The city is home to a tremendous population of artists, writers, musicians, actors, film-makers and craftspeople as well as a population of those who participate in and value these pursuits.
The Galway calendar is jam-packed with cultural activity year-round and there is an ever growing range of entertainment for visitors. The whiskey bars of Galway are where you’ll find any and all of the creators and audience before shows open in moments of inspiration after witnessing shows sharing moments of wonder.
It was once declared that ‘God invented whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world!’
Witty as it is, this claim overlooks the fact that it was the Irish themselves who created this version of the ‘Water of Life’ or Uisce Beatha as it is know in the native tongue. Indeed it is widely held that it was our travelling monks, who, inspired by the liqueurs and brandies being produced by their European counterparts, began the distillation of barley in Ireland around 1000AD.
As distillation methods improved over the following centuries, whiskey production and consumption (both legal and illegal!) peaked in the 18th and 19th centuries. At this time, Galway city and environs, just like many localities across the length and breadth of Ireland, was home to a thriving distilling industry.
Today, the remnants of this industry are visible in the derelict remains of the Persse Galway Whiskey Distillery along the banks of the River Corrib, as well as in local place names and pub memorabilia.
As local whiskey distilling undergoes something of resurgence however, it is worth reflecting on an enterprise which in its day was Galway’s largest employer and which carried the Galway name with pride and distinction around the world. The Persse Galway Whiskey Distillery was established in 1815 in Newcastle, Galway by Henry Stratford Persse, a member of the dynasty (into which Lady Augusta Gregory was also born).
Henry Stratford was undoubtedly a compassionate figure who believed there was an obligation on his Ascendancy class to provide entrepreneurship and employment opportunities in order to lift Ireland out of poverty.
This idealism may well have driven Henry to open his distillery at a time when the industry had been rocked by a number of government taxes. These ill-judged levies had led to closure of eleven distilleries in Galway alone between the end of the 18th century and 1807.
Henry’s wishes to stimulate the local economy appear to have been rewarded when in 1824 it was recorded that local markets ‘are well supplied with grain, chiefly wheat and oats and when the distilleries are at work with a considerable quantity of barley’. As local whiskey distilling undergoes something of resurgence however, it is worth reflecting on an enterprise which in its day was Galway’s largest employer and which carried the Galway name with pride and distinction around the world.
At the peak of the Ireland’s Great Famine, the distillery moved from its original home to nearby Nun’s Island where it tapped into the power of the River Corrib. Under Henry’s nephew, Burton de Burgh Persse, the distillery would reach new heights whilst also managing to stave off stiff competition from the ever present Connemara poitín makers!
Persse Galway Whiskey was marketed internationally and with the slogan ‘favourite in the House of Commons’ it sold particularly well in English colonies.
By the end of the 19th century the distillery directly employed over 100 people and its output of 400,000 gallons was equal to that of the famous Bushmills distillery. As scotch began to steal a march on the Irish whiskey’s international dominance, Persse Galway Whiskey began to feel the pinch. This pinch became a squeeze when 3 of Dublin’s largest distillers amalgamated, and, aided by improved rail in the early 20th century, began to eat into local Persse markets. Despite a rearguard action the distillery finally succumbed to the inevitable and closed its doors for the last time in 1908. Over 100 years on and with the renaissance of local Irish distillers however, there never has been a more apt time to raise a glass to Henry Stratford Persse and the current crop of whiskey distillers that he and his kind have helped to influence!