Monday, 17 March 2014

Happy St. Patrick's Day and Sláinte!

The Goodness of Guinness – The Brewery, its People and the City of Dublin. Tony Corcoran, Liberties Press, Dublin, 2005. pp 157. PB. Price E12.95.

This review was written on July 30th 2005

It would be impossible for somebody born in Dublin, living close to the Liberties, bred on Guinness in UCD Boat Club and still taking a pint after a game of golf, not to have an abiding nostalgia for that great institution, Arthur Guinness and Sons. Corcoran’s book deals with the history of the great brewery. Arthur Guinness established the brewery in James’s Gate in 1757 when there were already about 60 breweries in the area, all of which apparently brewed ‘indifferent beer’. Guinness was only interested in a quality product and hence its great success.

Perhaps the greatest source of the company’s pride was the early and comprehensive medical and social services which the firm provided for all their employees and their families, made famous by Sir John Lumsden who was a pioneer in occupational medicine in these islands and who recognised the importance of good social circumstances in the maintenance of health. Guinness led the world in terms of concern for their employees, and played a notable part in other social activities and in philanthropy.

The Coomble Lying in Hospital
As the first consultant physician appointed to the Coombe Lying in Hospital, where I served for 38 years, I was particularly conscious of the seminal role Guinness played in supporting the Coombe during the latter part of the 19th century. The hospital was then situated close to the brewery in the Coombe in the oldest part of Dublin and it served all the midwifery and obstetrical patients in the adjacent slums. The hospital could not have survived various crises without the company’s considerable financial support which allowed it to continue to serve an impoverished public. The company also famously provided a small bottle of stout daily for the expectant mothers and other in-patients, confirming no doubt the Company’s claim that Guinness is Good for You! This munificence continued until the Hospital moved to more modern and distant quarters in Rialto in the early 1960s.

The portico of the old Coombe still preserved.
The wards in the new hospital were all dedicated to various saints in the Roman Catholic Calendar, unlike the secular titles of the departments in the old Coombe.   At the time of change to Rialto I suggested to the board that at least one ward or department should commemorate the name of Arthur Guinness and Sons but my suggestion fell on deaf ears. Perhaps it is not too late still to pay a well-deserved tribute to the hospital’s great patron. The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin was chairman of the hospital board when we had moved to Rialto and his shadow over the hospital’s board members may have been a factor in ignoring my suggestion. At least a few of the named saints have since been stripped from the Calendar by a recent Pope but there is still no reference to the crucial role  Guinness paid in the hospital’s survival  after it was established in 1831.

I am now 83 years of age and the pint is still my favoured drink after a game of golf and on other social occasions. A visit to a pub even at this late stage of my life sparks a reflex which ensures that I will order a pint on arrival, at least for myself. In the early years we drank bottles of stout as the drink was invariably called. It had a higher alcohol content than the pint of draught or pint of plain as it was described by the familiar. The draught was prepared by the individual publicans in these early days and the quality of the pint varied according to the care of the preparation by the pub but the pint of Guinness is now much more reliable in its quality and taste since its preparation by modern means at the Guinness brewery and its transport in sealed metal containers to the retail trade. Our favourite brew in my earlier days was a pint containing an equal mix of bottled stout with the draught. The mix was called a half and half.  In pubs and bars to-day the draught is preferred by the great majority of cultivated and fastidious drinker nor are the gentler sex immune to its attractions, unlike their reluctance to indulge in earlier years.

Student celebrations were invariably associated with Guinness. A striking thing was the amount of drink which could be consumed by the celebrants. I recall all night sessions in UCD Boat Club at Islandbridge and elsewhere after weekend regattas when vast quantities could be consumed by some of my heartiest colleagues. Regattas were preceded by six weeks strict training when alcohol, smoking and association with the opposite sex were forbidden, The celebrations were therefore an understandable response to such a strict regime.  I recall competitions aimed at testing consumption capacity including the shortest time a pint could be swallowed from the moment the full pint was lifted until the glass was returned empty on the table. Any spillage led to disqualification. Twelve seconds won handsomely on one occasion.  He was a young Trinity oarsman who must have had an oesophagus as big as a drainpipe!

The neophyte may not be enamoured by his or her first taste of Guinness but familiarity will quickly change from initial taste to a life’s devotion to the brew. I had my first pint of Guinness at the age of 19 when I first tasted alcohol. If you’re tired of Guinness, you’re tired of life, although the current weekly production of stout at St. James’s Gate of 18 million pints would suggest that there are few tired people in the population This book will bring back fond memories for those of us who were students serving the ‘District’ in the old Coombe, and it will add to the historical fabric of Dublin and the Liberties.

(PS: I have never had shares in Guinness)

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