Poitin and Hellfire


The autumn issue of that stimulating quarterly History Ireland, edited by Hiram Morgan of UCC and Tommy Graham of TCD, carries as the main flagged article: "A Church in Crisis: The Irish Catholic Church Today" by James S. Donnelly Jr, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He ends by noting as a "healthy sign that some Irish bishops are deliberately shedding the trappings of wealth and power which long distinguished the episcopate, and are embracing a more modest lifestyle in an effort to reduce social distance between themselves and the people of their diocese." You have to read it and assess it yourself.

There is a lively article, "Hellfire and Poitin", about Redemptorists in the Irish Free State 1922-36, which will catch your attention. Redemptorist parish missions helped, along with the GAA, it says, to act as reconciling forces after the Civil War. Not forgetting, of course, dance-halls as an occasion of sin, and immodest dress, including the new fashion of women wearing slacks. Connemara, Mayo and Clare were especially mentioned for "poitin missions".

In Carraroe, on the last Sunday of the mission, there was a bonfire to which parishioners brought about 14 gallons of the stuff. Elsewhere 13 stills, six worms, 35 gallons and six bags of malt were handed in, and everyone took the pledge around the bonfire. In yet another parish, people involved handed over 30 gallons, 14 stills and worms and five bags of malt. "Flushed with success," the article goes on, the missioners moved to Rosmuc. The parish was destroyed (millte) with poitin. "The people handed us every drop they had made, every worm." Bonfires were held. At another site, 50 gallons of poitin, 15 stills and worms and a ton of malt (a ton!). And the list goes on. All the men took the pledge. All the people came to the mission totally in Irish, not a word of English.

That was in January-February 1931. At the Oughterard mission in July-August 1934, shebeens were reported in some outlying districts, but all took the pledge. Elsewhere a people "debauched by poteen. They told barefaced lies and only with great difficulty did they surrender four stills." All but four took the anti-poteen pledge. The Catholic Standard quotes how Father Coneely "placed his crucifix against the wall of the church and asked would any poteen maker go so far as to trample on it, and yet when they were making poteen they were guilty of that act".

There is more in this issue about Dracula being an Irishman. History Ireland costs £3.95.