In Search of Arthur Guinness
Guinness, the name, appears on beers brewed in 50 different countries and sold in 100 more. Guinness the name, then, is one of the world’s great global brands. Guinness the name appears on something else rather remarkable, the best-selling copyrighted book in history. Nearly 100 million copies of Guinness World Records (previously the Guinness Book of World Records) have been sold since 1955, when it was created at the behest of Guinness managing director Sir Hugh Beaver. This means that Guinness, the name, is known by millions of people who have never let a drop of Guinness, the beer, pass through their lips. So yes, it’s safe to say that Guinness, the name, is known the world over.
But Guinness, the man? Well, he is something of a mystery, even among those who walk in his shadows and perpetuate his legacy. I know. I’ve been looking for him.
Dublin is the physical and spiritual home of Guinness, the empire. It was here that Arthur Guinness obtained a 9,000-year lease for a small plot of land in the St. James’s Gate neighborhood on December 31, 1759. Guinness’s purchase included a home for his family, a fish pond, gardens, a stable for horses, and a rundown old brewery that had not produced a beer in 10 years. The entire estate measured less than 40,000 square feet.
Today, the St. James’s Gate brewery sprawls across dozens of acres on the south bank of the River Liffey. It features a gym for employees, a theater, scores of buildings in various states of repair and use, and a state-of-the-art brewhouse with enough computers and wall-size control grids to run a nuclear power plant. It provides, among other things, all the Guinness Draught Stout for Ireland and the “diaspora” markets: Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and the United States. It also makes Guinness “essence” – a viscous, black malt extract – and ships it in MG Mini-sized plastic containers to Guinness breweries around the globe which then turn it into Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. It’s not an unsubstantial market. Nigeria, for example, is poised to surpass Ireland as Guinness’s No. 2 market after Great Britain. The St. James’s Gate brewery is, in other words, an industrial behemoth that lords over the western edge of Dublin, the consciousness of a nation, and a global business empire.
St. James’s Gate is not without its more romantic recesses, though tourists never see them: In a vast kegging room, brewers do their final quality control check, pouring from a tap in perfect two-part form the freshest pint of draught Guinness one will ever taste. Hops are stored in a 19th century brick warehouse, kept naturally cool by a hollow floor built over water. Next to this warehouse are giant roasting drums that turn golden barley into the black, acrid grains that give Guinness its famous color and distinct, toasted flavor. (Before recently enacted industrial emissions standards, an east-moving wind would carry the dank, tactile aroma of toasting grains all across Dublin.) The cement floor beneath the kettles is speckled with blackened granules. If you’re lucky enough to happen upon this corner of St. James’s Gate – and chances are you will not be – you can pick up a couple of these tiny grains, crush them between your teeth, and get a bitter, budding taste of Guinness long before it’s turned to liquid.
St. James’s Gate also boasts, amid a frenetic visitors’ center that attracts 700,000 people a year, a solemn, well-kept archive that is a repository of all things Guinness: The only known painting of Arthur Guinness is kept here. So is his original 9,000-year lease; more than 200 years of brewers’ recipes and notes; Guinness family biographies; and employee records. The archive does a brisk business in Irish-Americans seeking information about family members who once worked here. Guinness’s past is an important part of the company’s identity. The company employs three fulltime archivists, one in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, where the archives of parent company Diageo are kept, and two here in Dublin – the only corporate archivists in the entire republic.
There is plenty about Arthur Guinness reposed within the archives. He was accepted into the Dublin Corporation of Brewers, a trade group, in July 1759; married Olivia Whitmore, a cousin of Irish parliamentarian and nationalist Henry Grattan, in 1761; became brewer to Dublin Castle, the local seat of British government, in 1784; brewed the last Guinness ale in 1799, so that he might focus on producing a popular porter that was the foundation of a growing reputation. Guinness, the name, is synonymous with stout. One learns at the Guinness archive that Guinness, the man, never brewed a beer called stout.
There is, however, a notable list of items the Guinness archive does not contain: namely, little to nothing in Arthur Guinness’s own words. No personal diary. No collection of correspondence. No words of business wisdom published for the masses. What, for example, inspired a rural businessman from the horse country of Kildare to try his fortune in Dublin? Did he fear failure? Expect success? What were his highs and lows; his thoughts and hopes and dreams? Did Guinness, the man, ever imagine that one day Guinness, the name, would be known on all corners of the planet? There are many questions about Arthur Guinness, the man. He left behind few answers.
Where, Guinness devotees might inquire, did Arthur Guinness learn to brew beer? The Guinness empire is built upon this knowledge. Surely, someone must know the answer. In 1928, family historian Henry Seymour Guinness compiled a lengthy set of notes for a guidebook to the Dublin brewery that’s kept in its archives. “No evidence is forthcoming,” he wrote, “to indicate how or where Arthur acquired a knowledge of brewing.”
