An abbreviated version of this article was published in Failte magazine in April 2007.
The inhabitants of Ireland have been guzzling beer ever since the biblical Great Flood swept this earth. Indeed, the monks who wrote the 12th century Book of Leinster insisted that practically the first feet to walk this land after the waters subsided were those of a brewer and an innkeeper. In medieval times, more and more inns began to spring up, offering accommodation as well as food, wine and cider. The rest, of course, is history.
It Started in Iraq
Beer-drinking as we know it was invented some 12,000 years ago in the “Fertile Crescent” between Turkey, Iraq and Iran. They deftly mastered the art of malting and fermentation and gradually, by trial and error, produced a nutritious beverage that was going down a terrific wow with the Sumerian warriors of Babylon (aka western Iraq) by 4000BC. They got around the problems of foam by guzzling directly through a straw.
The Neolithic farmers who settled in Ireland at about this same time almost certainly came with brewing skills under their belt. Fast forward to the time of Jesus and we find a Roman physician named Dioscorides noting how the Irish avoided wine in favour of ‘a liquor called curmi made of barley‘. Starved of other entertainments, the Irish monks became exceptionally fond of beer and began writing lengthy odes to the stuff. In the 12th century Annals of Leinster, for instance, it is claimed that a brewer and an innkeeper were the first to set foot on Ireland in the wake of the Great Flood of the Bible. A brewer was also to the fore in the Milesian invasion.
In a classic case of drink driving, the charioteers of Ulster became so intoxicated on the eve of a raid on Tara that they woke up stranded in a prison on the south coast of Kerry. The Saints loved beer too. St Bridget had a neat trick of turning leper’s bathwater into ale. St Columbanus’s last words were alleged to be: ‘It is my design to die in the brew-house; let ale be placed in my mouth when I am expiring, so that when the choir of angels come they may say, ‘Be God propitious to this drinker‘. Mind you, he also destroyed a giant barrel of beer which the pagans of present-day Austria were about to present as an offering to their god Wōdan, so he was evidently a mixed bag.
Medieval Irish taverns served beer, wine (principally from Bordeaux; see Turtle’s article on Ireland’s Winegeese) and mead (a fermented mixture of honey and water). Beer was a drink of social importance, although always secondary to mead.
As Samuel Johnson said, ‘there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn‘. But the role of hospitaller (briugu) was sometimes a costly one. Whilst it entitled them to one of the higher ranks in Irish society (as well as providing a get out clause from military service), the briugu had to ensure ‘a never-dry cauldron, a dwelling on a public road and a welcome to every face’. The essence of hospitality included providing meals free of charge to travellers who called at their door, a custom that continued into the last century.
The Vikings who ruled Cork before the MacCarthy’s arrived certainly had settlements in the wine-growing region of the Loire Valley in northern France from where they shipped large quantities of wine to Ireland. The Danish Vikings of Limerick paid an annual tribute to Brian Boru of 365 wooden pipes (or hogsheads) of red wine every year (ie: 252 gallons, or over 1500 present-day 75cl bottles) while the king also received a tribute of 150 hogsheads of wine from the Vikings of Dublin.
The Vikings may also have made their own ale, see here.
When the wine-loving Normans came, they inevitably applied their bureaucratic craftiness to the native Irish briugu. Ireland’s first pubs were established as ‘off-licences‘. Their purpose was simply to ensure that the cellars of the Norman castles in Leinster and the Pale were fully stocked with wine at all times. To have a tavern, you need a vintners (meaning ‘wine merchant‘) licence. To get a licence, you had to kow-tow to the Norman line.
Henry II, the king of England at the time of the Cambro-Norman invasion of Ireland, married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152. Her dowry included most of the wine-growing region is of western France based on Gascony, Poitou and particularly Bordeaux. When Gerald of Wales visited Ireland in 1185–6, he reported: ‘Imported wines . . . are so abundant [in Ireland] that you would scarcely notice that the vine was neither cultivated nor gave its fruit there. Poitou, out of its own superabundance, sends plenty of wine and Ireland is pleased to send in return the hides of animals and the skins of flocks and wild beasts.’
According to a Cork historian, the twelfth-century carved heads, or Romanesque voussoirs, in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork, originated in Poitou, which ‘confirms that district as a probable source of much of the wine brought to Cork by Hiberno-Vikings, as well as foreign merchants.’ Another historian observes: ‘A lucrative exchange with Poitou meant that, despite a lack of vineyards, there was no shortage of wine in Ireland. The merchants of Waterford traded animal hides and bird skins in return for wine.’
