Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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At precisely 17:59 Irish-time on Thursday 24th September 2009, a toast commenced in at least five cities across the world. Glasses, mostly pint-sized, were raised to the memory of Arthur Guinness, the man who founded the Dublin brewery 250 years earlier.

‘Arthur’s Day’, as the event was billed, will celebrate it's ninth "birthday" in 2018. It may be another remarkable advertising coup by Guinness but, in an age when excuses for merry-making have been few, raising a pint to the creator of our most famous export is surely good for you.

It all started up in Down. At least that was the conclusion of Patrick Guinness when he initiated a DNA test to establish exactly where his forbears came from. For many decades it was believed they descended from the Gaelic sept of Magennis of Co. Down. However, Patrick’s DNA results convincingly showed that they in fact descended from the McCartans who once lived in the barony of Kinelarty in central Down. Indeed, the family took its name from a hilly, gorse-covered townland in this barony called Gion Ais. [For more on the Guinness DNA quest, click here].

The first identifiable member of the Guinness family was Arthur’s grandfather, Eoin (or Owen) ‘Guinneas’, a Protesant who leased a farm near Simmonscourt in Ballsbridge. Born in 1691, Eoin’s son Richard moved west to Co Kildare as a young man and began selling milk from a roadside stall near Celbridge. Richard duly befreinded William Read, a farmer who lived near the Bishopscort estate at Kill, Co. Kildare, and who apparently sold home-brewed ale from a similar stall on the Old Naas Road.[i] In time, Richard married Read’s daughter Catherine.

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One of many wonderful
advertisments for
Guinness Stout.

While Richard was operating around Celbridge, the richest man in Ireland had just built the biggest house in Ireland on the outskirts of the then small village. William Conolly of Castletown House was the son of a Donegal innkeeper and made his fortune by buying and reselling lands seized from disposessed Catholics after the Jacobite Wars.

Conolly’s private chaplain was Dr Arthur Price, an ambitious native of Celbridge who also happened to own a malt-house in Celbridge - not at St Wolstan's, as I previously claimed. [ii] According to 'The Guinness Story' by Edward J Bourke (O'Brien Press, 2009, p 14), Richard Guinness leased James Carbery's Brewery in Celbridge in 1722. (The location is now the Mucky Duck pub). However, Patrick Guinness disputes this and says that Richard did not lease the premises but lived there while he was a servant to Dr Price. Mr. Guinness holds that, while Dr. Price bought the malt house, there is ‘no proof that anyone ever brewed in it ... It was unlikely as the vendor James Carbery already had his pub & brewery next door, in Norris's pub, and continued brewing.’

According to Patrick Guinness, Richard Guinness first appears as Dr. Price's agent in the Kildare diocesan dean's book in 1722. Mr. Guinness believes this is the same Richard Guinness who is mentioned in a lease for 3 lives in his brother's lease of a farm at Milltown, Co. Dublin, in 1726. As Dr Price advanced up the clerical hierarchy, so Richard’s duties increased. In 1744, Dr Price became Archbishop of Cashel. Two years later, Richard was formally appointed principal land steward for the collection of rents on the Episcopal lands in Co Kildare. [iii]

The Guinnesses had at least three sons and two daughters before Catherine's premature death in August 1742. [iv] The date of birth of their most famous child Arthur is a matter of some debate. In 1991, the Guinness company fixed it as 24th September 1725, a date increasingly seeping into our sub-conscious as ‘Arthur’s Day’. However, Arthur’s gravestone in Oughterard states that he was 78-years-old when he died on 23rd January 1803, indicating that he was in fact born sometime in 1724 or early 1725.

The place of Arthur’s birth is also the subject of mild controversy. Local tradition in the Co Kildare village of Ardclough holds that Arthur was born at the Read household in nearby Huttonread. This seems to be based on the notion that, in the early 18th century, expectant mothers often returned to their childhood homes to give birth. However, Huttonread did not actually become the Read family home untuil 1732. If Catherine did return home to have a baby, then her family homestead was most probably at either the Castlewarden golf club or on the farm that lies just below the graveyard in Oughterard.

