of “Fairy Tale” the reporter states that the events in the first story actually happened. In 1837 as young Tipperary man did die and, after his funeral, his father had a dream. In that dream, it was said, the son asked his father to save him from the fairies at midnight on 24th June. The boy also gave his father instructions to bring some friends, whiskey, and a black-handled knife. The father, it is reported, duly assembled his neighbours to go with him on this mission, in total about 1,200 locals, and as darkness fell, on 24th June, they were ready as instructed. The fairy host did not show itself and the fact that a triple murderer was present was not revealed until a subsequent dream. It would be a challenge these days if twelve of my neighbours, never mind 1,200, would gather with me to rescue a fairy kidnap victim. The story, however, does demonstrate that there was a deeply held and widespread belief among the Irish people concerning the fairy folk. If the people did not think that the fairy folk were real then you can be certain 1200 people would not have assembled to assist a father in his rescue of a son from the fairy realm.

The middle of the nineteenth century was a period in Irish history during which the existence of fairies was taken most seriously by large sections of the people and also began to feature in written accounts. Most of the fairy lore that we have today has been handed down to us from these times in the tales and superstitions collected and published in the later nineteenth century. In later years, this knowledge was greatly added to by the folklore archives which were collected during the 1930s and 1940s in an unprecedented effort by the Irish Government. But it appears that those who study the tales and superstitions consider the ways in which they compare with the stories and beliefs in other parts of the country, or even among other nationalities. Personally, I study the stories and superstitions because of the simple enjoyment they give and the wonder aroused at the fact that 1,200 Irishmen and women gathered one night, prepared to do battle with a fairy host to release a young man who had been taken against his will.

In the middle of the nineteenth century the Irish peasantry held strongly to their belief in the fairy folk, which caused certain sectors to attack such beliefs in the hope of destroying what they considered to be pure nonsense. Ireland at that time was under the administrative and military control of the class-obsessed Anglo-Irish establishment who looked upon the Irish as simple-minded, useless, and lazy. Their belief in the fairy folk was seen as emphasising their simple mindedness and entitled to be mocked. Meanwhile, the Catholic Emancipation Act saw the re-establishment of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and it was a major objective of the clergy to quash the heretical belief system that acknowledged the presence of fairy folk. Also, with the widespread growth of nationalism in the country there was a campaign of modernisation to bring Ireland into the modern era, where there would be no room for fairy tales and superstitions. All of these actions have resulted in the present-day attitude that fairies, fairy tales, and superstitions are more suited to children rather than adults. Nevertheless, in many areas of Ireland the belief in fairy folk and fair lore remain an important aspect of rural life and how it is lived.



[1] Elizabeth Andrews, Ulster Folklore, London, Elliot Stock, P.26 – downloaded from Project Gutenberg 29/6/2020)

11. Jun, 2020

Emigration from Oppression to Oppression

 

Emigration was always a route for Irishmen, women and children to escape the horrible discrimination and oppression that was inflicted on them by the British State, which included their efforts to starve the Irish Catholic peasantry into extinction during the terrible years 1845 - 1849. Is it any surprise that our forefathers fought for their liberty from the time the very first English foot stood on our shores. They would justify their actions through lies and propaganda that depicted the Irish as subhuman beasts, who were lazy, drunken, uneducated, and violent.

Ireland it was often said by the British Government were a burden to the working man by their laziness and lack of enterprise. But Penal Laws, Rack Rents, Greedy Landlords and sectarian acts of parliament did not give our forefathers much opportunity to better themselves. They were slaves in their own land, starved and exploited by British 'Masters' who wished the status quo to remain. In the mind of our British overlords, the calls for Freedom and liberty were seen to be an attempt by anarchists to destroy the good, civilising government that Britain was giving to the world; In Africa, India, the convict settlements of Australia and the slave plantations of the West Indies.

After America won its independence from the British Crown it became a magnet for many Irishmen seeking escape from British oppression. At the time of the 'Great Potato Famine', encouraged by Britain, the numbers of Irish men, women and children emigrating from these shores became a flood. Hundreds of ships filled with half-starved refugees from Ireland sailed to the United States, Canada, Australia and all points of the compass. Some, believing life would be better for them in England, Wales and Scotland were to find themselves imprisoned in the slum areas of Glasgow, Liverpool, and London, where life was no better and in some instances worse. They thought they would get employment but all they found was "Irish Need Not Apply."

