It has been said that poteen has been produced in Ireland ever since the first potato was plucked from the ground. The name Poteen means little pot and is supposed to reflect its small scale production. You know maybe it’s that pot of gold that you may find at the end of a rainbow.
According to legend St. Patrick was said to have been responsible for introducing poteen to Ireland in the fifth century A.D. Having run out of mass wine he brewed up the first batch of poteen. However, I would suggest that this is a complete fabrication and has more to do with the fact that Christian monks recorded the practice of poteen making in written form and as with a lot of other urban myths concerning St Patrick it has become part of Irish folklore.
In fact one of the earliest records of distilling aqua vitae or the water of life also has a religious connection. In the Exchequer Rolls of 1494 it was recorded that eight bolls of malt were delivered to Friar John Cor to make whiskey. Distilled spirits were commonly made in monasteries for medical purposes and were often prescribed for the preservation of good health and as a general cure all.
There were monastic distilleries recorded in Ireland in the late 12th century. The medical benefits were formally endorsed in 1505 when the Guild of Surgeon Barbers was granted a monopoly over the manufacture of aqua vitae which they used when carrying out surgical procedures.
Of course there have been many in the medical profession who have condemned poteen as highly dangerous and warn of the very real threat of alcoholic poisoning and they also claim that it was responsible for a huge problem with alcoholism in rural Ireland.
They also pointed out the increase in mental illness and it was suggested at one time that more than half the people in the mental asylum in County Mayo were there from the effects of poteen drinking. However, in 1730, one doctor claimed that drinking poteen to the point of intoxication held off old-age, aided digestion, enlightened the heart, and quickened the mind. I would not recommend this advice folks.
In Ireland we hold a wake for someone who has died and one suggestion for this was said to be because of the after effects of poteen. It was said that people didn’t know if those who were lay as if dead were just unconscious or were actually dead so they used to wait up at night for them to wake up, hence the name. A more recent story which is probably a myth is that it was called a wake because of the frequent lead poisoning suffered by people drinking from pewter tankards. One of the symptoms of lead poisoning is that of a catatonic state that resembles death from which you would hopefully recover in anything from a few hours to a couple of days. It was for this reason that a burial was delayed to give the poor unfortunate a chance to wake up. I’d make your own mind up about that one.
It was in1661 that King Charles II, attempting to re-build the post-war treasury, decided to introduce a charge on spirits. In Ireland private stills were outlawed and a large section of the Irish population became criminals at the stroke of a pen. The Irish promptly ignored the tax and the making of poteen was forced to go underground. In 1770, the English tried to clamp down on the trade once again but it did very little to slow down production and poteen making took off as a thriving cottage industry.
The stills were moved from cottage to barn then to small shacks in the hills and mountains. Some enterprising individuals set up stills in ancient burial chambers (I wonder if that’s why they are called spirits), some set up on small islands in the middle of lakes, so they could see the gards coming and one fellow even had his still set up on a small boat on a Lough. It was said that for many years he was able to out row the local Gardaí.
There is a wealth of folklore regarding poteen.
Leprechauns are frequently found in a drunken state caused by poteen.
Poteen made in fairy mounds is seen as magical and it was used for curing painful rheumatic joints, half a cup given morning and night was said to be a cure for all ailments.
It is said to be especially potent if a housewife left fresh cream and bread by a fairy mound at night and asked the fairies for a cure for illness. The fairies would then leave a cup of poteen outside the cottage door to heal the sick.
Poteen made from the water of a fairy spring or sacred well also gave it healing properties and it was used by wise women like Biddy Early in medicinal cures.
Drinking poteen on a fairy hill at night will call the fairies to you and in exchange for a drink they are said to grant you a wish in return. However, give them too much and you may end up as their permanent guest. Drinking poteen is also said to be responsible for hallucinations. I’m saying nothing.
The Achill Islanders once referred to poteen simply as Inishkea because of its superior quality and flavour. In fact they suggested that the Islanders of Inishkea should be declared Saints because of their skill. The reasons given for the quality of this illegal produce included the remote location of Inishkea which enabled the still owners to take their time in distilling the alcohol without fear of interruption by the Custom’s man or the Gardái, well you should never hurry a good thing. The Island is located off the Mayo coast, because of the changes in the weather the law enforcers may have a calm trip out but then be stuck there for a week due to heavy seas and wind conditions.
Another reason for superior poteen was that it was distilled in copper stills which were far better than the tin stills used on the mainland. These stills were often hidden in the caves on the western side of the Island well away from the prying eyes of unwelcome visitors and they were so valuable they were handed down from father to son.
Inishkea Islanders had a very limited source of income, fishing and poteen provided them with products that could be sold or traded on the mainland and once again the sale of poteen found willing buyers within the clergy (both Catholic and Protestant), and Gardái. There were always customers on Achill Island who eagerly awaited a new batch of poteen unfortunately this was to lead to a great tragedy in 1898 when an Inishkea Islander and his daughter were lost at sea when rowing to Achill with a cargo of poteen. This led to three members of the R.I.C. (Royal Irish Constabulary) to be stationed on the Island.
Eventually the church declared the drinking of poteen a sin, the Bishop of Clogher , Most Rev. Dr. O’Callaghan declared it to be a product that led to smuggling and blamed all the troubles of Ireland on its consumption. One man arrested for its production said “The devil drove me to it yer Honour”, he was convicted and fined a total of £33. On another occasion a shocked priest said to a parishioner “I am told you sold it for £2, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” To which the answer came “Sure Father it was all I could get”. Or was that for selling his vote to the Landlord? There’s an old saying in Ireland “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story”. There I will leave the Islands of Inishkea.