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eat, drink and be merry . . .

There was a time which seems to belong to the Middle Ages but it was well within living memory when Catholics in Ireland were obliged to fast during Lent.

They weren't to have meat for 40 days. It didn't trouble the rural Irish very much.

Most farmers and cottiers kept plenty of fowl and when a hen could no longer lay, she could be fattened up for a few weeks and make excellent meat. And of course the rural people had plenty of potatoes and eggs. They wouldn't starve.

The better-off people in the towns could go to the fish market and the fowl market. The working class got by as best they could. Many of them decided that sausages didn't count as meat and in some cases they were correct. They interpreted the law as suited themselves. The really poor ignored the law. Since they were going to go to hell they might as well go with some food in their bellies.

The rural Irish knew nothing about fish. It was part of a bad memory bequeathed by the Famine. They couldn't eat meat on a Friday so they went to town to buy ling.

It was good eating when it was fresh but when cured it was not. Even after a night's steeping it was still very hard and could come in very useful for putting half-soles on shoes. Anyhow it kept the rule.

Our local fish vender, the famous former jockey Tom Bawn, did well every Thursday and Friday, but then came a rumour that people could eat other than fish, such as turkey and hen, on a Friday. And Tom said: "The Pope is a communist."

People do not know now that poteen played a great part in the lives of the rural people until the late 19th century. Used wisely, it was a great help to the health and it was kept in most houses. If you read Canon Sheehan you will know that poteen was a favourite drink at night. It was mixed with brown sugar and hot water. If you are found now to have poteen in the house it will be confiscated and you will be fined.

You will see pictures in the papers of gardai emptying poteen into a river. Thus they are destroying a valuable drink and polluting the river. Of course, it doesn't happen: the gardai test the poteen for purity and keep what is good for themselves.

Poteen has got a bad name because some makers are unscrupulous: they distil the wash -- the main body -- only once and then they make it colourless by various means, including bluestone. This poteen drives men mad and is the cause of many murders. The good poteen is distilled three times until 20 pints of wash becomes seven pints of good spirit.

The main ingredient is barley. You can make poteen from various vegetables but it isn't quite the same. The people of Macroom, we are told, make the best poteen: whether this is due to the nature of the soil or the honesty of the people or to both we do not know.


Macroom poteen has a great reputation. If you are in doubt about where to buy poteen, you will know someone who will put you wise.

In the enlightened age there are pious people who still keep the old regulations. Even now, as far as I know, we are obliged to keep Fridays abstinent. This is probably a good rule because it keeps the rural people away from the monotony of bacon and potatoes and cabbage day after day. Now, believe it or not, some world authority on health told us that bacon and all its products were bad. It was an astonishing verdict. I was working in a factory part-time which turned out sausages, black pudding and white pudding but indeed our sales didn't drop.

It showed that the Irish were very good at ignoring what isn't true to them.

When I was coming away from the All Ireland Final in 1980, a neighbour from home said to me: "You can't bate the bacon and the cabbage and the spuds." I didn't tell him that some of our players that day were more accustomed to macaroni, lasagne and pizza and more . . .

Fogra: Congratulations to my friend Fionnuala Britton on winning the European Cross Country Championships in Slovenia last week. Fogra eile: Happy birthday to Iseult Kelly