The Goodness of Guinness by Tony Corcoran | Magazine | General Interest | Interviews | Non-Fiction

By Tony Corcoran

Tasting the Goodness: My experiences in serving up The Goodness of Guinness

While I have a passion for social history, I sometimes wonder why I dropped History Studies after the Inter Cert in secondary school. I found the answer recently on reading One Man’s Place by John F. Deane. In it, John quotes a Christian Brother of his childhood, Brother Henry: “History, boys, history! History is not a list of dates and wars and battles copied out of a fat book into your skinny little copies. History is where you live, history is the air you breathe, history is your father and mother, your brother and sister, it lives and grows up every lane.” At last, a statement close to my heart! A reason why I gave up copying dates and battles into my skinny little copy book.

Having abandoned History Studies, I still had a gnawing sense of curiosity about my own background. Where did my family come from? Who employed them? As a toddler, I had developed whooping cough. I was tossing and turning in my little bed when the doctor came. He was Doctor Foster, the Guinness doctor, a kindly man with a huge leather bag from which he produced magic potions to cure sick people. Was he the Doctor Foster who “went to Gloucester in a shower of rain” in my nursery rhymes, I wondered?

A week later, I was brought, by my mother, to the Guinness Dispensary, from which Doctor Foster had come. It was a grim-looking redbrick building, with several entrances, and had a strange smell of disinfectant. A tall woman, all in white, with a white headdress, spoke to me. But she did so in a kindly manner, and I was duly dispatched out the door with words of advice to my mother.

As a treat, I was then brought to a much nicer building around the corner, which was full of big men, some of whom bent down to speak to me. Then, to my amazement, my father arrived. The building turned out to be the Guinness dining room, with a library attached. As we left, I was enveloped in the warm, sweet-smelling steam from the day’s mash, which had just been made in the next building.

So, I had my first introduction to the world of Guinness, then the largest brewery in the world. Not only was my father part of this great empire – along with Doctor Foster, the nurse in white, and the waitresses bustling around feeding hundreds of men – but so was my mother, myself and my entire family. I later became aware that both my grandfathers had been Guinness workers too. Amazingly, my widowed grandmother had also worked in Guinness – a job she had been offered when her husband died at an early age.

Sadly, at age forty-nine, my father died. A senior manager from Guinness came to the house to enquire after the welfare of the family. As the eldest sibling, it was proposed that, subject to certain exam results and an interview, I be offered a job in the laboratory.

In that instant, I had been baptised into the extended Guinness family, where I was to spend a happy thirty-eight years. It was a family of several thousand, headed by the Guinness family. Their aim in business was to produce a commercial product which was the staple drink of the working classes – and also to share their wealth with those who worked for them. A job in Guinness was the envy of all Dublin families.

When I retired in 1996, I could see that the extended Guinness family might lose out to more commercial interests. Sure enough, in 1997 Guinness was taken over by Diageo. I felt I had a duty to the huge Guinness family to record the past social history of the place – a history which was at risk of evaporating like the steam from the morning mash. In my mind’s eye, I could see those who had toiled in the brewery over the past centuries, calling out to me.

Thankfully, Guinness kept meticulous records on brewing procedures and personnel. More importantly, the company had begun the process of establishing a company archive. I spent many hours reading through old papers and letters – with the full cooperation of the company archivist and her staff. The Victorians spared no effort in recording information, including personal judgements. I was able to hold the entry papers completed by my father and other relatives. I also found the actual letter to the board from the Chief Medical Officer recommending a pension-increase for my grandmother.

Hence, The Goodness of Guinness took shape – and was published in 2005 by Liberties Press, a new publishing company which had been set up in 2003. The book was well received, with many positive reviews in newspapers and magazines, and a few radio and TV interviews. In 2009, Guinness celebrated its 250th anniversary – and a US edition of the book was released by Skyhorse Publishing in New York, resulting in a TV interview with Bloomberg TV.

Believing that my mission was complete, I was pleasantly surprised earlier this year by a request to update the book – a task I seized upon with relish. Firstly, I reemphasised the pioneering work of Chief Medical Officer Sir John Lumsden, a man of whom little was known previously, but who was a towering figure in social and medical innovation. Secondly, since 2005 I had had the pleasure of meeting Miranda Guinness, who sadly died in late 2010. I modified the “Guinness Wives” section of the book to include details of her work on many social fronts. Finally, I added material on Edward Cecil Guinness’s founding of the Iveagh Trust, and his gift of the Iveagh Market in Francis Street, the renovation of which is a work-in-progress.

The Guinness family and the many Guinness workers may have gone to a better world, but their history lives on in this one, in The Goodness of Guinness.

(c) Tony Corcoran

About The Goodness of Guinness:

Guinness’s St James’s Gate Brewery is synonymous with the city and people of Dublin. From the company’s modest beginnings in 1759 to its heyday in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and its continued strength into the twenty-first century, Guinness has had an enormous influence over the city’s economic, social and cultural life.

In this illustrated book, Tony Corcoran examines the magnitude of the brewery’s operation and the working lives of the thousands of Dubliners who depended on Guinness for their livelihood. Guinness’s extremely progressive treatment of its workers – in terms of health, training and housing – is discussed in detail, as is the Guinness family’s philanthropy and compassion towards the less-well-off residents of the city. Above all, the book is full of Guinness lore, humour and insight: it is a window into one of Dublin’s most important and best-loved institutions.

Order your copy online here and enter the code ‘’ to avail of the special €5 Off Reader Offer!

About the author

Tony Corcoran’s grandparents joined Guinness in 1891, and his father started working for the company in 1924. Tony himself spent thirty-eight years at Guinness, working in the Brewing Department, and latterly taking on responsibility for staff training. On retiring from the company in 1996, he set out to mine the company’s extensive archive in order to chart the history of the St James’s Gate Brewery and, in particular, Guinness’s progressive approach to staff welfare. He is currently working on a book on Guinness’s former chief medical officer, Sir John Lumsden.

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