Going off the Drink for Lent

By Sam MacDonald on Fri 10th Mar 2017

Sam MacDonald

The ‘Hard Blow’ was a popular drink in the north of Ireland in the 19th century. It consisted of illicit distillate mixed with very strong, stewed black tea. The obvious benefit of the concoction was inebriation, the less obvious was avoiding detection.

The drink was popularised in the wake of Ireland’s Great Famine and the rush of evangelicalism which swept across Ulster during the 1850s. That effectively stamped out the drinking culture in the region.

It was said at that time that you could “smell a man’s breath to tell his religion,” suggesting that Catholicism was associated with drunkenness. However, the same period of Protestant evangelism that drove temperance in Ulster, coincided with the Irish mission of Cork priest Father Matthew for Catholic abstinence from alcohol, particularly hard liquor.

Father Mathew on his crusade to 'save' Ireland from drink.

However, I would suggest that the relationship between religion and distilled spirit has been paramount in the formation of our culture. Dal Riada’s history would only be half a story without reference to both.

As it is the season of Lent, it seems a good time to talk temperance in Dal Riada, because the Temperance Movement acts as a valuable spotlight in understanding how distilling would have operated for the last 1,500 years. Like the proverbial yin and yang of Chinese philosophy, the relationship of religion and whisk(e)y has been like chalk and cheese or, more appropriately, like wash and copper.

This blog has already referred to Ireland’s claims of distillation’s discovery through the 6th century voyage of Saint Colmcille (Columba). Hagiography is based on speculation and propaganda and Colmcille’s relationship with spirit is no different.

Some records of his voyage from Ireland to Iona (via Islay) would have you believe that he brought the practice of distilling with him. However, that theory seems odd in the face of his original discovery of the practice, which involved the dramatic and violent conversion of Inishowen’s then premier whiskey producer.

The story relates how the distiller was lifted into the sky by a bird while in a fit brought on by his own magic and then dropped down to earth where Columcille ‘saved him’ and converted him to Christianity. That sounds like a bad case of delirium tremens (DTs) to me, followed by the sympathetic ear of a passing Holy Man.

Fasting, like booze, also probably pre-dates Christianity in our region. Like pilgrims, pagans would have found annual reasons to “go without”. Just like the morning after the night before, guilt has always been a fine excuse to give up the drink and few cultures benefit more from our sense of alcohol induced self-depreciation.

Yet behind all the legends and sagas, the incidence of strong drink is pervasive. In the 12th century, for instance, Maynooth Castle in County Kildare near Dublin, “fell” into the hands of Lord Skeffington. The story has it that the good Lord had a man on the inside. It was said that Christopher Pearce, cunningly and consistently fed the garrison’s guard with uisce beatha until they were too inebriated to defend themselves from attack.

Similarly, in the epic story of the Táin Bó Cuailgne set two thousand years ago, Ulster’s entire army was put into a deep sleep induced by a Connacht curse. Indeed, inebriation has often been a curse of the Irish, so Lenten vows of abstinence have acted as a spiritual remedy for our favourite spiritual pastime.

However, if Ireland is also the land of Saints and Scholars, so perhaps the prevalence of distilling in our most productive periods has acted as inspiration for scholarly and artistic development.

In William Carleton’s story, Hedge School, a man was asked why he preferred sending his children to the drunk teacher, Mat Meghan. He replied, “And do you think I would send them to Mr. Frazher…who wouldn’t take a glass of poteen in seven years? Mat likes it and teaches the boys ten times better when he’s half gone, I’d turn him agin the country for deepness in larning (learning).”

Distilling is our culture and the drink is our custom. While the Church has often aimed to stamp it out as an abomination, with references to the “devil’s buttermilk” for instance, more successful Christian campaigns have fared better by operating on the pretext that it is better just to go with the flow.

In 1901, the novelist cleric, Canon Sheehan, related the story of Luke Delmege who, having worked as a priest in England, was transferred to an Irish parish. When offered a drink, he blankly refused and went so far to as to decline to do a funeral mass for a drunken congregation. On hearing this, his teetotaller bishop remarked, “They may forgive you for your abuse of the country and your comparisons with England, but they’ll never forgive for turning your back on the dead.”

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