The Poteen

From the Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 6, August 4, 1832

Ireland has long been famous, or, as the Temperance Society men would say, infamous, for her love of the bottle. Now, without declaring ourselves on the side of the abstinent folks — without saying that we ought never to take a drop, and without binding ourselves never to be hearty over a tumbler of whiskey punch — we may venture to say, that it would be decidedly better for Ireland, in the long run, if she never had a distillery in the island. We say this on looking at the mischief which ardent spirits have always created in our isle. The misery, the degradation, the fightings, and even the murders, which it has been the fatal origin of, may well justify such a wish — if our countrymen could be brought just to take it temperately. A great alteration for the better has already taken place in this respect; and we sincerely trust that the improvement will be progressive. We extract the following account of a visit to a Poteen Distiller from "Sketches in Ireland," published by Curry and Co. of Dublin, and printed in 1827.

"One morning in July, as I was dressing myself to walk out before breakfast, I heard a noise at my back door, and observed one of my people remonstrating with a man who was anxiously pressing into the house. I went down and met the man whose demi-genteel dress and peculiar cut marked him to be a guager. 'O! for mercy's sake," cried the man when he saw me, 'let me into your house; lock me up somewhere; hide me, save me, or my life is lost.' So I brought him in, begged of him to sit down, and offering him some refreshment, requested him to recover his courage, and come to himself, for there was no danger. While I was speaking, an immense crowd came up to the house, and surrounded it; and one man more forward than the rest, came up to the door, and demanded admission. On my speaking to him out of the window, and inquiring what his business was, he replied, 'We find you have got Mr. ----, the guager, in your house: you must deliver him up to us; we want him.' 'What do you want him for?' 'Oh, Doctor, that's no business for you to meddle in; we want him and must have him.' 'Indeed that I cannot allow; he is under my roof; he has come, claiming my hospitality, and I must and will afford it to him.' 'Doctor there are two words to that bargain: you ought to have consulted us before you promised; but to be plain with you, we really respect you very much; you are a quiet and a good man, and mind your own business; and we would make the man sore and sorry that would touch the hair of your head. But you must give us the guager; to be at a word with you doctor, we must tear open, or tear down your house, or get him.'

What was I to do? What could I do? — nothing, I had not a gun or pistol in my house; 'so,' says I, 'boys, you must, it seems, do as you like, and mind I protest against what you are about; but since you must have your own way, as you are Irishmen, I demand fair play at your hands. The man had ten minutes law of you when he came to my house: let him have the same law still: let him not be the worse of the shelter he has taken here; do you, therefore, return to the hill at the rere of the house, and I will let him out at the hall door, and let him have his ten minutes law.' I thought that in those ten minutes, as he was young and healthy, that he would reach the river Lennan, about a quarter of a mile off, in front of the house, and swimming over it, escape. So they all agreed that the proposal was a fair one; at any rate, they promised to abide by it; and the man seeing the necessity of the case, consented to leave the house; I enlarged him at the hall door, the pursuers all true to their pledged honour, stood on a hill about two hundred yards in the rere of the house, a hanging lawn sloped down towards a small river that in all places at that season of the year was fordable; about a quarter of a mile further off still, in front of the house, the larger river, Lennan, ran deep and broad between high and rocky banks.

The guager started off, like a buck, and as a hunted deer he ran his best, for he ran for his life, he passed the little river in excellent style, and just as he had ascended its further bank and was rising the hilly ridge that divided the smaller from the broader stream, his pursuers broke loose, all highland men, tall, loose, agile, young; with breast and sinews strong to breast a mountain; men who many a time and oft, over bog and brae, had run from the guager, and now they were after him with fast foot and full cry. From the hall door the whole hunt could be seen — they helter skelter down the lawn rushing — he toiling up the opposite hill and straining to crown its summit; at length he got out of sight, he passed the ridge and rushed down to the Lennan; here, out of breath, without time to strip, without time to choose a convenient place, he took the soil in the hunting phrase, and made his plunge,- at all times a bad swimmer — now out of breath, encumbered with his clothes, the water rushing dark, deep, and rapid, amidst surrounding rocks; through whirls and currents, and drowning holes, the poor man struggled for life; in another minute he would have sunk for ever, when his pursuers came up, and two or three of the most active and best swimmers rushed in and saved him from a watery grave.

The whole party immediately got about him, they rolled him about until they got the water out of his stomach, wiped him with their frize coats: twenty warm hands were employed rubbing him into warmth, they did every thing humanity could suggest to bring him to himself. Reader, please to recollect, that we are not describing the feats or fortunes of Captain Rock or his myrmidons; we are not about to detail the minutiae of a cold-blooded, long calculated murder; we are not describing the actions of men who are more careful of the life of a pig than of a human creature. No, the Donegal mountaineers had a deed to do, but not of death; they were about a deliberate work, but not of murder. The moment the guager was restored to himself, and in order to contribute to it an ample dose of the poteen that he had persecuted was poured down his throat, they proceeded to tie a bandage over his eyes, and they mounted him on a rahery, or mountain pony, and off they set with their captive towards the mountains.

