We are coming down the hill from the oratory, moving this way and that to avoid the newborn lambs. Their mothers eye us warily.
The old man watches us from below. His cap is pulled down tight on his head and his blue jumper is zipped up to his chin to ward off the chill. Moleskin pants, held together as much by soil as by fabric, are stuffed into his wellies.
We slip and slide until we reach the gate. He leans on his shovel as he waits to greet us, a barrow of stones by his side.
“Fine day,” he says, “though there’s still snow on the mountain.” He points to Mount Brandon over his shoulder, sporting a crown of white.
“It is indeed,” I say. “The sun always makes it feel warmer.”
“It does, so.”
“You’ve put in a new gate?” I ask, pointing at the wide, shiny gate at the entrance to the field.
“I have. Wasn’t the old one about to fall down and t’was too narrow as well. I used to walk the fields to mind the sheep, but now I use the machine,” he says, referring to his ATV. “The legs have gone out from under me.”
We close the new gate and he loops a bit of twine to hold it closed. “Sure, why would I give the man below €10 for a hasp when the old way works just as well? The sheep don’t know the difference.”
He hefts the barrow and we start down the bohreen. I carry the shovel.
“Did I see you at the holy well when we were up above?” I ask him.
He sets the barrow down and pushes the cap back on his head.
“You did,” he says. “It’s time to start the Easter poitín. A man is down from Mayo to learn the trade from me. Sure, isn’t it dying out all over the country?”
He pulls his cap back down, lifts the barrow and we start again. He talks as we walk.
“I learned from my father and he learned from his own father before that. But I’ve no son to teach, so I’ll pass it on to this Mayo man. I only make the batch at Easter and the one for Christmas. Just to help celebrate, like.”
The barrow is put down again so the man can rest. The cap goes back on his head.
“It started in the old days when the Brits would tax the legal stuff to deny a man a drink after a hard day’s work. The whiskey they forced on them was no good at all. The people called it ‘Parliament’ after them that made the tax.”
He searched in a pocket for a cigarette and in another pocket for a match. He lit up and leaned against the stones.
“The people started to make their own and good stuff it was too. The Brits didn’t like that at all because they got no money from the tax, so they said it was a crime to make a batch. Many a man was ruined and thrown in prison and his family tossed into the road.”
He exhaled a great cloud of smoke.
“All to deny a man a drink.”
His cap is pulled down tight again and we start down the last stretch of the bohreen.
“The people hid the stills away where the Brits couldn’t find them. And fathers taught their sons.”
“My stuff is made with the water from the holy well, as pure a water as you’ll find in all of Ireland. Takes near six weeks, so I start it just before the Lent. People tell me it’s better than that stuff they make down the hill,” he says modestly, referring to the Dingle Distillery in town. “Sure, don’t I make mine to 60 and they only make theirs to 40? And they sell it for €70 a bottle!”
I realize he is talking about the percentage of alcohol in his brew. That would make it 120 proof. Strong stuff, indeed.
We reach the end of the bohreen and the entrance to his yard. He puts the barrow down once again and pushes his cap back. I hand him his shovel.
“Will you be at the mass on Easter up above?” he asks.
“You would be very welcome indeed to stop in at the house for a ‘cup of tay.’”
“A ‘cup of tay?’” Then I realize he’s talking about 120 proof tea.
“We will,” I tell him.
“Until Easter then,” he says, pulls his cap back down, picks up his barrow and pushes it into his yard.
And we walk on.