Here, John Cunningham relates the experience of his father, Michael Cunningham in the earliest days of An Garda Síóchána. He tells a story about Michael Cunningham, being posted to Sligo and outlines some of the incidents he became associated with through his work in the early days of policing the new Free State, in particular illegal poitín stills on Tory Island. You can read more about Michael Cunningham HERE
JOHN CUNNINGHAM: Okay. The other story that he told me, and he used to tell me a lot of these old stories long after he retired, late at night when we’d be sitting down after having a cup of tea and he’d be doing the crosswords, and I’d be in after being out with the lads or something and we’d be talking about the old days. But he told me one of his first assignments was down to Sligo. He was based in Sligo and one of the jobs that he had was to cycle up into Donegal and re-open some of the stations. The old RIC stations had been to be reopened under the command of the Garda Siochana, so he would have to get supplies from the depot in Dublin in Phoenix Park, he would have to get supplies from there and he would use those supplies to put up the new plaque over the door and put up, you know, the new equipment in the office or whatever, new books and new registers and all that kind of stuff that would go with the policing.
One of the other jobs that he was given was, well, he and a whole pile more men. Apparently, there was a problem with the Tory Islanders. The Tory Islanders were notorious for running illegal Poitín stills and they had a thriving business. During the prohibition in America, apparently, a lot of boats from Scotland would be running out to America with scotch and some of the boats would stop in Tory Island and a few other places and they’d like, they’d like top up with illegal hooch I suppose you could call it at best, which was probably not so good, and they brought that off to America anyway and it would be consumed in the shebeens or the speakeasies as they call them in America during the prohibition years.
Anyway, a message came through apparently from the American Embassy to the Garda Siochana that this was not acceptable and they requested the Garda Siochana to close down this illegal Poitín industry on Tory Island. So a bunch of Gardai from around Donegal and from Sligo and Leitrim and places were all mobilised, and they had to cycle up or they were brought up in a truck or something, I don’t know which, brought up to a port near the Tory Island where you would leave on the boat for Tory Island. So they got these boatmen that would row them out to the island, a whole bunch of Gardai with batons and the whole lot, and they arrived on the island and they announced to the islanders what their intention was.
So there was consternation on the island anyway and the king of the island apparently confronted them. They had their own king at that time. The king of the island confronted them and told them that they’d have no luck for doing this, that they would be cursed and they will all be sunk in a violent storm on the way back to the mainland. And in actual fact, the king of the island said a British gunboat actually stopped and sent ashore some men to do the same thing a few years back and the women of the island, they turned the stones in the graveyard, which was their way of calling a curse on someone, and they cursed the British soldiers. Whether it was a cause-and-effect relationship or not, he says the boat was sunk in a storm not long afterwards.
Anyhow, so the lads were told to go ahead with their duty and they smashed up all the stills and everything etc and when the whole job was over, they decided, jeez, you know this king of the island might have, there might be something in what he said. You know the way Irish people were slightly superstitious all the time. So they arrested the king of the island and brought him back in the boat with them as insurance. [Laughs]
So anyway, they got back to the pier and low and behold, all the boatmen had been drinking all the whiskey they could get their hands on and they were all langers, pissed out of their minds the whole lot of them, and they weren’t even fit to stand up, never mind row a boat. So the Gardai were told roll up your sleeves lads and get rowing. Most of them never rowed a boat in their lives but they had to learn awful fast. My father said they got back to the mainland and as they were heading off towards the mainland, sure enough, a storm did come up. And they were very frightened, but he says they kept going, kept going and he says he had blisters all over his hands. Even though he was used to hard work all his life on the farm in West Clare, he had blisters all over his hands from the rowing.
Anyway, they got back safely, they got back safely and when they got back to the barracks in Sligo, one of the Gardai called a couple of lads aside and said, listen lads, I’ve found a lovely little keg of whiskey in one of the houses that we were raiding and I brought it home and we’ll keep it for Christmas. So they kept the keg of whiskey for Christmas and apparently Christmas Eve anyway they broke open the keg and they had a glass of the lovely whiskey, and my father said it was the greatest poison he ever tasted. He said either the whiskey was cursed or else the stuff that they were drinking in America in the speakeasies was awful poison altogether. He said they all spat it out and threw the whole thing down the river. So that was the story of the Tory Islanders anyway.