poitin_still
Poitín Still

For our nineteenth century ancestors July was the month when food was scarcest. By July the previous harvest was almost a year old, and many families found that their stores of food were much depleted or had disappeared completely at this late stage. The decline in living standards that was present throughout the nineteenth century Ireland would peak during the Famine which would eventually take a million lives and force another million to emigrate. For families who had cattle running out of stored crops was not as lethal, but for the quarter of the population that relied on the potato as their sole source of sustenance July could be a difficult month to get by even without famine.

These tough conditions gave July many alternative names including, most generally the “Hungry Month”, but other names were also applied to illustrate the harsh conditions and lack of food that often accompanied July included the Blue Month and Staggering July. Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin, who was living near Callan in the early decades of the nineteenth century recorded in his diary that July was known as Buímhís “The yellow month” in reference to both the colour of fields and the faces of the poor near his home in Callan, County Kilkenny. The heat alone was reason enough to give July a dark nickname Charles McGlinchey of Ballyliffen in Donegal noted that in the eighteen hundreds the latter half of July and the earlier half of August shared the ominous name Mí Mharbh “The Dead Month” in reference to the stifling heat that accompanied these weeks.

If July was a month for hunger and stifling heat it was, at least in eastern Donegal, also a month for thirst; the opening days of July provided the people of the Inishowen peninsula with a unique opportunity to produce poitín, a strong alcoholic drink made from cereals or potatoes, unnoticed by the local authorities. As a local poitín distiller, Dolty MacGarvey from the small village of Glen explained to William Le Fanu in the early 1870s, while the distilling of poteen could go unnoticed, the drying of malt created great clouds of smoke, easily noticeable to a passer-by. An opportunity to dry the malt presented itself when the local Royal Irish Constabulary were sent Derry to put down the riots which occurred annually at the Battle of the Boyne celebrations in the town, with the absence of these officers the malt could be dried with no chance of police interference.

 

Sources

Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Dublin 1972.

Evans, E. Estyn. Irish Folk Ways. London, 1957.

Le Fanu, William Richard. Seventy Years of Life in Ireland, 1893

Mc Glinchey, Charles. The Last of the Name. Edited by Brian Friel. Belfast, 1986.

Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. The Diary of an Irish Countryman 1827 – 1835. Translated from the Irish by Tomás de Bhaldraithe. Cork/Dublin 1970/1979.

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