Great disinfectant, but don't drink Irish moonshine

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Some always said poteen, the Irish brand of illegal moonshine, was good for you and now it's pretty well official: it's great in poultices, a powerful disinfectant and is a "brilliant" antiseptic.

What it is not good for, of course, is drinking, as it is far too strong and of highly variable standard, distilled as it is in remote western parts. Made in strict secrecy, there is no hygienic supervision and unspeakable things are said to have turned up in the bottom of barrels.

But the brew exercises a grip on the Irish imagination and though it is increasingly rare, bottles are produced at Christmas in surreptitious triumph. Most varieties are colourless and slightly sweet, containing potatoes and sugar, sometimes in the form of treacle.

The legends say it can aid digestion, cure colds and many other ailments, and even fend off old age.

Science offers no confirmation of any of that but, as Dr Malachy McCann of the National University of Ireland at Maynooth outlined recently, it is useful as an antiseptic and, like other spirits, is excellent in helping extract useful medicinal substances from plants.

But its primary purpose is "to delight the heart", as one medieval enthusiast put it or, as a playwright said, to "bring a shock of joy to the blood".

The poteen business probably started in Ireland in the early 17th century, and by 1700 2,000 stills were producing about two million gallons. It was when a British government attempted to tax the home-grown industry that it was driven underground.

Thereafter it was produced in out-houses and even caves as a sort of rebel spirit, subject to periodic raids by police and revenue men who would break up the equipment and pour away the poteen.

The Catholic Church staged anti-poteen missions, finding part of Co Galway in the 1930s to be "debauched by poteen". Priests exhorted its makers to hand over their equipment, which they did with great reluctance.

Poteen-making was a useful source of income in the impoverished west of Ireland, but it was also viewed as a near-necessity in fishing communities where life was tough and dangerous. The playwright J M Synge said it served the purpose of "keeping sanity in men who live forgotten in those worlds of mist".

The island of Inishmurray off Co Sligo was noted for its poteen production, largely because difficult landing conditions made raids difficult. One successful raid, in the 1920s, found the island "literally studded with barrels" of poteen. A number of islanders were sentenced to hard labour, a judge declaring: "It is a rotten industry, and ruining this country, and it must go."

Today a legal brand of the drink can be purchased, but it lacks mystique. That lives on in rhyme: "Let the grasses grow and the waters flow/ In a free and easy way/ But give me enough of that rare old stuff/ That's made near Galway Bay."