Ireland demands tougher taxes on dreaded 'Buckie'
Devon's Buckfast Abbey is known as a place of serenity, where its community of Benedictine monks can meditate in silence and tranquility in an atmosphere of spiritual contemplation.
Yet although it has a history of almost 1,000 years of religious devotion, it is also linked with another very different world, to be found on the Celtic fringes of these islands.
The link is Buckfast, the wine produced by the monks and which is producing complaints from both parts of Ireland and Scotland. The Irish News in Belfast recently encapsulated the charge against the beverage: "It features in displays of roaring and shouting, projectile peeing and vomiting, street brawling, general vandalism and ugly midnight scenes in accident and emergency departments." Now there are calls in the city of Galway for added taxes on Buckfast. According to Michael Crowe, a councillor: "It causes social problems with the 14-, 15-, and 16-year-old drinker. It's drunk in parks and on beaches - it's almost driving them wild."
Buckfast has a nightmare image in some quarters which could not be further from the serenity of Buckfast Abbey. The Irish and Scottish complaints centre on the fact that it is easily available, relatively cheap and, above all, very strong.
It is around 15 per cent alcohol, a fact that endears it to the less well-off. One enthusiast explained: "Buckfast is so heaving with caffeine and other additives that it is like speed in a bottle. It's cheap and gets you legless very quickly." The variety of nicknames it has accumulated include Buckie, wreck-the-hoose juice, commotion lotion, monkey's blood and liquid speed. It even features in fearsome cocktails like punk champagne - a mixture of Buckfast and cider - and a combination of Buckfast and tequila known as T'Killfast.
In Northern Ireland it is sometimes called Lurgan champagne, since it is a favourite with loyalist elements in the towns of Lurgan and Portadown. This is a rare example of alcoholic ecumenism, since Protestant youths who have taken part in anti-Catholic riots are quite willing to down it even though the label clearly depicts the Abbey.
The syrupy sweet content is an acquired taste, though most of its fans seem far more interested in its effect rather than its flavour. Classically swigged directly from the screwtop bottle, it was memorably described by the writer Stephen Phelan as "openly confrontational, not subtle so much as shockingly rude, one shrieking purple hell of a drink".
The monks have no public comment to make on any of this, and it is not known whether they ever partake of their own product. But the commercial company which distributes Buckfast, J Chandler and Co, regularly mounts a robust and what can only be called spirited defence of the drink.
It dates back to 1897, and was originally marketed more as a patent medicine than fortified wine. For decades it was associated with little old ladies who, in imbibing it, could tell themselves and others that they drank it for medicinal rather than alcoholic effect.
The monks make large charity donations from the profits, including giving a reported £500,000 to a Scottish hospice. Their gifts are made discreetly and usually anonymously.
This has not prevented a series of attacks on Buckfast by Scottish politicians. A former MP said: "Buckfast is a recipe for misery and antisocial behaviour. On more than one occasion, Scottish judges have referred to its use in cases of extreme violence." In recent weeks the Scottish Health Minister, Andy Kerr, said it that it was a "seriously bad" contributor to antisocial behaviour. He met Chandler representatives several weeks ago for what were described as useful talks.
The company argues that Buckfast has been unfairly targeted, that it is only a small part of the drinks market, and that it is scapegoated for underlying complex social problems.