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The story of the Guinness family,
complete with a detailed analysis
of the DNA study, can be found
in Patrick Guinness’s book,
Arthur's Round:
The Life and Times of
Brewing Legend Arthur Guinness

(Peter Owen, 2007).

However, the people of Celbridge have refused to buy into this maternal homstead theory. In 2009, they unveiled a plaque at the towns’ Mucky Duck pub, taking their cue from Patrick Guinness who believes Arthur was born in this building, which was originally a malthouse. As Patrick recently counseled the Leixlip History Society, ‘the first thing that baby Arthur smelt was malt.’

At any rate, Richard took the opportunity of the boys’ birth to show his appreciation to Dr Price. He not only requested that the prosperous clergyman stand as godfather to his son but also christened the baby ‘Arthur’ in his honour.

Oral tradition has it that Arthur worked as a brewer for the Ponsonby family of Bishopscourt, Kill, Co. Kildare for a while in the 1740s, supplying their estate workers with ale at a time when beer was considered a much healthier alternative to water. Author and journalist Eoghan Corry heard this story from the late Andy Christian whose family have been in the Bishopscourt area since the Read’s time. "It would make sense that a member of the Read family would have been employed as a brew hand," reasons Mr. Corry. [v]

Arthur was 27 years old when his godfather passed away in the summer of 1752, leaving him £100.[vi] That same year, his father was married secondly to Elizabeth Clare whose family owned an inn in Celbridge which was either called The Bear & Ragged Staff or the White Hart Inn. It stood on the site of present-day Londis Supermarket at the junction of Celbridge Main St and the bridge over the Liffey. Arthur witnessed the lease on these premises in 1749.

Arthur had gained his first experience of brewing while assisting his father at Bishopscourt. He now used Dr Price's bequest to expand the Celbridge brewery. In 1755 Arthur and his younger brother Richard transferred operations to a new site in Leixlip, where the Court Yard Hotel is today.[vii] Arthur Guinness and his family lived at Viney House between 1752-1764.

In September 1759, Arthur Guinness decided to leave his brother Richard in charge of the Leixlip enterprise and have a stab at establishing his business in Dublin City.[viii]

Brewing was an enormous industry in Georgian Dublin and many families like the Leesons and Darleys made enough money from it to build vast mansions. However, by the time Arthur reached the city, the trade was in trouble. London, which dictated Ireland’s economic policy, had placed a severe tax on Irish brewers in a bid to boost sales of English beer in Ireland.

Undeterred, Arthur acquired what was then a small, disused and ill-equipped brewery at St James's Gate. The lease, signed on 31 December 1759, was for a whopping 9,000 years at an annual rent of £45.[ix] The premises comprised of four acres with a copper, a kieve, a mill, two malthouses, stabling for twelve horses and a loft to hold 200 tons of hay.

On 1 December 1759, Arthur entered his signature, as a new brewer, in the Minute Book of the Dublin Brewers and Maltsters Corporation. Within eight years he had risen to become Master of the Corporation. He was also one of the four brewers' guild representatives on Dublin Corporation.

In May 1769, Arthur made his first export when six and a half barrels of ‘Dublin Ale’ were shipped to England. But his nose was increasingly twitching at a new strong black beer that had appeared in London. The drink was known as ‘porter’ from its popularity with the City’s street and river porters. Dublin brewers were quick to experiment with porter but exports from London dominated the market until Arthur entered the game in the 1770s. One of his smartest moves was to bring members of the Purser family from London to Dublin. The Pursers already had several decades of experience in brewing porter and were to become vital partners in the brewery for most of the 1800s.

Arthur’s first porter sales were listed on excise data from 1778. By 1794, Guinness's porter was famous enough for a London magazine to carry an illustration of a man drinking porter beside a barrel labelled ‘Guinness’. Arthur was also now official brewer to Dublin Castle, the seat of government in Ireland.

In the spring of 1761 Arthur married Olivia Whitmore, a 19-year-old heiress from Dublin.[x] Olivia was a daughter of William and Mary Whitmore, a prosperous merchant family who had lived first at Dame Street, later at Copper Alley and finally at Essex Street. Mary, her mother, was a daughetr of John Grattan, of Clonmeen, ??. Kildare, by his wife Martha Mason, and a cousin of Henry Grattan. After her father's death when she was young, Olivia became a ward of of William Lunell.

