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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of James Stephens, Novelist & Poet

istepja001p1James Stephens, Irish novelist and poet, is born in Dublin on February 9, 1880.

Stephens’ mother works in the home of the Collins family of Dublin and is adopted by them. He is committed to the Meath Protestant Industrial School for Boys as a small child and spends his childhood there. He attends school with his adopted brothers Thomas and Richard before graduating as a solicitor’s clerk. He is known affectionately in school as “Tiny Tim” due to his 4’10” stature. He is much enthralled by the tales of military valour of his adoptive family and would have become a soldier if not for his height.

By the early 1900s Stephens is increasingly inclined to socialism and the Irish language and by 1912 is a dedicated Irish Republican. He is a close friend of the 1916 Easter Rising leader Thomas MacDonagh, who is then editor of The Irish Review and deputy headmaster in St. Enda’s School, the radical bilingual school run by Patrick Pearse. His growing nationalism brings a schism with his adopted family, but probably wins him his job as registrar in the National Gallery of Ireland, where he works between 1915 and 1925, having previously had an ill-paid job with the Mecredy solicitors’ firm.

Stephens produces many retellings of Irish myths and fairy tales. His retellings are marked by a rare combination of humour and lyricism. He also writes several original novels, The Crock of Gold, Etched in Moonlight and Demi-Gods, based loosely on Irish fairy tales. The Crock of Gold in particular has achieved enduring popularity and has often been reprinted.

Stephens begins his career as a poet under the tutelage of “Æ” (George William Russell). His first book of poems, Insurrections, is published in 1909. His last book, Kings and the Moon (1938), is also a volume of verse.

Stephens’s influential account of the 1916 Easter Rising, Insurrection in Dublin, describes the effect of the deaths by execution of his friend Thomas MacDonagh and others as being “like watching blood oozing from under a door.” Of MacDonagh he writes:

No person living is the worse off for having known Thomas MacDonagh, and I, at least, have never heard MacDonagh speak unkindly or even harshly of anything that lived. It has been said of him that his lyrics were epical ; in a measure it is true, and it is true in the same measure that his death was epical. He was the first of the leaders who was tried and shot.

Stephens lives between Paris, London and Dublin. During the 1930s he is a friend of James Joyce, and they mistakenly believe that they share a birthday. Joyce, who is concerned about his ability to finish what later becomes Finnegans Wake, proposes that Stephens assist him, with the authorship credited to JJ & S, short “Jameses Joyce & Stephens,” but also a pun on the popular Irish whiskey made by John Jameson & Sons. The plan is never implemented, as Joyce is able to complete the work on his own.

During the last decade of Stephens’ life he finds a new audience through a series of broadcasts on the BBC. He dies at Eversleigh on Saint Stephen’s Day, December 26, 1950.

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Death of Aeneas Coffey, Inventor & Distiller

Aeneas Coffey, Irish inventor and distiller, dies in England on November 26, 1852. He is born in Calais, France, to Irish parents in 1780. He is educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and enters the excise service around 1799–1800 as a gauger. He marries Susanna Logie in 1808, and they have a son, also named Aeneas, who may have been their only child.

According to British customs and excise records, Coffey is a remarkable man with widespread interests and multiple talents who rises quickly through the excise service ranks. He is appointed sub-commissioner of Inland Excise and Taxes for the district of Drogheda in 1813. He is appointed Surveyor of Excise for Clonmel and Wicklow in 1815. In 1816 he is promoted to the same post at Cork. By 1818 he is Acting Inspector General of Excise for the whole of Ireland and within two years is promoted to Inspector General of Excise in Dublin.

Coffey is a strong, determined upholder of the law, but aware of its shortcomings. He survives many nasty skirmishes with illegal distillers and smugglers, particularly in County Donegal in Ulster and in the west of Ireland, where moonshining is most rife. On several occasions he proposes to the government simple, pragmatic solutions to rules and regulations which have hampered legal distillers. Not all of his ideas are accepted. Between 1820 and 1824 he submits reports and gives evidence to Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry on many aspects of distilling, including formalising the different spellings of Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky. His 1822 report is solidly backed by the Irish distillers. He believes in making it viable to distill legally, and illegal distilling might largely disappear.

