Irelands Great Drug Epidemic
‘Ointment and perfume rejoice the heart’ Proverbs (27:9)
The past week was a big week in global politics, a week of negotiations in Bali, and a week where South Africa’s ANC decides on a new leader, but in Ireland it was a week where – due to the death at the age of 24 of a ‘high profile’ young model, Katy French, from a suspected cocaine reaction, along with the death of two Waterford men – the Country was in the thrall of cocaine, a week which the media and various commentators would have us believe that we are in the midst of a great, calamitous drugs epidemic .
This, however, is not the first time in our history we’ve faced drug epidemics, and it probably won’t be the last. Surprisingly, Draperstown, Co. Derry (a quaint Village nestled in the Sperrins) was the epicenter of one of these great epidemics! And even more remarkably, Fr. Matthew is to blame for the whole thing! We are, of course, speaking of the great Ether epidemic of the 1880’s.
For our non-Irish readers here’s a link to Fr. Matthew.
Ether was originally discovered in 1275 by Spanish chemist Raymundus Lullius and named “sweet vitriol” (Yes that means ‘abusive or venomous language used to express blame or censure or bitter deep-seated ill will’ – but it also means ‘a highly corrosive, dense, oily liquid’) but it wasn’t until the 19th century that it came into common use as an anesthetic (we’re not sure what Lullius used it for – ask a chemist!). Ether was introduced into medicine under the trade name Anodyne by Friedrich Hoffmann (1660-1742). Hoffmann recommended his Anodyne for pains due to kidney stones, gallstones, intestinal cramps, earache, toothache, and painful menstruation. However, it began to be used for recreation from as early as the mid-18th century and there are accounts of an Englishman, James Graham (1745-1794) who ‘was accustomed to inhale an ounce or two several times a day, in public, with manifest placidity and enjoyment‘. By the 19th century ether drinking was happening in the US and Britain.
But the greatest outbreak of ether drinking occurred in Ireland in the 19th century. And allegedly, it was Fr. Matthew’s temperance movement which caused this great epidemic. One of the pledgers to Matthew’s movement was a Dr. Kelly, an alcoholic Doctor from Draperstown. Apparently, in his need to indulge in mind altering drugs, but being averse to breaking his solemn pledge to the movement, he found a ready substitute in Ether. He thereafter imparted his knowledge to some friends and pretty soon, all of Draperstown was ‘ethered up’, or E’d up as the parlance was at the time.
Warning – the following may not have been Draperstown slang words for Ether or the use of Ether, but could have been used:
E (Ether), E-bombs (5 times a day E-users), Draperstown E-tard (Person stupid or out-of-hand under the influence of Ether), E-gress (person on their way out of their head from Ether), E-rish (Irish person under the influence of Ether), E-trepeneur (person who makes a business out of Ether) etc…
Though ether, essentially a distilled mix of alcohol and sulphuric acid, was available as a liquid, it still vaporizes very easily at room temperature; it was therefore consumed either by being swallowed or inhaled. Apparently e-xperienced e-heads could knock back a 3 Oz. glassful in a single swig, without water! According to some accounts, Ether was cheaper than whiskey, could be consumed several times a day without a punitive hangover and the inebriation only lasted for up to an hour, so if arrested for drunkenness, the offender would be sober by the time they reached the station. However, ether had its drawbacks – the risk of death from excessive sedation or overdose is greater than that with alcohol, the risk of chronic gastritis, and, because Ether is extremely flammable, fatal burns from smoking while drinking.
By the late 1800’s Ether was being distilled abroad, mainly in England and Scotland and imported into Dublin and Belfast, passed onto to small time dealers such as doctors, druggists and sold on by local peddlers all across Ireland. In 1890, due to an increase in use in Ireland, Ether was scheduled under the Poisons Act of 1870, Part II so it could only be sold by qualified pharmacists. Drinking Ether for under 18’s only became an offence in 1923 under the intoxicating liquor Act. And restrictions of sale introduced in 1927 finally put paid to the use of the drug.