Perhaps the key to unraveling the mysteries of Guinness, the man, lay elsewhere. With archivist Eibhlin Roche’s roadmap of Ireland in hand, I set out to see the world Arthur Guinness had known.
In Search of Arthur
It is quite possible that Guinness, the man, never traveled farther in his life than one does during the 15-mile drive from St. James’s Gate to Celbridge, a small town in County Kildare west of Dublin.
Among the many things not known about Arthur Guinness are the place and date of his birth. Celbridge may be the place. He certainly spent much of his life here. Arthur’s father, Richard, was a trusted servant of the Reverend Arthur Price, the Archbishop of Cashel, whose bishopric was centered here. According to at least one court record, Arthur was also a “servant” of Dr. Price as early as 1742, when he was 17 or 18 years old. The bishop may also have been Arthur’s godfather.
Oakley Park in Celbridge was Dr. Price’s residence. Today, it is a home for the mentally handicapped. Arthur Guinness must have known this building well. Surely, someone here must know more about Arthur Guinness. A woman at the Oakley Park reception desk seemed unaffected when an uninvited American walked in off the street and asked about him.
“Of course Arthur Guinness lived here. There’s information across the street at the abbey. It’s a nice walk. They have a pamphlet.”
Celbridge Abbey, the local center of the Anglican church in Arthur’s day, is a squat, sturdy stone building that’s about to be swallowed by the trees, shrubs and vines that surround it. Visitors can amble through the 300-year-old building and around a sprawling, verdant estate that borders a lazy stretch of the Liffey. Nature trails cut through the woods and through well-kept flower gardens. Ancient stone foot bridges cross a narrow, bubbling canal that parallels the river. Did Arthur Guinness walk these paths and cross these bridges?
“They have a pamphlet,” said a knotty old man in a ticket booth at the entrance to the abbey.
Is this where Arthur Guinness learned to brew beer?
“They have a pamphlet,” said a pudgy teenaged girl in the abbey’s snack shop.
The pamphlet includes information about some of the abbey’s most notable characters. Jonathon Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, was a frequent visitor – the abbey was the home of a love interest. Grattan, the Irish patriot, was also a frequent visitor. In fact, says the illustrious pamphlet, Grattan’s mother was born in the abbey. The pamphlet includes a map of the grounds; parking and travel information; addresses and phone numbers. It does not include a single word about Arthur Guinness.
Perhaps the town has a historical society that would be more enlightening. A gray-haired man with his 2-year-old granddaughter was crossing one of the stone footbridges. He did not know about the historical society. But, he said, the abbey has a pamphlet. A woman sitting on a bench by the canal overheard the conversation. Her friend, a woman named Maura Gallagher, worked for the local historical society. She did not know the number, but it was in the phonebook. There was a phonebook in a pub in the center of Celbridge.
“I wrote a paper about Arthur Guinness. He was born in Celbridge. I know the date,” said Maura Gallagher. “But I’m heading out on holiday. Send me an e-mail.”
Gallagher would write several months later. She offered no birth date. But she did offer this:
“The Guinness’s were the ale makers for Arthur Price, (who) gave Richard Guinness £100 to build an ale house 150 yards from his own home, Oakley Park House, and it was in this house that Arthur Guinness was born.”
Gallagher attributes this information to Patrick Guinness, a descendant of Arthur Guinness who is researching a book about the family. If it is true – and it seems just a bit too cozy to be true – then one mystery would be solved: Arthur Guinness was born in Celbridge, in a brewery no less. Arthur Guinness, one might surmise, was born to make beer.
The Original Brewery
The village of Leixlip is just four miles east of Celbridge – an easy journey even for an 18th century Kildare horseman like Arthur Guinness.
It is quite possible that Guinness learned to brew beer in Celbridge. It is quite certain that his career as a brewer began here in Leixlip.
One of the few insights into Guinness, the man, in his own words, comes from an appearance he made before the Irish House of Commons in 1773. During a discussion of Irish trade restrictions, he told legislators that he been a brewer “for 17 or 18 years.”
It is known from one of the more tangible pieces of Guinness-related evidence – another lease – that 17 years before his appearance in the House of Commons, in 1756, Guinness and his brother, Richard, purchased a Leixlip brewery from a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania merchant named George Bryan, whose brother in Dublin ran his Irish affairs. The brewery cost £256, the purchase aided by a £100 inheritance Arthur had received from Dr. Price of Celbridge. So was opened in Leixlip the first brewery known by Guinness, the name.
Celbridge seems to have forgotten Arthur Guinness. Leixlip has embraced him. A road sign at the Leixlip border proclaims it the home of the original Guinness brewery. Leixlip Castle, the town’s most stately residence, walking distance to the village center, is inhabited by Desmond Guinness, father of the aforementioned Patrick, a descendant of Arthur, and Leixlip’s most famous citizen.