On that famous symbol of freedom and liberty, the Statue of Liberty, it is written  - “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” (Emma Lazarus). That  Lamp was held high and became the guiding light for all those exploited peoples from Russia, Balkans, Ireland, and elsewhere. It was a promise of a new and better life if you were willing to work for it. When they arrived, however, they were to find things not much different than at home, unless you were a WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant). 

Over the years in American cities like Boston and New York the Irish settled down in slums areas, where they unified with each other in self-help groups, some legal and some illegal, but it was a matter of survival. They soon found that the country was rife with corruption and the new emigrants were used by, what were called,'Ward Bosses' to hold political sway for corrupt politicians and the like. But, the Irish educated themselves and began to quickly rise from their peasant past, despite widespread efforts to keep them in their place. Even the idea of the 'Fair Irish Colleen' was corrupted by the racist segments in American society. (Published with apologies to the fair and wonderful ladies of the County Cork)

So, for the Irish fleeing the oppression of the British in their own homeland it had become a case of, "From the frying pan into the Fire." As had been the case at home, the old traditions and the language disappeared from use, and we must be grateful for those of our forefathers who remained true to their Irishness for ensuring these were passed down to our generation. We look now at our Irish-American 'cousins', who are so keen to establish their Irish identity because of their pride in what their forefathers suffered to ensure that they did get a reasonable standard of life.

The Irish rid themselves of the stigma of being lazy and irresponsible people. They toiled on the railways that stretched across that continent, the roads, the dams, the steel factories, the canals, the brickyards and in every industry that would make America the nation it became. They fought in its wars, both civil and foreign, and they policed the streets of the expanding continent in an effort to make sure law and order were properly maintained. Among the millions of workers in the industries of the continent, the Irish played a role as leaders for workers' rights. They had spent long years of suffering at the hands of landlords and others who had become rich off the sweat of the working class and gave their workers poor remuneration for their efforts. But, the organisation of labour was not seen favourably in the corridors of power and the Irish were seen once again as anarchists and troublemakers.
The cradle of democracy we have seen many times is not what it is supposed to be. Giving up your tired and your poor is no longer appreciated, and in many places, freedom depends on income, colour, race or creed. Big money has big power despite the best efforts of a liberal-minded majority who seek fair-play for all. But do not condemn America just for this because the same is now appearing in our free, independent Ireland (e.g. Bank Crisis; Tax Evasion Schemes, Corruption Scandals, etc.) Perhaps it is this unfair society that is driving our young, educated workforce away from our shores now.

1. Jun, 2020

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 a constable 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.

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.

21. May, 2020

“A Drop of the Cratur”

When people talk of Ireland the subjects of thatch cottages, turf fires, tall tales, and Poitín are sure to always crop up. In fact, when it comes to alcoholic drinks Ireland's famed for its smooth whiskey, and for its iconic, world famous beer, ‘Guinness’. There’s Today there is more to explore in the pubs, of course, from highly competitive craft beers and ciders, to ‘Baileys Irish Cream’, the products of a growing number of micro-distillers, and. of course, the legalised version of poitín (pronounced ‘potch-cheen’). It is known by other names in other countries (Hooch, Moonshine, etc,) but it is the Irish who were the original creators, and it was the Irish that spread its use across the globe. Some would say that it is only the Irish who show such pride in having created one of the strongest alcoholic drinks in the world, which is still made here in large quantities on this small island. Poitín traditionally has an alcohol content of 60% – 90%, and that will certainly dull the taste buds of any man!

But did you know that there no definite record of just when poitín came into the life of the Irish nation? It is believed to date back to at least the 6th century. It was an ancient farm-based spirit that was made in a single pot still and took its name for the Irish word for ‘little pot’, (Pota). Traditionally it was, and is still, made from the starch-filled crops that are grown on the farm. In the more modern times these crops have been limited by definition to potatoes, cereals, grain, whey, sugar beet and molasses. Under English rule, however, it became necessary to have a license to produce poitín from 1556, when the English administration decided they should regulate the production of such a toxic offering. There had been pubs active throughout Ireland since the 11th century, and the widespread ethos of having a drink when and where one pleases was difficult to regulate, especially in such a troublesome land.

