Thursday, 8 August 2019

Brewing History: Some Notes on Pre-Twentieth Century Kilkenny Breweries

From 'The Official Illustrated Guide to the Great Southern & Western Railway' - 1866

The early brewing history of Ireland is often quite murky, and trying to pinpoint the exact position of breweries and the brewers that operated in any give location is quite a tricky job until we get to the era of commercial directories, better record keeping, accurate maps and archived content of newspapers. Even after that point the history and development of breweries is difficult to track, especially beyond The Pale. Kilkenny's brewing history is similar in one way but somewhat different in another, as much of that history is difficult to clearly see due to being muddied by decades of marketing spiel which has been repeated and reprinted over the years.

But I have found a couple of trustworthy sources when trying to track down the historic commercial breweries of Kilkenny. The first is ‘The Brewing Industry in Kilkenny’ by T. B. Halpin which was published in the ‘Old Kilkenny Review’ in 1989. The second is the ‘Irish Historic Towns Atlas, no. 10, Kilkenny’ by John Bradley, who references the previous article quite often in his own work. Along with these two excellent sources I have come across other information from both online resources and archived papers accessed in my local library which give some interesting insights into brewing in the city in the 18th and 19th century. These are backed up by various commercial directories of the time, where many similar names crop up over the years often in different locations which adds to the headache of unravelling who brewed where. We need to be careful that malt houses are not being confused with actual breweries too, as these are often separate entities although both can coexist on the same site of course. With all of these names it’s also worth remembering that the owner and the actual brewer in these establishments were quite often different people, which adds yet another layer of complexity to any research.

I should point out that I am not a Kilkenny local and have relied purely on sources referenced above and cited below for this post, nor am I a historian so I would welcome clarification of any the issues, dates or comments made here. Please feel free to read any of the articles, newspaper clippings and other sources I reference and get back to me on any points.


A snapshot of the ebb and flow of breweries is given by Bradley as:

“In 1787 there were ten breweries in the city, by 1824 the number had declined to five, and in 1837 it had fallen to four. There was evidently a flurry of activity in the years immediately following because by 1839 the number had increased to eight, but the expansion was short-lived. In 1841 there were five breweries and by 1856 there were only two — St Francis' Abbey (Smithwicks) and James's Street (Sullivans).”1

The earliest reference for a brewery location is on Pudding Lane in 1660, and the earliest mention of a named brewer is for a Miles Lyons in an unknown location in 1691 but the earliest mention by name and location is James’s Street Brewery established by a person named Archdeakin in 17021 and Bradley suggests there was brewing on this site before this date. (Some years later a Mathias Archdekin[sic] occupied a brewery and Distillery near Blackmill up until 1821which I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere.) The brewery on James's Street appears to have passed through different hands - A John Hennessy was a brewer on this street at least in 17883 - before becoming vacant in 1790. It was purchased and reopened by William[?] Sullivan and William Loughnane in 18104 and it appears to have stayed in the Sullivan family until it closed around 1914 (or 1917/1918). The premises was later taken over by Smithwick’s and used as a maltings4 - unfortunately the site is now a carpark for Market Cross Shopping Centre, although I found a c.1946 photo of the ivy covered entrance to the brewery in Halpin’s article and online here with another view here. (Curiously there is mention of an Anchor Brewery on James’s Street in 1859 which Bradley suggests may be the same site as Sullivan’s Brewery, but I doubt this to be the case. There is a George Reade brewing in James' Place in 1839so perhaps there is some confusion over sites, or the names of the actual brewers working in the breweries owned by others as is often the case in brewing history.)

An interesting aside to the actual brewing process, which helps to point to all the auxiliary jobs associated with breweries that are rarely considered, is that in 18976 only Sullivan’s were using solely local cut corks to bottle their beers, Smithwick’s used a mix imported and locally made ones.

For examples of what was brewed in the city in the 19th century, advertisements from 18957 show that Sullivan’s were brewing a pale butt, a double stout, sparkling ales and hop bitters as well as manufacturing and bottling Mineral waters. I'm pretty sure that they were brewing more than just these over the years too, I'll keep an eye out and update here if I find more.

Here's another from The Kilkenny City and County Directory and Guide from 1884:


Perhaps the biggest mover and shaker in Kilkenny brewing was started by Edmund Smithwick who opened St. Francis Abbey Brewery around 1827 after acquiring leasing the site of Bren(n)an’s distillery in that year. (Just to note that Brennan is a surname that crops up repeatedly in the names of brewers/distillers in the various commercial directories – although admittedly it if a very common local name.) The site is listed as a distillery at St. Francis’s Abbey run by Patrick Brenan[sic] in Pigot’s Directory of 1824, and the following year he was producing 26,000 gallons of spirit according to custom and excise reports for the period. An advertisement for its letting at this time clearly say it is a distillery that could be converted into a brewery8. Edmund is listed as a grocery and a wine merchants in Pigot’s also in 1824 and was in partnership with and Owen C. O’Callaghan – this partnership was dissolved in July 1827 along with a similar partnership for a corn, flour and boulting business9, so his commercial interests where extensive but I can't find a mention of brewing until after the purchase of the St. Francis site.

(In fact the site was only leased by Edmund in 1827, here's a note of the sale of that lease by Dudley Brennan son of the Michael Brennan above in 1867 via a solicitors journal. The name William Archebald seems to be the earliest one connected to this lease.)

