Cormac MacConnell: Smooth but fiery taste from a different era

In a friendly farmhouse in Tipperary last week, I was offered a shot of poitín, largely because the farmer is a reader of this paper, and enjoys most of the bits I write here.
Cormac MacConnell: Smooth but fiery taste from a different era

You are a mad hoor, is the way he put it, but there is a bit of craic in you, and I enjoy that.

So we touched glasses, and drank, and not alone was it absolutely illicitly gorgeous, it also brought me back to the first time I tasted the Mountain Dew, more than a half century ago now.

A spiritual kind of trigger if you like.

You see, I was 20 years old, and I went south across the Border to the fabled Ballroom of Romance in Glenfarne in Co Leitrim in my first car, a battered old black Ford, and I was lucky on the night, and a girleen allowed me to bring her home after the dance.

When we got to her farmhouse home, we exchanged maybe five or six kisses at the gate, and she was kind enough to invite me within for a cup of tea.

Don’t get excited, because this was the 1960s in Leitrim, and a cup of tea was exactly that and nothing else.

We went inside to the kitchen.

Her father was sitting by the fire. He welcomed me in, and we shook hands and chatted, whilst the daughter made the tea and a ham sandwich.

I know well that it was the handshake which made the father even more friendly.

I had the soft hands of a young man who was not a farmer, in an era when many farmers did not wish their daughter to become involved with the hard lifestyle then associated with the trade.

Maybe I was a teacher, or a bank clerk, or a civil servant who, if things developed, could offer her a an easier future.

He subtly inquired into my life, and I lied, because I had to. I said I was a clerical worker with a private company because, had I admitted being a young reporter for The Fermanagh Herald, he would probably have thrown me out the door.

Reporters, back then, you see, were lower than a snake’s belly, because they covered the Courts and were responsible for reporting that Uncle Hugh was sent to jail for assault, or drunk driving causing death or fraud, or stuff like that.

So I concealed my trade. The daughter made the tea, and then disappeared to bed.

After the tea the father produced a Lucozade bottle loaded with Leitrim poitín, and that was one of the taste sensations of my entire life. Again, the pure truth.

I think it was the fact it was illicit that added the extra bouquet to the smooth yet fiery enough cut of it on the tongue and tonsils.

There was maybe something truly Celtic and even pagan about the width and depth of it.

We Irish are fundamentally pagan anyway, attracted to the wilder side, and what is forbidden by law.

Also, I now know that this poitín was really top class moonshine, run through the mountain still two or three times to intensify the purity of it.

’Twas gorgeous. We had two shots, that father and I, before I went back out into a world where there were no breathalysers at all.

Incidentally I never even saw the girleen again ever.

Sure, I was 20, and every night was a new experience.

I confess to having enjoyed the occasional shot of poitín quite often since that night, mostly during the quarter-century I dwelt in Connemara.

The truth is that nothing I ever tasted in Connemara was as holistically good as the Leitrim poitín.

Often, the run in Connemara used sugar beet pulp rather than grain for the fermented “baor” from which the spirit was distilled.

Often, too, in a region where there was a brisk trade for it, I think the poitín was only run through the still once and, accordingly, much of it was really dangerous firewater.

One had to beware of it.

However, the quality of the Tipperary poitín I so hugely enjoyed recently bred the thought that surely there is a case to be made for legalising good quality poitín in this New Ireland.

Despite all the odds against it, because of what was truly a revenue exercise by our English masters, the trade has survived into today.

It is a rich fragment of our folklore and heritage and the best of it tastes great.

I know there are several legalised derivatives already, but they don’t taste at all as good, perhaps because the illicit quality is missing from the bouquet.

At a time when craft beers are popping up around us by the hundred, I think there is a golden opportunity there for some entrepreneur to make a legal fortune from our great old Mountain Dew.

Maybe that person is you?

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