Not surprisingly the production of Poitín quickly became a lucrative, though illegal, trade in Ireland. Then on Christmas Day 1661, taxation on alcohol was first introduced because, with the end of ‘Cromwell’s’ Commonwealth’, King Charles II came to the throne of the British Isles and needed to raise public funds that had been depleted badly by ‘English Civil War’. This was only one among a series of taxes that the King introduced, but this first excise tax on alcohol also included spirit production. In the beginning this new excise duty was widely enforced within the cities and towns but was largely ignored by those who resided in the rural areas of Ireland.

Poitín distilling continued to rise, as the Irish got wise to ways of avoiding taxation by hiding their spirit in concealed cellars, and the London Parliament responded by implementing tighter legislation. In an all-out campaign to maximise the collection of excise duties in a more efficient manner throughout Ireland, the first revenue personnel were appointed by the Irish Government in Dublin, during 1662, but the efforts of these officers of the law achieved little success. Not surprisingly, with ample alcohol available, the people made particularly good use of it. It was at this time that the custom of ‘Wetting the Shamrock’ became a popular tradition, known as the drinking of ‘Pota Pádraig’ (Patrick’s Little Pot’), as did the ‘Wearing of the Green’ on St. Patrick’s Day. There are records of English visitors noting that very few Irishmen that they encountered that night were found to be sober.

It was in 1771 that the government passed “The Pot Still Act”, the aim of which was to prevent corn being ‘wasted’ and used for distilling. But the act had a very disastrous impact on those businesses which legitimately distilled whiskey and other spirits, for they now became liable for these crippling taxes and many were forced to close-down their operations.  The tax itself was based on pot still capacity, which simply meant that the government in London would generate tax revenues regardless of how much spirit was produced or hidden. But the Irish had a few more tricks up their sleeves, such as distilling in smaller capacity stills. This meant that they could charge, boil, and empty the stills around the clock, making spirits while paying less tax. According to contemporary sources, however, the finished product was very rough and not at all pleasant on the tongue. The best poitín, and the cheapest, was still to be found in the stills of those who paid no mind to government taxes or revenue men.

The rough terrain and isolation of the West of Ireland became the major source of illegal stills and places likes Inishmurray, for example, became infamous for the making of Poitín. This was due, in part, to the fact that there was no natural embarkation point that gave easy access to the Island, which meant that any visits by the forces of law and order were few and far between. Thus, because of the lack of official interference the people of the island became known as the makers of the best illegal whiskey in all of County Sligo and marketing their famed product as "Old Inishmurray". On those rare occasions when government Revenue Officers did arrive on the island, they had to hire boats from the locals, who would quickly pass on warnings to the poitín distillers. Then, because there was an absence of any sheltered landing spots on Inishmurray, the local boatmen always circled the Island as they searched for the easiest available landing place. The warnings and the delay in the arrival of the revenue men ensured that the islanders usually had their illicit brew well hidden by the time anyone got ashore. As a result of all this endeavour, by the late 1800s, in Inishmurray the making and sale of poitín was the main economic activity for all the population and provided the greater part of their income.

Another small island, Inishkea, off the coast of Mayo also had an extremely limited source of income. Fishing and potion provided the islanders with products that could be sold or traded on the mainland. Like the people of Inishmurray, the Inishkea islanders had found themselves a ready market for their illicit poitín within the clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, and among the local police forces. There were always customers on Achill Island, who eagerly awaited any new shipments of poitín that came their way. Unfortunately, the piecemeal shipping of the illegal whiskey eventually led to tragedy in 1898 when an islander and his daughter were lost at sea while rowing to Achill with a cargo of poitín.

Towards the end of the 18th century it became quite common for illicit stills to be built and operated on those estates where the Landlord was absent. The income helped pay rents to the agents, who took a healthy interest in the profits that could be made. Determined to suppress illicit distilling and act was signed into law by King George III, in 1787, which was called the ‘Peace Preservation Act’. Through the introduction of this act it was hoped the government would be able to ensure that its laws were enforced and obeyed throughout the Kingdom, including Ireland. As part of this ‘Peace Preservation Act,’ Protestant Chief Constables were appointed in each Barony in Ireland. These Baronial constables became known, generally, as the ‘Old Barneys’, and they lacked discipline, supervision and even uniforms. Furthermore, the ‘Old Barneys’ and were responsible for more disorder and unrest than actually keeping the peace.

