Poitin (Irish White-lightning)

tribal-dragon-2-300pxI once spent a rainy summer walking through Ireland and stayed for a couple weeks at an inn so isolated that the nearest pub was three miles away.

In Ireland that says a great deal.

The pub wasn’t really that far, close enough to hear a dog bark, a rooster crow and a mother call for her children – but between where I stayed and where I drank lay a bog.  

A ditch cut a line through the bog and in any other place, the road would follow the ditch – but it didn’t. Like so many things in Ireland, the road simply wandered off on a whim.

First it visited a place where locals dug turf for their hearths then it dodged waves along the shore of a lake before scampering over a long timbered bridge onto firmer ground.  Once the road took its leave of the lake, it struggled up a mist shrouded mountain before losing heart and tumbling back across the bog and into town.

In the weeks I stayed there, I learned every curve, rut and washout along the road because I walked the length of it every day and always after the same ritual with Ian, the proprietor of the Bed & Breakfast where I was staying.

Every afternoon as I left for town, Ian would wait until I squished through the puddles to the edge of his yard before calling out, “Mr. Schiller?”

Every day I squished back across the lawn to talk.

He always asked, “Do you carry a torch?”

And I always answered, “Yes, for a girl in Minneapolis.”

It was our joke.

But then he got serious and wagged a finger until I produced a flashlight from the pocket of my raincoat.

“Mind the Kelpie on your way home,” he warned.

The Kelpie was a troublesome beast who inhabited the lake beside the road. Those unlucky enough to have seen it, described the creature as the unholy union between an eel and a horse. Ian said it frequently took guests who could not hold their liquor and walked home after dark without a torch.

I encountered the beast only once – on my first night at the inn. I had stayed too long at the pub and Ian came into town to escort me home. The moment we stepped onto the road, I understood why. I had never experienced dark- that dark.

Without street lights, the fog stole even the memory of light. I could have stood on the surface of the sun and still not counted my fingers through the intensity of that darkness.

We walked with only the crunch of the gravel to guide us and just beyond town as we crossed the first arm of the bog, Ian stopped and said sternly, “Wait here” then he stepped off into the darkness, leaving me with only the sound of his receding footsteps.

Squish, squish, squish, squish.

Silence – then clink-clink.

And squish, squish, squish, squish as he returned.

As his feet shuffled onto the gravel, a bottle touched my hand. I raised it to my lips and took a swig of what felt like boiling rock.

We continued on, taking sips on the move, until we reached the bridge. There we leaned against the railing and drank some more.

I asked him what the stuff was.

“Poitin,” he said, “or as you say moonshine. It is Irish white-lightning.”

The bottle went back and forth in the dark as we took short nips of what tasted like lava. For a while, we drifted in and out of conversation before falling silent to enjoy the sound of the waves and a cool mist blowing in off the lake.

At first I thought it was the booze – but what I witnessed was beyond intoxication.

A cloud rolled in her sleep and dropped a veil off one shoulder.

Stars gathered about her and the moon stole a glance.

In his excitement, the moon spilled his light, scattering silver droplets among the dancing waves.

Out beyond a small dark island, a shape appeared for no more than a heartbeat. It rose undulating in the moonlight with the body of an eel and the head of a horse.

Among the flickering waves, it reared up and shook a brackish spray off its scaly mane.

Then it was gone. The cloud recovered her composure and the moon plunged back into darkness.

I couldn’t say a word. Alcohol having long since reduced my speech to babble and besides,  a monster on the lake is not something one readily talks about when drinking is involved.

We walked on.

Once again Ian stopped. Once more he instructed me to, “Wait here.”

Once again he stepped into nothingness, leaving me alone in the blackness with only the sound of his receding footsteps for company.

Squish, squish, squish, squish – then rummage-rummage, clink-clink, and squish, squish, squish, squish in return.

I surmised that Ian had stashed moonshine on both ends of his journey to town.

One for the coming and one for the going.

He walked me to the light of the inn before turning to say, “When you go to town, always carry a torch.”

I nodded.

“Or,” he warned, “the Kelpie will have you at the bridge.”

Author: Almost Iowa


25 thoughts on “Poitin (Irish White-lightning)”

  1. It’s so fun to hear about local variants of moonshine and its effects on the uninitiated. Here in Romania we call it Tuica or Palinka, and I’m pretty sure that’s how the Vampire tradition really got started.

    I really enjoy your storytelling Greg. It’s immersive, and descriptive, and true. I’d normally need to flip through my New Yorker, Granta, or Tin House to find similar. Thanks for sharing the good stuff with us for free.

    1. Our local variant was called Minnesota 13 after the variety of corn used to make it.

      My wife’s hometown, Blooming Prairie, rests at a point where four counties come together. In the year before Prohibition, three of those counties were dry and the saloons did a booming business….which angered the good citizens of the other three counties. During the summer of 1918, at the behest of the dry counties, the governor ordered the National Guard to occupy the town and shut down the saloons. While the Guard shuttered the front doors, the booze flowed out the back.

      1. hehehe I love rehashing attempts to enforce prohibition. These kind of facts come in handy on those very rare occasions Monica tries to curtail my bi-monthly Jack-and-Coke habit.

  2. This is so beautifully written I don’t want to quit reading. I may just sit and re-read it all morning, and not go to work. I could tell my customers the Kelpie got me, except I wouldn’t be there to tell them anything. Being Irish myself, I believe such things possible.

  3. My favorite paragraph from the entire story: “Without street lights, the fog stole even the memory of light. I could have stood on the surface of the sun and still not counted my fingers through the intensity of that darkness.”

    Now that’s dark. An incredible, descriptive section of writing, Greg.

    Will you be sharing this story at some St. Patrick’s Day celebration tomorrow?

    1. This story is one of my favorites. As for sharing, I doubt that I could match the blarney of some of the folks that I know.

      Back when we lived in The Cities, we would dance at Ceilis on Saint Pat’s but not so much anymore. We wore our feet out. 🙂

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