by Ian and Stasia Sherry of Ireland
I reached away back into the back of the scullery cupboard and ‘hand fishing’ I pulled out a bottle. A small bottle with my name on it – in my Uncle Stephen’s hand. A bottle of poitin he’d given me; it must have been there for forty years. I’ve never been a big poitin drinker preferring a pint of porter myself but Stephen managed poitin very well. He’d put a splash of it into his tea in the morning and rub it on his joints at night.
My granny often sang a bar of a song ‘I left my blackbird clockin’ on the hills of Mullaghmore.’ At the time I thought it a lovely emigration lament. Not a bit of it – It wasn’t until I heard the whole song sang in a pub many years later did I realize it was about a Poitin Stil on the mountain behind our house. “Well it’s for your loyal blackbird, she’s the best of game: Her offspring are well proven in America, France and Spain.”
Long before Ireland’s great emigrations caused by the famines of the mid 1800s Ulster Scots were emigrating to America bringing with them their music and to go with it ‘moonshine.’
I spent all my life on our mountain; sheep; horses; even as a child a whole summer playing with McGovern’s donkey so I’m very sure there was never (in my time) a poitin stil on it; but there was always a stil over the townland fence on Gruggandoo. We always had all the ingredients right to hand to make good poitin. Barley, spring water; and yeast. And toing and froing between Scotland; many working as boiler makers in the ship building on The Clyde, there was no problem providing the pots and condensing spirals required. The loft directly above the two horses in the stable had the perfect floor. The heat rising gave a temperature just right for germination. The oats spread and kept moist would in a few days sprout and then be dried off. The grain, careful turned in a big pot hung on the crook of the kitchen’s open fire. Each batch cooled and ground not too finely for the fermentation stage.
It was all down to the poitin makers’ alchemy now. Adding hot water; not too hot to make gruel; yet warm enough to make a blend. This left for an hour or so; strained and yeast added for fermentation to start. (The ‘sludge’ mana for a sow.) It takes about four days for the yeast’s activity to subside and surrender a 5% ale ready to be distilled. Distilled far from human habitation on common land. To be discovered by the excise men meant destruction of the stil (part and parcel of the game) but to be caught in ‘possession’ meant possible imprisonment and a heavy fine.
We lived ‘not a stones throw’ from Drumreagh school and generations before me were educated there. My grandfather carted stone to build the ‘new school’ (1904) and my mother went there; so I was pleased when asked – with Danny Parr – to survey and map his path from Crotleive over the mountain to a school long closed. On a couple of lovely summer evenings in 1975 Danny relived his trip.
Logie Dubagh (The Dark Lough) lies in the saddle of Loughinmore and Roosley and affords a viewpoint of the entire valley. There’s dried turf at hand to boil a sealed pot and ample water to cool the spiral of the distillation arm. My neighbour Hillary, a historian, emailed me old newspaper reports.
“Newry Telegraph: 4th March. 1836: Lieut Robinson and his party (Revenue Police) in the mountainous area of Crotleive seized and destroyed one of the most extensive illegal distilleries ever known in this part of the country.”
“December 24th 1878: After a tollsome tramp, Constable Price and sub constables Campbell and Strong succeeded in discovering a private stil situated between two small hills on the Crotlieve mountain. Their approach must have been observed for there was no human being visible in the neighbourhood. There was a fire under the stil, 40 gallons of wash, clear cold water played on the worm and poteen gently trickling out into a tin can.”
Speaking to George. He’s from the north of Scotland and he told me there’s a good return on half a hundred of grain – a dozen or more pints of poitin and that Robbie Burns was an excise man.
At that time the way they tested alcohol suitable to drink was to mix a paste of gunpowder and spirit and ignite with a flint. If the compound exploded the alcohol was too strong – watered down until a flickering blue flame deemed the alcohol suitable to drink. Robbie wrote.
“The deils awa,
the deils awa wi’ the Exciseman.
He’s danc’ d awa,
hes danc’ d awa wi the Exciseman”
And a favourite of mine.
“Up in the morning’s no for me;
Up in the morning early;
When a’ the hills are cover’ d wi’ snaw;
I’m sure it’s winter fairly:
Cauld blaws the wind frae east to west;
The drift is driving sairly;
Sae loud and shrill I hear the blast;
I’m sure it’s winter fairly:”
– Robert Burns.