So if there was any commercial ale brewing on the site before this time I can find no reliable record of it (which means just that of course), although Halpin – who worked in Smithwick’s - suggests there may have been brewing for personal consumption on or near this site by an ancestor of Edmund – John Smithwick – when he was in partnership with a Richard Cole. A messy article celebrating the brewery’s 275th anniversary10 mentions first brewing dates of both 1706 and 1710 as well as mentioning a free farm grant for a brewery and distillery close to the brewery site given to the above mentioned Cole. Curiously and article in the same paper 25 years before states that the firm of Smithwick’s was established in 1710 at the same time that Cole established a brewery, although as mentioned this seems to have been a retail brewery for household consumption. Any reliable auricles I have come across state there is little evidence of beer brewing on the site prior to 1827 and some even point out that the site's connection with the Smithwick’s family was broken with the death of John anyway.11 I have come across the story that the Smithwick’s could not officially declare their interest in the brewery prior to Catholic Emancipation due to Catholics not being allowed to own businesses, but it does not explain why Edmund, who owned a business in 1824 with O'Callaghan as we can see above, could not have put his name in directories or elsewhere at this time as a brewery owner with a different partner if such was the case? I personally think that a better claim may be that the Smithwick family were in business in Kilkenny from 1710 but - perhaps - not always in brewing ... maybe others can add more factual information to this.

George Measom in ‘The Official Illustrated Guide to the Great Southern & Western Railway’ mentions a visit to Edmond Smithwick’s brewery in 1866 where he sings the praises of the beer and the brewery while giving a nice description of the premises and supplying an excellent illustration of the site, which I have used at the start of this post. Interestingly he gives the date the brewery was established as 1828, presumably with the brewery's blessing at that time...

Anyhow, in 1897 Smithwick’s were brewing stouts and mild and bitter ales as well as an East India pale ale and a dinner ale12, and like Sullivan’s they also bottled mineral waters. No mention directly of a red ale of course but presumably one of these could be a red ... and I have written about a Smithwick's amber ale before, but any thoughts that the current famous brew is the same as any ale that may have been brewed in 1710 is pretty spurious in my opinion, to say the least.

Here is another advertisement from The Kilkenny City and County Directory and Guide from 1884 where they are showing off their depots both in Ireland and overseas:

It's probably worth noting too that the Smithwicks family don't seem to have owned the abbey itself until quite late on in their story, as according to George Henry Bassett in The Kilkenny City and County Directory and Guide:
The outlook from it is into the yard of Messrs E Smithwick and Sons St Francis Abbey Brewery. In this yard many tablets originally belonging to the Abbey are set into the walls. The Abbey itself with a very choice fruit garden and cottage was sold a few years ago for 600 to the late Mr William Morrissey hardware merchant Mrs Mary Morrissey his widow is now in possession. She has had the floor of the chancel laid with a carpet of living green and takes great comfort in her proprietorship .

So it appears that in 1884 it was not owned by the brewery itself, nor was it part of it by my reading of the above.

Indeed in a meeting of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in 1868 there was concern for the condition of the tower and the following was said:

The ruins of the Abbey including the tower were possessed by a person who had not the means of doing anything to preserve them. Although they adjoined the Brewery of the Messrs Smithwick, unfortunately they did not belong to those gentlemen - if they did, no subscription would have been thought of, for the work would have been done at once without assistance from any other source. The Messrs Smithwick had most liberally headed the subscription list with a donation of £10 ,and would afford any facility and assistance in their power.
So, generous indeed but not the owner of the abbey...


There are few other named breweries that I have come across, although there was also a St Mary's Brewery, Parliament St. ran by Robert Terry & Sons which opened around 1862 and was up for sale just two years later in 1864, what’s interesting about this is that it lists all of the equipment in the brewery such as an eight horse power steam engine, an O’Reilly’s large refrigerator, a sky cooler and fermenting squares, not to mention 600 casks…

Incidentally, according to Halpin4 there is a Kilkenny connection with two famous Dublin breweries as John Brennan, a brewer in partnership with a Cormick5 in Pennyfeather Lane, who moved to Dublin when their brewery closed down in 1841 and became manager in O’Connell’s Brewery. His son Charles later bought the business and it became the Phoenix Brewery.

It's worth mentioning here too that brewing has finally returned to Kilkenny with Costello's brewing their beers the city and a reincarnation of the above mentioned Sullivan's brewing specials on the pilot kit in their tap room.

So that's all for now, I have posted other Kilkenny brewing history on this blog in the past too so feel free to search for other posts on the subject.


(Expanded 7/1/2020)

(All written content and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and can not be reproduced elsewhere without full credit to its source and a link back to this post.)


1 John Bradley, Irish Historic Towns Atlas, no. 10, Kilkenny. Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 2000 (, text, page 8.

2 Finn’s Leinster Journal – 17/11/1821

3 Lucas’ Commercial Directory

4 ‘The Brewing Industry in Kilkenny’, T. B. Halpin, Old Kilkenny Review 1989, pages 583-591

5 Shearman’s Commercial Directory

6 Kilkenny People – 2/10/1897

7 Kilkenny People – 9/11/1895

8 Finn’s Leinster Journal – 20/1/1827

9 Finn’s Leinster Journal – 7/7/1827

10 Kilkenny People – 27/9/1985

12 The Tuam Herald - 10/7/1897