Recently I was given a very interesting book about the distillation of whiskey in Ireland over the past 600 years or more and one of the things I learned from it was that the Malcolm Brown Distillery in Dundalk was one of the largest in Ireland in the nineteen century.
In fact, it was the largest employer in the town for the most part of that century and it was only with the building of the G.N. Railway Locomotive Works in about 1880 that it was superseded in that respect.
The local distillery was founded in 1799 by James Gilchan and Peter Goobey on a plot of land that had been previously a bleach green used in connection with the linen industry by John Rogers. Malcom Brown, who had come to Dundalk from Scotland in a managerial capacity; married into the Gilchan family and the distillery was changed into his name in 1807. A Mr. Haig, whom I believe also came from Scotland, was then given managerial control and he set about its improvements to such an extent that by 1837 the distillery was employing over 100 men and producing 300,000 gallons of whiskey per annum. The next big step was the construction of the great brick chimney standing at 162 feet which was then the largest industrial chimney in all of Ireland. By 1857 the works extended over an area of 20 acres and was employing 150 men. This benefit to the town did not include clerical staff, many service sub-contracts, contracts for the farmers growing barley and wages spent in local shops. Before the end of the century the distillery was employing over 200 and there was storage capacity for 15,000 barrels of barley, 3,000 puncheons (a barrel holding around 80 gallons) and 4,000 hogsheads (a larger barrel of about twice the size) of whiskey.
In the end the downfall of the local industry was over-production and the chaotic system of taxation on spirits in the nineteenth century. The local Distillery did enjoy a brief period of revival coming up to the First World War when the company concentrated on the production of yeast which was marketed under the brand name of 'Skylark' but the final nail in coffin was the establishment of the Free State and the creation of the Border. The old distillery finally closed down on a dark day in November 1925. The property was sold to a local builder in 1933 who decided to demolish the great chimney and use its over 600,00 bricks in the building of local houses. In the end the chimney, which had served as a landmark for shipping using Dundalk Bay and the local Port for a century, came crashing down of its own according during a memorable night for older Dundalk people, in October 1933.
A date set in stone
When I was a young lad going to and from school I often noted a date carved in stone over one of the doors giving entry to the old P.J. Carroll bonded warehouse along Jocelyn Street which now serves as the County Museum. The date '1877' can still be seen on the side of the building and I used to mistakenly believe that it had something to do with the establishment of the tobacco industry in Dundalk. In fact, it marks the construction of this fine building by the Distillery Company for use as a Bonded Warehouse to store whiskey before it was accessed for tax. The building was later used for the storage of tobacco leaf for use in the P.J. Carroll tobacco factory in Church Street which was established in 1825 and became another of the town's great employers. I can recall seeing the huge, round wooden boxes being unloaded from P.J. Carroll's lorries into the above street level steel door just around the corner in Distillery Lane which must have been specially constructed to make it easy to roll those containers off the trucks into the building; or, maybe, this doorway was made to facilitate the moving of the large whiskey hogshead barrels into the building at an earlier date. You can still seen this feature in the 'Lana na Drioglann' side of the old building, if you look closely!
It was fitting, therefore, that the Louth County Council were given control of this property in 1990 by the tobacco company , as a gift to the Town, and subsequently the establishment of the Museum and nearby County Library, with the aid of funds from the Dundalk Urban Council!