He assists the government in the drafting of the 1823 Excise Act which makes it easier to distill legally. It sanctions the distilling of whiskey in return for a licence fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit. It also provides for the appointment of a single Board of Excise, under Treasury control, for the whole of the United Kingdom, replacing the separate excise boards for England, Scotland and Ireland. The 1823 Excise Act also provides for not more than four assistant commissioners of excise to transact current business in Scotland and Ireland, under the control of the board in London. Coffey resigns from government excise service at his own request in 1824.

Between his Dublin education and his work as an excise officer, Coffey has ample opportunity to observe the design and workings of whiskey stills, as Ireland is the world’s leading producer of whiskey in the 19th century, and Dublin is at the center of that global industry. This is how Coffey becomes familiar with a design differing from the traditional copper pot alembic still commonly used in Ireland, the continuous, or column, still. First patented by a Cork County distillery in 1822, the column still remains a relatively inefficient piece of equipment, although it points the way towards a cheaper and more productive way to distill alcohol. It is that last point that captures Coffey’s imagination. He makes his own modifications to existing column still designs, so as to allow a greater portion of the vapors to re-circulate into the still instead of moving into the receiver with the spirit. The result is more efficient, producing a lighter spirit at higher alcohol content. Coffey patents his design in 1830, and it becomes the basis for every column still used ever since.

On his retirement from service, Coffey goes into the Irish distilling business. For a short time he runs the Dodder Bank Distillery, Dublin and Dock Distillery in Grand Canal Street, Dublin, before setting up on his own as Aeneas Coffey Whiskey Company in 1830. The development of the Coffey still makes distillation of his own whiskey much more economical.

Nothing is known of the final years and last resting place of Aeneas Coffey. His only son, also called Aeneas Coffey, emigrates to South Africa and manages a distillery. He marries but his wife dies childless. He returns to England and spends his final years near London.


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King James I Grants License for Old Bushmills Distillery

King James I grants a license to Sir Thomas Phillips, landowner and Governor of County Antrim, for the Old Bushmills distillery on April 20, 1608. The distillery is thought to date from at least 1276 making it the oldest distillery in the world.

The Bushmills Old Distillery Company itself is not established until 1784 by Hugh Anderson. Bushmills suffers many lean years with numerous periods of closure with no record of the distillery being in operation in the official records both in 1802 and in 1822. In 1860 a Belfast spirit merchant named Jame McColgan and Patrick Corrigan purchase the distillery and in 1880 they form a limited company. In 1885, the original Bushmills buildings are destroyed by fire but the distillery is quickly rebuilt. In 1890, the steamship SS Bushmills, owned and operated by the distillery, makes its maiden voyage across the Atlantic to deliver Bushmills whiskey to America. It calls at Philadelphia and New York City before heading on to Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Yokohama.

In the early 20th century, the United States is a very important market for Bushmills, as well as for other Irish Whiskey producers. American Prohibition in 1920 comes as a large blow to the Irish Whiskey industry, but Bushmills manages to survive. Wilson Boyd, Bushmills’ director at the time, predicts the end of prohibition and has large stores of whiskey ready to export. After the World War II, the distillery is purchased by Isaac Wolfson and, in 1972, it is taken over by Irish Distillers, meaning that Irish Distillers controls the production of all Irish whiskey at the time. In June 1988, Irish Distillers is bought by French liquor group Pernod Ricard.

In June 2005, the distillery is bought by Diageo for £200 million. Diageo announces a large advertising campaign in order to regain market share for Bushmills.

In May 2008, the Bank of Ireland issues a new series of sterling banknotes in Northern Ireland which all feature an illustration of the Old Bushmills Distillery on the obverse side, replacing the previous notes series which depicts Queen’s University Belfast.

In November 2014 it is announced that Diageo is to trade the Bushmills brand with Jose Cuervo in exchange for the 50% of the Don Julio brand of tequila that Diageo does not already own.

Some Bushmills offerings have performed well at international Spirits ratings competitions. In particular, its Black Bush Finest Blended Whiskey receives double gold medals at the 2007 and 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competitions. It also receives a well-above-average score of 93 from the Beverage Testing Institute in 2008 and 2011.