Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Poteen. The Pot of Gold at the end of a rainbow.

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.

The Godstone of Inishkea.

In 1851, Robert Jocelyn, the third Earl of Rodan and a prominent protestant Tory wrote about the Stone Idol of Inishkea also known as the Naomhóg. He referred to the Islanders as a bunch of heathens linking their use of the Irish language and Celtic traditions with ignorance and popery and in effect setting the seeds for the Great Famine of 1845.  Well its always easy to blame someone else.

The God Stone of Inishkea.

The Naomhóg.

In the mid nineteenth century the population of Inishkea numbered around four hundred, they supported themselves by fishing, potato crops, shell fish and seaweed.  Ruled over by their own King they were to all intents and purpose self sufficient and lived by their own self imposed laws. Occasionally visited by clergy off the mainland they had been baptised into the Church, they made rare visits to worship in the King’s house, and the Holy Well which they called ‘Derivla’ but still practised their traditional religion.

The people of the Islands worshipped a stone idol which was dressed in flannel and cared for by a priestess, the origin of this idol and its early history has long been forgotten but it is said to have immense power.  The Islanders pray to it in times of sickness, and its power is invoked in order to manipulate the weather. When they see a ship in the distance it is alleged that they would pray for a storm and that this resulted in heavy seas that would smash the helpless ship against the rocks, they would then plunder the contents and dispose of survivors. Conversely, the Islanders would pray to the stone idol when the seas were choppy in order to calm the waves so they could go fishing or visit the mainland.

There are a number of different stories told about the power of the stone idol. One stormy day an Island man was so sick his wife believed he was not long for this world and although she had prayed to the idol to restore him to health it was to no avail.  She decided to send for the priest from the mainland to see if he could help him and if not at least administer the last rites.  Unfortunately, there was an incredible storm brewing and the Islanders were scared of putting to sea without the stone idol to protect them on their voyage. They placed the idol in the boat and set off for the mainland, they successfully made the voyage and declared to the astonished priest that it was the presence of the idol that ensured their safety.  The sick man recovered and this was also attributed to the power of the Naomhóg.

Another story relates how a number of pirates landed upon the south Island and finding very little plunder they decided to set fire to all the cottages.  They burned very easily as they were mainly constructed of timber and straw, all except one.  This would not burn no matter what they did to it, every time they lit a fire it promptly went out.  The leader of the pirates was incensed by this and suspecting witchcraft he ordered the cottage to be searched.  He had heard rumours about the power of a stone idol that was in the possession of the Islanders and his men appeared carrying the Naomhóg, he gave orders that it should be smashed.  This would put an end to the raising of storms and the destruction of ships that he considered his own; it would also prevent the Islanders from seeking their revenge upon him for his actions that day.

The Pirates returned to their ship and with the sound of laughter sailed away never to return. The Islanders collected all the broken pieces of the stone idol and tied them together with strips of leather and in order to keep the idol warm they dressed it in a suit of flannel.  This flannel is replaced every New Year.  No one is sure whether the treatment by the pirates had any long lasting effect upon the idol but the Islanders still held it in great regard.  

I wonder if Naomhóg means little Niamh.  She was the daughter of the King of the sea Manannán Mac Lír who took Oisin to Tír na nÓg. Her father had power over the sea so it might not be too much of a stretch of the imagination to assume that his daughter would have the same powers to command the waves and storms.  Could it be that the red flannel suit was in fact a red dress? 

There is also a story that was told to an English traveller in 1959. The Godstone was associated with potato fertility during the famine of 1845-50.  It was said that the Islanders from South Inishkea stole the idol from the Islanders of North Island.  It was supposedly thrown into the sea by a catholic priest called Father O’Reilly in the 1890s.  He died shortly afterwards and the Islanders swear it was a direct result of his attempted destruction of the idol.

However, on the night of the 28th October 1927 the power of the sea was to prove deadly. It is said that even the oldest fisherman can be surprised at the sudden anger shown by the sea and it was on this night that thirty currachs set out on a fishing expedition. Each was manned by two men, it was a dark night but the sea had been calm all that day and even though the barometers showed low pressure they decided to take a chance. Ten of those young men would pay the ultimate price, in just over an hour of setting out, eight men from South Island and two from North Island were swept to their death.

Like a screaming banshee the hurricane came out of the night tossing their boats as if they were made of nothing more than paper.  It was said afterwards that many more would have died had it not been for their uncanny ability to read the weather.  They sensed a change in the air and turned their boats for home, shouting to others to do the same; those who reacted quickly were saved, their boats thrown up onto the shore by the power of the waves. The others were not so lucky; the storm was so bad that nothing could be done to save them.  Six currachs didn’t manage to reach land and of the twelve young men only two were saved, brothers John and Anthony Meenaghan.  The people of Inishkea waited upon the shore all night hoping beyond hope that the other ten young men would return home but when the following morning dawned their hopes were dashed. They found the broken remains of four currachs and one unbroken, one body was found that day, John Reilly who had been accompanied by his younger brother, fourteen year old Terry.  As the days progressed more bodies were found, one by one washed up on the shores of the mainland, sometimes only identifiable by their clothing or their boots.
The storm was so bad that the families of the deceased were unable to get to Falmore cemetery to attend the funerals of their loved ones.  Michael Keanes body was never found.  If that wasn’t bad enough five years later two more fishermen from North Island were drowned.  One of these, Michael Lavelle was never found.  There is a monument with their twelve names on it erected in Falmore.  In the 1930s the families of both Islands left for the mainland, they still retain the right to their properties on the Islands and some of those families are still fishermen. 

The Islands now lie empty except for the birds, seals, and the odd donkey.  Tourists visit when the weather allows and they wander the Islands and look at the abandoned cottages and the ruins of the old church and schoolhouse.  I have been there myself and felt an eerie silence as the wind kissed my cheek. The sound of the gulls and the gentle grazing of the few animals, it was a very moving and emotional experience and I couldn’t help but feel a lump in my throat as I read the names of those poor young men who fought the sea that dark October night and lost.  May they and all those brave sea farers Rest In Peace.