Ireland’s first wine writer Maurice Healy, who was teetotal until he was 30, brought a literary flourish with his colourful descriptions
Maurice Healy is known in the legal profession for The Old Munster Circuit, a light-hearted memoir from his time as a barrister in Cork.
However he can also lay claim to being the first Irish wine writer and deserves greater recognition. His books make for a fascinating and humorous read; there can be few wine writers who have tasted Château Lafite-Rothschild over a span of 128 years.
Healy was a proud Corkman, from a family steeped in politics; his father was a nationalist MP in Westminster, and his uncle was Timothy Healy, a leading nationalist politician and first governor general of the Irish Free State. Healy himself once stood, unsuccessfully, for election.
He was educated at CBC Cork, Clongowes and then UCD before being called to the Irish Bar in 1910. He practised on the Munster circuit until 1914 and again after the first World War. This period provided the inspiration for The Old Munster Circuit. During the war he served in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and saw action on various fronts, earning the Military Cross.
With the breakdown of law and order during the War of Independence Healy found himself unable to practice, and moved to England where he spent the remainder of his life.
Having been teetotal until the age of 30, he then fell utterly in love with wine. Delighting in the pleasures of the table, Healy enjoyed a reputation as raconteur and bon viveur.
His two books on wine were Claret & the White Wines of Bordeaux published in 1934 and Stay Me With Flagons, published in 1940. Sadly both are out of print, but old copies can be found from time to time. The style is at times florid, but always laced with wit, charm and great warmth.
Stay Me with Flagons begins with an impassioned argument in favour of moderate consumption. Healy writes: “What glass can engender so much kindly charity, so many acts of benevolence, so many comforting words of friendship as the glass that has been crowned by Bordeaux or Burgundy or Champagne?”
In his time, these three wines, along with Sherry and Port, were by far the most popular. Bordeaux was his first love, but Burgundy “is one of the noblest and greatest of red wines, that has gladdened the hearts of generations of mankind.’
He was not a fan of Australia however; “All the Australian wine that has come my way has been detestable. It is stiff with iron, and the so-called grapes go rusty in your mouth. Its produce is horrible; hot, coarse and flavourless, it puzzles me how people can continue to drink it.”
In the late 1930s and early 1940s Healy and his soft Cork brogue became very well-known in Britain as he recorded a series of short programmes for BBC radio. In his writings he comes across as a genial gentleman with a strong sense of honour and a love of good conversation. “The best talk in the world,” he declared “is to be heard in Cork, where two or three are gathered together. All speak at once; but there is both art and method in it.”
Healy died in 1943 at the age of 55 soon after the publication of Stay Me with Flagons. He is fondly remembered in Cork where the late-lamented Lovett’s restaurant had a Healy room and held an (almost) centenary dinner there in 1990 which featured a speech from the redoubtable TP Whelehan, one of my predecessors in this column. Others, such as wine historian Ted Murphy, are very familiar with his writing.
The Old Munster Circuit was republished in 2001 with a biographical introduction from barrister Charles Lysaght. I am indebted to Lysaght for most of the historical information included here.
Those who criticise modern wine writers for their verbosity should look to Healy. In his day there were never references to flowers, fruits or spices. Instead the descriptions were altogether more literary. Typical of his lyrical style is this evocative passage: “and this wine had the true glow of the ruby; you were conscious of a lapidary worth. The bouquet did not fail to justify the clarity; it was almost spiced, so sweetly aromatic was it. And then the true glory revealed itself, not to the eye, not to the nose, but to the palate. It caressed the gullet; it spread its greeting all over the mouth, until the impatient throat accused the tongue of unfair delay. It was glorious, glorious, glorious; and a month later I had not yet stopped talking about it”.