Contributed by David Dickson
In honour of Arthur’s Day, Prof Dickson dispells a few myths and sheds some light on the origins of the global brand that is Guinness.
The first Arthur Guinness (1725-1803) was born into a Protestant Kildare family — on the way up. His father was steward for an Anglican bishop Arthur Price, who in turn was connected with the powerful Conollys of Castletown House. The family tradition is that Arthur was named after Dr Price; certainly both he and his father received handsome inheritances in 1752. The young Arthur used his legacy to set up as a small-town brewer in Leixlip c.1755, and four years later graduated to greater things when he acquired the disused James’ Gate brewery, strategically located beside the Dublin city reservoir. Brewing was still a back-yard affair, but this was no insignificant investment. He may have been encouraged by the fact that two of his brothers had already gone into business in the city – one as a wholesale merchant, the other a goldsmith.
Arthur soon married into money. His poor wife suffered at least twenty-one pregnancies; perhaps more remarkably for the era, twelve of the children survived to adulthood. Their main place of residence was in Thomas Street beside the brewery, but early in the marriage Arthur acquired a small suburban property on which the villa of Beaumont was built. So began the long Guinness association with north Dublin.
Arthur remained for the rest of his long life a successful brewer in a city where the local product only slowly achieved ascendancy over imported English ales and beers. He was intimately involved with that shift in preferences. But his rise to be the one of the largest producers and brewer to the Castle was quite long drawn out, and his business career was more diverse than the founding myth suggests. It was not until the 1770s that he became one of the top half dozen brewers, and by London standards his plant would still have seemed quite modest, with nearly all sales being made locally. Like other brewers he was active in the grain and flour trades, and became principal partner in the great Hibernian flour mill, built in Kilmainham c.1790.
Porter, cornerstone of the brewery’s later fame, was only introduced in the 1780s, imitating a black ale pioneered in London. But years before that, the reputation of the James’ Gate product was growing – being more predictable and more palatable than that of most rivals. In an age of economic turbulence and short-lived partnerships, Arthur’s success lay in building up the core business, consolidating its profitability and assets over forty years, and training up a competent and willing heir to take over the reins – his second son Arthur (1768-1855). These achievements were what set him apart from all but a very few of his commercial contemporaries.
Arthur has been cast as a heroic figure in Guinness legend, one gifted with remarkable foresight. Maybe. He was undoubtedly astute, personally tough in his business dealings, and politically canny rather than fashionable in his views. But his business innovations have perhaps been exaggerated and the role of good fortune understated. He was not short of influence in higher places, most evident in his friendship with his cousin Henry Grattan, through whose lobbying major changes in the taxation of beer were eventually secured which effectively protected the home market for Irish brewers.
On the surface at least, the Guinness family passed unscathed through the political turbulence of late eighteenth-century Ireland. Arthur remained involved throughout the 1790s in business and occasionally in public affairs; he supported the reformist patriots in 1790 and backed Catholic relief in 1792, and characterization of ‘Guinness the brewer’ as ‘an active spy’ for Dublin Castle in 1797 hardly refers to the old brewer. The younger Arthur became a conservative figure in post-Union Dublin, but it was harder to hide your colours in the polarized world of O’Connell and Emancipation. But for the brewery, the great days lay ahead.