By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — For the first time in memory, the annual pre-Christmas Garda alert for poitin has failed to result in any seizures or raids on illegal distilling operations in the traditional heartlands of the trade.
The head of the gardai’s Forensic Bureau, Dr. Jim O’Donovan, said the economic prosperity of the Celtic Tiger years appears to be swallowing up the trade.
“We have had no suspected samples of poitin to test this year, nothing,” he said. “It is certainly very unusual. I can’t remember ever not getting pre-Christmas samples to test before.
“In the past you knew Christmas was coming because the poitin samples would begin to arrive in from raids by the Guards in October or November.
“I presume it is a sociological change. It is no longer the thing to have a bottle of poitin at Christmas. At one time you got a bottle from a friend and it was a big deal. Now they might wonder why you wouldn’t buy a decent bottle of alcohol for them.
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“People have more money now. It is bad enough risking your health drinking clean alcohol without taking extra risks. We have found unbelievable rubbish, thick filthy sludge, when we have evaporated poitin in the past.”
Many impurities from the materials used to make it remained in the finished product after the distilling because alcohol is such an effective solvent.
O’Donovan believes that in the past poitin, that was often double the strength of commercial spirits, was a hidden killer and many more people died from drinking it than was realized.
“Poitin was the poor man’s alcohol in the past,” he said. “It has connotations with hard drinking — dismal old men drinking, cold and alone, to forget life. That doesn’t fit with the modern age.”
The Garda Press Office confirmed the normal pre-Christmas checks were being made.
In Donegal, gardai in Letterkenny have seized only one bottle of what they believed was a “drop of the cratur” last month.
“You can be sure they are still at it,” O’Donovan said. “There is always a trade in it at Christmas time. Maybe with the foot-and-mouth this year we mightn’t have been able to give it the usual attention, but you can be sure there are still small amounts of poitin available.
“There is no doubt that the market isn’t completely exhausted. Some supplies traditionally come in to Donegal from the North. But if there was much of a trade you can be sure we would have got wind of it.”
In Galway, a spokesman at Carraroe Garda station, which deals with the Connemara area, said the last time it made any poitin seizures was in January.
“Connemara used to be the traditional heartland, but we don’t get much in the way of complaints about it nowadays,” the spokesman said.
“It is very low key now. Some of the older boys may still be drinking it, but it is not popular with the youngsters.
“There might still be some used for Christmas cakes, but the romance has gone out of it. With more people working, they can afford to buy ordinary drinks at the weekend and they don’t need it any more.
“Of course it could be that some of them making it are getting cute and did their distilling early, closing down their operations in anticipation of the Christmas raids.”