Gentle reader, if you have already perused this post you will quickly notice that I’ve made a few changes to sharpen it up! The introduction seemed verbose and the subject of abstention was distracting, so I moved Fr Theobald Mathew to the following post. He deserved to stand alone, like his statue in Cork. T.
The title of Compton MacKenzie’s 1947 novel (and the 1948 black and white movie based on it) Whisky Galore could apply to the principal product of Midleton – except MacKenzie wrote about whisky (without an ‘e’), otherwise called scotch, while Midleton produces whiskey most definitely WITH an ‘e’. And we’re not talking chemicals or e-numbers here! It is nice to note that American distillers and consumers seem to prefer their whiskey with an ‘e’.
Recently we had news of someone preparing early for Christmas – they stole two truck loads of Jameson whiskey (and some Bombay Sapphire gin and Jack Daniels whiskey) from a warehouse in Dublin. That’s 15,000 bottles of Jameson alone, valued at over a million US dollars (it sounds better that way!). Clearly someone is preparing a heck of a party for Christmas!
What has this all got to do with Midleton, you might ask? Well, John Jameson’s finest was originally produced in Dublin, but after the formation of Irish Distillers the production of the company’s flagship brand was moved to the newly built distillery in Midleton in the 1970s. Along with Jameson, Midleton Distillery produces Powers, Paddy (a local product), Redbreast, Green Spot, Yellow Spot, Midleton Very Rare and Midleton Barry Crockett’s Legacy. (I swear I haven’t been paid to say all that! Although all donations would be gracefully and gratefully received! Well it IS coming up to Christmas – a rather expensive time of the year!)
The plentiful supply of clean water and the proximity to the rich grain growing farmland of East Cork made Midleton ideal for brewing and distilling. The earliest published evidence of commercial brewing and distilling in Midleton comes from Pigot’s Directory of Munster 1824. It lists one distillery and one brewery in ‘Middleton’, or Midleton as we now insist on calling it. The brewers are listed as John and Joseph Coppinger. They were also maltsters. The Coppinger brewery survives on Main Street, although it is now divided into restaurants and other small business premises. The side of the old brewery runs along Distillery Walk – which leads to the second distillery that was established in Midleton in 1825, the year after Pigott’s directory was published. It is astonishing that so many people in Midleton simply don’t realise that the southern end of Main Street was marked by a brewery in the early nineteenth century. However,the Coppinger brewery didn’t last – the first edition of the six-inch ordnance survey map of Midleton records the presmises as an ‘old brewery’, clearly disused by the time the map was surveyed. Clearly the brewery was a victim of Fr Mathew’s temperance campaign (see following post). The Coppinger family was the most important and wealthiest Catholic family in Midleton from the late eighteenth century, only finally selling their holdings in 1931.
The other establishment producing alcohol in Midleton was Hackett’s Distillery, which must have been in operation in 1824 in order to be included in the Pigot’s list. Called James Hackett & Co, this was run by a number of brothers who were descended from a family of leather tanners in Cork. The Hacketts took advantage of the 1823 Excise Act to found their newly built distillery on a plot of land between the Mill Road and the banks of the Owenacurra, just north of Midleton. But they got into difficulties for some reason – presumably Fr Mathew had something to do with it. Another issue was a family row – one brother withdrew his share of the capital and went off to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania in Australia) and set up a distillery there! Given that Tasmania was then the principal dumping fround for all sorts of criminals convicted by the law courts in Britain and Ireland, the establishment of a distillery there did not bode well and eventually the authorities took fright and closed the distillery down. The government also delayed in paying out compensation for the closure so the brother returned to Ireland virtually penniless. By 1850 the Hacketts had put the premises up for sale on the instructions of the Encumbered Estates Court (a new court established by the British government to sell off bankrupted Irish landed property). It was later acquired by the Hallinans who ran it as a grain mill. Sadly, nothing remains of this distillery, which, bizarrely, seems to have been built from stones removed from the site of the medieval Cistercian monastery of Choreabbey (Midleton). Even the stone from the old St John the Baptist Church of Ireland seems to have been incorporated into Hackett’s distillery – the authorities were building an new church at the time! It gives a whole new meaning to the Irish phrase ‘holy water’, a euphemism for whiskey and poitin!
The Murphy brothers came to Midleton in 1825 and bought the former woollen mill established by Marcus Lynch in the 179os. Lynch had sold his failed mill to the government for use as a barracks for some £20,000. Later Charles Brodrick, Anglican Archbishop of Cashel, brother of Viscount Midleton, had bought the mill for a pittance (really, some things never change – governments know nothing about money!). The Murphys laid out a mere £4,000 for the property. This was the most successful distillery or brewery in Midleton – fourishing into the mid-1970s. At that time the Irish distilleries combined to create the Irish Distillers Company, who invested in building a huge new distillery next door (literally next door, as a kid I watched them build the new distillery -I grew up breathing whiskey vapour!). The Murphys also founded Lady’s Well Brewery in Cork, which produces Murphy’s Stout, and now also produces Heineken. The Murphys had just completed building a new brick chimney in April of 1845 in anticipation of further expansion. By December that year potato blight was recorded in Midleton. The two hundred employees of Murphy’s distillery were the lucky ones for they had steady employment during the dark years of the famine. So wealthy were the Murphy family that they were the biggest contributers to the building of St Colman’s Cathedral in Queenstown (now Cobh), the most expensive church built in nineteenth century Ireland. More recently, my grandfather, my uncle (by marriage) worked there, and now my brother is employed in the new Midleton distillery. The original distillery now houses the Jameson Experience – a heritage center run by Irish Distillers.
But Midleton also contributed to the drinks industry by housing several malting establishments, mostly in Ballinacurra, about a mile south of the town. Ballinacurra was the port for Midleton until the 1960s and the maltings established there just around 1800 still survive, although they are now converted into waterside apartment. A grain mill that was run by JH Bennett & Co still dominates the Upper Road in Ballinacurra. Indeed, Bennett’s entire archive is now lodged in the Cork Archives – a valuable source for researchers. However it does not appear to have been mined for genealogical evidence concerning former employees.
Midleton hosts a Food and Drinks Festival every September – but I wonder if anyone has noticed the anomaly? Some years ago the Irish government changed the excise law to allow the establishment of craft breweries. There has been a wonderful growth of craft breweries in Ireland, all producing distinctive and delicious beers. You can even buy a Midleton Red Ale – but only at the Mad Monk Bar in Midleton during festivals. Midleton Red Ale is actually brewed…….in Kinsale! Something really must be done about that! It would be wonderful to see Bennett’s old grain store turned into a craft brewery. So, we have the food, we have the whiskey, but where’s the beer bud?