What exactly is Poteen or Poitín? If you are Irish then you’ll already know. If you are American then you will recognise the same beverage under the name of Moonshine. Yes, dear reader, it’s the intoxicating illegal liquor of the Emerald Isle and has a history steeped in folkloric charm and myth.
In Praise of Poteen by John McGuffin is an entertaining read of the bitter-sweet variety. Its subject matter lends itself to comic interludes but also introduces us to the harsh reality of the Irish poor. Many dangers were encountered in not only the manufacture of the drink but also the consumption of the aforementioned hooch.
In 1854 a revenue officer claimed “the average Poitín maker can clear 3 shillings (15p) a gallon profit”. The officer also stated that this wasn’t as good as in 1818 when “deducting all their losses, expenses and risks, together with bribes paid to the revenue officers, the Poitín maker makes £1 for each day he works”. Nice to think that a cottage industry supported all members of the community!
It seems to have been a popular and profitable pastime and one that landlords were reluctant to stamp out. The reason for turning a blind eye had nothing to do with desire to allow tenants to throw the occasional party but had everything to do with the fact that the income from the drink was often the only method of making money enough to pay the landlord his rent.
The by-products of Poteen were put to good use. The first run was very strong and almost undrinkable, so was considered as a balm for cuts and sprains. The waste was fed to cattle and anyone with cows in peak condition was suspected of involvement with the illegal industry.
A rather dangerous by-product was ether, which was also used as a drink in Ulster. This was truly nasty stuff and difficult to consume without drinking a glass of water before, a glass of water after and holding one’s nose during the exercise. The period of intoxication only lasted about twenty minutes and didn’t leave a hangover so you could get drunk on ether a dozen times a day! That’s a “sobering” thought!
In Praise of Poteen is a fascinating read. Its style is rich and amusing and it is sure to be a classic. Generations of Poteen producers have gone but this book remains as an unsentimental reminder of a colourful element of Irish history.
In Praise of Poteen
Author: John McGuffin
Published by Appletree Press, Belfast
Food and Drink history review by Chrissie Walker © 2018