Sixth-generation Connemara poitín-maker no longer an outlaw
‘Liquid dynamite’ distilled by Cearra family near Spiddal now a cocktail ingredient
When Connemara poitín maker Micíl Chearra wanted to earn a few bob in the months before Christmas, he had to chose the wildest stormy nights to conceal the smoke from his illicit “still”.
Fortunately, his great great great grandson Pádraic Ó Griallais doesn’t have to brave the elements, as the first member of his family to make the spirit legally.
“Like drinking liquid dynamite” was how the late philosopher John O’Donohue once described the drink, which was the focus of many Garda raids in the west.
Thanks to the botanical bogbean that grows in lakes around Indreabhán west of An Spidéal, the recipe used by the Cearra family has a particular identity.
“The bogbean is a relative of the water lily, and it gives a lovely herbal flavour,” Ó Griallais explains.
The secondary school teacher, who has taken a career break to set up his business, learned all he knew from his maternal grandfather, Jimmí Chearra.
Mr Chearra, who will be 90 next year, lives in the lake area of Lochán Beag,where the water is also suited to poitín.
Sitting beside a roaring turf fire, he described to The Irish Times how he only “took the notion” to acquire the skill after he had returned from working in England in 1957.
“My father had given up his still and pot in 1927 – the year I was born – because the gardaí had very little to do at that time and so poitín men had no peace, morning, noon or night,” Mr Chearra says.
“The last round my father made was on no man’s land, but he was spied upon, and the garda hired a local man with horse and cart to bring his barrels to the barracks,” he recalls.
Mr Chearra was raided only once in all his years of making it, and was fined 12 Irish pounds in court. His own grandfather, Micíl, had been fortunate enough to enjoy good relations with the local Royal Irish Constabulary.
“It wasn’t an easy job, as you would have to soak the grain in a pool for two days and two nights, and barley was always the best,” he says.
“Wheat was sweeter, oats made it lighter, and you could also use rye – but then you’d burn the pot,” he says.
Births, marriages, wakes were good for business, but he had one customer in An Spidéal who, he believes, had republican connections and used to buy most of his stock.
His grandson Pádraic was in Chicago several summers ago when he took an interest.
“There were developments in microstilling, poitín had been given geographical indicative status by the EU, and some companies were starting to make versions of it, with varied success,” Ó Griallais says.
The spirit, which was outlawed from 1661 to 1997 due to excise regulations, can now be made legally under regulations specified by the Department of Agriculture.
“I suppose I knew our family had a respected recipe, and so I applied to the Revenue Commissioners to set up myself,” O Griallais says.
He sought planning permission for his distillery close to his grandfather’s place in Indreabhán. However, his application was turned down after An Taisce objected.
He found a premises in Salthill, and selected the label “Poitín Micíl” after his great great great grandfather.
Ó Griallais’s distillery uses much of the original technology, but to a far higher specification and with particular controls.
“When you think of how men like my grandfather had to use sight and taste, rather than temperature gauges, you realise that it really is a terrific skill,” he says.
Records of the clear spirit with a high alcohol content date back to 1400, but it is believed it was developed by monks, and had a strong Middle Eastern influence, he points out.
Ó Griallais credits his mother Máire and siblings Jimín and Caoimhe, with helping him to get the company off the ground.
Poitín Micíl has become popular with cocktail makers – Micíl Sour, for instance has lime juice, sugar and syrup among other ingredients. Another version is made with stout.
His grandfather Jimmí isn’t too surprised about its “highball” status. “The bogbean is what makes it, and it really does go well with Guinness,” he says.
A documentary on Poitín Mhicíl by Scannáin Dobharchú will be broadcast on TG4 at 9.30pm on New Year’s Day.