Joe Paul's Hooley at the Barn

By Sam MacDonald on Fri 3rd Mar 2017

Sam MacDonald

In 2011 Joe ‘Paul’ Doherty from Inishowen in Donegal was finally convicted of running an after-hours venue for those who were still thirsty in the wee hours. Known locally as the ‘Hooley at the Barn’, the events offered late-night entertainment for only €5.

The case had gone on for years based on Doherty’s defence that he was not running an illegal liquor premises since the money received was a cloakroom charge, and there were no cash transactions across the well-stocked bar. Yet his was found to be operating a ‘shebeen’ that deprived licensed premises of their trade.

A ‘shebeen’ is an unlicensed bar (like a speakeasy in Prohibition America) and it has long gone hand-in-hand with distillation in the Dal Riada region of Ireland’s north coast and the west of Scotland. The question of legality is invariably attached to the subject of shebeen-keeping and distillation. However, one might argue that since both are so intrinsically part of our community’s culture that the relatively modern notion of attaching a licence to their existence is absurd.

At High Sea Spirits, it is our aim to challenge accepted views on the time-lines and provenance of distillation. Our belief is that distilling is part of our Gaelic culture and as intrinsically linked as the genealogy of the ‘Irish’ and ‘Scots’. So the answers we seek might not be as accessible as simply opening a book and pointing at a map or a date. The answer may well lie within the fabric of our culture and its strong oral tradition of telling a good story.

While the interest of distillers has long lain in keeping their practice secret, they would have required some publicity for the spirit they produced so that others could enjoy it in communal drinking. So much could be gained in scrutinising the ‘shebeen’ to discover the secrets of the still.

Nanny’s Cave in North Antrim where the 19th century resident sold bottles of water along with complimentary bottles of poteen.

It has been said that the only difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral is one less drunk. Hospitality has long been the attribute of any decent household, and few elements are more important for that than a cupboard well-stocked with inebriating liquors. Both Scotland and Ireland use the expression ‘deoch an dorus (doras)’ for the custom of presenting guests with a final drink at the door before they take leave of your company. Much of our culture surrounding the practice of drinking is related to the fact that we are people on-the-go and, given our climate, distilled spirit has obvious benefits for the walker on the tramp home or abroad into the night.

As we continue our research, we will elaborate on evidence that distilling has long been present in our culture. So while there is little doubt that the history of distillation orginated in the Middle East, our interest lies in the transition from producing perfumes/medicines to Dal Riada’s preference for the parting glass as an aid to walking home in the cold rain.

In his 1830 document, A Philosophical and Statistical History of Inebriating Liquors, Samuel Woodward offered some fascinating opinions regarding the history of whisk(e)y in Ireland and Scotland, including its origins in our ancient people’s communication with the Phoenician civilisation of Carthage in north Africa.

On the subject of drinking venues, Woodward cites the existence of ‘Beatachs’ around the countryside. These date back to a pre-Christian era when they acted as public houses for weary travellers to rest and refresh. The keepers were under strict instruction as to their role: their houses must be accessible by at least four roads; they must be stocked with fresh meat; and they must have a plentiful supply of good liquid. Woodward asserts that, according to 7th Century records, these houses were in the practice of serving up ‘spirituous liquids’.

Perhaps what is most revealing in Woodward’s account of these ‘beatachs’ was his claim that, because these keepers were governed and only permitted to operate under community guidelines, they acted as public servants and would not have accepted financial compensation for the services provided.

So in search of our allusive spirit, perhaps the time-honoured technique of ‘following the money’ will not lead to the answer. Perhaps whiskey is the reward and our traditional sense of hospitality was the vehicle for its popularity.

As our investigation continues, we will broaden our search beyond the accepted dates which dramatically underestimate the achievements and imagination of our ancient kingdom. All I know is that on a cold March evening such as this, I would prefer more than a cup of tea if leaving the house for any reason, and no doubt it would have the same for our ancestors thousands of years ago!

Discover the Spirit of Whisky

Book your comprehensive whisky tour of the North Coast of Ireland & the island of Islay.

Book Now