On the 250th anniversary of Guinness, Lucy McIver recounts the history of Ireland’s biggest cultural export
It is 250 years since Arthur Guinness signed the lease for St. James’s Gate Brewery, Dublin. A quarter of a millennium later, his name is synonymous with stout, and it is the rallying cry of St Patrick’s Day. Indeed, given the avidity with which the it is consumed on the feast day of Ireland’s patron saint, Guinness hardly needs another date in the calendar. But this year, on its centennial silver anniversary, it is founding one. Arthur’s Day, following the Jack Daniels model, is the date of Arthur Guinness’s birthday, the 24th September.
St James’s Gate was producing significant, quantities of beer just four years after the lease was signed in 1759, yet it wasn’t until the 1770s that the Guinness we know today began to evolve. The increasing popularity of a new style of English beer – known as porter after the London porters who were its most enthusiastic consumers – caught Arthur Guinness’s attention.
Thirty years later the brewery had been given over entirely to the production of porter, replacing the ale and table beer that Arthur started out with. When Arthur’s son inherited St James’s Gate Brewery in 1803, he carried on with this specialty, which over the years and after many alterations in brewing, has become what we now know as stout. Arthur’s forty years in the brewing business were not uneventful. Thoroughly immersed in his trade, he was Warden and then Master of the Dublin Corporation of Brewers and fought for the survival of his own brewery and the Irish brewing industry. In 1775, St James’s Gate was threatened by an attempt to cut off the water-way that supplied the brewery. Arthur’s dispute with the city culminated in his brandishing a pick-axe at the party come to execute the filling in of the waterway. The water rights were eventually settled but Guinness faced further adversities.
In the 1770s the English Revenue Laws put Irish industry at a great disadvantage. A hefty tax on Irish Porter left it unable to compete with imports taxed at a much lower rate. The Dublin Corporation of Brewers lodged a petition, and a committee was set up to examine their claims. Arthur Guinness gave evidence of the decline in Dublin breweries over his years in the industry.
The Guinness dynasty has a substantial social legacy. Throughout the years they have supported and financed such causes as Catholic emancipation, the restoration of St Patrick’s Cathedral, and slum clearance. Following in this philanthropic tradition, as part of its anniversary celebrations Guinness will launch the Arthur Guinness Fund, to which Guinness & Co. will donate £5 million. The fund will support projects that aim to benefit communities.
The company has come far since the days when Arthur Guinness had to defend his water channel with a weapon. In a no-holds-barred approach to promotion, Guinness is looking forward to it’s own custom built submarine, or ‘deep sea bar’. Gesturing extravagantly in the other direction, it will send a lucky winner into space on Virgin Galactic’s first flight. Arthur’s Day is being celebrated with a star studded global toast, and an international array of 60 hours of live music, with artists such as Tom Jones, Calvin Harris, and The Black Eyed Peas performing in cities all over the world. The celebrations in Dublin are being broadcast to pubs taking part in Arthur’s Day.
The beginning of this global presence was the first export of Guinness to England in 1769. After the excise duty on beer was abolished the Irish brewing industry flourished and by 1840 Guinness was exporting half its output.
Because the industrial revolution all but passed Ireland by, the brewing industry continued to grow, making use of new technology and becoming the most important industry in the Irish Free State.
In 1886 Arthur Guinness & Co. went public and raised six million in capital from shares. The following century saw Guinness’s position as less than secure, as it struggled with low share prices and badly managed diversification. In the eighties the company faced scandal; a scheme was revealed to push up share prices. After this debacle Guinness turned away from its ambitious diversification plans to focus again on the alcoholic beverage. It is now a subsidiary of Diageo, created by the 1997 merger between Guinness and Grand Metropolitan (producers of Smirnoff and Baileys).
The popularity of Guinness has been less than stable in recent decades, but among the cans and bottles of lager that dominate the shelves of the beer section, this stout still stands. Using this anniversary to make the most of its longevity, Guinness once again turns its dazzling promotional smile on the beer drinking world. But Arthur’s anniversary extravaganza is a far remove from the cartoon toucan with the appealingly content grin under his Guinness.