The demise of the distillery in Ireland’s whiskey making capital

A heady brew of Belfast’s spiritual history

By Liam Murphy

I n the late nineteenth century Belfast was hailed as a great industrial city. The shipyards of Workman, Clerk & Co and Harland & Wolff were major employers. Cotton and linen spinning mills and weaving factories were established in North and West Belfast with Blackstaff, Conway Mill, Oldpark, Whitehouse, Greencastle, Mossley etc giving employment to large numbers of people. Foundries such as the MacAdam Brothers’ Soho Foundries, which was located at Townsend Street from around 1825, and the Clonard Foundry which was later taken over by Mackies, made spinning machines for the mills as well as producing equipment for the railways which were being built throughout Ireland.

Many of these factories were sited on rivers and streams for water was a basic requirement in the manufacturing processes.

One industry for which Ireland is famous is the distillation of whiskey. Few people connect that industry with Belfast but at one time it was one of the major employers in Belfast.

After the Famine in Ireland the British government went to great lengths to outlaw the making and distribution of poitín. Much encouragement was given to whiskey distillers and great numbers of whiskey distilleries were established throughout the length and breadth of Ireland.

One of the main advantages for the British government was the levy of duty on the whiskey produced.

Many distilleries supplied their customers with a choice of mirrors or colourful posters proclaiming the merits of their respective whiskies. Sadly, most of these distilling companies have disappeared altogether.

The 1899 street directory for Belfast listed 18 distilleries as well as a number of whiskey bonders. These were wholesale whiskey merchants who were licensed to store whiskey in “bonded stores”. Government duty was paid only when whiskey left these stores for retailing. These bonders bought from several distilleries and blended them to produce their distinctive labels. Thus there are two types of whiskey for sale, Pot Still (whiskey distilled and matured in one container) and blended whiskey. Much of the whiskey produced in Ireland was exported to Scotland and used in blending there.

Avoniel Distillery on Ravenhill Road and Cromac Distillery with headquarters in Corporation Street were major producers. One of the biggest distilleries was Dunville’s in Belfast producing over 2.5 million gallons per year. In 1869 the Royal Irish Distilleries were built next to the railway marshalling yard outside the Great Victoria Street Station. Coal and grain were brought by railway to the distillery’s own sidings, and the railway carried the whisky away.

The entrance was an impressive gateway and the red brick buildings, most of which were four storeys high, covered seven acres. Near the middle a 160 feet high chimney dominated the whole area. Four hundred and fifty men worked in the distillery. In addition to the warehouses at the distillery, the company also had bonded warehouses covering thirteen acres in Adelaide Street, Alfred Street and Clarence Street, and duty-paid warehouses in Alfred Street and Franklin Street while 50 clerks worked in the main offices in Callender Street.

Barley was delivered by train and horse-drawn carts to the distillery. The other major ingredient of whisky is water, whose mineral and chemical properties influence the flavour. The water was supplied from Lough Mourne, 12 miles away, and in the distillery there were two wells 160 feet deep.

The Dunville family were very wealthy. A charitable trust, the Sorella Trust, was founded by William Dunville in memory of his unmarried sister Sarah (1817-1863). Sorella is the Italian word for sister. The initial aim of the trust was to improve the houses of the working classes and this was achieved by building better houses in the Grosvenor Road area. Sorella Street was named after the trust.

The oldest soccer team in Ireland, Distillery, started off as a works outfit. Dunville Park was opened as a gift to the City of Belfast in 1891, its first public park.

Up until the founding of the Free State the amount of whisky produced in Scotland was miniscule in comparison to Ireland’s output. Today there are just four distilleries in Ireland while there are more than 90 in Scotland.

After partition the Irish distilling industry died. Britain operated a complete ban and no Irish whiskey, whether from north or south, was allowed into Britain. Many of the owners of the Irish distillers had small distilleries in Scotland which had been closed. Production was restarted in these.

The Prohibition in America was the death knell for the Irish whiskey distilleries and nearly all of them were shut down. The only evidence of them now are the mirrors and posters which can be found in older pubs up and down the country.

Although prohibition ended in 1931, Dunville’s never regained their share of the market. Robert Dunville, who was captured and wounded by Republicans in Castlebellingham while on his way to Dublin to rejoin his regiment as a Lieutenant to the Third Battalion Grenadier Guards just after Easter 1916, never fully recovered and died in 1931 in South Africa. He was the last of the family and without the driving force the company was liquidated in 1936, the last of Belfast’s distilleries.

A  Donegal man John Teeling bought the Tir Connell trade name and began producing whiskey in a new distillery on the Cooley peninsula in Louth in 1980. The distillery produces Danny Boy 15-Year-Old Irish Malt Whiskey and Danny Boy Premium Blended Irish Whiskey. Both products consist of a rare whiskey carefully selected from stock set aside for its outstanding character.

Peter Lavery, who is from Short Strand, became Belfast’s first lottery millionaire after winning £10.2m in May 1996. Eight years ago, he bought out the Danny Boy Collection and trade name.

Peter has successfully introduced his product in USA, Estonia, Japan and further afield. He founded a new company.  The Belfast Distillery Company and has introduced Titanic Irish Whiskey, a new brand to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Titanic which was launched from one of the city’s dockyards. He plans to open a distillery in Belfast within the next two years in which Danny Boy and Titanic whiskey will be produced.

Unknown to most people today, in the same era when Titanic was being launched, Belfast produced nearly half the total whiskey produced in Ireland.

The new product will be the first whiskey brand to be produced in Belfast distillery since Dunville’s closed in 1936.

It was officially launched in Belfast on 31 May last year, the 100th anniversary of the launch of the liner from the Harland and Wolff shipyard, which was witnessed by more than 100,000 people.

When Mickey Lemon heard about Titanic whiskey he said he is looking forward to sampling it. “I’ll ask the barman for a Titanic, no ice, please!”

 

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