This is a guest post by Midleton-based historian and Cork County Council’s inaugural Historian in Residence, Tony Harpur. It was first published in Tony’s ‘Historical Tales’ column in the East Cork News & Advertiser in May 2021.
Have you noticed how gin has come back into fashion? There is a fine gin being produced in small quantities from milk at Ballyvolane House near Castlelyons (it’s called Bertha’s Revenge, from the name of a favourite cow!) and there is a fine new distillery at Ballyduff in in County Waterford situated on the banks of the River Blackwater between Fermoy and Lismore which is producing some lovely ‘Blackwater Gin.’
Gin is a spirit which has a somewhat unfortunate history in…. London anyway. Its origins lie in the monasteries around Salerno in southern Italy, the site of a famous medical school. Salerno was surrounded by hills blanketed in juniper trees and, by the 1100s, local monks had learned how to add the juniper berries to wine and a grain alcohol to produce a medicinal drink. In the following century monks and herbalists in the Low Countries began to produce a grain based medicinal drink which included juniper berries. By the 16th century (1500s) this had become a drink called jenever, which is the Dutch and Flemish word for juniper, giving us what the English called ‘gin.’ By that time, the Dutch were already adding additional ‘botanics,’ or herbs and flavoursome fruits and berries to the distilled alcohol. Dutch jenever has a softer and sweeter flavour to most British and Irish gins – you only have to go to a proflokaar (gin pub) in Amsterdam to see that. Jenever is served in small shot glasses which are filled to the brim – a useful way of finding out if you are inebriated.
England began to import this Dutch gin in the early 1600s but it wasn’t until William of Orange became King in 1688 that the English consumption of gin took off. This was in part because it was considered to be a ‘Protestant drink’ and also it was a reaction to the wars with the French at the time. Brandy and French wine were boycotted, or proved too difficult to import because of the war, so people turned to either Portuguese or Spanish wines (Madeira, port and sherry), or to grain based spirits like gin. Even more extraordinary was the fact that the English government allowed the operation of unlicensed gin distilleries at a time when its wartime expenses were rapidly increasing. This meant that gin could be produced cheaply from poor quality barley (the type of barley that was unsuitable for brewing beer). Naturally this was welcomed by farmers who soon began to grow larger quantities of this low quality barley, given that the market for gin was increasing so rapidly, and not just among the rich. The poor found that gin was cheaper and more readily available and so consumption continued to increase leading to the Gin Craze. Excluding the coffee shops and hot chocolate shops, of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London by 1735, half were gin shops!
The levels of public inebriation and outright drunkenness this produced worried social commentators at the time, including Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) and the artist William Hogarth, who produced the most famous anti-drink publication, the print ‘Gin Alley’ with its graphic illustration of the social ills of the demon gin. Indeed, the population of London stopped growing for a while as alcohol poisoning took its toll on the populace.
In 1736, the Westminster parliament passed the Gin Act to impose prohibitive taxes on gin. There were riots in the streets as a result and the government backed down gradually reducing the tax on gin until it was abolished in 1742. A new Gin Act was reintroduced in 1751 (remember the date!) and it proved to be more successful because the tax was lower and the distillers were forced to sell only to licensed public houses and local gin shops were placed under the jurisdiction of the local magistrates for licensing. Later in the 19th century, the British would add tonic water, which contained anti-malarial quinine, to their gin when consuming it in the tropics to give us Gin and Tonic. Some modern producers are making a flavoured tonic water with herbs and ‘botanicals’ similar to those used in making gin – this produces a pretty expensive water! The production of better quality beer, and porter, pushed gin into a minority drink by the early 1800s, although it was still produced in large quantities by local distilleries.
In 1838, Fr Theobald Mathew, a Capuchin friar in Cork, began a campaign to persuade the people of the city to give up consuming excessive amounts of alcohol. His temperance campaign took off at a time of economic difficulty as the trade barriers which had existed between Ireland and Britain before the Act of Union were gradually abolished. Cheap British imports flooded the Irish market putting many local businesses out of operation and increasing unemployment. By 1845, Fr Mathew had some 3 million adults enrolled in his campaign – about half the population of Ireland! Fr Mathew’s achievement in persuading so many Irish people to foreswear drink was such a phenomenon that he was feted in Britain, Europe and even in the US. His movement was especially popular in Midleton, a town that in 1837 boasted two distilleries and two commercial breweries (Dwyer’s and Coppinger’s). By 1845, only Hackett’s distillery was still (barely) operational and Murphy’s distillery (now the Jameson Experience) was still holding its own. Five years later only Murphy’s distillery was still commercially viable and its success would take off again by 1860. The irony is that Fr Mathew was a cousin of the Murphy brothers who ran the Midleton distillery! They found it hard to forgive him for his campaign against the demon drink.
