Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Giving it Both Barrels: 19th Century Sketches of Smithwick's & Sullivan's Kilkenny XX Porter

The history of brewing in Kilkenny is a topic I keep returning to again and again as there is such a wealth of real history to be mined in old newspapers and publications online, as well as in physical books. Although sadly, I am not aware of any publicly accessible archives for any of the breweries in the city, which is also very much the case for most of Ireland's lost breweries with a couple of notable exceptions such as Perry's in Rathdowney and Murphy's in Cork. My own hometown of Carlow also has some brewing history of course, but its beers and breweries are not as famous and never reached the successes of the two main breweries in the neighbouring city down the road, and although I am still sporadically researching the brewing history of this town - and I have amassed a sizable file about it - it is more often the case that I come across something relating to Kilkenny as far as any local-ish brewing history is concerned.

That was the case with two 19th century Irish scenes by Edmund Fitzpatrick that appeared four years apart in The Illustrated London News, and both of which I chanced upon at different times. In both cases my eyes were drawn to the casks in the corner of the illustrations and the names printed on them, names I was quite familiar with from my interest in Kilkenny's brewing history - although you would have needed to be living a very hermitic life to have never heard of Smithwick's St. Francis Abbey Brewery in this country, or further afield. Sullivan's Brewery, which was on James's Street, has been rebooted or reborn in recent years too, although its new brewery tap is on the opposites side of the river.

Edmund Fitzpatrick was and illustrator and painter who was either originally from Freshford in Kilkenny or certainly lived there for a period. According to one source he was born there 1822 and died in London in 1896 and he was certainly residing there in 1858 as he advertised in The Kilkenny Moderator in November that year that he had 'lately arrived from Paris and London' for a short stay and that he was available for commissions. (The Library of Ireland has a short but interesting biography about his life on their website here.) He has some paintings hanging in Kilkenny castle, so his finer artwork was also held in high regard it appears, which is hardly surprising given the quality and dynamism of his newspaper sketches.

He was quite prolific with his work and created many illustrations for newspapers, some of which were Kilkenny focussed so it has hardly a surprise that he was familiar with the two biggest breweries in the city, and that he decided to include them in his works. The first illustration appeared in The Illustrated London News of March 15th 1853 to accompany a piece about how St. Patrick's Day was celebrated in Ireland. It is a joyful picture of someone's home and full of interesting-looking characters and imagined stories. It also perhaps gives an insight to the dress of the day and what people drank, and what they consumed those drinks from - whiskey and porter at the very least, from stemmed glass and pewter tankards. How real or imagined it is I do not know but I quite like the picture when I first came across it and especially when I noticed the 'Smithwicks XX Porter Kilkenny' on the barrel. The accompanying text and other illustrations certainly have issues that I will not raise here, but it is just nice to see a name check for a famous local brewery.

Drowning the Shamrock on St. Patrick's Night - Drawn by E. Fitzpatrick

The second image is also from The Illustrated London News, this edition from January 24th 1857 and it shows a few travelling school masters debating various subjects. Again, it is full of wonderful characters and more importantly for us we can see a cask of 'Sullivans XX Porter Kilkenny' sitting once again in the right hand corner. And again, the accompanying text is full of 'Oirish' words but I quite like the actions and expressions here too, even if the drawing seems a little cruder and perhaps a little more hurried.

The Irish Schoolmaster - Drawn by E. Fitzpatrick
Regardless, it is good to see Mr. Fitzgerald being fair and giving equal advertising space to both of the big Kilkenny breweries! It might raise the question as to whether he was berated by the Sullivan's into including them in an illustration having used Smithwick's porter in the other one?

Of course, we cannot get too excited about these, after all it is not like the are factual records or photographs, but maybe that is not the point.

Perhaps we should just appreciate the illustrations and the recorded anecdotal history for what it is, just another way of getting the information about our lost brewing history out and findable, and in to the public eyeline - highlighting actual beers that really did exist in Kilkenny in the middle of the 19th century.

And they do say a picture is worth a thousand words ... so perhaps I need not have waffled on so much?

Liam K.

The original images and accompanying articles can be found here and here via Google Books. These images were originally posted by me on my Twitter account on the 18th of August 2019 and on the 15th of November 2021.

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

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