Then, in 1779, those who distilled spirits had to obtain a license to do so, which meant that private distillation was now outlawed throughout the Kingdom and Ireland. It was a tough time for the countless illicit distillers in the country, who found that the most effective form of escaping the law was to emigrate. The whiskey that was now legally distilled under this new licence, and on which the excise duty was paid, became commonly known as ‘Parliament Whiskey’. But, with these additional taxes, licences, quotas, and new regulations the quality of ‘Parliament Whiskey’ declined while the cost of production increased and was passed on to the customers, giving the illicit distillers that remained a large market. In fact, it has been estimated that during the four years between 1802 and 1806 there were over 13,400 unlicensed stills seized by Revenue men, which demonstrates that the illegal trade had not yet disappeared.

In 1814 a second ‘Peace Preservation Act’ was passed, which increased the numbers of uniformed constables, and placed a Magistrate into each Barony. This new police force was known as the 'Peace Preservation Force' and one of their main tasks was to work with the revenue men and clamp down heavily on the illicit distillation trade. It was recorded that in 1822 there were about 500 revenue men (or ‘poitín peelers’) stationed in 71 revenue stations, and this number rose to almost 1100 by 1836. Many of the men who made up this new ‘Peace Preservation Force’ were demobilised soldiers who, having returned from the Napoleonic Wars found themselves looking for employment. The new taxes and the introduction of licenses didn’t eliminate the poitín tradition in Ireland, they just forced the poitín makers into the hills and other remote areas of the island. Now, with the two forces facing each other the war between the poitín makers and the authorities began in earnest.

Those who chose to continue their illegal poitín making always chose windy, broken weather to go about their business to ensure that the smoke from the still fire would be widely dispersed. The still was heated by turf fire and attended to for several days, which allow several runs to go through the process. The grey, sweet-smelling smoke that rose into the air was the tell-tale sign that alerted the police and revenue men to the still’s location. It was only with the advent of butane and propane gas to provide the necessary heat that made detection from smoke more difficult. The illicit stills continued to grow in number and when one was seized its replacement would begin operations a few days later. To bring further pressure on the illicit distillers, the authorities drew up a plan which would prove to be highly effective in the struggle. More and more police stations were opened throughout Ireland, which accommodated a number of officers that varied from time to time, and from place to place. This proved to be a master stroke, causing the making of illegal whiskey to be greatly reduced everywhere. In one fell swoop the principle economic activity of many remote rural communities quickly ceased to function, and the inhabitants had to return to a life based on the wretched subsistence that they could obtain from tilling their meagre holdings. As a result, the population of these communities went into sharp decline and those that remained found that they could barely subsist.

It can be said that the demise of the poitín trade in Ireland truly began during the 1820’s, with a combination of factors contributing to it. These factors included an increase in the number of police and revenue raids, a reduction in duties on ‘Parliament Whiskey’30 making it more affordable, the Famine and, also, the increase in popularity of Guinness in rural Ireland. Between 1780 and 1822 the number of legal distilleries in the country dropped from several hundred to just forty, many of which were involved in the production of Poitín. The key ingredients of the Poitín at this time were Potatoes and Sugar and Yeast, which is vastly different from the ingredients that are used in modern whiskey distillation, namely Barley and Water and Yeast. Illegal poitín was still being produced in the more rural areas of the country. But, because the stills were fuelled by turf, the rising smoke would alert watchful police and raided. To combat police and revenue raids the illicit distillers employed men to act as lookouts, ho were posted at vantage points around the still’s location. Some inventive men used iron rods as to detect unwanted visitors. By putting a plank on the road, with vertical iron rods placed on it, they could hold their ear to the other end and hear galloping horses’ approach from five miles distant.

