Even if you’ve never been to Lurgan, you’ll know us by our legendary drouth for the mighty Buckfast Tonic Wine!
The Breakfast of Champions has been fuelling Spade Town for generations. Sure didn’t we even train Master McGrath – history’s most famous greyhound – wi’ a drap o’ Buckfast in his bowl!
Mere mention of my beloved hometown might make some think of tiresome social-media polls soliciting views on Northern Ireland’s “worst town”.
Alas, Lurgan is often lumped in with Ballymena and Larne as a potential contender for this undesirable crown.
Well, slap it up ye’s, for Lurgan is already a winner – and we toast our victory with a bumper of the celebrated Buckfast Tonic Wine. Aye, we can drink the rest of them under the table with a wee swally o’ Buckie…
Dungannon? Done down! Omagh? Ólta amach! There’s none can take our baubles, not even Portydown!
Lurgan’s fascination with Buckfast is longstanding, to the extent that it’s known far and wide as “Lurgan Champagne”. In the 1980s a local poetry collective brought together an assemblage of verse with that very title.
It’s not unpopular in other parts but Buckie is a touchstone for the town. People reference three things when Lurgan is mentioned: Master McGrath, Lurgan Park and Buckfast.
Margorie McCall, the woman prematurely entombed in Shankill Graveyard before thieves awoke her from her slumber by trying to cut the valuable ring from her finger, is another important part of the Lurgan canon.
But we’ll take the Buckfast plaudits. And by Dad we will! A local supermarket reports that its second best seller is Buckie: no 1 is milk.
Has to be coul’, though. The manager of an off-licence in Lurgan said that only around two percent of her customers wanted room-temperature Buckie.
Buckfast is part of growing up in Lurgan. It’s like a rite of passage and those who can’t say they snagged a bottle or two among the rhododendron bushes of Lurgan Park may not be true Spade Towners.
I can’t say that I found the taste of neat Buckfast appealing when I was young. But then I hadn’t discovered the wonderful range of mixers that turn it into a pleasure for any palate.
Brown Lemonade sustains the colour, while Wild Berry WKD makes it look and taste the part! The current trend is for West Coast Cooler, a decidedly retro drink, as a mixer.
But how did Buckfast become a byword for Lurgan? The gentle monks at Buckfastleigh Abbey in Devon could not have predicted the effect their saintly brew would have on a faraway town in Co Armagh.
Nor did they imagine that their caffeine-reinforced tonic wine would garner a reputation as “wreck the hoose juice” in Scottish suburbs where its popularity almost rivals its Lurgan prevalence.
It’s reported that the monks are horrified at the reputation their drink has earned in the lesser-blessed nooks of Glasgow and the finer parts of Lurgan!
The great thing about Buckfast is that it brings people together. In Lurgan, a town divided by religion and culture, folk on both sides sup from Buckfastleigh’s ever-giving well.
There is a serious aspect, though. Many Lurgan folk signed up for the 1914-1918 Great War and paid the ultimate price. This was true, of course, of other towns.
As the war ended, however, another threat emerged – Spanish Flu, the Coronavirus of its time.
Health authorities suggested several ways to combat or counter the risk: one was cycling and another was the consumption of “healthy” tonic wines. The benefits of these beverages were widely trumpeted.
Lurgan took this advice to heart: I’m not sure about the cycling, given that no-one from my town has ever won the Tour de France, but at least the tonic wine bit rings true!
Other pretenders have come and gone, among them Sanatogen Tonic Wine, Wincarnis (blended with malt and beef extract!) and the “cheering and comforting” Phosferine.
The latter sounds like a character from a Shakespeare play, but as the years wore on all of these “tonics” were increasingly marketed as a way to help women get through the drab weekdays while they waited for their husbands to come home.
Domestic misery was a recurring theme in the ads. These “restoratives” helped ladies “cope with life’s little ups and downs”, banish “nerves” and defeat the “drudgery”. A 1960s Sanatogen ad said:
“It’s all right for him. He goes off in the morning… But all you have is an empty house. And the same dull round of household tasks. There are times when the thought of it takes the heart out of you.
“It’s on days when you feel like this that Sanatogen Tonic Wine is so helpful. And so enjoyable.”
Life was on hold until the man of the house made his triumphant and bread-winning return. Why not make it easier with a glass or three.
By the 60s and 70s tonic wines weren’t marketed for men, as the manufacturers knew that men would drink them anyway. Women were targeted to bring in a new and lucrative demographic.
Isn’t the same thing happening today with the ads aimed at bringing women into the gambling arena? At the start of this century few women would have darkened the doors of a bookie’s.
Even before Coronavirus lockdowns there was no need to go within a hound’s goul’ of a bookie’s shop. Online gaming has now got both genders in its grasp.
This blog started as a fun piece about Buckie, yet there are serious parallels with our own time which cannot be ignored.
But I’ll finish on a lighter note. I guess that what happened is that Lurgan took the post-war tonic wine health message to heart and stuck with it, while other places moved on to different pleasures and intoxicants.
Lurgan’s enduring love affair with Buckfast surely demands a song. So here’s one…
Top Tip: serve chilled Buckfast with a generous splash of McDaid’s Football Special to add a cosmopolitan touch to any day