As an introduction to his book, Tony Corcoran (right)whose grandfathers, father and uncles all worked for Guinness, examines the magnitude of the brewery’s operation, the thousands of Dubliners who depended on Guinness for their livelihood and the company’s extremely progressive treatment of its workers.
Whenever I bleed, I am always surprised to see that my blood is not black. Certainly, when you consider that I was born into two Guinness families, had two Guinness grandfathers and five Guinness uncles, and was on the Guinness premises before I could walk, I am as much a product of Guinness as the black stuff itself.
My two grandfathers, Thaddeus Corcoran and John Ennis, both from farming families in south Dublin – one from Bohernabreena, the other from Crumlin – had come to live in the last decade of the nineteenth century in the area now loosely known as the Liberties, and had applied for work in the great Guinness Brewery at St James’s Gate. Both had presented good references, and both had been taken on as labourers in 1891.
Why they both applied to Guinness is easy to understand. At the end of the Victorian era, the city of Dublin was in a depressed state. Living conditions were appalling, and disease was rampant in the high tenement houses, claustrophobic courts and back-alleys of the city. Unemployment meant eviction, and transfer to the South Dublin Union – the workhouse. In the midst of all this, Guinness had a reputation for being the best employer in the world, offering medical benefits, sick pay and pensions.
Arthur Guinness had come to Dublin from Leixlip in County Kildare in 1759 with a legacy of £100 from his father’s employer, Archbishop Price (previously Archbishop of Cashel), a man to whom his father, Richard Guinness, had been steward. He already had some expertise in brewing, having run a small brewery in Leixlip. He purchased the lease on a small, disused brewery at St James’s Gate from its previous owner, Mark Rainsford, and then surveyed the competition.
The area boasted more than sixty breweries of various sorts, all of which were reported to have brewed beer of ‘indifferent quality’. Arthur was already a convert to the concept of ‘quality assurance’, and set about brewing ale of high quality – which soon outsold that of all his competitors. He was also a good judge of character, and quickly built up a sizeable workforce of loyal and motivated labourers.
Over the following two hundred years, the Guinness family became employers of people who shared their commitment to quality. They were deeply religious and ethical and, at the same time, astute businessmen.
They believed, as did many employers of the time, in the principle of noblesse oblige: in sharing their wealth with those who had helped them achieve it. They were generous not only to their workers but also to the city of Dublin.
In 1886, five years before Thaddeus Corcoran and John Ennis joined Guinness, the company had been launched on the stock exchange, and had been incorporated. While ownership was now in the hands of the shareholders, the management and direction of the company was still firmly in the hands of the Guinness family.
From 1890 onwards, however, the social history of the company and its workers, at all levels, took on a significance that was to mirror the emergence of the Irish state several decades later.
In 1890, the Guinness Trust, later to become the Iveagh Trust, was established. This organisation was set up in 1890 by Edward Cecil Guinness, using his own fortune, for the construction of working-class housing at affordable rents. Eighteen ninety-four marked the entry into the company’s medical department of a junior doctor who was to have a special influence on the lives of those who worked for the company.
Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own