The distilling industry in Offaly 1780-1954 (Part 1)
(Reprinted from Harman Murtagh (ed.), Irish Midland Studies: Essays in honour of N. W. English, Athlone 1980, pp 213-228. Copyright reserved for private use only.)
The importance of distilling and its associated industries, brewing and milling, in. the nineteenth century Irish economy has been generally recognised by historians. However, while the Irish distilling industry has been the subject of a detailed study by E. B. McGuire, and more recently, an interesting essay by R. B. Weir, few studies of the industry at regional or local level have appeared.1 A considerable amount of manuscript material donated by Irish distilling firms is now available in public repositories, thus making it possible to repair this deficiency. This essay is concerned with the development of the industry in Offaly and looks, in particular, at the establishment of a large distillery at Banagher in the 1870s and the progress of the sole surviving distillery in Offaly in the post-1900 period located at Tullamore.
DECLINE OF A COTTAGE INDUSTRY,
Progress in the Irish distilling industry has been of a cyclical nature with periods of expansion followed by contraction. The industry was entering a contractive phase when useful information first becomes available on it in the early 1780s. In 1780 there were no less than 1,228 distilleries in Ireland, but the size of still and output were small.2 The passing of an act in 1779 attempting to limit the extent of evasion of the spirit duty led to a massive reduction in the number of distilleries — a decline which was not arrested until the repeal of the act in 1823. Between 1780 and 1823 the number of distilleries fell from 1,228 to forty.3 In Offaly the decline was equally severe, falling from thirty-two in 1781-82 to five in 1796, two in 1818 and rising to three in 1822.4
The Offaly distilleries at work in the early 1780s were located in towns and villages about the county, mostly towards the centre and west. The Clara district had seven, while the largest towns, Birr and Tullamore, whose populations were almost certainly less than 3,000 in either centre, had four and two, respectively.1 The Clara district was the centre of one of the few industries in the county, linen manufacture, and the increased spending power of the population may perhaps explain the relatively large number of distilleries situated in that area. Almost all the stills in the county were small, with three-quarters of the stills in the 200-300 gallons category. The largest still, that at Kilcomin about five miles south of Birr, was 740 gallons in size. By 1796 the number of distilleries in Offaly had fallen to five, one in each of the principal towns — Birr, Tullamore, Daingean, Banagher and Edenderry. None of the five had stills larger than 525 gallons.6 Neither the size of still nor the number of stills being operated had changed by 1802, but distilleries at Daingean and Edenderry had closed while two had opened at Kilcomin.7 Coote, in his statistical survey of the county in 1801 describes the Kilcomin distilleries as very extensive and the chief buyers of oats and barley in Clonlisk barony.8 In his view, demand for spirits was declining throughout the county while beer and strong ale were being used as substitutes, supplied by breweries at Banagher, Birr, Tullamore and Mountmellick. Coote noted that at Tullamore two breweries were in course of erection.9 By 1818 only two distilleries were being operated in the county, both located at Birr and 101 gallons in size.10 Probably the large military barracks near Birr, established in 1809, acted as a stimulus to consumption.
The still licence duty system introduced in 1780 was a serious setback to the industry, but initially the strongest in the industry came to grips with it. According to McGuire, by 1790 Irish distillers were producing more and had secured two-thirds of the domestic market. In the post-1800 period exports grew and competition from other spirits, mainly rum, fell away.11 In the early stages the surviving Irish distillers succeeded in achieving an output greater than that imputed to them by excise, but in time the authorities caught up with even the most ingenious distillers. The system encouraged economic inefficiency. The ratio of labour to capital increased because distillers found that smaller distilleries were more suited to rapid working. Between 1780 and 1822 excise duty was assessed on the basis of the number of charges put through the stills and distillers found it more advantageous to work with smaller stills. In 1822 of the forty stills licensed eighteen did not exceed 101 gallons in size while the 500-gallon still was the most favoured.12 The trend towards reduction in size of still and increase in labour input can be seen at the Birch distillery, Roscrea, where the size of still was 1,769 gallons in 1807, but fell to 306 gallons in 1818 and 101 in 1822.13
- E. B. McGuire, Irish whiskey: a history of distilling, the spirit trade and excise controls in Ireland (Dublin, 1973); R. B. Weir, ‘The patent still distillers and the role of competition’ in L. M. Cullen and T. C. Smout (eds.), Comparative aspects of Scottish and Irish economic and social history, 1600-1900 (Edinburgh, 1977), pp 129-144; John Holmes, ‘Monasterevan distillery’ in Kildare Arch. Soc. Jn., xiv (1969), pp 480-7.
- McGuire, op. cit., p.128.
- Ibid., p.246.
- Commons’ Jn. Ire., x, Pt. 2, app. dxxiii and xvi. app. ccclxxiv-ccclxxv; Samuel Morewood, Inventions and customs in the use of inebriating liquors (London, 1824), pp 543-4; Appendix to the fifth report of the commissioners of inquiry into the collection and management of the revenue arising in Ireland, p.117, H.C. 1823 (405), vii.
- Commons’ jn. Ire., x. pt. 2, app. dxxiii.
- Ibid., xvi, app. ccclxxiv-ccclxxv.
- Appendix to fifth report . . . Ire.. p 116.
- Sir Charles Coote. General view of the agriculture and manufactures of the King’s county with observations on the means of their improvement (Dublin, 1801). pp 44. 46.
- Ibid., pp 57. 89. 113, 151. 177.
- Morewood, Inventions and customs, pp 543-4.
- McGuire, Irish whiskey, pp 148, 151.
- Ibid., p.167.
- Ibid., p.169.