Offaly Heritage 12: a new book of essays on the history of County Offaly to be published Friday 6 October at a public event at Offaly History Centre.
It was 2003 when the first issue of Offaly Heritage was published. Just twenty years…
Does anyone have a bottle of Birr whiskey now? The destruction of Birr’s last distillery in March 1889 was seen as a death blow to the town. The population of Birr in 1841 on the eve of the Famine was 6,336 persons with another 554 in Crinkill. However, the next eighty years saw a period of decline such that over the period 1861 to 1926 the population fell by 44.6 per cent or from 6,146 to 3,402. The decline was exacerbated by the closure of the distillery in 1889 and the military barracks in 1922. In 1921 the workhouse (erected c. 1840) was brutally closed and amalgamated with Tullamore.
Birr had strong associations with whiskey distilling from at least the 1800s. Probably the large military barracks at Crinkill acted as a stimulus to production. In 1818 only two distilleries were in operation in County Offaly and both were located in Birr. In competition with Birr was the Birch distillery at Roscrea. One of the Birr distilleries was that of Robert Robinson and was located at Castle Street and formed part of what was until the 1980s the Williams Waller Ltd grain handling depot (formerly Birr Maltings Ltd.), and now partly demolished with the remainder incorporated in The Maltings guest house. The second distillery, established in 1805 by the Hackett family, was located at Elmgrove on the eastern side of the town. A third distillery, described as the ‘old distillery’ in 1838 was located near what is now the Mill Island Park and part of which is incorporated in the Birr Technology Centre. Thus ample remains of all three distilleries still survive.
Table I: output of Offaly distilleries in 1832 in proof gallons (p.g.)
Distiller Output Percentage of
Robert Robinson, Birr 70,252 0.759
Michael Hackett, Birr 65,349 0.709
Robert Mitchell, Kilcormac 34,940 0.377
Thomas Manly, Tullamore 29,864 0.322
Kernan Molloy, Banagher 22,439 0.242
Michael Molloy, Tullamore 20,635 0.223
Offaly distillers 243,479 2.632
Castle Street about 1920. One hundred years earlier, for example it was a crowded place with some 32 occupied houses and over 200 people (1821 census). Probably the principal business there was the distillery of Arthur Robinson (later the Woods brewery and in the 1980s the Williams Waller business). But in the same street lived a horse breaker, comber, bakers, a chandler, a hatter, jeweller, a copper smith, publicans and labourers. The story of the street can be put together from that time and even back to the leases of the 1740s and beyond.
The Robinson distillery at Castle Street, later the Woods brewery and up to the 1980s the Williams Waller maltings and grain handling.
The Castle Street distillery of Robert Robinson and later Arthur Robinson remained in production until the late 1840s when the latter was declared bankrupt. The Robinson Castle Street distillery would be worth further exploration. An American visitor to Birr in 1844, during the time of the Fr Mathew Temperance Campaign, saw the sad funeral at 6 a.m. of one of Robinson’s boys
The morning was dark; the rain poured fast. At six, a hearse passed, bearing the corpse of the son of a distiller, [probably Robinson of the Castle Street distillery] who fell from his horse, and was killed, when intoxicated. The keeper of the lodgings remarked, that he had seen the father, and twelve sons grown to manhood in church together. Seven of these sons have died by intemperance. Are whiskey-making, whiskey-selling, and whiskey-drinking attended with a blessing? (Asenath Nicholson, Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger; or, Excursions through Ireland in 1844 and 1845, for the purpose of Personally Investigating the Condition of the Poor, London, 1847).
The Hackett distillery at Elmgrove was founded in 1805 by Michael Hackett, passing to his son Richard (husband of Jemima Hackett), after him George Watson and then to the three Wallace brothers, Richard, James and Joseph. It was open nine or ten months of the year and gave employment to about 70 to 80 men. It could produce 30,000 gallons per month.