The Famine ended Fr Mathew’s anti-drink crusade as rapidly as it began. By 1851, the Temperance campaign was a thing of the past in a nation that was traumatized by the horrors of the famine. It was an appallingly stressful time for people who lived on the breadline because they simply didn’t know if they would have enough food to last through the coming year. By 1850 the famine was over in most of the country although local crop failures and local instances of blight were still feared. Which brings us to Ballymacoda and its neighborhood in 1851.
You may recall that a couple of issues ago we covered the topic of the four lighthouses (Roches Point, Ballycotton, Youghal and Mine Head) on the East Cork/West Waterford coast. In that article we noted that there was a plan to build a lighthouse on Capel Island just off Knockadoon Head but, following the wreck of the SS Sirius in February 1847, that was capped and left incomplete when only partially built and a new lighthouse was built on the taller of the two islands off Ballycotton, which was lit in 1851. Naturally this didn’t stop ships, especially those powered by sail, from being wrecked off the East Cork coast. Indeed, several merchant vessels were wrecked between Ballycroneen and Ballybranagan in the 19th and early 20th centuries: the Ibis, Helga, Celestina, the Upupa, the Argo, and the Tadorna. The schooner Helen was wrecked on Knockadoon Head in 1858 and the Eugenie was wrecked in 1865 losing her cargo of thread overboard. For years afterwards the thread washed ashore and local women made seine nets for the fishermen of the district. Even the old Daunt Rock lightship, Puffin, was wrecked on this coast in 1896.
In 1851, the Celestina was wrecked on the shore and the crew was saved by the local inhabitants. No doubt they were grateful that the community rallied around, but that’s when the trouble started. Either a crewman said something, or the ship’s captain had asked for the nearest Revenue Police, or perhaps one of the locals decided to invoke the ‘custom of the sea’ and inspect the vessel for anything to…let’s say, ‘salvage,’ but soon it was voiced about the neighborhood that the ship carried a most valuable cargo indeed.
The Celestina carried a cargo of….gin! That’s right, she was loaded to the gunwales with gin. In a community still traumatized from the horrors of the Famine and only just recovering, and with little money available, this was too much temptation for the inhabitants.
You don’t have to imagine what happened next. The Celestina was stripped of its cargo, which soon disappeared into every possible hiding place in the neighborhood. When the constabulary, the Revenue Police and the Excise officers arrived they found the ship entirely empty. Added to this, all the local inhabitants seemed to be…inebriated. Some of them were very seriously drunk indeed. The police and excise officers commenced a search of the area but failed to turn up more than a handful of bottles. The government was out of pocket to the tune of several thousand pounds! And the inhabitants of Ballymacoda, Knockadoon and Ballycrenane grew less sober by the day. So, clearly these poor people had access to large amounts of alcohol but it wasn’t to be found anywhere. Sadly, the consumption of vast amounts of gin had some sad side effects – work in the fields was frequently neglected, and accidents happened too often.
Then, tragedy struck, as it was bound to. A local man dropped dead and on examination it seems that his stomach was full of undigested alcohol, to be precise, gin. He had died of alcohol poisoning. This prompted the police to approach the parish priest who was clearly worried by the widespread drunkenness in his parish. ‘Leave it to me’ he told them.
The following Sunday, the church in Ballymacoda thundered to the promise of hellfire and brimstone for anyone who kept stolen property and who were constantly so drunk that they could not even work in the fields or in their fishing boats.
Monday saw an unusual scene in the neighborhood. Small caches of gin began to appear at different points on the roadsides and corners. The revenue men were delighted to gather these up and they kept at it for a number of days until the supplies dried up. They didn’t get the entire cargo and perhaps not even more than half of the shipment was recovered. No doubt some was kept back for wakes and other social occasions but when the supply of gin dried up, the revenue men felt it was time to leave the Ballymacoda district to slumber in peace.
This happened a century after the Gin Act of 1751 became law in England and Scotland (but not in Ireland), and, bizarrely, almost a century later, in 1949, Ealing Studios in London produced a black and white movie called Whisky Galore! This was based on Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 book of the same name. Mackenzie based his book on an infamous incident during World War II when a ship with a cargo of whiskey was wrecked on Erisay Island in the Hebridies and the locals ‘liberated’ much of the cargo for home consumption. Even today, the islanders are turning up bottles of whiskey buried in their fields and under paths.
One wonders if the inhabitants of Ballymacoda, Knockadoon and Ballycrenane, or even Ladysbridge, still dig up any old bottles of 1851 gin today?