Generally, in the rural areas of Ireland, the local communities supported the poitín makers, and many raids by the forces of law and order became full on confrontations between the two groups. Adding to communal anger with the police and revenue men was the introduction of ‘The Parish Fine,’ which was imposed upon an entire parish in which an illicit still was discovered. One such confrontation was recorded in newspapers describing a revenue man with an escort of twenty troops seized three illegal stills and was subsequently approached by an angry crowd. The escort troops opened fire on the crowd and killed several of their number. When word of the killings spread throughout the district a large crowd quickly gathered and sought revenge. The troops had, by this time, reached the town of Ballybay, and it was on this place that the mob converged. They angry mob attacked the troops in the town and the ensuing confrontation left only six of the soldiers and the revenue man as survivors.  While such encounters were not widespread, many similar events did occur. This was due to relationships between the people and the police becoming strained as the years passed, and the inhabitants struggled to subsist in their poor environment. In many remote areas the police found themselves subjected to a boycott, which effectively cut-off their supplies and communications. When it became obvious that there was no prospect of a resolution to the problem, the police/revenue station was eventually closed, which was the signal for the resumption of illicit distillation in the area.

In 1831 the 'Illicit Distillation Act (Ir.)' increased the powers of the new revenue police. Revenue men, commonly known as ‘Gaugers’ were employed to collect taxes and issue fines on behalf of the Government, and because of this work they quickly became marked men. They had to face the anger of the poitín makers and their families who were extremely reluctant to give up this extra source of income. At the same time, the ‘Guagers’ also discovered that many landlords were also unwilling to help by giving up the poitín makers. Although many of the landlords in Ireland were also Magistrates and Law Officers, the poitín makers were rent payers and maintained the income of the same landlords. On many occasions the ‘Guagers’ enlisted the help of the army in carrying out their duties, but this too proved very problematic. The army in their red coats could be seen from a distance, and they struggled through bog land and over the hilly terrain with their heavy uniforms and equipment allowing the poitín makers to escape capture. Nevertheless, in 1832, a government report on illicit distillation stated clearly that although Poitín must have been plentiful in past days, those days are gone and that poitín is almost extinct. In 1837, however, a 'Poor Law' report was published in which it was stated that an Irishman could get 'dead-drunk' for as little as two-pence. It reflected the price of 'Parliament Whiskey' being as much as thirteen shillings per gallon, while poitín was only three shillings per gallon. As the price of corn continued to fall, the poitín makers were able to pass this reduction on to their customers, whereas the legal whiskey still had to pay all the government taxes. As a result, illicit distilling continued unabated into the early decades of the Twentieth Century, particularly in the Urris hills of Donegal’s Inishowen peninsula. In fact, the Urris hills became such a hive of poitín making that the area quickly became referred to as ‘The Urris Poitin Republic’.

Poitín production enjoyed a mini-revival at the beginning of the 20th century, due to the fact that the Police (The Royal Irish Constabulary – RIC) were now focussing their activities on the war with the I.R.A. an Ireland’s fight for Independence. Although the focus of law enforcement was now diverted from the illicit poitín maker, the Sinn Fein rebellion offered no security. Many members of Sinn Fein were, indeed, ‘Pioneers’ and were very much opposed to poitín making and the drinking of alcohol in general. The rebel leadership were of the opinion that if men fighting for freedom were drunk on alcohol they couldn’t train or fight efficiently. At this time, when someone was suspected of involvement in the poitín trade they were hauled before local ‘Republican Courts’, where fines were imposed and the poitín maker was made stand in front of the congregation at Mass while his still was destroyed.  Because the R.I.C. were seen as agents of a foreign power, attacks upon the staff and property increased and became widespread. The attacks and boycotts brought about an increase in resignations from the force, which encouraged the poitín makers, who could now work in relative comfort. Then, following the ‘Truce’ in July 1921, the R.I.C. was finally disbanded in 1922.

With the formation of the ‘Irish Free State’ in 1922, the Provisional Government’s immediate concern was to bring stability back to the country. The ‘Civic Guards’ (Garda) were the first Free State Police Force to be established in 1922, recruiting many former R.I.C. members, and this once again allowed the forces of law and order to clamp down on the illicit distillation trade. The Free State government very much concerned, from an early date, with containing the alcohol problem in the country. The Intoxicating Liquor Act (1924) reduced the opening hours of public houses and, three years later, another act reduced the number of licensed premises. These steps once again, brought about many bitter and bloody encounters between the Garda and the illegal distillers throughout the country. In this renewed conflict the first Garda officer to be killed while on duty searching for a poitín still was Garda Thomas Dowling, from Fanore Garda Station in County Clare, who was shot dead during an ambush on his raiding party in 1925.

