Spirit Duality – An Irishman’s Diary on the quasi-religious revival of Irish whiskey
Billboard at the old Guinness Power Station, with an artist’s impression of the new distillery
Everywhere I turn these days there seems to be a new distillery opening, or planned. This is in part because I live in Dublin 8, an area soaked in whiskey history. And as the industry rebounds after a century-long slump, producers are everywhere reclaiming provenance from an era when the Irish product was world leader.
Hence the latest planned addition, at a site now more synonymous with brewing – St James’s Gate – where Diageo will start distilling whiskey in 2019. Among other things, the plan means a new life for the old Guinness Power Station, one of Dublin’s less appreciated architectural treasures. Constructed just after the second World War, with “a million Kingscourt bricks”, the building looks to be from a slightly earlier time, with its Art Deco influences. But it’s a fine thing in any case.
As for the planned whiskey, that will revive – in name at least – a once-famous brand long produced on the same site, Roe’s. Roe’s Distillery was a powerhouse in the figurative sense. At the height of its success, it occupied 17 acres of what is now Guinness HQ, between Thomas Street and the Liffey. Vestiges include the decommissioned windmill, aka St Patrick’s Tower, that still looms over the neighbourhood.
Roe’s greatest monument, however, must be Christchurch Cathedral. Yes, the original cathedral long predated even the Dublin 8 drinks industry. But in 1569, the boggy ground on which it was built had shifted beneath it, causing the south wall and vaulted roof to fall in. And the debris stayed where it fell for three centuries until in 1875, Henry Roe paid for a complete restoration. His was Ireland’s biggest distillery then and a global player. It subsequently shared the decline of Irish whiskey-making in general. But the vast expense of the church job must have helped pave the path to bankruptcy.
It’s a notorious fact that both Dublin’s great Protestant cathedrals are, in a sense, monuments to alcohol. For just as Christchurch was restored by the profits from whiskey, so St Patrick’s had been, a few years earlier, from the deep pockets of Benjamin Guinness.
But then, in general, Dublin 8 is a temperance campaigner’s nightmare. I say this because the most recently completed new distillery in the area, opened last year by Pearse Lyons, is actually set in a church, albeit a deconsecrated one.
Built in 1859 but closed in 1964, the old St James’s (Anglican) had undergone a number of reinventions in intervening years. The most sympathetic to its former vocation, arguably, was a period spent as a shop selling light accessories.
More than once I sought emergency enlightenment myself there, of the 60 or 75 watt kind.
But it took a distillery to do a full refurbishment, including restoration of the spire that had been removed as unsafe in 1941. The new one is glass. And especially at night, when lit up in blue, it’s rather beautiful. Even so, I imagine the passing ghost of Fr Mathew, surveying this ungodly evidence of the failure of his life’s work, and blessing himself with a shudder.
Speaking of ghosts, it is one of the quirks of the English language that we use the same word – “spirit” – for both the human soul and for what used also be called “hard liquor”: alcohol of about 20 per cent proof and upwards.
I’m not sure why. One theory is that it goes back to monkish distillers of the middle ages, who thought that vapours rising from the process were like spirits. Hence a traditional industry term for whiskey lost to evaporation: the “Angels’ share”.
The overlap between the two kinds of spirit is further confused in the Irish uisce beatha, although outside the ballad of Finnegan’s Wake, whiskey has never been seriously advanced anywhere as a cure for death.
In any case, as well as acquiring the now-defunct St James’s Church, Lyons Distillers also inherited the gateway to the old adjoining cemetery, which now forms the backdrop for part of its tour (although Dublin City Council oversees actual cemetery visits).
The faithful departed therein include Sir Mark Rainsford, a mayor of Dublin who had owned a brewery that Arthur Guinness bought, and the well-named William Haldane-Porter, who founded the UK’s immigration service before taking a retirement job with the world’s most famous porter makers.
They and many others continue to wait in joyful hope. In the meantime, the circle of life (and of the water of life) continues. The latest trend started with Tyrconnell and Kilbeggan. Now it’s Roe’s. One by one, it seems, all the old spirits are being resurrected.