Who would have thought that the scum of fermented barley would prove so attractive a substance?
Someone, somewhere in the mists of time discovered that if you distil said scum, you will have concocted a beverage with a percentage of alcohol so high (up to 90%) that it could blow your britches off.
The illicit substance known as poitín, or anglicised to ‘poteen’, was a staple drink in the countryside for many generations and provided a heart-warming drink for many country people, as well as a source of income. Its more usual method of manufacture was using potatoes, sugar, and yeast. If taken in excessive quantities, of course, it could be lethal.
Its manufacture was deemed illegal by the State as it deprived it of revenues, as well as posing a substantial health risk.
The British passed the Illicit Distillation Act of 1831 and perpetrators could expect heavy fines. The practice continued long after independence, however.
Remote valleys and mountains, woods, or anywhere deemed difficult for the guards to access was perfect to make it.
And where is access more remote than on islands? The myriad islands in Kilkieran Bay, Co Galway, was one such area where the cottage industry thrived and where the gardaí launched numerous attempts to quench its fires — but it always sprang up anew.
The Connacht Tribune reported in 1950 that the Garda boat was too well-known in the area to arrive with the element of surprise and everything illicit could be hidden by the time they arrived.
No locals would willingly row the guards in their boats, so on one occasion two guards dressed as fisherman arrived and inveigled a young girl into thinking they were “looking for a drop of the crathur”. She rowed them to Inisherk, where they duly arrested some poteen makers.
The Tribune reported that “as they approached the island they saw men putting barrels into a boat and going out to sea on the far side of the island. Defendant Patrick Folan was fined £20 in court. The poitín cost 18 shillings for a five-naggin bottle on the islands. And on the mainland the illegal spirits fetched 1 pound a bottle.”
The guards were making little progress, but one determined judge, TG Burke, at Derrynea Court in Connemara declared in 1961 that “I’ll have to put a stop to this” when sample after sample were produced for him. He imposed sentences ranging up to six months on several defendants.
One woman said her son had the measles and that was why she had the firewater. A man said his doctor prescribed a certificate to “drink the stuff” and a man over 70 said everyone “was drunk that night”.
In 1960, around 60 raids were carried out on the islands in a matter of weeks.
Around 80 gallons of wash ready for the still was captured — hidden in earthenware jars or barrels under the rocks. Poteen makers were undeterred, and so were the guards.
The Connemara Tribune reported in 1961 that “all-out war” was declared on the poteen makers of Connemara as eight complete stills, a thousand gallons of beer, raw material for poteen, and poteen itself were seized. A case in 1963 saw the guards engage in a five-mile chase around the islands where they eventually apprehended a Patrick McDonagh and a 15-year-old boy from Inisherk who had three gallons of poteen in their boat. Both were fined in court.
The wave of raids only seemed to increase the resolve of the poteen makers and they devised ever more careful ruses to avoid detection — including distilling on windy days when the smoke from the still would be harder to spot.
The raids continued in 1972 with 200 gallons worth £75 found on Inisherk, along with other quantities on the unpopulated Freaghillaun More.
Radical treatment was proposed in Galway council chamber. “It would serve us better if we cleared all the people from the islands,” said Cllr Patrick Collins in 1957.
Perhaps the harassment of their way of life got too much for the inhabitants of the lovely island of Inisherk. The last person left in 1960. A row of houses at the waterfront is the only reminder left of its few former inhabitants.
Inisherk is near Lettermullan in south Connemara