For a whole day they paraded him up and down, through glens and defiles, and over mountain sides, and at length, towards the close of a summer's evening, they brought him to the solitary and secluded Glen Veagh; here they embarked him in a curragh, or wicker boat, and after rowing him up and down for some hours in the lake they landed him on a little island where was a hut that had often served as a shelter for the fowler, as he watched his aim at the wild water birds of the lake, and still oftener as the still-house for the manufacture of irrepressible, unconquerable poteen; and here, under the care of two trusty men was he left, the bandage carefully kept on his eyes, and well fed on trout, grouse, hares, and chickens; plenty of poteen mixed with the pure water of the lake was his portion to drink, and for six weeks was he thus kept cooped in the dark like a fattening fowl, and at the expiration of that time his keepers one morning took him under the arm, and desired him to accompany them; then brought him to a boat, rowed him up and down, wafted him from island to island, conveyed him to shore, mounted him on the pony, brought him as before for the length of a day here and there through glen and mountain, and towards the close of night, the liberated guager finds himself alone on the high road to Letterkenny, The poor man returned that night to his family, who had given him over as either murdered, or gone to America. But he stood not as a grimly ghost at the door, but as fat and sleek, and as happy as ever.

Now wherefore all this trouble; why all these pains to catch a guager, fatten him, and let him loose? Oh, it was of much and important consequence to these poor mountaineers. A lawless act it surely was; but taking into view that it was an act big with consequences affecting their future ruin or prosperity, it might almost be pardonable. Amidst the numerous parliamentary enactments that the revenue department of the country caused to be passed in order to repress the system of illicit distillation in Ireland, one was a law as contrary to the spirit of the British legislation as to the common principles of equity and conventional right — a law punishing the innocent in substitution for the guilty. This law made the townland in which the still was found, or any part of the process of distillation detected, liable to a heavy fine, to be levied indiscriminately on all its landholders. The consequence of this law was, that the whole North of Ireland was involved in one common confiscation. It was the fiscal triumph of guagers and informers over the landlords and proprietors of the country. They were leaping their harvest of ruin, under a bonus offered for avarice, treachery, and perjury. Acting on this anti-social system, the guager of the district in question had informations to the amount of £7000 against the respective townlands of which it was composed. These informations were to be passed or otherwise at the approaching assizes, and there was no doubt but that the guager could substantiate them according to the existing law — and thus effect the total ruin of the people.

Under those circumstances the plot for the seizure and abduction of the revenue-officer was laid. It was known that on a certain day about a month prior to the assizes he was to pass through the district on his way to the coast — it was known that he kept those informations about his person, and therefore they waylaid him, and succeeded in keeping him out of sight until the assizes were over, and shortly after this imprudent and unconstitutional law was repealed.

But to return to Glen Veagh: as we were rambling along its rocky strand, admiring the stillness of its waters — the sublime solitariness of its mountain shore; here a ravine, climbing: up amongst the hills; its chasms and its dancing waterfalls, fringed with birch and stunted oak; there a white silicious peak, protruding itself on high, over which the hawk cowered, as if priding itself on its inaccessible nest; before us the sleeping lake, extended itself—

"Blue, dark, and deep, round many an isle."

and these isles set like precious gems, with just enough of trees for ornament: the birch, the rowan ash, the service, the holly; and high from the central, largest, and most distant island, arose a blue and wreathed smoke, that bespoke the manufacture of mountain dew; the smoke certainly added much to the picturesque accompaniment of the scene, and we could just discern a small cabin or sheeling in the island, half concealed amidst the copsewood in which it was enveloped.

I could not help expressing a wish to see the process whereby this admired liqour was compounded, that in the estimation of every Irishman — aye, and high born Englishmen too — is so superior in sweetness, salubrity, and gusto, to all that machinery, science and capital can produce in the legalized way, and which verifies the observation of the wise man, "that stolen waters are sweet." Just as we were conversing in this way, a man turning the point of a rock, stood unexpectedly within a few yards of us. He was one of the largest men I have ever seen amongst the Irish commonality. He was tall, that is not unusual; but he was lusty, his bones and muscles were covered with flesh; there was a trunk-like swell in his chest, and a massiveness in his body, a pillar-like formation of limbs bespeaking that he was a man moulded to be a giant, and was fed up to the full exercise and capability of his frame. He had a bull-like contour of head and neck short and crisp curls appeared from under a small hat which seemed unable to settle itself over his ears, from the full developement of the organ of combativeness that protruded itself in this region of his cranium.

