A seizure of a poteen still in rural Mayo.

Ballycastle poteen, Spanish brandy and a pig’s bladder


By Tom Gillespie

A NORTH Mayo shopkeeper, farmer and fisherman, Michael Connolly, in an article entitled ‘From Needles To Anchors’ in Brian P. Martin’s 1996 More Tales of the Old Countrymen publication, recounted his family’s early history.

Michael, who was born in 1923, was among 60 to 70 children at Carrowteige National School, but he is not sure when he went there. He thinks he was probably five or six years old.

He describes those early years:

In those days many children went part-time because they had to help with the farm work and other things. But I was not that mad for school, anyway. Our family had about 80 sheep on the common ground and I often had to mind them. There were no wires then, and the fences only came when the commonage was split up among the owners. So us boys also had to mind that the cows didn’t get into the potatoes.

We ate well at home, but mainly plain food. We fattened our own pigs and hung the bacon in the rafters, but it was mostly fish and lots of potatoes - we loved them then, and we love them yet!

The sandy soil makes for wonderful spuds here. I used to take the potatoes from the field, put them in a hole in the ground, cover them with sand and build a fire on top using driftwood. Delicious. And with the fish I always liked the wrasse the best, even though it had little commercial value. Just plain boil it fish, or leave it overnight with salt on.

Young Connolly went fishing at every opportunity, sometimes with home-made rods fashioned from broom handles, cane or hazel. And on the rivers he used a spillet, a long line with bent safety pins baited with worms to catch small eels.

Other boyhood games and pastimes included feats of strength, running and jumping.

Michael recollects clearly:

We had a ball made from roots torn from the sand and bound together with twine. Another was a pig’s bladder blown up. You wouldn’t kick it very far against the wind!

Local houses were lit with oil lamps, then later paraffin. Water was easily obtained from the many spring wells in the area, and most people had a tank to catch the rain. Us kids often washed in the sea.

There was a lot of thatch then. Turfs about as big as a rug were laid over the rafters, which never had nails in, and covered with mainly rye straw as it was so tough. Most people thatched their own cottages, and later on I did haystacks too.

Heating was always by peat and a little bog wood. One house I knew had no proper chimney, only a stone fireplace with the smoke coming out into the room and rising up through a hole in the roof when it wanted to. The seats on either side of the hearth were huge stones.

This cottage was just one big room about 25-feet long, with the kitchen at one end and four or five cows at the other. The bed was right next to the fire and the horse was near the bed. The floor was rough stone, not even good flag, and there was no attic. The walls were 18-inch thick stone held together by gravel with a bit of lime.

Most people were very poor, but very happy. It was all meitheal (joining together to get the work done); I’ve seen as many as 10 women around a frame stretching a bed quilt. But the women were always more at home than the men as superstition kept them away from the fishing. Nine or 10 men would often gather round a house, but usually only to talk. Ghost stories were a great thing then.

Local roads were very rough, being coarse gravel. Even later, when they were tarred, it was always a bit worrying going to the side to let a lorry pass. It’s ridiculous the huge vehicles they let on now. With the bog underneath the roads are always breaking up.

I drove at 10 in bare feet. Everyone was in their feet then. I had a job to reach the clutch, but you didn’t have to worry about indicators! Later on, when I was 18, we put on a taxi service, which was big business then with lots of people going away to pull beet in England, mostly May to October.

As the coast is so indented in that area it was often quicker to go by boat across the estuary rather than travel all the way around by land. In any case, many parts were without proper roads.

Michael recounts the many details of local life:

Up here there were two brothers who were full-time ferrymen. The priest used to come by boat and there was always a horseman to meet him.

Bodies, too, were ferried around by boat, the one cemetery being used by four or five villages, each with about 25 dwellings. Coffins were always carried on shoulders: there were men about at the time!

Bodies were hardly ever taken to church as it was too far; they’d be waked in the house, with the usual load of tobacco and clay pipes, which the men often left on the ground. And there was always the home-brew poteen, as there were no pubs nearer than McGrath’s, right around the estuary.

My old man was fairly keen on poteen. Potatoes are often used to make it, but the handiest way is with molasses, treacle and sugar.

Over near Ballycastle they had beautiful stuff made from barley. It was matured for at least six to 12 months, and had such a rich smell. Nothing like it now. Poteen should be always put through less than a gallon an hour, the final run just like a silk thread. Before the pubs started up in the area, myself and a friend borrowed the equipment to produce our own poteen, as you couldn’t be sure of the quality of the stuff you would buy.

Just after the war you could hardly get good whiskey. But I had another source of drink.

Spanish trawlers, about a couple of hundred ton each, used to fish in pairs near here. They had agents at Ballyglass, and when they radioed in to say they were coming in with fish for a fortnight, I’d be there to meet them.

I bought their brandy for only 10s (50p) a bottle, and sold it for good profit. But they robbed us of fish. I’ve seen them leaving Ballyglass with cod and other species all over the deck, and only an inch of freeboard.

NEXT WEEK: Prisoners-of-war were washed ashore

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