The distillation of Poitín remained illegal in Ireland from 1661 until the 7th March 1997. Finally, after centuries of vilification and illicit distillation in hidden locations, production for export purposes was finally made legal in Ireland in 1987. In the beginning this permission was just assigned to Oliver Dillon, from Bunratty Winery, but in 1989 the law was expanded to include other producers. It wasn't until 1997, however, that the Irish Revenue Commissioners finally permitted the drink to be sold for consumption within Ireland. Then, in 2008 it was granted Geographical Indicative Status by the EU. Despite this progress, poitín still remains illegal in Northern Ireland.

In the mid-twentieth century the introduction of bottled gas had made poitín making quicker and harder to detect. In various locations so-called poitín makers suddenly sprang-up and began to distil large batches for profit. To cut expenses and improve profits they added various chemicals like bluestone, or parazone, to increase the effect of the poitín. Having something approaching mythical status in Ireland, Poitín popularity grew and plenty of rural people were able to point to their own source of the stuff, which was probably outside of any official production oversight. There are still numerous stories doing the rounds about poitín making people blind or exploding in barns as a result of a failed distillation process. Meanwhile, the legal Poitín that can be bought in Ireland today is much smoother and more palatable to drink, being approximately 40% – 45% proof. However, if you look hard enough it shouldn’t be too difficult to find someone who is still producing some excellent home distilled Irish Poitín the way it used to be made.

Traditionally poitín is created using grain or potatoes as a base, which are made into a wash to be distilled in a homemade copper still. Open turf fires are then used to heat the still before a corn flour and oatmeal paste is applied to seal the still joints to avoid alcohol loss. In order to determine the cut points, the distiller would throw a sample of the spirit onto the still and observe if it caught fire. The old style of poitín distilling was from a malted barley base for the mash, the same as single-malt whiskey or pure, pot-still whiskey distilled in Ireland. In more recent times, some distillers deviated from using malted barley as a base of the mash bill due to the cost and availability instead switching to using treacle, corn, and potatoes. It is believed that it was this switch led to the deteriorating quality and character of poitín in the late twentieth century. The quality of poitín produced was highly variable and depended greatly on the skill of the distiller and the quality of their equipment. Reputations were built on the quality of the distiller's poitín, and many families became known for their distilling expertise. But, equally, a bad batch of poitín could put a distiller out of business almost overnight. In those cases, alleging that the drink could cause blindness, it is likely that such an outcome was possible due to the modern trend adulterating the drink with chemicals, rather than lack of quality.

The legal version of poitín is not widely consumed in pubs of Ireland, but neither is it unheard of. In fact, there are some bars that have started doing cocktails with the stuff, too. However, you can now bring poitín home from numerous off-licences throughout the country, which can be anywhere between 40% and a borderline ridiculous 90% alcohol. Legalisation has brought a great increase in the number of legalised stills and, having risen to an EU-recognised Geographical Indicative status, authentic Poitín can only be produced and sold under that name when made in Ireland. But it is regional enough that you’re fairly unlikely to stumble across Poitín outside of Ireland, and this makes it a great gift.

Poitín is Ireland’s most ancient spirit and is often referred to as Ireland’s mezcal, cachaça, grappa and, most commonly, moonshine. The main question for the uninitiated, however, is, “Will I like it?” If you haven’t tried it then you can join the majority of native Irish who are in the same boat. Sadly, many Irish pubs don’t even stock it because it is considered to be a speciality drink that is vastly different from the casual tipple, as whiskey would be. Take a tip, however, from someone who has tasted both legal and illicit Poitín and, if you decide to give it a try, take it easy. Finally, I would suggest that a glass of Poitín is something you should try at least once in your life.

Slainte

13. May, 2020

The Famed Fairies

 

When I was a young man the fairy folk were known more commonly as the “Good People”. In those days it was believed that these ‘Good People” very much wanted to add to their numbers, but only from among the beautiful, innocent, and most amiable children of mortals. It was not a vindictive act on their part, for the ‘good people’ were not known to show any signs of being ill-disposed in any way toward men or women. This was especially true if the mortals had made some effort to show the ‘good-people’ some respect, or at least had not provoked them with their bad behaviour.