Arthur and Olivia had 21 children, ten of whom lived to adulthood. From 1764 they lived at Beaumont House, now part of Beaumont Convalescent Home, between Santry and Raheny in north County Dublin. Olivia Guinness was a cousin of Henry Grattan and Arthur was a valuable supporter of Grattan’s Parliament during the 1780s and 1790s. He was undoubtedly in favour of Grattan’s policy to reduce the tax on Irish beer. Like Grattan, Guinness was publicly in favour of Catholic Emancipation from 1793, but he did not support the United Irish during the ill-fated 1798 rebellion.[xi]

Some insight into Arthur’s character can be gained from an event in 1775 when Dublin Corporation attempted to make him pay for his water supply. Arthur’s lease entitled him to free access to water and he was adamant that his rights be upheld. When the Sheriff and a body of men arrived at St James’s to cut off his water source, Arthur seized a pick-axe from one of the men and began to shout ‘with very much improper language that they should not proceed.’ He clearly made an impression on the Sheriff who duly retreated.

Arthur remained active at the brewery right into his 70s, working closely with three of his sons. He was a strict Methodist who started the first Sunday Schools in Ireland. In 1797, he began to expand the brewery considerably and the family made the momentous decision to stop brewing ale and focus solely on ‘Guinness’s Extra Superior Porter’.

Stout, meaning ‘strong’, was an off-shoot of this porter. It evolved after the invention of patent malt (ie: malted barley roasted until black) in 1817. Guinness adapted this distinctive burnt flavour to their brew and, in 1840, renamed it ‘Guinness Extra Stout’. The aesthetically pleasing thick creamy head on pints of Guinness is simply the result of the beer being mixed with nitrogen as it is poured.

In public life, Arthur was Governor of the Meath Hospital and Secretary to the Friendly Brothers of St Patrick, the anti-duelling club. He donated 250 guineas to the Chapel Schools attached to St Patrick's Cathedral. His philanthropy transpired to be genetic and in the century following Arthur’s death, the Guinness family did much to improve life in the City of Dublin. In 1876, for instance, Guinness became one of the first businesses in Ireland to provide proper pensions and healthcare for its employees and their families.

Upon his death in January 1803, Arthur's 'mortal remains' were buried in a vault at his mother's family plot at Oughterard near the Hill of Lyons in County Kildare, where many of the Reade family also lie. I paid my respects to Arthur when I visited the cemetery on 4 August 2018, accessible via a lover's gate and a well-kept avenue lined with beach and sycamore. His monument is on the wall of a ruined 13th century monastery. Pitched on a hill, it enjoys exceptional clear-weather views of 13 counties and nothing but the bleat of a lamb, wind rustling leaves, a roosters lament and the distant purr of a combine harvester. He is presided over by the remnants of a round tower, one of five in County Kildare. My eyes were repeatedly drawn to the nearby Hill at Lyons whereon the Uí Duncahada kings were once crowned and where Brian Boru reigned supreme over my old pal Sitric Silkbeard at the Battle of Glenmama.

In his will, Arthur left a considerable personal fortune of £23,000 and a flourishing business. In 1803, the annual brewery output was over 20,000 barrels. With Arthur’s son and namesake, Arthur II, at the helm, the brewery expanded its links to the Isle of Man in 1810, Lisbon in 1811, Bristol in 1819 and the Channel Islands in 1822. By 1840, you could drink the famous black stout in Trinidad, Sierra Leone, Barbados and New York. And by 1855, Arthur II’s son, Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, was the richest man in Ireland.

Read Martin Cornell's review of ‘Arthur’s Round’ by Patrick Guinness here.


[i] In the days before arterial drainage, the Naas Road was on the ridge on the hill to the north of the current road. The Reads lived on a farm called Huttonread in Oughterard, a rural parish located a few miles south of Celbridge. This is probably located at present day Huttonread Stud, right beside Junction 5 on the N7. Read is said to have made considerable money offloading his beer to troops headed for the battlefields during the Jacobite wars.