At the time the whiskey business was in a depressed state due to the success of Mathew’s temperance campaign. Hackett’s distillery continued in business until the fire in 1889. In the 1860s or 1870s it had been leased to the Wallace brothers and was generally known as Wallace’s distillery at the time of the fire. It is likely that the late 1860s and 187Os were good for the Birr distillery and that extensive improvements were made. In the King’s County Chronicle for1875-6 it was noted that
The Proprietors, R. and J. WALLACE, (Late George Watson, Esq., and formerly Richard Hackett, Esq.,) Beg respectfully to inform Wine and Spirit Merchants, Dealers and others that the above old established Distillery having undergone extensive alterations and improvements, is now in full work, and producing a superior quality of whiskey which will be stored in fresh emptied Sherry and other casks. Orders will have prompt attention and the trade liberally dealt with. Birr Distillery, Parsonstown, October, 1875.
The output of the distillery was about 200,000 proof gallons per annum in the mid-1880s and as such was similar to distilleries at Kilbeggan and Tullamore, but much smaller that distilleries in Dublin and Dundalk.
Table 2 The midland distilleries in 1886: output and employment
Distillery Output (p.g.) Employment
B. Daly, Tullamore 270,000 100
R. & J. Wallace, Birr 200,000 40
John Locke, Kilbeggan 157,200 70
Soon after Barnard’s visit the Chronicle was able to write in glowing terms:
Undeterred by the prevailing stagnation and discontent that afflicts this cruelly quacked country, the Messrs. Wallace are again showing their large heartedness in this town which owes so much to their enterprise. Their fine old distillery at Elmgrove has been set to work again at the commencement of the season, and we look upon it as a bright omen that the junior brother, Mr Joseph Wallace, who conducts an immense manufactory in Liverpool, has come over temporarily to render assistance. He was present on Tuesday when the large staff of tradesmen and labourers resumed work. And what a cheerful sight was it to see the vitalising spirit that everyone threw into the operations. It is no new story that the whiskey made at the Birr Distillery has been steadily gaining favour; so no wonder was it to see large orders arriving on the very first day of the current season. All who know the Messrs Richard, James, and Joseph Wallace will cordially concur in wishing themselves and their business the largest success, for truly do they richly deserve the fullest measure (KCC, 9 Dec. 1886).
A year later the Chronicle editor, John Wright, was telling his readers that people like the Wallace brothers and the earl of Rosse were a perfect blessing in Birr and that Tullamore people should look to such improvers and less to politics if they wanted to help the starving labourers (KCC, 15 Dec. 1887).
A malt house at Birr distillery
The fire of 1889
Despite several major fires, at Springfield mills near Birr in 1851, and at Boyne’s coach factory in 1888 the Birr town commissioners were reluctant to equip a fire brigade, presumably on the grounds of economy. It was the same in Tullamore where the Goodbody tobacco factory was destroyed in 1886, never to come back. In 1889 the town of Birr was dependent on an old fire engine purchased some forty years earlier, and the army fire engines which had to travel from Crinkill.
When the distillery fire started (March 1889) the hose of the town commissioner’s engine was placed in the river, but quickly became useless as the sand in the river bed forced its way into the hose. Despite the work of 100 soldiers, the Scottish Fusiliers, very little of the distillery was saved. It was noted at the time:
The destruction of the distillery will prove a great loss to all classes in the community. Town and county will suffer by it. A number of workmen have been knocked out of employment, a market for the sale of corn and the purchase of grains, and wash has been closed to the farmers, and the outlay of money consequent upon the influx of country people into town has been lost to the traders of Birr.’
The twelve bonded warehouses, full of whiskey, escaped the disastrous fire. Over the next two years efforts were made to re-establish the distillery but without success. Mrs Jemima Hackett, the owner of the property, was prepared to set up a company with local shareholders, but the invitation to subscribe fell on deaf ears. It was just as well for the prospective shareholders as the distilling industry was in a depressed state in the 1890s and again after 1910 until the 1960s. Over that long period the only prosperous years were those of the two world wars.
As such the account of Alfred Barnard is all the more interesting as he viewed the distillery in 1886 from Barnard, Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (1887, reprinted 1969), pp 419.
The Elmgove distillery Courtesy of Fred Hamond
Barnard on Birr in 1886 and published in 1887
We took Birr, or Parsonstown as it is also called, on our way back to Dublin, and unfortunately were obliged to stay in that town all night. We liked the town well enough, but the hotel we selected was not one of the best, and we have recollections of an uncomfortable night. The distillery, which is near town, was established in the year 1805, and is built of solid limestone. The works are approached from the high road by a carriage drive or avenue, which runs for some distance along the river bank; a handsome stone archway, draped in ivy, gives access to the buildings.
