Arthur Guinness’s true genetic roots

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.

21 thoughts on “Arthur Guinness’s true genetic roots

  1. Great post, Mr. Z. I hadn’t realised that the Guinnesses actually claimed descent from a real live noble family from Iveagh, and often wondered vaguely why they chose this obscure part of County Down as their foothold on the feudal ladder.

    Dublin is of course full of things named after the Iveaghs, most prominently Iveagh House, Benjamin Guinness’s former residence and now the home of, and a colloquialism for, the Department of Foreign Affairs.

    Also Iveagh Hall in Trinity College Library, built with Guinness money after the (Catholic) Government in the 1960s reneged on a promise to fund the building within the (Protestant) University. Really they should have called it John Charles McQuaid Is A W****r Hall.

    1. If you knew anything about the Guinness family’s history of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic activism you wouldn’t have betrayed your ignorance with such a bigoted comment

  2. Interestingly, Edward Guinness’s older brother Arthur, who was made a peer first, called himself Lord Ardilaun, which was the name of a small island in Lough Corrib near the Guinness family holiday home in Galway – seems on the face of it much less prtetentious a choice than Lord Iveagh, but I’ve always wondered if a pun was being made on “High Island” (which is what, I believe Ardilaun means in Irish) and “High Ireland” …

    Lord Ardilaun, of course, was the man who bought up all the private shares in St Stephen’s Green and handed it as a gift to the people of Dublin, and his statue is on the Green opposite the College of Surgeons – do more than one in a thousand Dubliners who pass his statue every day know who he is? The “other” Guinness peer, Lord Moyne (Moyne being also in Galway) is surely a pun – I mean, “Moyne’s a Guinness”, please …

    I’d almost agree with you about McQuaid, but the old Archbish is supposed to have subbed Patrick Kavanagh whenever the poet didn’t even have a shilling for the meter (which was most of the time, of course) so we can forgive the reactionary old buzzard QUITE a lot …

  3. I’d say, sitting on his chair there opposite the Surgeons, Edward is probably glad no-one notices him, given what generally happened to statues of the nobility around Dublin in the early decades of the last century.

    I doubt if there’s really a pun there in Ardilaun (Ard Oileán in Irish) — too many consonants missing. And I very much doubt if puns based on a stage-Irish accent were part of the ascendancy’s repertoire of parlour wordgames. Smells a bit of Myles na gCopaleen, that one. Fortuna favit 40 bus, etc.

  4. Thanks for the mention, Z. I have been searching the wwweb since some kind mentions in the paper press last week, and found you. Some further points:

    – The reason for coming to Dublin from Co. Down was the clearances in 1657 during Henry Cromwell’s administration (in the notes). Even the Protestant branches of the Magennis clan had their land taken.

    Arthur’s claim to be descended from the Magennis clan chiefs was probably not invented by him, as his father and uncle and in-law cousins were all still alive when he married. Feasibly it was assumed c.1700 and the DNA shows that they at least had the right county of origin.

    Nobody else has mentioned “Guiness”, about 7 miles southwest of Ballinahinch; I say that this aspect is now very arguable, but cannot be definite. Guiness townland passed to the Forde family, who still live at Seaforde; the first Mr Forde was diplomatic enough to marry a McCartan girl and everyone thinks well of them.

    – The yeast: you are possibly right and I relied on a different genetics PhD boffin here. It was found to be adaptable, that is it mutated in the “right” way, most of the time. I have never worked with yeasts. The point is that the same strain used in the 1750s, much mutated perhaps, is still used today.

    – Moyne = Moyne’s a G, & some said it was the nearest you could get to Lord Money, but also Muine = a small bog. So it was a multi-lateral joke. The actual Moyne place he loved to visit, when staying at Ashford, was the famous abbey on the west coast. No link at all to the family there, probably just fond childhood memories.

    – Ard Illaun was a feasible-but-mangled spelling in 1880, long before An Caighdeán Oifigiúil was imposed on us in the 1960s. It had to be pronounceable in London and Galway, but was wrongly said as Ardy-lawn. In Joyce’s Ulysses one of the undressing girls is said to have “Two Ardilauns”. Connecting the ultra-respectable lord with a tart was a joke in 1921 that would be less obvious today.

    – The was some press coverage and letters against the choice of the Iveagh title in the 1890s. Clearly we thought we were illegitimately descended from the chiefs, an acceptable aspect in the Gaelic world. There was no written link, and the DNA explains why. But the actual Magennis title granted in 1623 was quite different: “Viscount Magennis of Iveagh”.

    Best wishes, Patrick.

  5. BTW, here is the publisher’s url for the book.

    I was mystified also about Sean Dunne’s attitude. He had said online that Arthur and/or the brewery was in league with the “forces of British colonialism”. So I sympathized by email that he had had to study at University College Dublin, and then Trinity College Dublin, both of which had been set up and paid for by the same er, forces of colonialism. Being an American sociology lecturer he didn’t find that at all odd / funny / ironic. But he is studying for a doctorate so he must be really clever.

  6. I was very interested in this site discovered by accident as I have been trying to compile a simple direct descendancy of pictures of Arthur. I am missing just one…his son Benjamin Lee Guinness. I know that at least one portrait exists by Foley, but I don´t know where it is, and I only have a photo of a sculpture.

    Can anyone help please ?

    1. Hi Ewart;
      I’m a descendant of Arthur Guinness via his son, Hosea. Does your letter mean that you have a copy of a portrait of Hosea? Love to have a copy if you do!
      And what about Richard Guinness? I know a portrait exists, but I have only ever seen a B/W copy.

      1. Hello Cam,

        I am also a descendant of Hosea Guinness. Do you know what happened to him? i found a tree in a magazine about the family tree starting with Richard Guinness and Hosea was left off?

        Thanks Ali

  7. Im a descendant of John Purser and I’m curious to find out more about how he got involved with brewing back in the 18th century. Can you tell me if there are any books on that might tell me more.



    1. Yes, Evan, Patrick Guinness’s book Arthur’s Round has a great deal of info about John Purser, and so too, IIRC, has Guinness’s Brewery in the Irish Economy 1759-1876 by Patrick Lynch and John Vaizey, published 1960.


    1. I don’t know, but if you want to carry on commenting here, please turn off caps lock – it’s the equivalent of SHOUTING

  9. I’m doing some research on Christian Davies (also known as “Mother Ross”), a female soldier in the army of Marlborough. She grew up in Leixlip around 1677-1685 on a large farm, which her mother (Kathleen Bembrick) rented from an English soldier by intermediance of an agent Arthur White.
    Her fahter (Patrick Cavenaugh) had a brewery in Dublin. Mrs Davies was a very brave person, one of the things she regulary did was supplying the soldiers with beer.
    I was wondering if the farm where she grew up was the later brewery used by Arthur Guinness. Is there a way to find this out?

    1. Most farms at that time are likely to have had brewing equipment, so the answer is “probably not”: you’d need to do what I guess you’re already doing and check the local records

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