Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Wisdom of St James from the Gate

There are few beers on earth as iconic as Guinness, few brands as well defined and even a source of national pride, few families as remarkable. In three phrases you basically have the premise of Stephen Mansfield's new book, The Search for God and Guinness.

Guinness was the first legal beer I ever drank, in the lounge bar of a hotel near my home back in the north of Scotland, and is still a beer I turn to when I am not sure what to drink - being a beer geek has the disadvantage sometimes of leaving one uncertain as to what to drink in a pub. As a result of my early drinking years enjoying Guinness in Oirish pubs in Birmingham, I have become a devotee of stout in general.

Being a beer geek means I had to remember that I am not Mansfield's target audience, so I had to put myself in the shoes of some of my more religious friends convinced of the evils of alcohol. Mansfield does a good job of showing how beer has been part and parcel of human culture for millennia, and even part of church life from the very beginning of the faith, through to the Reformation, the Puritans and how many of the great men of faith that we revere such as Luther, Calvin, St Patrick and Jonathan Edwards held a positive view of beer, thus showing that Christian prohibitionism stands outside the historic and biblical approach to alcohol.

Much of the Guinness story though I didn't know. Mansfield's treatment of the leading characters in the development of the beer and the business are sympathetic and give the reader a good insight not in to just what each of them did, but also their motives for doing so. One thing that in particular gripped me was the story of how the company backed Dr Lumsden in his efforts to improve the every day lives of the Guinness workers and their families, by improving access to health care, raising the standards of housing, providing education and even starting the first branch of the St John's Ambulance in Ireland.

A couple of minor gripes aside, a slightly patronising tone when dealing with ancient source material which isn't the Bible, and claiming radar to have been invented prior to World War I (yes, I know of the work of Hulsmeyer and Tesla in the early part of the 20th century, but radar as a method of working out the distance away of objects as well as their presence didn't come until later). But these really are very minor gripes.

Regardless of your religious point of view, Mansfield's book is an interesting read and one which proves the old adage that with great wealth comes great responsibility, or as St James would put it "faith without works is dead".


  1. a good insight not in to just what each of them did, but also their motives for doing so
    Is there a full chapter on cousin-f*cking, or just a few paragraphs?

  2. I'm glad I wasn't slurping my coffee when I read that comment :D

    Doubtless they did some good works. Does it go into their predatory business practices during the early 19th Century at all (referring to the closures of most of the Irish breweries in that time, and in particular their Dublin-based competition)?

  3. Barry,

    How would you define predatory business practices? Surely any company that sets out to make lots of money is going to be defined as predatory by those that succumb to its power?


    The book focuses mainly on how the Guinness family used its wealth and influence to improve the lot of its workers rather than family scandals.

  4. Oh I doubt it was a scandal. In fact, I'd say it was quite the done thing. Both Benjamin Lee and his son Edward Cecil married their cousins. I'm surprised the subsequent generation could walk upright.

    And it's one thing to go out of business because you can't compete, but quite another for a corporation to actively seek to acquire its active competitors in order to shut them down and erase all traces of their existence.

  5. Perhaps this cousin marriage stuff was just an attempt to become royal?! ;)

    Forgive my ignorance with regard to the brewers that went out of business, do you have some examples to share?

  6. There are loads. Of note,
    - D'Arcy's Anchor Brewery: demolished by Guinness and the land sold off to the city for housing;
    - Sweetman's: demolished, a market built on top of it, donated to the city and named after Lord Iveagh;
    - O'Connell's Phoenix Brewery: absorbed into the Guinness brewery, forming the section between James's Street and the Liffey.

    All cases where not only was the original brewery put out of business, but the earth was salted afterwards to ensure no-one reopened a brewery on the site.

    And, the story goes, all merchandise -- mirrors, beermats, furniture -- which bore the name of the original brewery was destroyed and replaced with Guinness merchandise to create the notion that not only was Guinness the dominant brand, but that it always had been.

  7. For some more detail about the Anchor Brewery, have a look at this, which was formerly on the now close Dublin Brewing Company website. I find it kind of ironic that when you try to visit the former URL of the Dublin Brewing Company, you're faced with a load of Guinness links and the page title mentions Guinness!

    Sure they were so succesful in belittling the competition that it still holds sway. In this book the Anchor Brewery is described as a small brewing concern. Yes, small as in seven acres, as reported by Bernard in his Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland, 1889-1891, where he confirms what he describes as a "mammoth" copper that could hold 1,300 barrels, the biggest he had seen in his journeys, including the likes of Guinness and huge breweries in Britain.

    Also, have a quick look at these pages for an idea of some of the breweries that operated in Dublin at one time, and our own humble piece that maps the lost breweries of Ireland.

    Hope that didn't sound like a rant, Al :D

  8. Not at all, I am always happy to learn more!


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