Thursday 23 January 2020

Stout hearts of heroes from the Guinness factory

FIGHTING SPIRIT: Story of how staff at St James's Gate fought in WW1 is now the subject of new exhibition, writes Dermot Bolger

Locomotives cross the Brewery yard at St. James`s Gate Brewery, c.1906
Locomotives cross the Brewery yard at St. James`s Gate Brewery, c.1906
Labourers pose in groups in the Cooperage yard on lower level of St. James`s Gate Brewery, c.1906
View across lower level of St. James`s Gate Brewery featuring gateway onto Steeven`s Lane, line of carriages on Steeven`s Lane, locomotives and carriages driving into loading bank, c.1906-1910
Portrait of William Charles Disraeli Giffin, Guinness Brewery employee, in army uniform from First World War
Portrait of James Plowman, Guinness Brewery employee, in army uniform from First World War

It is probably not often that Gay Byrne's father - Edward Byrne - gets compared to S.K. Krikalev - the Soviet Cosmonaut, Third Class, who blasted off into space on what seemed like a dangerous but relatively routine short mission on the Mir space station in 1991.

Krikalev's tour of duty took considerably longer than expected. But after ten months he returned to find that, although he had lived to tell the tale of his hazardous expedition, the nation which sent him up into space had not survived.

When he left earth he was a proud citizen of the Soviet Union. When he stepped forth from his space capsule on the freezing steppes of Kazakhstan in 1992, he discovered that the Soviet Union had dissolved and - in his absence - he had become the citizen of a newly democratic Russia.

Edward Byrne had been in the Irish Volunteers before, like thousands of fellow Dubliners, he enlisted in the British Army at the start of World War One.

Cheering Dublin crowds who waved off Irish-based troops genuinely expected to see them home by Christmas.

Instead, Private Byrne endured the living nightmares of two of the battles for Ypres, survived the Battle of the Somme and came close to dying in a cavalry charge late in the war.

Edward Byrne was like Cosmonaut Krikalev in that, while he survived, he returned home to find himself in many ways a stranger in a strange land, where the political pendulum had swung away from Home Rule towards a different political agenda.

As the years passed, it became increasingly hard for thousands of Irish survivors of that war to publically discuss their harrowing experiences without the danger of sneers and question marks being placed against their loyalty to Ireland.


Yet the Irishmen who enlisted in that conflict came from every shade of political opinion.

Emmet Dalton, Michael Collins' loyal lieutenant - who cradled the dying patriot in his arms in Béal na Blá - had fought in the British Army. But so too had Sonny O'Neill, the IRA irregular whose bullet most likely murdered Collins in that ambush.

The Guinness Brewery at St James's Gate was the world's largest in 1914. It perused an active policy of encouraging workers to enlist in the War. So much so that, out of a staff of 3,650, 800 men - more than a fifth of its workforce - enlisted.

The company not only guaranteed that their jobs were be there for them on their return, but also that half their ordinary wages would be paid to their families during every week they were engaged in the conflict.

It is hard today to understand just how much Guinness Brewery operated as a self-contained world within a world.

When you add in the workers' families, over 11,000 Dubliners were embedded in the regimented, strict, hierarchical and yet, in many ways, progressive and benevolent mini-universe that was Guinness Brewery.

A fascinating new exhibition opens this week in the award-winning Little Museum of Dublin in St Stephen's Green. Jointly curated by Simon O'Connor and by Deirdre McParland - the archivist at the innovative Guinness Archive (a treasure chest of history located in the Guinness Storehouse) - it vividly recounts many of the stories of the 800 Guinness workers who became caught up in that horrific conflict.

Men like James Plowman, a fitter from Arbour Hill, who joined Guinness in June of 1913, aged 22, and left sixteen months later to join the army. He died in action, leaving behind two young children and a wife, Isabella, who lived until in 1962.

Or William Charles Disraeli Giffin, who joined the brewery in 1895 and left to join the war where he was a Lieutenant in the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, receiving a Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross.

Unlike Plowman, Giffin survived to resume his career in Guinness, finally retiring in 1943 when the world was once again gripped by a terrible war.

When Edward Byrne left the army in 1919 and joined his brother working in Guinness, he was entering a brewery populated by ghosts. 103 of its employees never made it back from the front.


The war affected Guinness in other ways too. Company vehicles and horses were loaned or sold to aid the war effort.

The Guinness steamship, the S.S. W.M. Barkley, was torpedoed and sunk off the Irish coast in 1917, when transporting barrels of stout to England.

Five Guinness crewmen died in that attack.

In 1920, Guinness designed a Roll Call of Honour to list all the employees who fought in that global conflict.

This document forms a focal point of this fascinating exhibition which also recounts the individual stories of those who did not make it back and the first-hand testimonies of those who did.

It promises to be a unique insight into a hidden corner of Dublin life.

See www.littlemuseum.ie for more details

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