My goodness, Guinnesses


JOHN FANNINGreviews The Guinnesses: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Most Successful FamilyBy Joe Joyce
Poolbeg, 390pp. €19.99

IN 1955 TWO OF Rupert Guinness’s grandchildren were christened in Germany. The mother was Rupert’s daughter Brigid, whose husband was a grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm II and a great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria. Among the godfathers was the king of Denmark. The family had reached the heights of European social, political and business success.

It was a long, long way from Celbridge, in Co Kildare, where Arthur Guinness was born in 1725 and took over a small brewery in nearby Leixlip in 1756. He later moved to Dublin, taking his famous lease on 400 acres at St James’s Gate for 9,000 years in 1759. Brewing was the most important business in a city with 70 breweries and 4,000 pubs.

From these humble beginnings came the most iconic Irish brand of all time, and the gripping tale of the family that developed, nurtured and maintained it is brilliantly captured in Joe Joyce’s comprehensive history of seven generations who were involved with the business until recently relinquishing control to the global drinks giant Diageo.

The first part of the book is dominated by the driving ambition of the Guinnesses as they fought to dominate and decimate rival breweries and navigate their way through the treacherous political and religious tensions of 19th century Ireland.

They were staunch in their Church of Ireland faith and unionist political attachment. They always put business first and displayed an “uncanny ability to appear in different guises to different people and surf the historical currents sometimes flowing around them”.

The first Arthur, consumer-centric before his time, supported Catholic emancipation and was also involved in charitable work for his Protestant community.

As the family amassed more wealth they generously endowed the city in which they created it; apart from contributing to major beneficiaries such as St Patrick’s Cathedral and Trinity College, they gave St Stephen’s Green to the people of Dublin in 1876, and the newly independent State was the recipient of Iveagh House and Farmleigh.

Guinness also paid better than other employers, and in the 19th century workers enjoyed rare job security, medical services, widows’ pensions and sick pay – “a Guinness man meant money dead or alive”.

By the 20th century a rising Catholic middle class was storming the gates of Dublin Castle, leading one commentator to conclude: “Without being a snob it was no pleasure and rather embarrassing to meet the lady at dinner who had measured you for your shirts the week before.”

By then the Guinnesses were wealthy enough to leave the running of the business to professional managers while they indulged in “the relentless leisure which epitomised Edwardian London”. The first stage in the disengagement from the business occurred in 1886, when the company was floated on the London Stock Exchange amid strenuous allegations of widespread insider trading. The final disengagement took place almost a century later, following the appointment of an outside marketing director, Ernest Saunders, who engineered the takeover of Bells distillery, followed with indecent haste by the acquisition of an even bigger Scottish whisky business, followed by more strenuous allegations of dirty dealing. Plus ça change. This time, however, some of the main participants were jailed.

Meanwhile, the family partied into the 20th century and was still at it until the story ends in the 1980s with a colourful cast of characters, from Walter, “who collected yachts, fish, monkeys and women”, to the tragic figure of young Tara Browne, who died in a car crash in London in 1966, prompting A Day in the Lifeon The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Along the way we meet Bryan Guinness, who married the infamous Diana Mitford, who promptly ran off with the more infamous Oswald Mosley, both of whom became pals with the even more infamous Adolf Hitler.

Joyce guides us through the “hothouse world of aristocratic coming out parties and mating games” where “several made hasty decisions and ended up married and divorced while still in their 20s”.

The alternative was for marriages to “slip into the mode of resigned incompatibility”.

The most intriguing tale from these amatory gyrations is that of Agnes Cuff, a 23-year-old woman who became pregnant at a party on Walter’s yacht in 1913, subsequently giving birth to a baby boy, Alec Guinness.

Later in life the actor revealed that his mother had never divulged his father’s name but that she had slept with the entire crew and that he was probably the son of the “bloody cook”. There’s an interesting gay strand throughout, beginning with a third-generation Guinness who had an affair with a brewery clerk, one Dion Boucicault. The book combines a fascinating family history with an important spotlight onto an aspect of history that rarely surfaces: the influence of businesses on the lives of the citizens and the nexus of business and politics.

It contains more genuine business insights than most business books (admittedly not difficult) and should be studied by the marketing fraternity to understand Guinness’s commitment to continuous innovation and dedication to product quality at the expense, if necessary, of short-term profits, as well as the power of advertising to create cachet.

But at the heart of the story is a family history and, in the end, in spite of the powerand the glory, the wealth and the fame, and the tragedies and travails that accompany these, one is left with the comforting impression that the Guinness family was imbued with a crucial characteristic of the drink it created: goodness.

Big birthday celebrations will probably add to the Guinness canon, and two more books fill in one or two gaps in Joyce’s outstanding study.

Arthur’s Round: The Life and Times of Brewing Legend Arthur Guinnessby Patrick Guinness (published by Peter Owen) concentrates on the early days during the second half of the 18th century and, using DNA analysis, traces the family history to the Magennis and McCartan clans from Iveagh in Co Down. Guinness: Celebrating 250 Remarkable Years, by Paul Hartley and Jane Birch (Hamlyn), is an official celebration edition, lavishly illustrated with evocative pictures of the old brewery, a selection of famous advertisements and mouth-watering recipes, including an evil-looking iced chocolate, Guinness and orange cake.

John Fanning is the author of The Importance of Being Branded: An Irish Perspective(The Liffey Press, 2006)