One of the more romantic images of the Liffey from times past is of the Guinness Barges which once carried the black stuff from the brewery to the Docklands. They began during the 1870s, shortly after the Guinness brewery at St. James’s Gate expanded north to the River Liffey. In 1873, Guinness built Victoria Quay, named for Her Majesty. This enabled the Guinness Barges, otherwise called Steam Lighters, to load and unload the wooden barrels of stout right beside the brewery gate. The first barges were stream operated and named after the rivers of Ireland, such as the Slaney and the Vartry. The first barge was the “Lagan”. built in Belfast by Harland and Wolff. By the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, there were twelve barges operating on the Liffey.
In 1927 the Guinness engineers launched the Farmleigh, a new type of steam driven barge, measuring 80 ft. long and 17 ft 1” wide, and equipped with jib cranes. It could travel at a speed of 7.5 knots while carrying up to 100 tons of cargo, or about 300 hogshead of Guinness. The Farmleigh was built by Vickers (Ireland) Ltd. at the Liffey Dockyard. A further nine ‘Farmleigh’ barges were built in the same yard over the next four years and all named after places in Dublin such as Killiney, Fairyhouse and Castleknock.
Each boat had a mate, an engine driver, two boatsman and a captain. The latter was always elegantly dressed in dark blue corduroys, a shimmering peaked cap and a dark blue jersey with the letters “Guinness” etched in red on the front. During the War of Independence, all drivers and boatmen had a special pass from Dublin Castle to permit them to be outside during curfew. The barges continued to operate every day, despite the burning of the Custom House and, later, the attack on the Four Courts.
By the 1930s, Guinness had become one of Irelands primary exports. Over 5000 people worked in the brewery and, every day, huge quantities of stout were sent by barge to the cross channel steam ships waiting at the North Wall. The journey from the Brewery down to Custom House Quay was known as the ‘Liffey Mile’ and took 20 minutes. An ever-blossoming legend tells how, as a barge passed beneath the Ha’Penny bridge, a young Dublin ‘jackeen’ yelled out ‘Hey Mister, bring us back a parrot’, believing the Guinness-laden barges were bound for exotic lands. She wasn’t far off; some of those barrels were destined for bars in Africa and the West Indies. At Custom House Quay, the barges unloaded the full barrels, loaded up with empty ones and returned to the Brewery.
With the evolution of Guinness breweries elsewhere in the world, the trade from St James’s Gate calmed down. By 1938, only six of the ten Farmleigh barges were still in operation. One of those decommissioned barges was the Fairyhouse which went on to play a useful role in the evacuation of Dunkirk. After the Second World War, transportation gradually developed towards the huge stainless steel ship's storage tanks and the barges became redundant. The last commercial passage of a Guinness barge was by the Castleknock. It sailed from the Custom House with a load of empties and made its funerary journey back to Victoria Quay on Midsummer’s Day 1961. Sadly not one of these fine vessels has survived to the present day. The Irish Ship and Barge Fabrication Company are presently seeking to recover and restore four barges scuttled off the coast of County Antrim, namely Clonsilla, Vartry, Foyle and Killiney. Two barges are to be refitted with steam engines burning wood pellets, while the other two will be electrically powered.
Magennis, Tim, ‘Where are the Barges Now?’, Inis na Mara (2003/2004).