“There’s a man from Ardaghey both proper and tall,
He’s one Paddy Shinaghan as we do him call,
Tis he brews the poteen that does exceed all,
Sure it beats all the doctors around Donegal.”
I first came across the lyrics to this old popular Donegal song in a terrific local resource book of songs, music and musicians from the southern Bluestacks district, collected and produced by Seoirse O’Dochartaigh back in the 1990s with students from the Abbey Vocational School. The song was recorded by the great folklore collector and traditional singer Paddy Tunney, of which Seoirse very kindly made a tape cassette copy of for me.
The home-spun song comes from Ardaghey in the district of Inver, which lies roughly halfway on the coast road between Donegal Town and Killybegs.
It was one of the first songs I ever performed at a gathering, and to this day, it is still one of my favourites. I find it light hearted with cleverly crafted verses and an understated, melodic rythmn.
The song tells the hilariously fantastical story of an esteemed poteen maker named Pat Shinaghan, and what happened one day when one of his prized cows mistook his secret poteen still for a barrel of drinking water.
Now just to explain, poteen (poitín) was a strong illicit alcohol which was commonly ‘brewed’ in the hills of Donegal in times of yore. There are still a few enthusiastic distillers but back when this song was written, probably the late 1800s, there were many hill people who made a living from selling poteen. Paddy Tunney himself once wrote “it was so plentiful, that the kettles were often filled from it in mistake for spring water.”
It was a time when the majority of rural country folk couldn’t afford to drink in a pub. Yet alcohol was still popular for marking or celebrating certain occasions such as births, christenings, weddings, St. Patrick’s Day, Christmas, wakes, emigration farewells (American wakes), poteen makers had a large ready market.
Another fact that dates this song to the late 1800s or early 1900s is the number of Irish words used in the song. At this time therewere still significant pockets of Irish speakers living in rural parts of the Inver district. Buarach is a (tether) often made from grass ropes. Avourneen – A mhuirnín means (my dear). A bhuachaill means (my boy) and A mhic means (my son).
Now I must be honest with readers and confess that I thought Pat Shinaghan was a fictional character, that is, until one night I was doing a stand up storytelling gig in the Olde Castle Bar, Donegal Town. As is often customary for me I sang Pat Shinaghan’s Cow. After the show was over, a friendly middle-aged couple from Australia came up to me at the bar. I noticed that there were smiles growing across their faces as they introduced themselves as distant relations of Pat Shinaghan. I was gobsmacked and at first thought they were having me on for Australians have a similar sense of humour to the Irish.
They were travelling around Ireland and had drove out to Ardaghey earlier in the day for a look around. They were able to tell me that Pat Shinaghan in fact lived next door to the parish priest. As this priest was said to partial to an occasional drop of ‘the mountain dew’ himself, Pat not only had a customer but a sort of nominal protection from the law at the time!
I hope you enjoy my rendition of ‘Pat Shinaghan’s Cow’ which was recorded some years back in the Millpark Hotel, Donegal Town.