Thursday, 26 November 2020

More Than a Glass, Less than a Pint - Getting the Measure of the Irish 'Meejum'

Kerry Evening Post. - Wednesday 11 September 1889

In October of 1960 a London visitor to the west of Ireland felt aggrieved enough to write to the Sligo Champion* to complain about what amounted to a short-pour-of-a-short-pour of Guinness. His issue was that while in Claremorris (Mayo) the usual drink of the locals was a 'medium' of stout and that 'the Claremorris "medium" is filled out in a pint tumbler and is nearly filled to the top' for 10d but later in his trip he was rather annoyed that while visiting Sligo town he was served his "medium" in a half pint tumbler which had 'a "collar" on it of about three-quarters of an inch' and for which he was charge 6d - poor value to his mind and more importantly either the concept of 'The Medium' was either unknown in Sligo or someone was trying to pull a fast one on this canny visitor. He also has some barbed comments regarding Sligo pubs in general, calling them 'drab affairs [...] badly lit up and badly in need of modernising', and goes on to complain even more about the 'Collar' on all sizes of Guinness poured there, being particularly perturbed by a one inch head on a pint of Guinness...

But let's return to the 'Medium', or 'Meejum' (sometimes even 'Maejum') as it's often pronounced but rarely written. Any readers who were up to now unfamiliar with such a measure will probably have grasped the concept from the Londoner's description above. It was what would now be considered a short-pour 'pint' of beer where a pint glass was not quite filled to the top. Nowadays it's mostly talked and reported about in connection with one particular establishment, Johnny McHale's pub in Castlebar - again in Mayo - where up to quite recently at least you still order a meejum of Guinness and where they have almost claimed it as their own, but what's the history of this measure and when, why and where did it begin?


I think most of the older history of the 'meejum' is lost to us, as it was something that was rarely advertised and probably on discussed verbally for many years, but thanks to a few newspaper mentions - many times in court cases - I can hopefully fill in a couple of blanks in its story. (I'm going to be a little erratic in my own use of medium or meejum throughout this post, depending on actual usage I'm reporting and my poetic needs...)

The first mention I can find is in the Kerry Evening Post in 1889, when two men involved in an altercation had gone into O'Connor's public house in Tralee and called for two "meejums". The court report doesn't tell us the beverage they consumed but at least it pushes it back to the late nineteenth century, and how it was mentioned makes me think it was a common enough term, especially as there were questions regarding its legality from at least 1892 that seem to imply it was an long-standing practice - more on this later.

There are many more - in 1895 according to the Cork Constitution a woman who was in 'the habit of throwing tumblers' allegedly struck a man with a "medium" of porter, and in Nenagh, Tipperary, in 1901 a Mrs. Corbett was fined for selling 'a jug with two mediums of porter in it' outside licensing hours, (It's curious how the constable who witnessed the breach could tell the volume of liquid in the jugs, unless medium in certain cases just meant 'measures'.) and there is a mention in Limerick too.

Next we see mediums of stout in both Kerry and Cork again, and also in Louth in 1904; back in Cork we have mention of a jug containing a medium of porter and another story involving 'three mediums' of porter, plus a drowning victim in Kerry who had drank a medium of porter all in 1908; it gets mentioned as a 'medium of ale' in Offaly, and mediums of porter are still in Cork and Kerry in 1910; we see a first mention for Galway - 'medium of beer' - plus Kerry and Tipperary get mentions in 1911; Kerry and Tipperary yet again in 1912, and also Cork where a women was accused of  concealing four mediums of porter 'in two vessels' under her shawl and in the same year I came across a report that mentions a medium of ale in Callan in Co. Kilkenny; in 1916 Kerry gets a mention and the following year - 1917 - we finally see a Sligo comment, both for mediums of stout; 1917 is also the first year I can find where it is discussed in Dublin, as due to trade restrictions it says that in rural towns 'the retailers are also following the Dublin policy of  'only serving glasses or "mediums" [their quotes] of porter or stout, where hitherto the popular pint was the measure in request.'; we are back in Offaly in 1924 and in Tipperary again in 1928 with mediums of stout; in 1938 we see a second Sligo mention with a medium of porter; then mediums of stout in Tipperary in 1944 and Sligo in 1958 then a final mention until the modern era in Wexford Town in 1963.

There after the word crops up only very occasionally, more often than not just very recently and with the McHale's pub connection I mentioned above.

As I'm sure you can appreciate, looking for mentions of 'meejums' in newspapers is hardly an exacting scientific study as to the origins of the word but taken at face value it would appear that the concept originated in the southwest of Ireland. Perhaps beginning in Cork or Kerry before moving into Limerick and Tipperary, and drifting or jumping to other regions as the years went by, then retreating back to just a few locations - or even pubs - by the second half of the 20th century.

(Incidentally, the word 'meejum' is rarely used in newspapers, it's almost always 'medium' in the past although I'd imagine that this is down to the reporter in many cases translating the almost Hiberno-English word into 'proper' english.)


