Rarely (but thrillingly) a book comes along that makes everything else ever written on the same subject instantly redundant.
There must have been more books written about Guinness, the brand and its brewers, than any other in the world. I’ve got 14, now, four of them written by people called Guinness. But the latest to be published, Arthur’s Round, by Patrick Guinness, is the first to concentrate on the patriarch himself, the founder of the concern at St James’s Gate in Dublin, and it uses everything from proper, evidence-based historical research to genetic analysis to debunk more myths about Arthur Guinness and the early years of his brewing concern than you could shake a shillelagh at.
The biggest myth Patrick Guinness destroys, using modern genetic techniques, is the claim that Arthur Guinness and his father Richard were descended from the Magennis chieftains of Iveagh, in County Down, Ulster, in Irish Mac Aonghusa. The last-but-one Viscount Iveagh, Bryan Magennis had fled abroad after James II’s defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, about the time Arthur Guinness’s father was born, and the Magennis lands in Ulster were confiscated in 1693.
Arthur certainly seemed to think that Guinness was a reworking of Magennis, since at the time of his marriage in 1761, two years after he bought the St James’s Gate brewery, he had a silver cup he was given as a wedding present engraved with his wife’s armorial bearings and those of the Magennises of Iveagh. Later, around 1794, he had a seal made that also bore the Magennis arms. Arthur’s eldest son, Hosea, had the family’s use of the Magennis arms properly authorised by Ulster Herald in 1814, and when Edward Cecil Guinness, Arthur’s great-grandson, was elevated to the peerage in 1890 it was as Baron Iveagh of Iveagh.
However, Patrick Guinness, great-great-grandson of Edward Cecil, blows the ancestral pretensions out of the water in Arthur’s Round, quoting a recent study at Trinity College, Dublin, published in 2006, that looked at the Y-chromosomes of more than 300 men with Gaelic East Ulster-origin surnames. Y-chromosomes, like surnames, come down from father to son. The results showed that Arthur Guinness’s descendants do have Y-chromosomes that match with those of some families with Gaelic-era County Down surnames – but not the Magennises.
Instead the closest match for the Guinnesses is with men whose surname comes from another, lesser County Down clan, the McCartans. Even more disappointingly for Guinness pretensions, the closest genetic link is not with the chiefly McCartan line, but those who would have taken the McCartan surname as followers rather than family.
To underline the McCartan link, in the former barony of Kinelarty, in central County Down, the land once ruled by the McCartan chiefs, is a hilly hamlet called Guiness (sic) or Ginnies, a name that comes from the Irish Gion Ais, meaning wedge-shaped ridge. If, as now seems likely, the Guinnesses came from McCartan territory, then there is a good chance their surname is derived from the hamlet of Guiness.
There is still no explanation of how a family from Guiness in County Down came south to Dublin. But Patrick Guinness succeeds in convincingly pushing back Arthur’s ancestry another generation past his father for the first time, to his grandfather Owen Guinis, or Guinness, who was a tenant farmer in Simmonscourt, County Dublin, and who died around 1726. Documents from that time show Richard Guinness was his son, although Richard’s birth was never recorded – probably because there was a war on in Ireland around the time he was born, circa 1690.
Richard first pops up in the record in 1722, when he was working for Dr Arthur Price in Celbridge, County Kildare. Dr Price, who rose eventually to be Archbishop of Cashel, features in the Guinness legend because the £100 the Archbishop left Arthur Guinness in his will when he died in 1752 is frequently said to be the leg-up that enabled Arthur G to get started in the brewery business. Patrick Guinness demolishes this myth as well, showing that it was much more the money Richard Guinness had amassed in three decades of working for Price that enabled his son Arthur first, to acquire a brewery in Leixlip in 1755 (not 1756, as many sources repeat, copying the error in Lynch and Vaizey’s otherwise magisterial book on the first 120 years of Guinness) and then to move in 1759 to Dublin.
Arthur’s Round is revelatory on Arthur Guinness’s position in the social and (often tumultuous) political environment of 18th century Dublin, (demolishing along the way Sean Dunne‘s angry assertion that Guinness was always a symbol of Protestant supremacy) and excellent on the early years of porter brewing in the city and how Arthur eventually abandoned his original ale brewing to concentrate on the black stuff. He also gives far more detail than has appeared anywhere before on the Purser family, who effectively taught Dublin’s brewers how to brew good porter, and then worked for the Guinnesses for more than a century.
One area I would diagree with is Patrick Guinness’s apparent claim that his ancestor’s success, and the whole 250-year story of the enterprise, is down to a “unique” yeast strain he seems to imply Arthur Guinness took with him from his stepmother’s pub-brewery in Celbridge to Leixlip, and then to St James’s Gate. Yeast strains, which mutate very easily, don’t last that long: this looks like some unnecessary mythologising of just the sort Arthur’s Round goes into great depths elsewhere to destroy.
Iain Loe, reviewing Bill Yenne’s recent book on the history of Guinness in What’s Brewing this month, asked if we really needed another book about the Guinness family and its beer. The answer is, when Patrick Guinness’s Arthur’s Round is that book, we certainly do.