A seizure of a poteen still in rural Mayo.

Pongo, poteen and the Queen of the Still in Mayo

By Tom Gillespie

HOW times have changed - laws have been updated, amended or abolished altogether.

This came to mind when I came across a copy of a summons issued 72 years ago when the Attorney General issued proceedings against a Castlebar ‘defendant’ for unlawful gaming during a carnival in the county town.

It was issued in the District Court Area of Castlebar, District Number 8, and it read as follows:

Whereas, a complaint has been made to me that on the 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30 & 31 of August, 1948, at Castlebar, in the Court Area and District aforesaid, you the said defendant did unlawfully assist one (name obliterated), a person having the use of a place, to wit, the Military Barracks Square at Castlebar, aforesaid, in conducting the business of said place used for the purpose of unlawful gaming, being carried on therein, that is to say, you conducted the game of Pongo in said place, contrary to Section 4 of 17b & 18 Vic. Cap. 38, contrary to the Statute in that case made and provided.

This is to command you to appear as a defendant, on the hearing of the said complaint, at the District Court at Castlebar in the said Area and District on Wednesday the 15th day of September, 1948, at 11 o’clock a.m., before a Justice for the time being assigned to said District.

The summons was duly signed and was issued on the 6th day of September, 1948.

I don’t know how the ‘defendant’ fared out but the carnival was run by the old Castlebar Development Association, who staged it to raise funds for infrastructural development around the town.

They were ahead of their time in attempting to provide improved facilities in the area.

One of their projects was the planting of the palm trees at Lough Lannagh, with the diving board being the centre piece.

Today, a lot of these trees have been removed but some still remain from the new section of the old graveyard to the adjoining Lough Lannagh Holiday Village.

But playing Pongo was outlawed at the time and the subsequent prosecution followed.

A copy of the Pongo summons.

I recall when we could not advertise bingo in newspapers. Now the game is thriving and local communities are benefiting from the funds raised.

It was always a task before publication to check the district notes to ensure no local bingo session was mentioned.

Another rural practice which is still outlawed but now never appears before the courts is poteen-making.

In the build-up to Christmas in the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s there was always a crackdown on illicit brewing activities.

Many was the good court case I covered, particularly in Castlebar and Westport, where those making or possessing poteen were prosecuted.

One, in particular, that made national headlines was in the Carrowkennedy area of Westport where a proud ‘Queen of the Still’ was hauled before the court for brewing a ‘drop of the creature’.

Back in those days the still was usually erected in a remote area but the smoke from the turf fire gave away the location and the patrolling gardaí just followed the smoke trail.

It was not unusual in December to carry photographs of seized stills and containers of poteen being poured down the drain.

Now I often wondered if all of the brew was actually destroyed?

Poteen was generally produced in remote rural areas, away from the interference of the law. A wash was created and fermented before the distillation began.

Stills were often set up on land boundaries so the issue of ownership could be disputed. Prior to the introduction of bottled gas, the fire to heat the wash was provided by turf.

The old style of poteen distilling was from a malted barley base for the mash, the same as single malt whiskey of pure or still whiskey.

The word poteen stems from the Irish Gaelic word ‘pota’ for pot - this refers to the small copper pot still used by poteen distillers.

The quality of poteen was highly variable, depending on the skill of the distiller and the quality of his equipment.

Reputations were built on the quality of the distiller's brew, and many families became known for their distilling expertise, where a bad batch could put a distiller out of business overnight.

Some far-thinking brewers would use egg-shells when tasting the brew. The reason for this was that no glasses would be found in the still was raided.

They say the way to judge if poteen is of good quality is to shake the bottle, not that I ever did, and if beads appear at the top you are in business.

Another custom that came from the Crimlin area many years ago was to pour a drop into milk and if the milk went sour so too was the poteen.

Another great poteen location was Glass Island, long abandoned, on Lough Conn, and to this day pieces of broken crockery jars can be found on the shoreline.

The islanders had the advantage of being able to spot raiding gardaí as they had to come across from the mainland at Ponton Bridge Hotel.