Fountains of wine: the drunken excesses of Georgian Ireland and the end of an era

The co-host of podcast The Demon Drink on the Ascendancy’s dependency on alcohol

A satirical print of drunken soldiers published in Dublin c1784. Photograph: The Trustees of the British Museum ©

A satirical print of drunken soldiers published in Dublin c1784. Photograph: The Trustees of the British Museum ©


The sedate grandeur of Georgian buildings like the Custom House and the Four Courts dominates Dublin city centre, and it’s easy to imagine the people who built them were similarly grave and imposing. Another notable institution of 18th-century Ireland was, however, the Hell Fire Club, perhaps the most infamous drinking society in history. During this period the Irish elite distinguished themselves across Europe with displays of drunken debauchery. Indeed, the figure of the drunken, duelling Irish gentleman came to symbolise a society that behaved as if there was no tomorrow.

British commentators tended to view the love of excess among their Irish counterparts in the period as evidence of contamination by the barbaric practices of the Catholic natives. The Gaelic traditions of generosity and hospitality may have had some minor influence on the culture of the upper classes. However, the fashion for “exhibitions of public euphoria”, as the historian James Kelly puts it, had in fact been imported from Britain with the Protestant planters although it had later fallen out of favour there.

Nevertheless, the Ascendancy class in Ireland truly earned their reputation for extravagant consumption. The market for wine in particular grew and grew across the century with tax receipts recording that imports reached close to 2 million gallons per annum in the late 1790s. So fond were the Irish elite of French claret that Jonathan Swift took to calling it “Irish wine” in his correspondence with friends.

From the 1730s up until the Act of Union came into force in 1801 Dublin Castle was the undisputed centre of the social world of the elite, while also functioning as the seat of government. In a “parliament winter” (parliament sat only every second year) when the viceroy was in residence he would be expected to entertain the Irish nobility on a lavish scale at the regular official celebrations held in the castle.

Socialising, lubricated by generous amounts of alcohol, was the means by which the Irish peers forged and sustained ties with one another, particularly via political toasting. A passion for entertaining was therefore an essential attribute for the office of lord lieutenant. Yet even among his hard-drinking contemporaries, John Carteret, 2nd Earl Granville and viceroy in the early 1730s, was judged for his extreme fondness of burgundy. Carteret’s successor, the Duke of Dorset, was less enthusiastic regarding his social obligations but he soon succumbed to pressure. Among the spectacles of indulgence he presided over at balls in the castle were free-flowing fountains of wine.

The most debauched of the viceroys was, undoubtedly, Charles Manners, 4th Duke of Rutland and Lord Lieutenant from 1784-7. Rutland’s commitment to his duties as premier host in the land endeared him to the Irish people. In 1787 he undertook a tour of the country that involved eating and drinking to such a prodigious degree that an observer deemed it “shocking to the constitution”. On his return to Dublin Rutland, unsurprisingly, fell seriously ill and aged just 33 he died. When his body was opened up for an autopsy his doctor was stunned to discover his liver had almost entirely wasted away. Dublin, bereft of its party king, mourned him with all the pomp and ceremony usually reserved for the true monarch.

In her novel of 1800, Castle Rackrent , Maria Edgeworth looks back to the Ireland of her father and her grandfather’s time to skewer the misbehaviour of the upper classes. Tracking the decline and eventual demise of the Rackrent dynasty, Edgeworth identifies the many traits – litigiousness, absenteeism, fecklessness and greed – which were bringing her class to the brink of destruction. This is a group, she suggests to the reader, that has no future.

Notably, two of the Rackrent lords die of complications related to the overconsumption of alcohol. Sir Patrick, the “inventor of raspberry whiskey”, keeps Castle Rackrent heaving with revellers night after night but on the evening before his death the shaking of his hands is so marked that he can’t lift his cup to his mouth. Just as his guests are drinking a toast to his health Sir Patrick, with patented Edgeworthian irony, falls down dead of a “sort of fit”. He, at least, is fondly remembered.

A taste for whiskey, the drink of the lower classes, is shared by Patrick’s descendant Sir Condy. Displaying the negative effects of heavy alcohol consumption from his youth, Condy, weak of mind and body, is easily swindled out of his estate and fortune. He dies, pathetically, after trying to repeat Sir Patrick’s feat of downing the full of his ceremonial cup. He turns black in the face and drops like a shot. As he expires, Edgeworth gifts Condy a rare moment of self-awareness when he laments that he was “brought to this by drink”.

Edgeworth absorbed her hostile attitude towards drunkenness from her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, a forward-thinking landlord who saw alcohol as an obstacle to his efforts to modernise his estate in Edgeworthstown. In her father’s biography Edgeworth recalls with admiration how he pressed his tenant-workers to forgo drink by “declaring that his favor should never be shewn to any man, whom he should see drunk”.

Yet her depiction of the physical effects of drink also reveals the influence of cutting-edge medical thinking regarding alcohol in the period. She was an avid reader of the works of Erasmus Darwin (grandfather to Charles) who categorised drunkenness as a “disease of irritation”, alongside acute disorders like “arterial haemorrhage”.

Ultimately, Edgeworth’s message in Castle Rackrent is for her contemporaries: they will share the fate of the Rackrents if they can’t regulate their appetites. But the passing of the Act of Union would soon bring an end to that raucous world in any case. Fittingly perhaps, a pro-union print from the British cartoonist James Gillray hails the new relationship with a crude toast: “In the cause of Old England we’ll drink down the Sun/Then toast Little Ireland & drink down the Moon!”.

Dr Lucy Cogan (NUI Maynooth) is co-host of the new podcast The Demon Drink, which looks at Ireland’s complicated relationship with alcohol through the lens of its rich literary history. The podcast is sponsored by the UCD Humanities Institute. To listen click the links: Apple Spotify RSS

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