THERE are many myths and stories about the perfect pint. Some establishments have a reputation for excellent Guinness while others are notorious for the poor quality of their pints. With the modern dispensing methods, it should be child’s play to pull a perfect pint but not so in older times, particularly back in the days of the timber barrels.
Older Guinness drinkers, now long gone to the great brewery in the sky, always maintained that porter never travelled well. (That’s why they believed that pints were always better in Dublin). This argument was reinforced when Guinness started to distribute their product around the country by rail – all that shaking. Before that, the barrels of the black stuff was transported serenely by barges. In this part of the country it was brought via the Liffey and the Grand Canal, down Lough Derg and the Shannon and on to Scariff and Limerick.
The first fleet of Guinness barges simply went by numbers but the second fleet were all named after Irish rivers. The first one was the Lagan – built by Harland and Wolfe in Belfast, and the others were named Shannon, Liffey, Lee, Boyne, Slaney, Suir, Foyle, Moy, Vartry, Dodder and Tolka. In the late ’20s, the river boats were replaced by a fleet named after Dublin placenames – Fairyhouse, Farmleigh, Castleknock, Killiney and others.
“Hey mister bring us back a parrot” according to Dublin comedians, was the chant of the young jackeens sitting on the Liffey bridges as the Guinness barges passed underneath. From 1873 onwards, they were loaded each morning at the St James’ Gate Brewery and brought their precious cargo along the Liffey to Dublin port or west towards the Shannon.
They continued to sail through the War of Independence and the Civil War. The crews were issued with special curfew passes by Dublin Castle because they did not work a straightforward day but rather were governed by the tides on the Liffey. The barges saw use in other conflicts as well. The Boyne and the Liffey were commandeered for use in the French canals during the first World War and, after they had been sold off, Farmleigh worked at the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow and Fairyhouse was used during the evacuation at Dunkirk. Guinness also had their own fleet of ships to take the sacred drop to other countries. The first of those were converted colliers, one of which was named the Clarecastle. These were noteworthy in their own right. The M.V. Lady Patricia was the world’s first beer tanker, and the Savannah was the first atomic-powered merchant ship to cross the Atlantic – it carried 6,000 cases of bottled stout.
Gradually, time moved on and the barges fell to progress. The building of a brewery in London and later in other parts of the world ended the export trade and with it the barges sailing downriver to the Custom House dock. The increase of road transport after the Second World War limited the use of the barges on the canals and eventually, these also fell to progress.
The last Guinness barge to carry barrels of porter on the Grand Canal down to Limerick left St James’ Gate Brewery on May 27, 1960 — 50 years ago this week.