Illicit Distillation

By John C. McTernan

Inishmurray Island was for a long time famous for the making of mountain dew or whiskey as the inhabitants preferred to call it. The relative isolation of the Island facilitated the distillation of the pure native and greatly favoured the traffic upon which the Islanders lived. Connoisseurs of such beverages asserted that Inishmurray whiskey was of the purest and most delectable quality. As soon as the officers of the excise became aware of the extent of the illegal trafficking they set about applying a remedy. At first a steamer paid occasional visits to the Island, but rough seas frequently prevented a safe berthing. Now and again, a successful landing was achieved, as for example, on January 9th, 1836. Under the cover of darkness a party of Revenue Police from Sligo, led by the Lieutenant St Laurence, succeeded in making a landing from the coastguard tender Racer. The Sligo Journal reported on the event as follows: As soon as the Racer was got as near to the Island as practicable or safe. Mr. St. Lawrence, who is an excellent swimmer, prepared to land in defiance of every obstacle. He got the boat made ready, which he had brought from Sligo, towed after the vessel, into which himself and party, with two, or three sailors, immediately got, and pushed off for the Island, at the imminent risk of their lives, and contrary to the advice of experienced mariners. However, they succeeded in a landing without any accident and seized a still, head and worm, which they took with them, together with twelve sacks of barley malt. They arrested two men who were duly convicted and sent to prison, and destroyed several vessels with large quantities of spent wash together with a great deal of barley and malt which they could not remove in consequence of severe worsening weather.

 The risks taken and the hazards endured by the Revenue Police on such expeditions, and the understandable reaction of the Islanders was also commented upon:-

 Too much praise cannot be given to Mr. St. Lawrence for performing this exploit. He had been out all the day, until late of the evening of the 8th and had taken little or no refreshment, or repose, after a very fatiguing and harassing day’s march, when he proceeded to the Island. He would have taken great many prisoners, as all the dwelling houses had malt in them, but for a person who saw the cutter and gave the alarm. The Islanders had suffered severely from a former visit of the Revenue, and the sight of St. Lawrence’s boat pulling towards the shore caused great panic. And all the inhabitants left their beds and, in fright of being taken, rushed into the street, in puris naturalibus, or stark naked.

 An old woman beholding the havoc which St. Lawrence made among the stills, malts and vessels, in the anguish of her heart fell upon her knees, and called aloud in Irish on Father Molaise to curse the cruel intruders.

 It is said that on one occasion a party of Revenue Police who were there on a still-hunting expedition, were forcibly detained by the severity of the weather for close on three weeks. Although they had destroyed over a ton of barley malt and seized a large quantity of spirits, the Islanders treated them with hospitality and great consideration.

 At length, the authorities hit upon a plan that proved very effective. A police station was opened on the Island in the late 1850’s or early 1860’s. While numbers varied from time to time, the personnel usually consisted of a Sergeant and two Constables.

 This proved to be a master stroke – the making of illegal whiskey was no more. In one fell swoop the principle economic activity of the Islanders had ceased to function, and the inhabitants had to fall back upon the wretched subsistence which they could obtain from tilling such a rocky and desolate spot. As a result, the population went into sharp decline and those that remained could barely subsist. While relationships between Islanders and the Royal Irish Constabulary were initially quite cordial, they became somewhat strained as the years progressed and the inhabitants struggled to survive. Eventually the police were subjected to a boycott. Their supplies and communications were cut-off, and with no prospect of a resolution to the problem, the station was eventually closed down.

 The enforced withdrawal of the Royal Irish from the Island in January 1890, was the signal for the resumption of illicit distillation, using treacle, brown and white sugar and barley as the principle raw materials. A few months later the local Independent carried an article entitled Inishmurray – A Land Flowing with Poteen Whiskey, from which is culled the following extract: –

 Martin Heraughty, the so-called King, now finds himself in the full plentitude of autocratic power, charged all his male subjects to form a joint stock company for the purpose of manufacturing spirits. In the adoption of this policy his Majesty saw the best bond of unity, and the best shield against the temptation of disloyalty for lucre. As a directorate over the company he appointed Johnny Mannion, Jimmy Heraghty, Michael Waters and Micky Ruagh. At present the Kingdom may be described as a huge distillery, in which large quantities of molasses are converted into a species of intoxicating drink. This liquor, the King and his subjects manage to import surreptitiously into Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal, and which, being sold for about 12 shillings per gallon, is quickly bought up by fourth-class publicans and rural votaries of Bacchus. The prosperity of the company may be inferred when it is mentioned that applications from Cloonagh, Ballyconnell and Grange have been received for shares in the concern, and that many young men who emigrated from Streedagh and Maugherow to the lately established Kingdom are, according to recent advices, doing well.

 In December 1897, a party of police made a successful landing and seized and destroyed almost two hundred gallons of wash.

 What is reputed to have been the largest quantity of illegal spirits ever captured in the County was discovered on Inishmurray in May, 1924, when a party of Gardai, accompanied by military personnel, made a lightening raid. A small distillery was the terminology used to describe the find. The Islanders were taken completely by surprise and a still was discovered in actual working order. Gardai captured eight kegs of poitin; over a thousand gallons of wash; three stills and several barrels of treacle and a quantity of dry grain. Three Islanders, namely, Michael Waters (King), and Dan and Michael Heraughty, were taken before a special sitting of the District Court. Waters was sentenced to three months hard labour and fined fifty pounds, while the two Heraughty’s also got three months each and were fined twenty-five pounds. In passing sentence the District Judge, D. J. Flattery, stated that poteen traffic would have to be rooted out. Any ideas that the inhabitants of Inishmurray Island had a right to carry on this illicit trade had got to vanish.

 Six years later in 1930, the self-styled King, Michael Waters, found himself in conflict with the law once again. He and Patrick Brady were found in possession of sixteen gallons of poitin and were brought before Grange Court. Waters was fined 200 pounds, mitigated to 25 pounds, and Brady a similar fine reduced to 15 pounds. Another raid on the Island in June 1932, led to the capture of a large quantity of illicit spirit, plant and materials to an estimated value of 470 pounds. The haul consisted of fifty gallons of poitin, together with wash, malt, three still heads and a copper worm. Ten still-houses, all of which showed traces of recent usage, were also located and destroyed.

 The illegal whiskey trade on Inishmurray declined only on the outbreak of World War II and the introduction of sugar rationing. This led to a significant drop in income of the inhabitants and was a major factor in the final abandonment of the Island in 1948.