A glass of cheer for the grim New Year

IT is a tradition on this island, even in these grim times, to raise a glass of cheer with friends atNew Year. It is a custom we share with our Scottish neighbours and Gaelic cousins across the North Channel. In Alba, Hogmanay is a two-day event which makes Christmas look like a clergyman’s tea party, though it is a bit of a cliché to depict the Scots and Irish as boozers for there are many people in England and Wales who can give them a run for their money when itcomes to a fondness for the electric soup. We Gaels tend to be good natured drinkers, by and large, though the giggly water has been a factor in our troubles for many centuries.

Saint Patrick was known to enjoy a wee dram and travelled around the island in search of the best stuff during the fifth century. He performed his greatest work after a jorum or two, driving all the snakes away and turning poteen pagans into God-fearing Christians with a taste for communion wine. There was a bit of bother when the Vikings arrived because they had grown tired of the crude firewater of the fjords, coveted a drop of poteen and a comely Colleen. But Brian Boru was an excellent bouncer and showed them the door at Clontarf in 1014.

After that the Irish got along quite nicely drinking poteen, until 1166 when there was a big row over a fine looking woman called Derval. Dermot McMurrough in Wexford asked the Welsh to come over and sort out his rivals, the O’Rourkes in Sligo. The sneaky Welsh led by Strongbow, who was a heavy cider drinker, decided to stay. They killed lots of the Irish, stole their land,drank their best poteen and started a cider business in Clonmel. But the Irish had the last laugh because Irish cider turned Welshmen into Irishmen. They started speaking Irish, wearing Irish clothes and fighting among themselves. Everything went back to normal.

However the English Pope Adrian IV was not happy with all this fighting and drinking. In 1155, he sent a letter to the English king Henry II telling him he could have Ireland if he went over and sorted them out. But the English were too busy fighting among themselves and drinking French wine. It wasn’t until the Spanish Armada threatened to invade in 1588 that they decided to take the Pope’s offer seriously. The Irish, under Hugh O’Neill from Ulster, teamed up with the Spanish to try and throw the English off the island but they lost the Nine Years War because thetroops drank too much poteen and cider before the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. The last stand was in Ulster where most of the Irish were killed and the English Queen Elizabeth confiscated thestills.

The next English king was Scottish. James I saw an opportunity to get rid of a lot of the troublemakers in his own country so he sent them to Ulster. If your family name is Armstrong, Bell, Graham or Irvine there is a good chance you are related to one of these Border Reivers. The Scotsmen were fond of whisky so they opened a distillery at Bushmills in 1608. The Irish fought to get their poteen stills back but the teetotaller Oliver Cromwell was having none of it. He had his king’s head chopped off and closed all the pubs in England. Then in 1649 he sent anarmy to impose sobriety on everyone living in Ireland. Cromwell’s soldiers killed lots of Welsh, Irish and Scots, stole their land then drank all their poteen, whisky, cider and communion wine.

By 1660 the English in England were very thirsty and decided they wanted a king back but had to be sure he was not a Catholic who might sell them out to the Rioja drinkers of Spain. They invited William of Orange from Holland to have the throne. His rival, King James II, came to Ireland for help but was beaten at the Battle of the Boyne because his army wanted to get back to Dublin before the pubs closed. After 1690 everything went back to normal for a while and everybody agree to drink poteen, whisky, wine and the odd glass of cider in summertime.

But the Scots in Ulster became angry because the new English king treated them as badly as the Irish, even though they’d supported him at the Boyne. Many of these Scots-Irish went to America where they killed the Red Indians and stole their land. Then they threw out the English and invented bourbon. Their cousins back in Ulster launched a rebellion too but were defeated by the English who banned poteen and put up the price of whisky, wine and cider.

There was a famine in Ireland in the 1840s after the English poisoned all the potatoes, to stop the Irish making illegal poteen, and force them to drink Guinness which was invented in 1759. Many left to go to America where bourbon was cheap. By 1914 the Irish had the English government over a barrel. John Redmond secured legislation to bring power back to Ireland under Home Rule and vowed to cut the price of Irish whiskey. But the Scottish troublemakers in Ulster were having none of it because they drank their own whisky and didn’t like the Pope. Civil war was only prevented by the outbreak of World War One. The Irish rebelled again in 1916 and by 1921 the English decided they’d had enough of the squabbling Irish and Ulster-Scots so gave them each a little parliament. And that’s why we have one government in Belfast for just 1.7million people and another in Dublin for around five million. Both institutions have very fine bars where the drink is cheap.

On Old Year’s Night I will raise a glass of illicit poteen and offer you my best wishes for 2022.



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