Who was Arthur Guinness? It depends on which one you mean


Writing a book about the Guinnesses brought to light many stories about a family that has had a huge impact on Irish – and British – life, writes JOE JOYCE

FOR A FAMILY who created one of the world’s great brands and gave their name to it, the Guinnesses are curiously unknown. Certainly, everybody knows Arthur Guinness, whose signature adorns every bottle and can of his stout. Most people know something about another Guinness or two, be they conservationists, models or designers, and about the family “curse” which supposedly leads rich heirs and heiresses into tragedy or scandal. A headline this week was typical: “Guinness heiress denies stripping down to G-string on flight.”

But surprisingly little is known in general about the dozen or so men – and they were all men in those days – who built up the brewery and created the brand over many decades. In large part, that was because they preferred it that way. They didn’t seek publicity, although with growing wealth it inevitably came their way. Yet they were deeply involved in Irish and British politics, as well as business, for a century and a half, usually out of sight but often playing key backroom roles.

There was nothing pre-ordained about Guinness’s success. It was a mixture of many factors, including luck. Arthur Guinness, alongside his father, began his career as a servant of the Archbishop of Cashel (who lived in Celbridge). He went on to found his first brewery in Leixlip and then moved on to St James’s Gate 250 years ago. He didn’t invent porter and he wasn’t even the first brewer in Dublin to produce it, but he and his successors were good brewers, producing a reliable pint. The most able son, rather than the eldest, was always put in charge in the early decades, controlling the family fortune as well as the brewery.

The family were clever spin doctors too, long before the phrase was invented. However good the pint, it still had to be sold in an atmosphere where politics and religion were often used as business weapons. The Guinnesses steered a deft course through the treacherous sectarian and political currents of 19th-century Dublin, succeeding as Protestant (and, later, unionist) businessmen relying on Catholic (and nationalist) customers.

Their story is full of ironies and paradoxes. Among the key reasons for their 19th-century success were the temperance movement and the Famine. Temperance movements concentrated on spirits, and tended to see beer and wine as wholesome drinks. Even better for Guinness was the fact that Ireland’s most successful temperance crusader, Fr Theobald Mathew, was based in Cork and did more damage to the local brewers than to those in Dublin. The post-Famine era helped by introducing a cash economy into many rural areas – Guinness exploited this very effectively, then used its added strength to undercut and wipe out some of its Dublin competitors.

The fourth Arthur Guinness (later Lord Ardilaun) represented Dublin in the House of Commons, initially with the help of the city’s publicans, later pillars of the nationalist movement. He lost the seat in a court case which revealed an extraordinary level of voter bribery (£5 a vote) by his agents, who were up to dirty tricks that would leave the most Machiavellian modern party manager in awe. He was re-elected later, but lost the seat when his Conservative Party managers tried to play the temperance card and the publicans finally deserted him.

Lord Ardilaun had an unconventional marriage and was probably gay, like the third Arthur Guinness, who had a brief affair with the young playwright, Dion Boucicault. Arthur’s younger brother, Edward, bought him out of the brewery for £600,000 and subsequently floated it on the stock market for more than £4 million, thereby establishing the family among the super-rich and its reputation in England for boundless wealth.

While the company was deservedly known as a good employer – its pension and welfare system was way ahead of its time, leading to an old Dublin saying that “a Guinness man meant money, dead or alive” – the family didn’t stint themselves. At a time when the brewery was the biggest in the world, its annual wage bill was £300,000 but Arthur and Edward earned £600,000 between them from it.

Two of Edward’s sons, Rupert and Walter, became MPs, Rupert winning a Southend-on-Sea seat which he passed on to his wife, son-in-law and grandson, the family holding it for 85 years until 1997. Walter, later Lord Moyne and the most interesting of all the Guinnesses who controlled the brewery, was a successful politician, a spokesman for southern unionism in the 1910s who opposed partition and made perceptive speeches on the Anglo-Irish Treaty. He went on to become a minister in Britain in the 1920s, retired as Lord Moyne in the 1930s and lived as an explorer on his own yacht, with a string of exotic mistresses as well as an eccentric wife.

The fifth-generation Guinness brothers, Rupert, Ernest and Walter, were also sailors. Actor Alec Guinness was conceived at a party on one of their yachts, hence his surname, although his paternity was always in doubt.

Paradoxically again, the company and family were saved from possible extinction in the 1980s by a scandal involving dubious share dealings during its takeover of the Distillers company. The Guinnesses were absolved of responsibility and four others went to jail over the scandal, but it also effectively marked the end of the family’s involvement in the brand they had created. Meanwhile, family members continue to move between Ireland and England, forever destined to be seen as English in Ireland and Irish in England – and frequently pursued by two sets of taxmen.

The Guinnesses: The Untold Story of Irelands Most Successful Family, by Joe Joyce, will be published next week by Poolbeg Press