poitin_still
Poitín Still

For our nineteenth century ancestors July was the month when food was scarcest. By the time that July  arrived food from the previous harvest was almost a year old, and many families found that their stores of food were much depleted or had disappeared entirely at this late stage. The decline in living standards, present throughout the nineteenth century Ireland, would peak during the Famine which would eventually take a million lives and force further million Irish men and women to emigrate from the land in which they were born. 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”, the Blue Month and Staggering July. Some names appear to have been regional: 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. While in the latter half of the nineteenth century Charles McGlinchey  recalled that the heat alone was reason enough to give the first half of July and the second half of August a dark nickname Charles McGlinchey of Ballyliffen in Donegal noted that summers were warmer in the eighteen hundreds, and that 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 those 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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4 thoughts on “The Dead Month: The Hunger & Thirst of July

  1. Really good article, thanks. When I was writing my thesis on poor relief in medieval English monasteries, it was noticeable how the accounts showed a great increase in monastic distributions of bread in July, which dropped off dramatically after the harvest in August. This happened almost every year where the data was available (c.1250-1540). It was sometimes called ‘The Low Time.’

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