In bygone days, however, there were some fairy-folk known as ‘Gentiles’ or ‘Tribes of the Glens’ who were not just as kindly. They were believed to have been dark spirits, or monsters, who generally lived in lonely valleys, wild dells, and gloomy caverns. Although they appeared to have possessed a limited ability to actually harm human beings, they were considered to be revengeful, deceitful, and malevolent spirits when the opportunity was presented to them. Although they were easily overcome by brave warriors in those far-off days, the ordinary Irish peasantry was always worried about the mischievous plans and resentful attitude that these dark spirits could conjure up. There were none who would even consider the prospect of passing by the haunts of these ‘Gentiles’ late in the evening, or after nightfall.

When it comes to the ‘Good People’ Irish popular tradition is filled with many weird places and personages, all of which have found their way into our native literature. Their names are related to some of the most famous chieftains and females in Irish mythology, and to a variety of fairy-haunts. The Fiachna MacRoetach and Eoichaidh MacSail are mentioned in Irish folklore as rival chiefs among the Sidhe, or fairy-men. Ilbhreac was the Elfin chief of Eas Roe (Ballyshannon), where there was a much celebrated Sidhe mansion. Meanwhile, in a Rath along the side of the road between Cork and Youghal it is believed that a ghostly chieftain, called Knop, holds court among his folk. Sometimes, music and merriment are heard from within this fort, and travellers along that road have reported that they saw strange lights around it. A similar fairy mound, which the locals call ‘Brigh Leith’ has been a famous home to the ‘Good-People’ in Westmeath since ancient times.

The ‘White Shee’, or ‘Fairy Queen’ has long been recognised as having pre-eminence over others of her sex. Folklore tells us that ‘Ounaheencha’ a fairy queen of the ocean, would sail around the coasts of Kerry, Cork, and Clare in her quest for handsome young men, who were captured and taken to her cave. Again, the fairy damsel is famed for having given Finn MacCool a battle stone, to which a chain of gold was fastened. With this weapon in his hands, Finn was rendered totally invincible on the field of battle.

‘Cleena’, the Elfin Queen of South Munster, is reputed to live in her invisible palace at ‘Carrig Cleena’ near Fermoy, County Cork. In Irish, known as ‘Cliodhna’, she is said descended from the ‘Tuatha de Danaan’ and her name is given to a loud, roaring, surge that occurs in Glandore harbour, ‘The Wave of Cleena’ (Tonn Cliodhna). But along the coast of Cork there are numerous caverns, which the sea has hollowed out of the rocks, and from these caves, the waves echo loudly with a deep, monotonous roar. In the calm of night, those moaning surges from ‘Tonn Cliodhna’ are especially impressive, bringing a sense of fear and melancholy to the local people.

The names of such Fairy-Queens were renowned among the Irish peasantry of old, on a level comparable with that of ‘Meadbh’, who was the celebrated Queen of Connaught. She was, perhaps, the most renowned among the heroines of Ireland’s ancient days and figures very prominently in the annals of our nation. But, Meadbh was not renowned simply for her beauty, which was said to be unmatched, or poetic ability. It was her masculine vigour of character that makes her stand out when compared to others of her sex. When young, she contracted a marriage with the King of Ulster, Conor McNessa, which ended unhappily for her. Separated from King Conor, Meadbh formed an alliance with a Connaught chieftain called Ailill. Unfortunately, Ailill died a short time after the marriage. Meadbh, however, did not mourn for long before she married the son of the King of Leinster, who was also called Ailill. But it was Meadbh’s fighting abilities and her warlike deeds that became the subject of many old bardic stories and romances.

In my youth, which was not that long ago, I knew of several local people who were excellent at telling stories and passing on their folkloric knowledge, although they were already old or middle-aged. In those days while working in the fields, or sitting by the fireside, or at fair, a market, or merry making on a Sunday or holiday, it was customary to hear or relate an old story. These tales often had plots more intricate, yet just as interesting, and well-drawn to a satisfying conclusion as any that you find in the stories of the finest novelists. Many an hour I would lie under a shady tree or hedgerow and would listen with delight to the tales of wonder. In these tales were many kings and princes that were portrayed as the hero and, usually after a considerable share of fighting with giants or chieftains, some accomplished and beautiful princess became a bride to the conqueror, and returned with him to share the honours of his palace and kingdom.