Flat 7Up, poitin and other miracle cures of Ireland

Last week I received my second dose of my Covid jab and I’m now fully vaccinated. By all accounts it was a miracle that modern science was so rapid in its development, however it wasn’t the first miracle cure to hit our shores.

“The doctor said flat 7Up is very good for that,” my mother would continuously say when I was growing up. You could have anything: verrucas to headaches, gum boils or fevers – there was nothing a bit of flat 7Up couldn’t fix.

It was up there with some other incredible medical cures that circulated rampantly in the 80s like milk of magnesia, dock leaves for stings and “run it off” for broken legs.

In fairness, there was also an underground poitin trade. Whispers circulated that rubbing poitin into your muscles would give you “Shergar” like legs and horse-like recovery to boot! But 7Up wasn’t illegal and was solely an oral remedy. You also didn’t need to know someone who knew someone who knew your first cousin who went out with a fella who knew a man who could get you a jar of it either.

But where did the 7Up idea come from? And why, particularly, did it need to be flat? Some people went a step further and swore by boiling it. Only then could the pharmaceutical elixir of the soft drink or, as thoroughbred culchies say, ‘mineral’ be brought to life.

I imagine (and this is truly conjecture) it came about after a GP told someone to take it to replace lost sugars after a particularly bad case of the trots. When the patient said that they didn’t like the fizz the doctor told them to just drink it flat and it worked.

Thus ensued a Chinese whisper that permeated through Irish society more veraciously than any viral Facebook post. Essentially flat soft drinks were the original electrolyte drinks. But this was long before you could easily Google what an electrolyte was. This was the era when you would ring your neighbour when the electricity went out and say: “Is yours gone too?” Sugar has long been a common cure-all for ailments, particularly diarrhoea, shock and hangovers (which can all too commonly happen simultaneously). I have first-hand experience of a Capri Sun almost literally bringing my then three-year-old daughter back to life after one of the worst nights she’s ever experienced.

Now thanks to the recent reboot of Mary Poppins, the three of them sing “a spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down” any time they are trying to blackmail me into dolling out the chocolate bars.

“It is a massive stretch I concede to say that 7Up replaced our ancestral itch for drinking out of wells with magical properties but bear with me…”

If you look at the ingredients, 7Up contains the basic fizzy pop stuff that’s in nearly all soft drinks so why the heroic status around it? Possibly because, like lots of these drinks, at some stage it did contain some pretty powerful drugs.

It was invented by Charles Leiper Grigg in 1920. He first sold it as “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda” not the catchiest of names but Like Coca Cola which originally contained cocaine, 7Up originally had lithium citrate in its ingredients.

The exact same lithium citrate that’s used today to treat various psychological issues. By 1948 it was taken out. That’s not that long ago. However, it’s not the first time the Irish population has been drawn towards finding lithium in odd places.

Some of the ‘magic wells’, as we call them, that are dotted across the landscape have trace elements of lithium in their waters. It is a massive stretch I concede to say that 7Up replaced our ancestral itch for drinking out of wells with magical properties but bear with me, my next hypothesis is possibly more plausible.

When I was ten years of age, I had my appendix out. Prior to going to the hospital my father tried to fix it with the “run it off” method. When that didn’t work, he conceded to my mother and told her to bring me in. A day later I had my appendix out.

I woke up surrounded by groaning men and a nuclear arsenal of 7Up bottles that surrounded my bed like green moss on the base of an old tree. Therein lies the possible answer to the flat 7Up conundrum. What do you bring to someone in hospital? You can’t bring chocolate or biscuits sure they are bad for you!

You most certainly don’t want to be the first person in the history of hospital visits to bring someone a nice bottle of wine although I still think this is a perfectly good gift. I say “still” because I was bringing one to a friend of mine before my wife stopped me: “What’s she supposed to do Bernard get hammered with the nurses?” There is an obvious throwback to 7Ups origins which makes it a “healthy” recovery drink. Go to any hospital in the country today and you’ll see them, going flat of their own accord, drooping like Salvador Dali’s melting clocks on those hard white wood-chip lockers.

But here is one final fizzy thought. I think they took the fizz out of it because the fizz made it enjoyable. When I think of flat 7Up I think of Good Friday Mass, shops closed on Wednesdays for no apparent reason and very serious discussions on Today Tonight about Northern Ireland.

There would be absolutely no point in drinking something pleasurable if you were sick. There was an Ireland, not that long ago, that just had to take the fizz out of everything, because if they didn’t the guilt would have anyway. And what happened to the green bottles when they were empty? Were they sent to the recycling centre? Well no, there was a craze to fill them full of water to keep cats off your lawn. Sounds bizarre, but I still know people who swear by it to this day.

Above all there was an almost obligatory law for fathers of the 80s to put some incredible hazardous liquid in them and put them in the garage just at the right height for a little six-year-old Bernard to come along and think “mmmmm yummy”. Now that was one thing flat 7Up definitely couldn’t fix.

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