The tumultous history of illicit distillation in Ireland.
The first illicit stills in Ireland were ordinary distilleries that simply ignored the impositions placed on them by a foreign government. The right of craftsmen and regular people to produce whatever they wanted by their own means for their own consumption had never been in question and it must have seemed ridiculous at the time. But the growing popularity of Irish whiskey abroad, combined with the political upheavals of the 16th century, meant that the right to control the production of whiskey became an all out war.
With the ascension of the Tudors came the English thrones need to exert full control over Ireland. When Henry VIII abruptly severed ties from the Catholic Church in order to divorce his wife, the question of England having any rights over Ireland suddenly came into question. Until this point, the only tenuous stake England had over Ireland was a Papal Bull written in 1156 by Pope Adrian IV that gave England the right to invade in order to help bring the Irish church back into line with Rome. This Bull was ignored and it wasn’t until the Irish king of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough, requested help in retaking his lands, that Henry II bothered to send anyone over. The Anglo-Normans consequently spread throughout Ireland, building castles and taking land, largely with the consent of the Gaelic chiefs who saw an opportunity to utilize their military superiority. But by the time of Henry VIII, the descendants of those same lords had become largely Gaellicized.
After Henry VII installment of himself at the head of the newly created Church of England, Ireland, despite England’s attempts to persuade otherwise, remained resolutely Catholic and so did the nominally English gentry in Ireland. Due to previous Irish military involvement in English affairs (such as the War of the Roses), this must have been viewed as a glaring threat. In fact, the most powerful dynasty in Ireland, the Fitzgeralds of Kildare (Earldom of Desmond) were in open rebellion and had to be put down in successive wars. Though rebellions continued to flourish throughout the entire history of the English occupation of Ireland, it was in 1541 that Henry VIII officially declared the Kingdom of Ireland.
From that moment on, control of whiskey production became a point of contention and every successive government managed to add their own bit of legislation to the growing web of whiskey laws. Most of these laws were openly ignored and in some cases, such as the Distillation act of 1779, were the cause of previously law-abiding distillers to go illegal. For one thing, repeated ill treatment of the Irish, including the atrocities visited on Ireland by Cromwell’s army, fostered a spirit of resentment and rebellion towards the English. For another, the steadily increasing taxes placed on the distillers became burdensome to the relatively poorer population of Ireland. The Act of 1779 meant that distillers were now taxed on the size of their still and its presumed output if operating at full capacity, every day rather than the actual amount of whiskey produced. A further act of 1783 that threatened to fine an entire community where an illegal still was found outraged the Irish. By the end of the 18th century, the number of legal stills dropped from 1200 to 20.
This was the beginning of the golden age of Poitín. The word Poitín, alternately spelled poteen or potcheen, is from the Gaelic language, meaning “little pot”. As laws increased in an attempt to stop illicit distillation, so the methods employed by the poitín men evolved in order to evade capture. The equipment utilized by the men had to be small, portable and easily dismantled and hidden. Often stills could be found buried in bog land or in caves or excavated holes in the ground. At one point, a monetary reward was offered for anyone that could give the location of a still. The poitín men, seeing an opportunity, would report in bits and pieces of their own equipment that had broken or worn out, collect the reward, and then be able to buy new equipment with the reward money. These men became renown for their escapades and stories of their ingenious escapes became the stuff of legend.
Legally made whiskey had begun to suffer in quality due to all the various duties, quotas, and licencing laws and became known derisively as “parliament whiskey”. Poitín, as a result, grew into a booming industry and thrived in remote areas, most famously in Counties Mayo and Donegal, where it was harder for revenue forces to penetrate. This also created a much-needed income for the people of these areas that had little else to get by on. Whole communities became involved in protecting the poitín makers including the clergy and the local landlords who also relied on the income from poitín for their rents. A militarized detachment of revenue men was created called the “Excise men” in an attempt to combat this. But often these communities more than held their own against the excise men and deadly skirmishes were common.
Inishowen, a peninsula in County Donegal has perhaps one of the most interesting histories involving poitín. On its western side, Inishowen is all gently rolling hills and farmland coming to rest at a sheltered harbor. Behind this, however, stand the mountains of Croagh Carragh, Mamore, and Raghtin More, whick all but sever the entire area from the mainland. The only point of entry is through the Mamore Gap, which is a narrow pass between two sheer cliffs that are scattered with loose boulders. In 1812 the people of Inishowen declared themselves the independent nation of the “Urris Republic of Poitín” and sealed themselves in by collapsing the pass. This they guarded with patrols who used either cannon fodder taken from wrecked English frigates or loose boulders that would rain down on any forces that tried to enter. The people were fairly self sufficient with their farmland and their fishing, and the Urris Republic of Poitín was able to carry on for 3 years before the English attacked in force and managed to bring down their defenses.
In Loch Conn, near the town of Lahardaun, is a place called Glass Island. This was a famous place locally for the production of poitín and was a regular target for excise raids. The residents of the island were able to see the approach of Excise men well in advance, however, and would have their wares cleverly hidden by the time the officers were able to land their boats. One local story has it that upon the landing of one rather large raiding party on the island, the excise men were not seen again until the next day when they returned empty handed and without having seen anything amiss. Excise men were not required to have any training or previous history with the making of whiskey or the enforcement of law, and it was a known practice among some of them to extract bribes. Though the exact details of these exchanges were never recorded, it is left to the imagination to how these encounters might have gone.
In 1823, legislation changed that made legal distilling much easier. As a result a lot of distillers decided to switch to the legal production of whiskey. With this turn of events, the war on poitín intensified. Even still, the tradition of poitín making is an ingrained part of rural life and it wasn’t until the advent of the famine and subsequent food shortage that poitín began to decline. Although it’s had the occasional re-flourishing, such as during the First World War, it has been on a steady decline till this day. It can still be found in certain areas, though the makers are understandably distrustful and extremely secretive, and upon to entry to some houses in the countryside one might still find the odd bottle tucked away, used for medicinal purposes or to treat livestock. But it is undoubtedly an art and a skill that is slowly disappearing from the cultural traditions still practiced.