Throughout the 13th century, Norman merchants and enterprising Italian bankers ensured a steady supply of wine from Bordeaux and Poitou to both Norman and Gaelic households, as well as among the Kings expeditionary forces. The O’Driscolls, or Ó hEidirsceoils, of Cork also had a trading fleet that was active along the French Atlantic Coast in the Bay of Biscay, as far south as Gascony, importing wine back to their region and into Munster.’ They also imported cloth, spices, peppers, saffron and silk. In return, they exported oats, beef and pork, as well as hides, wool and woolfells.
The family name of Butler kicked off in 1192 when Prince John, as he was then, placed a Norman warrior named Theobald Walter in charge of his ‘buttery’, as in the place where all his butts of wine were stored. One butt was equivalent to about 573 litres of wine, and Prince John had a very big butt. So the first Butt-ler looked after John’s butts, in return for which Theobald was given the prisage of wines. That means he and his descendants had the right to about one tenth of the cargo of any wine ship that ‘broke bulk’ in Ireland. They got one of every ten barrels that entered an Irish port, a right they retained until the early 19th century save for when the Duke of Ormonde was in exile for supporting the Jacobites.
Meanwhile, as merchant guilds gained economic and political power, they instigated a policy of seizing licences from those deemed unworthy. A law of 1256, for instance, dictated that any alehouse keeper found overcharging his customers was to be sentenced to a stint on the ducking stool. And rightly so too. In the early days, beer was home-brew affair and rarely featured in pubs.
The abbeys and monasteries were particularly adept at brewing, cherishing beer for its B Vitamins and amino acids. At Jerpoint Abbey in Kilkenny, monks had an allowance of a gallon of beer a day. With the rise in pilgrimages and general day-to-day travel across Ireland, so inns began to spring up and offer accommodation as well as food, wine and cider. Likewise, the taverns where wine was sold soon became popular places for conversation, political debate and business transactions.
They also wrote odes to wine, such as the following, which is thought to be from the Carmina Burana; Martin Kelly sourced it here and he added the Latin at the end.
O Precious Wine
O Precious Wine that makes us glad,
Good for the good and bad for the bad,
Such tang no water ever had,
Hail, the world’s delight!
Hail, most blest created thing!
From sprigs of purest vine you spring,Safely each table learns to sing
When you are in sight
Hail, wine where sunny beams are drowned!
Hail, drink where sapid joys abound!
You deign to halo us around
With a tipsey light
Hail for the hues with which you’re graced!
Hail, for the scents you richly waste!
Hail for your unexampled taste!
And the tongue it hallows
Blessed the belly filled with you!
Blessed the tongue that you bedew!
Blessed the jaws you enter through,
And the lips as well!
Oh hear our prayer. Surround our ways.
Stand on the table all our days,
And with rejoicing voice our praise
Will earthwards swell.
Eia eia eia laudes Eia laudes dicamus Liber o.
In the 1320s, Richard Ledred, Bishop of Ossory, produced the Red Book of Ossory, which contained a medical treatise from the Mediterranean proving that someone in Kilkenny understood the art of distillation seven long centuries ago. The treatise describes the distillation process in detail, along with its alleged wonderful medical outcomes. It also offers a neat distinction between aqua vini and aqua vitae (ie: usquebaugh, or whisky, the water of life). This is the earliest record of distillation in Britain or Ireland; the earliest record in Scotland is 1494.
The process of distillation was known to a few European alchemists in Ledred’s time, but my money is on a guy called Ramon LLull from Majorca, a great theologian, philosopher, musician, scientist – a sort of prototype Renaissance man. He was one of the first Europeans to understand distillation and we know that he went to Avignon several times to see our old friend Pope Clement. Ledred was also in Avignon at this time.
When you look at the Timeline of Irish inventions and discoveries on Wikipedia, you’ll see the invention of whiskey in the 14th century and then … nothing else for the next 300 years. The whiskey was clearly that good that there was no real need to invent anything. That tallies with the records. The first written record is in 1405 when the Annals of Connaught clocked a man whose ambitions to become clan chief of the MacReynolds clan were scuppered one Christmas when he died after, rather ironically, drinking too much ‘water of life’.
By the 1540s, there were distilleries, legal and illegal, in every townland in Ireland. It seems everyone in Ireland was drinking whiskey on a daily basis. The Earl of Ormonde sent a barrel of whiskey from Kilkenny to Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s. Sir Richard Shee, the richest man in Kilkenny, tried sucking up to Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, by sending a bumper of whiskey over for his wife. It is surely a coincidence that the conquest of Ireland begins at this time!
The Bushmill’s Distillery in Co. Antrim acquired its first seven-day licence in 1608. This development coincided with the closure of the monasteries and consequently that entire way of life came to an end. As English intrigues in Ireland deepened under the Tudors, so innkeepers became targets for interrogation.
