A journey back in time to discover what became of the Irish 'Spirit' of Christmas
Published 05/12/2015 | 02:30
This first weekend of December was always the only Black Saturday that mattered for those of us with a taste for poitin's unique, and illegal, flavour. In its traditional heartlands of rural Ireland, laying in a bottle or two of 'the crathur' always figured high on country shopping lists as an extra offering for visitors and neighbours who came calling during 'the Christmas'.
It was the rare farming household that didn't have a bottle tucked away somewhere for emergencies, and that included a wide variety of medical conditions. That famous verse from the Cruiscan Lan puts poitin's restorative case most eloquently: "T' would banish heart diseases, from your lungs would drive flamation/ From your soul t'would drive the Devil, from your heart t'would drive temptation."
From September onwards, well hidden illegal stills moved into peak production as farmers and townies placed orders for their usual Christmas supply. Up to the 1980s, newspapers regularly carried images of Garda raids on these contraband operations, with burly sergeants wielding sledge hammers on barrels concealed in hay sheds, turf reeks and hidden cellars.
One house even had an entire laboratory hidden behind a fake bedroom wall. Sadly, in a sign of changing times and tastes, poitin seizures are virtually negligible in 2015. "Young people have no interest in it, they don't want to drink it and they don't want to take the trouble to make it," an elderly farmer on Kerry's Iveagh peninsula explained of the brew's declining fortunes. "The demand hasn't been there for years. There's still a few old fellows left who'll still make it, bachelor farmers mostly, but the art is dying out for lack of demand."
Known variously as the crathur, The Divel's Soup, mountain dew or the quare stuff, depending on which part of the country you're in, poitin is an alchemy whose roots are ingrained throughout Irish culture. Traditional folk songs like 'The Hills of Connemara' and 'The Rare Old Mountain Dew' extol its virtues, as does 'The Hackler from Grouse Hall', famously covered by Christy Moore. Somewhat fittingly, Poitin was one of the first feature films made entirely in the Irish language back in 1979, starring a perfectly cast Cyril Cusack as the moonshine maestro. Cultural values were one thing, but Poitin was clearly as much about profit as it was about perfect distillation. Author John McGuffin's book, 'In Praise of Poitin', relates an 1824 government report describing the Inishowen peninsula as an area "where the people are smugglers and distillers from the cradle, and gangs of up to 60 men protecting the stills were so ferocious they needed an army to defeat them." The same tale was reported all over the country.
Catching poitin makers red-handed was always an exercise of diligence over ingenuity for the Garda Síochána. In the wild hillsides of West Cork, the great outdoors was the illegal trade's greatest ally. "It was hidden in reeks of turf, tunnelled ditches, beneath specially constructed trapdoors in fields and in the hollowed trunks of fallen oaks," a retired sergeant recalled of his rural beat during the 1970s.
"Forestry land was always popular as there was very little traffic through it - imagine a squad of 10 guards trying to comb 200 acres of dense forest? An impossible task." Often the clues came from unexpected quarters. "Greyhounds were often said to run better with a small dram of poitin before a race," he recalled. "Champion greyhounds that never lost a race were often a pointer for us."
Good poitin making was always practised by the same families, an art passed down from generation to generation, a secret recipe never to be divulged - even at gunpoint. "Hiding the still was one thing, but maintaining a quality product was always a much more pressing agenda," the ex-garda recalled.
"Customers demanded a high level of quality. Pouring a spoonful into a saucer and lighting it was a preferred method of on-the-spot quality control - if it burned with a blue flame, it was probably over 80pc proof and fit for drinking. Another method was adding a dollop of buttermilk to the saucer, if it curdled the brew was best avoided. Like the legendary French vineyards, the search for superior poitin always led to the same homesteads.
"The truly great poitin makers were always the exception to the rule, it ran in families with the sons following fathers into the trade," the former garda recalled. And though its origins may have begun as a seasonal supplement to the meagre incomes of tenant farmers and small-time fishermen, fortunes were made in the heyday of its popularity in the 1960s. "There are many farms of fine land today that were bought on the sale of poitin. Back in the mid-60s it was selling for £3 a bottle and a good supplier would shift well over 2,000 bottles every Christmas. "Sláinte."