The man stood before us with the assured look of one who was prepared saucily to say, what business have you here; two grey hounds were at his heels, and a lurking grisly cur, half bull-dog, half terrier, shewed his white teeth and began to growl. 'Oh, how are you Teigue?' cried my friend (who, I believe, knows every one in Donegal) `how are you, my gay fellow; I am glad to see you, for you are just the man in all these mountains that I wanted to see.' 'Why, then, your honour, I am entirely obliged to you; and in troth when I just came upon you now, I did not know your honour; for as I was just walking over the mountain, I saw some strange unco people, and I only slipt down to see the cut of their countenances.' 'Ah, Teigue,! I know rightly you do not like unco people, for fear that a guager might be amongst them.' 'Ah, then, now, is it I fear a guager? Teigue O'Gallagher fear a guager! — no, nor a commissioner from Dublin Customhouse, barring he had army and guns at his back — not I by my troth, for it's little I'd matter just taking one of them by the waistband of the breeches and filipping him, do you see, into the middle of the lake, and there leave him to keep company with the trouts — no, no; but the likes of you- no offence master, the likes of you I mean, not in the inside, but the teeth outwards, might come and give information, and put dacent people to trouble, and be after bringing the army here to this quiet place, and put us out of our way and all that.'

'Well, Teigue, you know me, don't you?' — 'I do, your honour, and am sartain sure that you are true, and of the right sort, and every inch about you honest.' — 'Well, Teigue; I want to get this gentleman who is a friend of mine, on the lake; he desires to get into a boat to see its beauties more conveniently, besides he has a longing wish to see how the hearty drop is made, can you indulge him?' 'That I will, and a thousand welcomes;' so away he went towards the point of the rock, which jutted out into the water, and putting his finger to his mouth, he sent forth a whistle that sounded over the lake, and thus reverberating, echoed from bay to bay, and multiplied itself through the glens and gorges of the mountains; at the same time he made some telegraphic signal, and in a minute we saw a boat push off from the island of Smoke.

While Teigue was absent, I asked my friend who he was? — Why, says he, that is one of the most comfortable and independent fellows in all this mountain district — he exerts a muscular and moral influence over the people; he has a great deal of sense, a great deal of determination; a constant view to his own interest; and luckily he considers that interest best promoted, by keeping the country in peace. Those that fall out he beats into good humour, and when the weight of his argument cannot prevail, the weight of his fist enforces compliance with his wishes. Then he is the patron of illicit distillation — he is co-partner in the adventure, and is the watchful guardian over its process; there is not a movement of a guager that he does not make himself acquainted with; there is not a detachment leaves a village or town that he has not under watch, and before a policeman or a red coat, comes within three miles of these waters, all would be prepared for them; still and worm sunk, malt buried, barrels and coolers disposed of, and the boat scuttled. There is not a man in Ireland lives better in his own way than Teigue: his chests are full of meal, the roof of his kitchen is festooned with bacon, his byre is full of cows, his sheep range on a hundred hills: as a countryman said to me the other day, "Teigue O'Gallagher is the only man of his sort in Donegal that eats white bread, toasted, buttered, and washed down with tea for his breakfast.

In the mean time the boat came near, and Teigue joined us, and after some difficulty in getting abroad from the rocks, and adjusting ourselves in proper trim in the most frail bark that perhaps was ever launched on water, we rowed out into the lake; and here really the apparent peril of our situation, deprived me of the pleasure that might otherwise be enjoyed in the picturesque scenery around; the bottom of the boat was covered with water, which oozed in through a sod of turf, that served as a plug to the hole in its bottom, the size of my head; and Teigue O'Gallagher, who sat at the head of the boat surrounded by his dripping dogs, almost sunk it to the gunwale, and every now and then, the dogs uneasy at their confinement, tumbled about and disturbed our equilibrium; if a gust of wind had come, as often as it does on a sudden from the hills, we should have been in a perilous state. As it was, the two young men who rowed us, and who, it is to be supposed, could swim, enjoyed our nervous state, and out of fun told us stories of sudden hurricanes, and of the dangers and deaths that have happened to navigators on this lake; we, therefore, declined a protracted expedition, and only desired to be landed on the island, where we arrived in a short time, and then had opportunity of witnessing the arcana of illicit distillation. The island that at a distance looked so pretty with its copsewood, its sheeting, and its wreathing smoke, when we reached it, presented as ugly and disgusting a detail as possible; and a Teniers or a Cruikshank, could only do justice to the scene, and present a lively picture of its uncouth accompaniments.

