Gardening: I deny that I am the poteen person

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The Independent Online
AT PUNCHESTOWN racecourse on a bright sunny day, the women are holding on to their hats against the wind, the beer and champagne tents are flourishing and there is a comfortable air of well-dressed and well-heeled eccentricity. I am trying to select a winner, on conflicting advice, when I am approached by a member of the training fraternity. At least he appears to be: he has dressed the part in lightweight tweeds, flat cap and canary waistcoat.

'Are you the man with the poteen?' he demands, referring to the illicitly-distilled liquor, the illegitimate cousin of whiskey.

'Certainly not,' I reply equably. 'You have the wrong fellow.'

'You are the man with the poteen,' he persists, poking me in the chest with a rolled-up racecard. 'I was told you were the man with the poteen. Will you not give me some of it?'

'Not even,' said I, 'if I had some. Now kindly clear off before I call the cops.'

'You sod,' said he, with a wink, and off he went. It was only later it occurred to me that I had probably been talking to an undercover agent of the drugs squad, the Customs and Excise or maybe even Special Branch itself.

I WAS inveigled into a trip on board the Pride of Galway around Dublin Bay by Finnegan and Enda O Coineen, the latter an enthusiast for rubber dinghies, who indeed sailed one (the Unsinkable Kilcullen) across the Atlantic in spite of the best efforts of the US Coastguard to dissuade him.

Now I do not in the least mind putting to sea as long as I may do so in reasonable comfort and with some prospect of rejoining my loved ones in this world. The Pride of Galway, a slender and fast gaff-rigged ketch, was built in 1914 for a pair of German businessmen, with bad timing, and was promptly appropriated by the Kriegsmarine. She has been extensively refitted and now operates as a training vessel. In this capacity she takes juvenile offenders on board who would not know how to steal a rowboat, and successfully instils moral fibre into them.

'For the first time in 1992 we took on board offenders who were, in effect, under lock and key,' I was told. 'The warder in charge was delighted, since they had no place to escape at sea. He could relax.'

Not me, I fear. The presence of these young gentlemen on board would not have alarmed me in the least; it is the Irish Sea that alarms me. I had glanced out of the window in the morning and noticed her in one of her more mutinous moods, displaying that grey, subversive swell that consigned even the likes of Nelson to his bunk. But when have I ever disappointed Finnegan?

I appeared at the Yacht Club at Dun Laoghaire to have a drink and wave them goodbye. Nothing doing.

'There's a beer below,' said Enda. There was not. The boat, to my horror, cast off. Klinke, who was present, said with that courteous malice of which only he is capable, 'Last time we went to sea together, the boat sank under us.' This is true.

'It is all right,' said Enda. 'You will be picked up in a dinghy at the mouth of the harbour.' This turned out to be not the case either. The dinghy appeared an hour out, by which time I calculated that we were still facing another five hours on the round trip to Howth.

It was well worth clambering over the side into one of those rubber craft that used to be favoured by Paddy Ashdown in his military days, though I daresay he was fitter than I am.

Mary preceded me. We were soon wrapping ourselves around hot whiskies. Klinke declined to abandon ship. He admits to having had a horrible time thereafter. No fortification is allowed on the Pride of Galway, it is explained to me, because it would set the trainees a bad example. If I were a trainee on the Pride, I would either nick the captain's booze or, failing in that, demand to be returned to prison.

THERE is more personal contact in a small country like this between ruled and rulers than in larger nations, though I am not sure it does us any good.

I was recently in the bar of the Oireachtas, our parliament, along with several carousers who were celebrating our victory in the Supreme Court over the Office of Public Works's infamous interpretive centres. The idea of our heritage planners is that they should dump a couple of hundred thousand people every year precisely into the centre of what they are supposed to be preserving, thereby ruining it for good. 'Let us not rub their noses in it,' said one of the company.

'Why not?' I growled. They will simply switch the law, as they did when we won in the High Court.

One of our parliamentarians introduced me to the barman. (Citizens of Ireland may buy their representatives a drink in parliament; this is not a privilege extended to citizens at Westminster, much to the annoyance of many MPs, not to mention their lordships.) The barman told me that a new elephant at the Dublin Zoo had bitten the trunk off an elderly elephant with whom he had been invited to mate.

'How did you know that?' I asked, amazed. 'It wasn't in the papers.'

'The Green Party raised it in the House yesterday,' he said.