St Johnston and Carrigans Donegal



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Poteen-Making in the St Johnston and Carrigans Area

Every townland has its traditions about the poteen maker and the brew itself.  Poteen is a clear alcoholic drink. 

Poteen was made in the hills of Ardagh near St Johnston years ago.  Some mothers used to dip a finger in poteen and then in sugar and put it into their baby’s mouth in the belief that it kept the baby settled for the night.  Poteen was thought to be a remedy for arthritic pains and rheumatism.  It was rubbed into the joints.  Churchtown used to be another place for illegal distilling!

Other remedies for children with the cold was a hot glass of sugar with a little whiskey and cloves in it!  It was believed to heat the cold out of the child.  As we read on we might see that as a safer option

The maker of poteen is called a stiller. 

We might think today that the stiller was somebody who was just trying to make a living and make other people happy by providing them with a notoriously strong alcoholic drink.  The stiller was hated by the publicans for threatening their business.  Members of the Pioneer Abstinence Association were horrified by his activities.   Wives hated him for providing their husbands with drink and setting a bad example for the children.  The priests were against poteen making and in many dioceses the "grave sin" of making poteen could only be pardoned by the bishop in confession.  During Parish Missions, the poteen maker could get forgiveness from a priest as the bishop made an exception then.  It shows that the Church was determined to stamp out the poteen production by spiritual means.  Doctors were against the stiller for the health problems caused by the strength of the brew and because of the popular unscientific notion that poteen was the mountain dew and had healing powers!  Most of the parish were against the stiller as he was considered underhand and dangerous.  The stiller himself was often a victim.  A lot of people took his brew and never paid for it.  And as his activity was illegal there was nothing he could do about it. 

Those who wanted to make poteen had to choose the right spot for doing so carefully.  It had to be a place near clean water.  Bad water was a no no.  It had to be a spot that was hard to get to so that the guards might not catch them.  If a still was set up too near where people lived, they would be able to tell what was going on from the smell alone.

The stiller needed a still which held about 20 gallons.  The still had a still head.  This allowed the steam to circulate.  Then it entered the worm.  The worm was a nickname for the condenser.  The condenser was made of a copper pipe.  This pipe was enclosed by cold water called the flake.  The apparatus needed to be very well sealed to prevent anything escaping.  Ludin made from blue clay was used for that purpose.

The blackguard was the utensil used for testing the poteen to see if it was ready.  It looked like a tin. 

Some stillers used bluestone and others used copper sulphate. 

The temperature of the mixture (the mixture was called the kilty) was very important as the poteen was easily ruined.  So a fire had to be kept on all the time.

Barum or yeast were used as fermenting agents.  They could only be added in if the mixture was a certain temperature.  Otherwise putting it in would be a waste of time.

Traditionally, the stiller feared the fairies stealing the poteen.  So he put in burnt coals to deter them.  At least the poteen would have had potent antiseptic properties - and a good thing too!