A half roofed cabin, in which was a raging fire, over which was suspended the pot with its connected head and worm; two of the filthiest of human beings, half naked, squalid unhealthy looking creatures, with skins encrusted with filth, hair long, uncombed, and matted, where vermin of all sorts seemed to quarter themselves and nidificate; and where (as Burns says,) "horn or bone ne'er dare unsettle their thick plantations;" these were the operatives of the filthy process which seemed in all its details, to be carried on in nastiness.

John Barleycorn, though hero bold,
Of noble enterprise;
When Irishman distil his blood,
They cleanliness despise.

The whole area of the island was one dunghill composed of fermenting grains; there were about twenty immense hogs either feeding or snoring on the food that lay beneath them; and so alive with rats was the whole concern that one of the boatmen compared them in number and intrusivensss to flocks of sparrows on the side of a shelling-hill adjoining a corn-mill. I asked one of the boatmen where the men who attended the still slept. 'Och, where should they sleep but on the grains with the pigs; they have never been off the island these six months, they have never changed their clothes, and, I believe, though they are convenient enough to the water, they have never washed themselves." "And are they not afraid?" "Why, who would they be afraid of but the rats." "And do they never go to divine worship?" "Ah, that they don't, it's little they care about religion — one of them is a Protestant, and he curses so much that it's enough to keep ghost, angel, or devil off the place — and in troth the Catholic is not much better, maybe the Priest wont have work enough with him yet."

I was truly disgusted with the whole scene, and anxious to quit it.* I was vexed and disappointed to find such a romantic and beautiful spot so defiled, so desecrated, I might say, by a maufacture that has proved of incalculable mischief to the peaceful habits, the moral character, and religious duties of the people of the country — but we would not be allowed to part before we partook of the produce of the pot. With all his faults, Pat is not deficient in generosity, and he is ever ready to share — yes, and often to waste the liquor which he has a peculiar delight in manufacturing: because, perhaps, the undertaking is attended with risk, and gives birth to adventurous engagements, and escapes; and, as the song says,

"An Irishman all in his glory is there."

To the above description, we add a few reflections from Letters from the Irish Highlands:—

"Among all the striking peculiarities which arrest the attention of an English stranger, on his first visit to Ireland, there is none, I have often thought, that must at once excite such surprise, and lead the mind to such sad and sober reflections, as the hostile feelings of the majority of the people towards the law of the land. They will make use of its strong arm occasionally to oppress an inferior, or to wreak their vengeance on an equal; but they never look to it with the feelings which an Englishman cherishes; they have not learned to regard it as the protector of their persons and properties, and the guardian of their dearest rights and liberties. From the rebellious code of Ribandism, which downs him to destruction who ventures to appeal to the tribunals of justice against the hand of midnight violence, to the easy good nature of the peasant, who, without advantage to himself, assists his neighbour, in concealing the keg of illicit whiskey, or the bale of smuggled tobacco, the spirit is the same. The hand of the law has been against every man — and now, every man's hand is, in turn, raised against the law. But it is not for me to lead you back in the trodden path of history, to point out the wrongs which poor Ireland has received at the hands of her conquerors. You know that her sons were once hunted like wild beasts, through the woods of Connaught; and where is the wonder then, if they failed to recognise a benefactor, when they beheld, it is true, laws and civilization in one hand, but in the other a frightful accompaniment of whips and scourges? Need I remind you that until the reign of James I. who, perhaps never more truly than on this point deserved the title of the English Solomon, the poor Irish pleaded in vain to be governed by the English law? This was a favour granted only to a few, while the majority of the natives, the mere Irish, as they were disdainfully termed, were denied a participation in the rights and privileges of English subjects, and were thus compelled to govern themselves by their own barbarous usages and customs, while they were exposed, almost without protection, to the outrages of their more favored neighbours.

A more enlightened policy has at length succeeded to these days of darkness; and let us hope that after a time the governors and the governed will form but one people. As they carried on a continual warfare against the law, and all its ministers, it became necessary that they should be acquainted with its intricacies, and estimate well the terrors of its sanctions. And this they have done. The lower orders of Irish, though an uneducated, are not an uninformed people, and upon this subject, which is of such vital importance to them they often show a knowledge, not only of the common points, but also of the technical niceties, which is far beyond any thing that would be met with in an English peasant. They understand exactly how far they may go without hazarding the animadversion of a magistrate; and often as they exceed the bounds of moderation, yet still oftener do they venture upon the very verge, and there stop short, to the surprise and admiration of all spectators."

NOTE

* The visit to Glen Veagh, took place some years ago, I have reason to believe, that in consequence of better arrangement in the revenue department, illicit distillation has ceased long ago in Glen Veagh.

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