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"The Wee Still” (First penned July 2010)


Two of the milk cans used to deliver milk to customers in Lisburn eighty years ago. Their owner once delivered the "wee still" in them to the customer's doorstep when requested.

As he eyed the wooden caskets stacked against the cellar walls the young milk delivery lad enquired passively “I wonder what‘s in them?”

The question, directed at the local policeman who was showing him around the local constabulary barracks in Lisburn was not as innocent and as inquisitive as it might have appeared. Almost eighty years later this “young” fellow told me he could remember these nine or ten wooden caskets and several large ten gallon cans sitting in the police cellar. He knew only too well that they had been seized by police as part of an illicit distillery. Little did the unsuspecting constable know, but his young guest dabbled in small scale distribution of the “crateur” around the town. I was told it was more a matter of “converting milk to poteen.”

Those were the times of the “hungry thirties” and life was difficult for many who could just about scrape together an existence. Some of the older residents in the town took the liberty of asking the young milkman if he could get them some poteen and bring that instead of the milk. I was told that there was a cattle yard located off Chapel Hill where the residue of illicit distillation could be readily obtained. My good friend went in with a quart jug of milk, emptied it out, and filled it with the poteen, delivering it promptly to the waiting customer. Tuesday morning was considered ideal for this clandestine operation. The weekly market was taking place and people were too preoccupied with business there. I was told that the yard was eventually raided due to the fact that individuals connected to the premises were found drunk in the town as a result of regularly sampling their own wares.

The production of poteen was sometimes wrongly believed only to happen in remote areas away from prying eyes and the Revenue men. The distillers would utilise the “moss”, the mountains, caves, or a remote island as was the case in 1888 when the police discovered a distillery at Scaddy Island on the south western shore of Lough Neagh. Over the years there were many examples of seizures in almost every village you could name in Ireland. In early times it was a way of supplementing income in order to survive and feed a family. There are many stories of evasion of detection by craftiness and deceit. Not all were able to escape an astute and determined constable, and there are several examples of seizures in the district over the years.

On the 29th December, 1858 Constable Charles Porter and Sub-Constable Nedwell discovered a still, stillhead, and vat at a house in the town land of Ballynadrentagh, outside Crumlin, in the parish of Killead. They also discovered two sacks full of turf and marked “O’N” and “DC.” The owner of the house, Mr. Patrick Mulholland was questioned and he informed police that he thought that the sacks belonged to Charles O’Neill and Daniel Clark. A warrant was obtained in order to carry out a search of their homes for illicit malt. During this time Sub-Constable Nedwell remained in the house where the still had been discovered. It was not long before Charles O’Neill, one of the suspects turned up at the house. Undoubtedly he was there to check on the still, but he was swiftly arrested. It was reported that his servant arrived to see where he was and O’Neill warned him and told him to go home as he was being held prisoner. The Sub-Constable also arrested the servant and he detained them there for two hours until the search party returned. The case was taken to court and Charles O’Neill was given a £10 fine and 20 shillings in costs. The charges against Patrick Mulholland were dropped as it was claimed he had no knowledge of the still and he had only permitted Charles O’Neill to use the premises for storing chaff.

Constable Porter and his colleagues were instrumental in a second find of a similar nature on the 11th February 1861 in the townland of Ballydonaghy also close to Crumlin. Thomas McKernon the occupier of the house and Edward McDonald were both arrested. Edward McDonald was described in newspaper reports as having been the distiller and a native of Belfast. The following excerpts are from the Belfast Newsletter that covered the story. “It would appear the Belfast ‘distillers’ think they can carry on their illicit practices in the neighbourhood of Crumlin with impunity, but they will find that there are as keen, vigilant police officers in that locality as in and part of the Belfast districts.” Criticism was directed towards the distillers who, it was claimed “had not the slightest intention of paying Mr. Gladstone’s rate of duty - 12 shillings per gallon, on their manufacture.” Thomas McKernon and Edward McDonald received fines of £15 and costs and £20 respectively. They had the choice of a fine or spending between four and six months in prison.

The battle against illegal distillation continued and on the 1st September, 1863 Mr Hopp a supervisor with the Inland Revenue, Mr. O’Donnell a Lisburn officer and three other officers from Belfast visited a house in the Mullaghglass area, Derriaghy. In a house occupied by John Quinn they discovered a working still that was reported to have the capability of distilling up to 100 gallons. Three casks, containing between 500 to 600 gallons of wash and other casks containing five gallons of singlings were also found. Singlings are the initial collections of the distillation process that required further processing. Undoubtedly the arrival of the Revenue men would have been a shock in itself. To see the wash being emptied out in front of you, and the destruction of the still and associated utensils must have been a double blow.

The discoveries of stills in the district were not solely confined to the rural parts of the district or to the 19th century. In August 1924 the police made a discovery of a working still at the premises of Thomas Bailey, Antrim Road, Lisburn. He resided there with Eliza, his 87 year old mother. He and an accomplice called Robert Weir from Belfast were arrested and charged with associated offences arising out of the seizure. Police uncovered in an out-house a 40 gallon barrel half full of treacle and several bags of wheat. A copper still was found built into a fireplace in the cellar of the premises. It was reported that Thomas Bailey admitted to the manufacture of poteen. He told police that he had been making it from the 27th May and was using Demerera sugar and yeast. The Lisburn Standard reported that he had been in business as a corn millar until 1920 and then he had started in the potato trade until 1922. His business had failed and he had then taken up pig dealing. He had fallen on hard times and the lure of the financial gain as a result of poteen manufacturing had tempted him.

The following year it was reported in local press that police had given chase to poteen makers at Dungannon and several shots had been fired in the pursuit. The police were not always successful in “collaring their man” as a result of their operations countering this underground trade.
I had been chatting to a man with a strong Ulster-Scot dialect who resides in the East Antrim area. He had been recalling times past and his first job delivering provisions in the area many years ago. He had called with one of his regular customers, a farmer who asked him could he get him a bottle of the “wee still.” He knew by my reaction I had lost the conversation at this point. The “wee still” he explained was poteen. The farmer had required it to give to sick sheep when they were lambing. It was watered down and administered to them. My friend knew exactly where to go for the “medicine.” He called with a lady who sent him into the back garden and over to a pit. Normally a pit of this kind was for potatoes but there were no potatoes to be seen, only about 400 bottles of the “wee still.” To avoid any detection during the transportation process he removed a label from a bottle of bleach that he had in his grocery van and placed it on the bottle of poteen. It took it’s place amongst the legitimate bottles of lemonade, vinegar and other household products until it safely reached it’s destination.

It was reported by the Belfast Newsletter in 1861 that police in Aughnacloy had observed a nine year old boy on a donkey. They suspected him to be working with poteen makers in the area and they commenced a search of nearby fields. “A strong smell of ardent spirits” led to the discovery of a keg of poteen. The report concluded – “the laws of nature were inverted – the spirits were found but the bodies had fled.”

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