The principal grain warehouses are situated on the opposite bank of the river, in an enclosure, entered by an old-fashioned pair of gates. Here are two granaries of five floors each, which contained 5,000 barrels of grain, and two drying kilns; the sub-ground floors are used as bonded warehouses. The corn is here delivered and weighed before being sent to the various Corn Lofts.
In the distillery buildings there are altogether eight grain lofts, and the mill contains two pairs of stones and a set of malt rollers. The grist loft, which adjoins the mill, is above the mash tun; for supplying hot water there are four coppers. The mash tun is of the ordinary size arid description, and near to it are four sets of three-throw pumps. The six washbacks have a capacity of 18,000 gallons each, and the intermediate charger is in the Still room. In the Running Room there are five Receivers and the Safe. The Wash Charger is fixed on the roof of an annex of the building.
The Still House contains two old Pot Stills, and adjoining there is a Spirit Store. In the yard there are thirteen bonded warehouses, which contained some 3,000 casks. We noticed a capital Cooperage, Stables, Engineers’ and -Carpenters’ Shops. Forty men are employed upon the premises.
The following is a brief description of the arrangement of the distillery. The centre court is called the Square Yard ; the buildings on the north side are devoted to the Back House and Cooling Lofts, as also the mill, worked by a powerful breast water-wheel, which discharges its waters over the cooling pipes, which are laid in the bed of the mill race, and over these pipes is the worm tub, fixed on an elevation of substantial stonework; those on the east, to Still House, Tun Room, Spirit Store, and Racking Room; on the west, Maltings and Kiln, Corn Floors for selected grain, Malting Steeps, and bonded warehouses; on the south side are corn stores and bonded warehouses.
The whisky is produced from pure malt and grain; the annual output is 200,000 gallons, which obtains a ready sale in the principal cities and towns of Ireland and England, and shipments have been made to the colonies.
The three Wallace brothers did not long survive the fire and all three were dead within three years. This included Joseph who had built up a big business in Liverpool. The only surviving brother was John Wallace of Belview, Shinrone. All were buried in ‘the new cemetery’ at Clonoghill including their sister, Mrs Eades, and her husband. John Wallace had three sons so perhaps there are relatives still about. (KCC, 8 Oct. 1891).
One of those connected with the fire and who survived almost up to the First World War was solicitor Thomas Mitchell of an old Birr legal family. Mitchell knew good whiskey, it would seem, and was instrumental in saving many hundreds of puncheons in the great fire at Birr distillery playing ‘a man’s part’ in helping to extinguish the fire including breaking the sacred Revenue locks to the consternation of the officers of the excise. The fact that it was called Birr whiskey did not trouble Mitchell. As his death his old colleague John Wright of the Lodges (Freemason and Orange) described him as an evangelical churchman and his politics might be classed as of the Sir Edward Carson type – ‘a resolute believer in a united empire unimpaired by subordinate parliaments’. In keeping with such tenets he retained ‘Parsonstown’ on all his papers and could not brook the underlying motive for the change of name to ‘Birr’. It was for Mitchell the House of Commons ration of whiskey and soda and none of that apple juice nonsense so much beloved of modern devotees of uisce beagh.
If the fire of 1889 had been avoided would Birr distillery have survived after 1920? Probably not. Its inland location and the loss of the barracks not to mention structural changes in the industry and massive increases in excise duty were all negative influences. Yet on the positive side was the well-run Birr Maltings and the long tradition of barley growing and malting in the town. Would a new Birr distillery work today? Yes, it might. It’s a great situation with ample water and good for grain growing. The wonderful Birr distilling and malting buildings still surviving testify to a great distilling tradition. As Jameson, Tullamore DEW and Teeling have shown in the art of whiskey making (and marketing) important ingredients are tradition in the form of history and heritage buildings. Here’s to a glass of Birr with fond recollections of Dooly’s Hotel, the County Arms, Craughwell’s, Eddie Enright’s (part of the old Ormond Club), Kelly’s, the Chestnut and Haverty’s. Great traditions in entertainment.