Distillers — Legal...
Distilling, one of Derry's oldest industries, once ranked as a
leading employer of labour in the city. At the beginning of the last
century, there were three distilleries in the city, and one in the
parish of Clondermott, which in the year 1835 produced 19,000
gallons of spirit. Of the city's distilleries, Smyth's at
Pennyburn had an annual output of 39,000 gallons, and the
Abbey Street or Bogside distillery produced 44,000 gallons. Its
joint owners were Mr. Ross Smyth and Mr. David Watt.
The Watt Family, which hailed from Ramelton, were the pioneers and,
for a century and a half, the mainstay of the industry. Most of the
Derry whiskey was exported to America, though the local market was
considerable, despite the profusion of poteen stills that flourished
in its hinterland. In 1833, there were 175 spirit licences in the
city, catering for a population of 18,000.
In the heyday of the whiskey trade the censure that was later
accorded to excessive drinking was not yet in evidence, for a report
of the typhus epidemic in 1817 lists a supply of Pennyburn among the
donations from "the benevolent gentry" to the victims, who were so
numerous that they were accommodated in tents in the grounds of the
Though some outside observers dwelt on the prevalence of drunkenness
in the city, the Press did not consider it worth reporting;
prosecutions for drinking or the making and selling of poteen and
theological disputations were far better "crack."
The author of the Ordnance Survey (1835) roundly berated the better
paid workers, such as coachmakers and tailors, but offset his
picture of a boozy proletariat by mentioning the city's 500
registered teetotallers, whose only recorded activity was attending
tea parties. However, as the century wore on, there were reams of
drink cases, often involving the major traffic offence — drunk in
charge of a horse or donkey.
The Pennyburn distillery closed in 1840 and the 50 men and boys
employed there moved to Abbey Street, where the pot stills were
replaced by the new patent stills, whose inventor, Mr. Aenas Coffey,
came to Derry to supervise their erection. The work force further
increased and the distillery became one of the best known in the
United Kingdom when Old Tyrconnell superseded Pennyburn.
Possibly the emigrants took the taste with them for it dominated the
American market; early films of major baseball games show the
Yankees Stadium ringed with hoardings extolling Old Tyrconnell.
The Waterside distillery, which was owned by the Meehan
family, of whom the last was Recorder of Derry, passed in 1870 into
the control of Mr. David Watt. It closed in 1902 when it was
amalgamated into United Distilleries Group, but the name was
commemorated in the recently demolished Meehan's Row.
A mass closure of Irish distilleries followed the First World War
owing to high taxation and decreased consumption and, what was
particularly telling in the case of Watt's, the loss of the American
market with the introduction of Prohibition. In 1921, the Abbey
Street distillery closed, and distilling became another extinct
On a map drawn for
the purpose of a Revenue Commission in 1836, Derry and Donegal are
shown as the principal centres of the poteen industry in the North
of Ireland. "Illicit distillation can scarcely be said to exist
south of the Liffey or the Shannon" the report stated. In that year
in Derry City there was 174 spirit licences and 165 for beer and,
the report went on, "the public houses are of different degrees of
respectability; in some of the inferior type gambling prevails but
all are useful in diminishing the number of unlicensed houses and
checking the sale of illicit spirits which is very extensive and on
The heyday of the poteen industry was about 30 years earlier, just
after the Union; in 1815, when whiskey was selling for 9s. 6d. a
gallon, the Excise duty was 6s. 11d. So heavily penalised was the
legal trade that poor quality materials made it unpalatable, and
many local stills were forced out of legal business. the risk of
detection determined the mode of distribution. In Derry City, during
the period of the Napoleonic wars when the Excise forces were
directed to coastal defence garrisons, poteen was sold in open tubs
in the street.
Twenty years later it was supplied by turfmen, who hid kegs under
their loads, or small operators, ostensibly selling eggs or butter.
Yet there were many who could afford "parliament" whiskey but
preferred the "craythur" for its flavour and potency; only a
degraded palate, it was held, could tolerate the taste of smoke in
preference to the "hogo" of turf — but they were not sufficiently
numerous to form a specialist market. Production reached its peak in
these years, for nearly two-thirds of all spirits consumed in
Ireland were poteen. The government retaliated by recruiting an
excise force of 1,000 men, who, within two years, seized 16,000
stills. Evidence was also given at successive Commissions, that
amateur distillers were frowned upon by big operators, like the man
near Derry who was in such a way of business that, "He is the only
man of his sort who eats white bread, toasted, buttered and washed
down with tea for his breakfast."
Success so striking must have called for exceptional qualifications,
chief of which would inevitably be an aversion or well bridled
fondness for his own products — only teetotallers make successful
publicans. But the Inspector-General of the Excise was sceptical and
told the enquiry that he never knew anyone engaged in the making or
traffic in poteen who grew rich by it. The social risks were often
formidable; one harassed distiller complained, "As soon as it is
known that I am making a run, every idle blackguard for miles around
considers it neighbourly to drop in and drink my profits."
Next to Derry and its hinterland as poteen centres were Bun an
Phobail (Moville) and Magilligan Point, but, when a Revenue cutter
began patrolling the lough, those markets wilted. The Royal Irish
Constabulary who took over from the older revenue force were much
more successful in suppressing the traffic — they were reputed never
to use snuff, the better to smell out poteen — but it was the
imposition of spiritual penalties that led to the disappearance of
of stills and shebeens in the North-West. Harassed by Church and
State, the stillers' products deteriorated and, dependent on the
least stable of the community, passed into folklore.