Dublin: A taste of history that's hard to put down

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid samples the delights of an Irish institution in Dublin.

At one time, Dublin's St James' Gate Brewery had 300 coopers working fulltime making casks for Guinness. Photo / Graham Reid
At one time, Dublin's St James' Gate Brewery had 300 coopers working fulltime making casks for Guinness. Photo / Graham Reid

The black and white image of the man on the small television screen looks like something from a remote world of more than a century ago: wearing a white shirt, braces to hold up wide flannel pants and in heavy work boots, he shaves timber slats into shape, arranges them carefully in a circle then hammers iron hoops around them.

Against the backdrop of a factory where steam wheezes from huge machinery, the man labours with remarkable physicality, speed and skill.

He is Dick Flanagan, who was a cooper, and here at the famous Guinness Storehouse in Dublin's St James' Gate Brewery - home to the company which last year celebrated its 250th anniversary - he once plied his craft. But these ancient-looking images came from as recently as 1954 when Guinness was still keeping its liquid black gold in wooden casks.

At one time there were 300 coopers like Flanagan making casks for Guinness and the storehouse complex contained more than quarter of a million of them, all made by hand where the craftsman's eye was the measure.

To watch Flanagan is captivating: he shapes slats with a small adze-like chisel, pulls them together so they are airtight and then moves on to making, then hammering down, the iron bands.

Then using measuring gear for the first time, he takes a ruler to size timber which will fit snugly for the tops and bottoms.

On a day when a Guinness awaits in the Gravity Bar on the top floor of the Storehouse - the seven-storey building in the shape of a glass of Guinness with the bar as its head - no one on the self-guided walk through the brewing process seems to be in any hurry.

A visit to the Guinness factory is a highlight of any trip to Dublin because - if nothing else, and there is plenty of the "else" for your interest - you get a spectacular 360 degree view over the city from the bar as you sup a pint which comes with the price of admission.

The Guinness story is a fable of good fortune and canny business smarts: Arthur Guinness (1725-1803) signed the lease on the abandoned St James' Gate Brewery on December 31, 1759. It was for 9000 years at an annual rent of £45: a copy of this remarkable document is embedded in the ground floor of the Storehouse.

Within a decade he was exporting his ale, in 1770 he began developing a higher quality "porter" (the forerunner to Guinness), and by 1799 he had stopped making traditional beer.

His expanding brewery was solely dedicated to his refined "porter", known now across the world simply as Guinness.

As with any decent whisky distillery, Guinness claims one of its key ingredients is the special water it uses which is not, as rumour has it, taken from the River Liffey but comes (eight million litres a day of it) from the nearby Wicklow Mountains.

To the other ingredients - barley, hops and yeast - was added the most important: Arthur Guinness, the son of a brewer and a man who knew how to market his product. His canny know-how is a trait the family carried on and in the Storehouse is a large area dedicated to the clever advertising campaigns Guinness has run, and the memorable advertising imagery (toucans, ostriches, surfers) from graphic artist John Gilroy who created the Guinness marque for three decades from the 1930s.

Gilroy, who created the famous "Guinness is good for you" poster, was also a gifted portrait painter whose subjects included Sir Winston Churchill and the Queen.

The Guinness story is more than that of an ordinary brewery: it holds its history in its glass, and is the successful marriage of brewing, business, craft and art.

Today 10 million glasses of Guinness are drunk daily, in places as far apart as India and Indiana. It is brewed in more than 40 countries and sold in over 150.

The Storehouse is billed as the number one tourist attraction for international visitors to Ireland, is an easy 20-minute walk from the central city, and a stop on hop on-hop off bus tours. The view from the Gravity Bar is worth the visit alone, made more pleasurable, of course, by a glass of Guinness.

But while Gilroy's innovative posters will attract the eye and the hops seduce (or assail) the sense of smell, for many visitors to the factory, the sight of Flanagan - a master craftsman in a trade which has almost been lost - will remain the abiding memory.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific offers daily flights from Auckland to London via Hong Kong. Special fares are available.

RyanAir flies to Dublin depart from Luton, Gatwick and Stansted.

The Guinness Storehouse: For location, tours and visitor information see guinness-storehouse.com.

Further information: You can get general information on visiting Britain and Ireland at visitbritain.co.nz and discoverireland.co.nz.

Graham Reid travelled to the Republic of Ireland courtesy of Cathay Pacific and discoverireland.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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