So, how much beer was actually in a meejum? The simple answer seems to be a little less than a pint as per the comments from our annoyed Londoner above, but I have come across a couple of others mentions of the volume too. In a court case in Dundalk in 1904** the judge has the same question and was told it was 'a glass and a half' (426ml) and another mention in 1901 that says it was 'two-thirds of a pint' (379ml). A more recent comment from a letter to the Irish Independent in 2003 looking for the medium to be reinstated, it is said that it was 'approximately 500ml'.  With a pint being 568ml we can see some wildly fluctuating volumes here, but I think we are missing the original point of the medium, which was to give the consumer a drink based on price and not volume, so therefore it's very possible that a medium was a different size in different counties - and even different pubs. It was a portion of beer that equalled a value that was acceptable to the working man.

Something that throws a slight spanner in to the workings of this idea is the fact that we have specific medium glasses mentioned from time to time, even if the first example almost backs up my argument.

In Cork in 1892*** there was an 'Important case which interests all publicans in the city' It was an appeal by Jeremiah Lucy against 'a penalty for selling porter in a vessel popularly known as a "medium" which the authorities alleged was not under the denomination of any stamp of the Board of Trade standard, and consequently its use was in contravention of the Weights and Measures Act of 1878.' The defence cleverly argued that the glasses were not supposed to hold a certain volume of porter but a certain value and therefore did not come under the Boards remit and that asking 'for three-half-pence of porter was like asking for a pennyworth of tobacco which was not a quantity recognised by law.' The judge appears to have sided with the defence that 'the measure was a customary one and did not come under any Board of Trade standard' ... but then says that this actually made the measure illegal.

As early as 1896 we have a raid on publicans in Cork by and inspector who, under the Weights and Measures Act, confiscation many medium glasses from almost everywhere he called. The same article goes on to say that 'the medium was abolished years ago as an illegal measure' and that 'in some houses he seized about sixty measures.' Illegal or not, its use seems to have been rive up to this point and well beyond in the city as we have seen. (Note that the sergeant was dressed in a bicycle costume as a disguise!)

 Freeman's Journal - Tuesday 03 March 1896

In the advertisement below we have John Lyons in Paul Street Cork selling pint tumblers, half pint tumblers and 'medium ale glasses' in 1901.

Cork Examiner  Thursday 17 January 1901

Below we have the condemnation and warning of the 'Medium' in Limerick where there were 'prosecutions instituted against a number of publicans in the city for using a glass called a "medium", which contained two-thirds of a pint. This was illegal, as the police could not stamp such a measure,...' The J.P. says that the practice was general and he knew of publicans who had got in two dozen glasses recently.

Freeman's Journal - Tuesday 22 October 1901

Also, in the Midland Tribune in 1912  there's a case regarding a publican from Templemore who was fined for having six glass measures in his possession for use which were not of Board of Trade Standard (unstamped). The inspector who visited the premises claimed the publican said he used the glasses for selling mediums of stout. The publican said he used to 'sell mediums of porter for which he used to charge 1 1/2d' but no longer did and just used these glasses for bottled drinks, which didn't require them to be stamped as those drinks were premeasured. Inspector went on the say that the publican had claimed at the time of his visit that he sold more mediums than pints. The publican then claimed he was given conflicting information as to whether he could use them or not by policemen but was still fined.

So, as we can see form all of these an actual 'medium' glass did exist, although nowhere does it give the exact volume and this raises the next point - the legality of the 'medium' glass. The issue then, as it is know as far as I know, is that any glass size is legal as long as it has been verified by the appropriate body to contain the volume being stated as sold, so the issues above were not with the glass as such but that it wasn't possible for them to be verified because there was no way of doing so (as it was an unconventional beer volume), whereas now we can have a multitude of sizes and sell them accordingly as they are all verified with appropriate CE marks. (I am very prepared to be corrected on this!)

Perhaps this is also why those glasses disappeared, as it was much easier for the publican to serve a short measure in a pint glass than suffer the wrath and legal machinations of the Board of Trade. So the 'meejum' became a short-pour pint, but still based on price by my estimation. Also, from all the cases and mentions I've mentioned above - and I'm sure there are more - the governing bodies seemed to turn a blind eye to the practice for a long time apart from the odd crackdown as we've seen.

Maybe the bigger question is should the 'meejum' comeback universally? Something similar is already around in certain bars, especially those of a crafty persuasion, who sell their drinks in various volumes depending on the strength and the price, which is akin to what the meejum was I think.

Perhaps we've come full circle in one way?


(All written content and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without permission, full credit to its source and a link back to this post.)

Newspaper images © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive  - where most of the information I've complied here was sourced.)

* Sligo Champion - Saturday 08 October 1960

** Dundalk Examiner and Louth Advertiser. - Saturday 28 May 1904

*** Cork Daily Herald - Monday 10 October 1892


Ron Pattinson said...

Fascinating stuff.

During WW I, some London pubs sold "glasses" of beer - a measure smaller than a half pint. Technically illegal, like the medium. Similarly, it was a bout being able to offer a measure of beer at a certain price.

Liam said...

Thanks Ron, that's interesting - and it brings up the question as to why we call half pints over here 'glasses' while they are 'halves' in England. More digging required ...

Ron Pattinson said...

Then you have Australia, where to keep the price of a schooner the same, they kept reducing the size of the glass.