Duty Free!

Christianity was proclaimed in North Sligo in the 6 th century by St. Molaise. Visitors from all over the world now flock to see the stone-corbelled beehive huts and monastic remains on the island of Inishmurray where this holy man founded his monastery. In the 12 th century, following the defeat, by the O’Conor Sligoe, of their patrons the O’Dowds, the monks departed Inishmurray and retired to Sligo’s southern shore at Aughris.

Poteen and equiptment seized by RIC 1903.

Given its remote location, Inishmurray island was the ideal home for a very lucrative trade carried on enthusiastically by the lay population — poteen making. When the monks departed the spirit continued to flow! The quality and quantity of poteen made there is as legendary as are the exploits of the distillers who produced the elixir, and the forces of the law who made determined efforts to stamp out the industry. The superior quality of the island brew was further enhanced in the 19 th century when, following a visit there, John Power of Power’s Whiskey presented the islanders with a copper still and head.

This isolated outpost, three miles from shore, had a commanding view of the sea and coast from where the law launched sudden invasions. Constable Jeremiah Mee, who was stationed at the village of Grange on the mainland, described one such raid, in 1918. Before setting out on their journey he and another constable were equipped with long, pointed steel rods which were to be used for probing hay and corn stacks and shingle along the strand, in their search for illicit stills.

He describes proceeding to Streedagh Point where they boarded a boat that was manned by ‘two hefty Mullaghmore fishermen’. The boat was anchored a distance from shore as there was no proper harbour. ‘With their pants folded well above their knees the two fishermen advanced from the boat to meet us’, he recalled. ‘On reaching the strand, after a peremptory greeting, they turned their backs on the sergeant and the other R.I.C. man, who got up on the fishermen’s backs and were carried high and dry to the little boat.’ The two constables took this as a matter of course and the sergeant didn’t even smile as Jeremiah sat on the shore laughing at the unusual sight. One of the boatmen returned for him, when he too got up on the fisherman’s back. ‘Never in my life did I feel less like a policeman’, he recollected.

Having arrived on the island, and growing hungry from a fruitless search of the fields and shore, Constable Mee and the other stalwarts of the law retired, as was the custom on these visits, to the home of Mrs. Harte for tea. According to Mee the whole affair was very civilised, after an Irish fashion: ‘Believe it or not’, he said later, ‘at the end of our meal we were treated to a few glasses of poteen’!

The return voyage of the police raiding party was very rough, the sea a mass of angry water and foam. Mee made no secret of the fact that he was scared out of his wits when the boat started to take on water. To console him, one of the boatmen took out a bottle of poteen, which was passed around, and all had a drink. As the drink permeated his veins his mood changed and he recalled that, shortly, ‘between the buffeting of the waves and the strong poteen I couldn’t care less whether the boat went up or down.’ Eventually they reached the mainland two miles away from their intended landing place, and so ended in ignominy another assault on the island industry.

Eventually transferred to Kerry, Mee travelled there by train with two other officers in the troubled year of 1919. On leaving Grange he was presented by the villagers with a bottle of good Inishmurray poteen. Later he remembered that, on his journey south: ‘by way of turning our thoughts from sordid shootings and unpleasant duties I produced my bottle and we impartially drank toasts to the king, and to the republic, on Irish whiskey for which neither king nor republic had received any duty’.

Copyright: Joe Mc Gowan



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