Dublin, Ireland: Hold your hour and have another

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Dublin, Ireland: Hold your hour and have another

The black and white image of the man on the small television screen looks like something from a remote world of more than a century ago: wearing a white shirt, braces to hold up wide flannel pants and heavy work boots, he shaves timber slats into shape, arranges them carefully and then hammers an iron hoop around them.

Against the backdrop of a factory where steam wheezes from huge machinery, the man labours with remarkable physicality, speed and skill.

He is Dick Flanagan who was a cooper, and here at the famous Guinness Storehouse in Dublin’s St James’ Gate Brewery -- home to the company which this year is celebrating its 250th anniversary -- he plied his craft. But these ancient-looking images came from as recently as 1954 when Guinness was still keeping their liquid black gold in wooden casks.

IMG_1785At one time there were 300 coopers working fulltime making casks for Guinness and the storehouse complex contained over quarter of a million of them, all made by hand where the craftsman’s eye was the measure.

To watch Flanagan is captivating: he shapes slats with a small adze-like chisel, pulls them together so they are airtight and then moves on to making, then hammering down, the iron bands. Then, for the first time using any measuring gear, he takes a ruler to size timber for the tops and bottoms which fit snugly.

On a day when a Guinness awaits in the Gravity Bar on the top floor of the Storehouse -- the seven-storey building in the shape of a glass of Guinness with the bar as its head -- no one on the self-guided walk through the brewing process seems to be in any hurry.

Flanagan finishes his cask and the film loops to begin again, mirroring exactly what his working day was for decades.

A visit to the Guinness factory is a highlight of any trip to Dublin because if nothing else, and there is plenty of the “else” for your interest, you get a spectacular 360 degree view over the city from the Gravity Bar as you sup a pint which comes with the price of your admission.

The Guinness story is a fable of good fortune and canny business smarts: Arthur Guinness (1725-1803) signed the lease on the abandoned St James’s Gate Brewery on 31 December 1759. It was for 9000 years at an annual rent of 45 pounds: a copy of this remarkable document is embedded in the ground floor of the Storehouse.

Within a decade he was exporting his ale, in 1770 he began developing a higher quality “porter“ (the forerunner to Guinness), and by 1799 he had stopped making traditional beer. His expanding brewery was solely dedicated to his refined “porter”, known now across the world simply as Guinness.

As with any decent whisky distillery, Guinness claims one of its key ingredients is the special water it uses which is not, as rumour has it, taken from the River Liffey but comes down (eight million litres a day of it) from the nearby Wicklow Mountains. To the other ingredients -- barley, hops and yeast -- was added the most important: Arthur Guinness, the son of a brewer and a man who knew how to market his product.

His canny know-how is a trait the family carried on and in the Storehouse is a large area dedicated to the clever advertising campaigns Guinness has run, and the memorable advertising imagery (toucans, ostriches, surfers) from the pen of graphic artist John Gilroy who created the Guinness marque for three decades from the 30s.

Gilroy, who created the famous “Guinness is good for you” poster among many others, was also a gifted portrait painter who subjects included Sir Winston Churchill, Sir John Gielgud and the Queen, whom he painted when he was 82.

IMG_1779The Guinness story is more than that of an ordinary brewery: it holds its history in its glass, and is the successful marriage of brewing, business, craft and art.

Today 10 million glasses of Guinness are drunk daily in places as far apart as India and Indiana. It is brewed in more than 40 countries and sold in over 150.

The Storehouse is billed as the number one tourist attraction for international visitors in Ireland and is an easy 20 minute walk from the central city, and a stop on the hop on-hop off bus tours.

The view of the city -- with landmarks identified -- from the Gravity Bar is worth the visit alone, made more pleasurable by a glass of Guinness.

But while the Gilroy posters will attract the eye and hops assail the sense of smell, for many visitors crowding around the screens, the sight of Dick Flanagan, a master craftsman in a trade which has almost been lost, will remain an abiding memory.

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