Whiskey was considered good for one’s constitution. One thinks of the Great Earl of Cork who sent a “runlett of milde Irish uskebach” to the Duke of Buckingham, urging the duke to have a wee snifter first thing in the morning because, and I quote, “if it please his lordship in the morning to drinke a little of this Irish uskebach, it will help to expell wynde and keep his inward parte warm all the day after.”
The quality of Irish beer remained open to question in the 17th century – Barnaby Rich called it ‘hogges-washe‘ – and the mugs it came in were made of wood. The effects of war and rebellion undoubtedly sent Ireland into complete disarray in these years but it didn’t stop anyone drinking. As Barnaby Rich wrote in 1610: ‘It is as rare a thing to find a house in Dublin without a tavern as it is to find a tavern without a strumpet‘.
Pubs in Ireland were first formally licensed in 1635 when 1180 public houses were listed as catering to the 4000 families living in Dublin. In the subsequent 350 years, the trade has been subjected to over 200 Acts of Parliament as the powers attempted to control drunken behaviour and maintain the sanctity of Sundays and such like.
A Good Brew
However, discerning drinkers tasted a much more palatable brew with the emergence of glass bottles and pewter tankards, not to mention the addition of the all-important hops. Using gutter-water for the brewing process was curtailed in 1714. Brewing was quickly becoming a commercial business, in direct competition with both the coffee and tea houses emerging in the towns and with the homemade whiskey and poteen shebeens of the rural poor.
By 1672 there were 91 commercial breweries in Dublin. Within quarter of a century, the brewers had sufficient clout to demand representation on the common council of Dublin’s Guilds. The Dublin brewer Joseph Leeson became the first of his profession to be elevated to the peerage as Earl of Milltown in 1750 and built his grand stately home at Russborough in Co. Wicklow.
His contemporary William ‘Speaker’ Conolly, the wealthiest man of his generation, was the son of a Donegal publican who made his fortune serving food and wine to the thousands of English soldiers who flocked to north west Ireland to take up land-holdings in the wake of the Cromwellian and Williamite land settlements. Cromwell was also the son of a publican and actually funded his campaign with the first direct beer tax. That beer duty has been with us ever since.
A Family Affair
In the late 1600s, Irish pubs began to adopt English names like The Bear & Ragged Staff and The Mitre. It was only a phase and by the late 19th century, most Irish pubs were named for the current licensee of for the family name of the pub’s founder. The vast majority of Ireland’s pubs are family-owned – 88% in the Republic and 94% in the North in 2002. In Cian Molloy’s study of family-owned Irish pubs, he claimed only 200 pubs had been with the same family for over 100 years. Only four of these were in the North and only one – John Kavanagh’s of Glasnevin – was in Dublin.
By the 18th century, beer was a commodity well used to taxation, duties and legal pressures. One now had to have a licence to serve beer at public fairs, race meetings or markets. William of Orange introduced the legal requirement that all pint vessels bear an assay mark, certifying that they hold a full pint measure. [William of Orange also banned all French imports and introduced gin to devastating effect as the British Isles became swamped with gin hags].
One of the biggest developments for the Irish pub in the 18th century was ‘The Wet War‘ which began in 1732, when a law was passed banning the import of hops into Ireland from anywhere other than England. The consequent rise in the price of hops ruined many Irish breweries and allowed English brewers to corner the market. The oldest statute still in effect that applies to the licensed trade in Ireland is the Drink on Credit to Servants Act of 1735 which states that a licensee who sells drink on credit to “Servants, Labourers and other Persons who usually work on ply for Hire or Wages” has no right in law for recovery of the debt. In 1753, it become illegal to be married in a pub, hitherto a popular place for ultimately doomed nuptials. In 1874 it became illegal to sell any alcohol at all without a licence.
Coachmen & Porters
The status of the pub in Irish society changed again with the arrival of the stage-coach service in the 18th century. Many pubs now became coaching inns, offering accommodation for travellers and stables for horses. The taste for porter was also on the rise and in 1759, Arthur Guinness took a 9000 year lease on a disused brewery at St. James’s Gate in Dublin for an annual rent of £45.
Over the ensuing centuries, Guinness secured dominance in the home market, boosted by innovations such as transporting Guinness by canals and railways. Porter is named for the porters in London’s markets who were said to have been particularly keen on this blend of ales.
You can listen to my Guinness podcast series here.
 The Annals of Ireland by the Four Masters.
 Henry A. Jefferies, ‘Cork: Historical Perspectives’ (Four Courts Press, 2004), p. 46.
 Conor Kostick, ‘Strongbow: The Norman Invasion of Ireland’ (O’Brien Press, 2013).
 Charles Doherty in ‘Érainn’, in Seán Duffy (ed.), Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopaedia. Routledge. 2005. p. 156.