'Whisky Galore' and the curious distillery poster

Dundalk History

'Whisky Galore' and the curious distillery poster

A regular reader of these notes has sent me a photo of an old poster advertising 'Irish Whisky' which I think must have been in circulation in the late nineteenth century.

The poster is about 'Cowan's No. 4 fine old Irish Whisky' and shows three men in a small rowing boat, one of them sitting on a large barrel with a whiskey jug in his hand. There is another man sitting on the shore with a glass in his hand and a little dog beside him. The curious thing about this poster is that it has the word 'Dundalk' in the right-hand top and the person who sent it to me wants to know if I had any information about its origins?

When I looked up this type of poster I was surprised to learn that it was one of many printed by the distilling company of William Cowan & Co., Ltd., of Belfast in the late nineteenth century. It is described as being of the 'Begorra' class of illustration because it shows Irish peasants, mostly men, in those type outlandish costumes which the Americans seem to have believed that Irish were dressed at the time. The strange thing about the copy sent to me is that all other similar posters have the word 'Belfast' in the place were 'Dundalk' is printed on this one. Now, I have been unable to find any reference to a Cowan's Distillery in Dundalk and I can only assume that this was issued for a retailer in Dundalk selling this brand.

Another thing I learned was that there is a big interest in these old whiskey posters at the present time and that the ones with Belfast on them are selling on the net for about €15 Euro apiece. It would seem therefore that the 'Dundalk' poster is somewhat of a rarity and might be worth a lot more. A word of caution, however, as anyone who watches programmes about antiques and collectables will already know, it all depends on condition and on whether or not it is a 'reproduction'; that is not an original!

Another curious thing about the poster, and indeed the distillery which produced it, is that the drink is spelled 'Whisky' and not 'Whiskey'. Most people will know that the word comes from the Gaelic term 'Uisce Beatha' meaning the 'Water of Life' but that the Scottish spirit industry writes it as 'whisky', without the final 'e' and the Irish whiskey is traditionally written with the 'e'.

All of which brings me back to the distilling industry in Dundalk which, in the nineteenth century, was one of the biggest employers in the town of Dundalk. Its origins here are pretty obscure, as it seems to have sprung out of the brewing activities of the town which goes back into the sixteenth century or even earlier. Wikipedia says that the Dundalk Distillery was one of the earliest in Ireland and was founded in 1708 but this cannot be correct because the one at Roden Place was not founded until 1799 by two Scotsmen James Gillichan and Peter Goodbey and was taken over in 1807 by Malcom Brown who had married into the Gillichan family and changed the name to the Malcom Brown & Co. Distillery. According to Padraic Ua Dubhthaigh in his 'Book of Dundalk' by 1837 this distillery was employing over 100 men and distilling 300,000 gallons of whiskey (per annum?). This employment had risen to over 200 men by the end of the century and the company were purchasing a lot of grain from local farmers and also producing yeast which was being exported to other breweries and distilleries. It was sold to a Scottish combine, Distillers Ltd., in 1912 but trade declined with the establishment of the Irish State and it was finally closed in 1926.

Another distinction that the local Distillery could boast about was that it had the highest industrial chimney in Ireland at 162 feet and containing over half a million bricks. This large chimney was used as a landmark for ships entering the harbour from the Bay for over a century until it was demolished in 1934.

I have been unable to find out under what brand name the Dundalk produced whiskey was sold but I suspect that it was blended with other whiskeys and sold under many different labels. Harold O'Sullivan listing the Dundalk distillery industries in the Historic Towns of Ireland Atlas, writes that there was a distillery in East Bridge Street in 1840 and that it was a 'rectifying' distillery, whatever that might mean. He does not mention any other local distilleries so, perhaps, by the mid-nineteenth century, the Malcom Brown company had a monopoly in the district.

The Dundalk Distillery had many other influences on the history of the town, such was the great fire of 1862 which raged for five hours and caused damage estimated at £10,000, which would be rated at maybe two million Euro in present day money. It was also effected by the Civil War in that a man from the Upper End of the town, on his way to work in it, was killed by the explosion of what is regarded as the 'first car bomb in the world', when a fuel truck was deliberately exploded at the corner of Earl Street and Park Street in a morning in July 1922.

Part of the old Distillery was sold to Messrs P.J. Carroll tobacco manufacturing company in the 1920 and used by them as a bonded warehouse for tobacco being imported for the manufacture of cigarettes. This building was donated by Carrolls to the Dundalk Urban District Council in the 1980s and now serves as a fine County Museum. Another part of the property was sold to Thomas McDonald & Sons, prominent local builders who incorporated the brick from the demolished Big Chimney in many local homes. The County Library now stands on the same site, in part of the old Distillery grain stores. St. Patrick's Parochial House, known by some as 'Hatter's Castle' for reasons that it might better not to go into at the present time, was built in the 1940s between the County Library and St. Patrick Church.