Desmond would not make easy the task of finding the original Guinness brewery. He was out of town. A momentary hurdle was quickly overcome with the aid of a group of woman who work at the town’s employment agency – which seemed a suitable place to uncover the inner workings of life in Leixlip. They loved Desmond Guinness, they knew all about Arthur, and they were more than happy to help.
The building that housed the original Guinness brewery was now a private home, inhabited by a physician, 100 yards away here in the center of Leixlip. A local historian, Seamus Kelly, had written about the Guinness brewery in a short book, A Walking Tour of Leixlip. The town’s heritage center, a mile outside Leixlip center in an elementary school, included a short report by two local youngsters about the Guinness legacy in Leixlip. Neither the book nor the report offered any new insight into Guinness, the man. There was, of course, one more place to look.
The original Guinness brewery building is on Leixlip’s main street, the River Liffey gurgling through its backyard. It’s a large, plastered, unadorned rectangular house with a slate roof, covered in ivy, set back 100 feet from the street, protected by an eight-foot-high stucco wall. A round green sign, virtually invisible to most passers-by, declares the significance of the home behind the wall: “Here Aurthur Guinness and Richard Guinness leased a brewery in 1756.”
A black-haired young man, wearing a white Oxford shirt and carrying an open textbook in his hand, answered the knock at the door. “Yes, this was the Guinness brewery. No, there isn’t anything to see here. Sorry, it is just a private home.”
No wooden bellows used by Arthur Guinness to stoke the brew kettle’s fire, half-buried in the backyard. No recipe for Guinness ale found stuck behind a wall. No faded, handwritten musings from the mind of Arthur Guinness, collecting dust in the attic.
The Final Resting Place
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries Guinness, the name, began to make its maiden voyages overseas, as Guinness porter arrived in England and then the West Indies. The seeds of Guinness, the empire, were being planted. But Guinness, the man, like most of his contemporaries, remained firmly rooted in a small circle of existence that included Dublin and a few villages in County Kildare.
One of these villages is Oughterard. It was an important religious center in pre-Christian Ireland and an ancestral home of Arthur Guinness’s mother. Today, it’s an unmarked rural outpost off the N7, the main southwestern motorway in and out of Dublin, unworthy of mention on most modern maps.
“There’s nothing in Oughterard, you know,” said a waitress at the Dew Drop Inn in Kill, the closest village of any merit. “There’s just an old cemetery.”
The cemetery sits on a lonely, windswept hilltop overlooking the Kildare countryside. A black, wrought-iron gate with “Oughterard Cemetery” forged into the top and painted in gold marks an entrance unceremoniously accented by the pastel-colored laundry of an adjacent house snapping in the breeze. There is room for two cars to park in front of the gate, and enough room for one adult to squeeze between the locked gate and the adjoining wall. Sheep graze on the side of a dirt road beyond the gate that ends at the burial ground. There are signs, too, of human life: spent matches on the stone wall surrounding the cemetery; freshly cut grass inside the wall.
The cemetery is small, maybe 100 feet square, and dominated by a crumbling stone vault with steel beams propping up a tower of stairs that lead to the roof.
It does not take long to find the gravestone. It says that Arthur Guinness died on January 23, 1803, at age 78, indicating that he was most likely born sometime in 1724. (In 1991, Guinness, the company, declared that Guinness, the man, was born on September 28, 1725. If the age and date etched into the gravestone are correct, then the “official” date of Guinness’s birth – which the company admits is a guess – is conclusively incorrect.)
The gravestone is unimpressive, even disappointing: three feet tall, 18 inches wide, the smallest of the dozen or so markers within the confines of the vault. It humbly situated, not in the sheltered inner sanctum of the vault, but stuck into the side of an unprotected outer wall.
Perhaps it’s an act of desperation to visit the grave of a man who died 200 years ago in a quest to learn more about him. But perhaps the modest condition of his final resting place offers something about Arthur Guinness that the future success of his company has made easy to forget. Arthur Guinness was not a titan of industry, dutifully recording his thoughts and deeds to one day share with the clamoring masses. It’s unreasonable to have expected him to do so. He lived his entire life within a few miles of this windy Kildare hilltop. His goals and dreams might have been suitably parochial and modest: move to the big city, make a good beer for its citizens, a decent living for his family. Arthur Guinness, after all, was not a name, an icon, a myth or a brand. Arthur Guinness was a man from a small town with a knack for making good beer. The rest, then, is not a mystery. The rest, as they say, is history.
Kerry J. Byrne
Kerry J. Byrne writes about beer for The Boston Herald and was named North American Guild of Beer Writers “Beer Writer of the Year” in 2000 and in 2001. He is currently working on a book about Guinness, the brand.