[ii] In 1724, the Rev. Dr. Arthur Price, Vicar of Celbridge, commissioned the eminent architect Thomas Burgh (ancestor of Roseanna Davison) to build him a new stately pile at Oakley Park in Celbridge. Some of the blocked up doors from Dr. Price's malt house can still be seen on the perimeter walls of the Catholic church forecourt in Celbridge.

[iii] Richard is described in a Bill of Equity Exchequer 10th Feb 1746 as “Richard Guinis Agent or Receiver to the Most Revd Arthur Price, Archbishop of Cashel”

[iv] There is an old joke that the Guinness family could eitehr serve you a draft beer or an overdraft. The banking side of the Guinness family descend from Arthur’s youngest brother, Samuel, a fashionable Dublin goldbeater, whose grandson Robert co-founded the merchant bank of Guinness Mahon. In 1753, Samuel Guinness married Sarah, daughter of Henry Jago of Dublin and niece of Robert Calderwood, a hugeloy respected Huguenot goldsmith. Samuel and Sarah lived at 4 Crow Street, Dublin, and were friends of the actor Thomas Sheridan, father of the writer Richard Brinsley Sheridan. In 1783, their only surviving son Richard, a lawyer, married Mary Darley, eldest daughter of John Darley of Kilternan and heiress to a flourishing brewery alongside the Lepers’ Stream in Stillorgan.Robert’s brother Richard, ancestor of the Guinness family of Lodge Park, Straffan, had a less successful career as a banker. He redeemed himself somewhat when he married his youngest daughter Adelaide off to his extremely wealthy cousin, Sir Edward Cecil Guinness, later 1st Earl of Iveagh. The Iveaghs enjoyed entertaining on a lavish scale and their parties in Iveagh House (now the Department of Foreign Affairs) on Stephen’s Green and their estate at Farmleigh in Castleknock were legendary. This marriage linked the brewing and banking lines of the family.

[v] Brewery historian Martyn Cornell says: 'It it certainly isn't impossible that Arthur Guinness might have done some brewing or assisted with some brewing at Bishopscourt, if he ever worked there. Large domestic and farming establishments were somewhere between quite and highly likely to have their own brewing operation to supply ale for the farmworkers, the household servants and even the family. But the brewing seems more likely, on the little evidence we have from elsewhere, to have been done by one of the lowlier servants, rather than the sort of educated young man Arthur Guinness obviously was.'

[vi] Dr Price’s will described Arthur as his ‘servant’. He also left £100 to Richard.

[vii] The Leixlip brewery was located on land bought from George Bryan of Philadephia.

[viii] Richard Guinness was sometime owner of the Salmon Leap pub.

[ix] He aquired the lease from Mark Rainsford.

[x] They were married in St. Mary's Church, Dublin, and the license dated 20 May 1761.

[xi] One of his patrons was another Arthur, Arhur Wolfe, Lord Kilwarden, Chief Justice of Ireland, who lived at Newlands. Less than a year after Arthur Guinness died, Lord Kilwarden had the misfortune to be embroiled in Robert Emmet’s rebellion whre he was dragged from his carriage and piked to death by an angry mob.

In the 1920s the Earl of Iveagh opted to float the company. He apparently kept 50% of his holdings in the UK but cleverly invested the family's 50% by inviting dominion governments to pitch for a new bridge; British Columbia won as they evidently wanted the bridge most. The deal secured the Guinness’s tax-free income for the next three generations from their investments in BC, which sadly stops with Desmond's generation. That's one smart way to keep your millions. Moreover, the resultant bridge was the Lion's Gate Bridge in Vancouver. They Guinness family had bought 1000s of acres in the vicinity for just $18 an acre and the bridge duly opened these lands to development. Several members of the Guinness family are still on the board of British Pacific Properties.

With thanks to Eoghan Corry, Art Kavanagh, Regina Lavelle, Eibhlin Roche of the Guinness Archives, John Findlater, Charles Horton, Alex Findlater, Patrick Guinness and Martyn Cornell.