IS it the smell of the malting barley, lightly heated before machination allied with the scent of hops from later in the brewing process, permeating the night air, that first comes to mind when you think of St Francis Abbey Brewery or to give it its proper name Smithwicks brewery?
Or is it the iconic old entrance at The Ring (Parliament Street) where you can still see the cobbles over which horse-led drays made their way in and out of this sacred place. Older citizens will think of Walter Smithwicks with his PR guru Bill Finnegan who along with the independently outspoken Mick McGuinness and others, brought the Munich beer festival to the city complete with tents and fräuleins and unprecedented numbers of people. In the end it was a victim of its own success.
Or is it the presence there of The Liberator Daniel O’Connell. He stayed in The Ring and addressed a huge crowd from the top window of Edmond Smithwick’s living quarters and spoke about nationalism, emancipation and freedom. Smithwicks called one of his sons after O’Connell and the O’Connell papers belonging to the Smithwicks family are a must read for anyone interested in the birth of our nation.
We also think of the soup kitchens set up by the Smithwicks family during the Famine (which might be better called a forced starvation rather than the result of crop failure according to Ronan Morrissey).
And we also think of the other great brewing family of our nation the Guinness’s who came to the aid of the brewery and after purchasing it from the Smithwicks family. They spent millions of pounds revitalising it and we think of the current Lord Iveagh, Ned Guinness, bringing his pals to the brewery recently for Mungo McGosh’s bachelor party complete with huge Nebuchadnezzer Champagne Bottles.
More importantly we think of every single voluntary and sporting organisation that has had a launch or fundraiser in the Cellar Bar and how much the brewery gives back to the city.
We think of the first monks who brewed beer here from a scared well now under one of the new modern buildings and of the huge positive impact they had on the city and how they worked their magic with the help of a seven lancet window with glass made on site by Italian craftsmen that probably mesmerised the congregation with a beer that was described in records of the time as a “fulsome brew”;.
We think of the thousands of men and women who worked there and how the brewery has impacted so much on the life of the city. And we think of Ian Hamilton, the last in a long line of distinguished master brewers. The Corkonian who has done so much to revitalise the place, will be the last.
But most of all we think of a magnificent 25 acre site, fronting on to the River Nore which once employed 300 people and was the pulse of this city and this story is about the hidden treasures within which must be an integral part of any master plan to regenerate the area and tie it in with the new bridge that will run through the site.
The first treasure is the Cellar Bar and if you are fortunate enough to have been given at our of the brewery by Ronan Morrissey then your appreciation of the place will have been heightened immeasurably. The Cellar Bar is the best place in the world outside of a certain pub in Listowel to drink Smithwicks.
It is located four metres underground and was used to mature the wooden beer kegs because the temperature and air pressure there are constant all year round and this led to an even and consistent flavour in the ale.
The ceilings and walls are filled with different pieces of brewing memorabilia and its arched tunnel like design seems to lend itself to the almost theatrical atmosphere.
Next year the curtain will fall on over 600 years of a brewing tradition and while there are rumours that outside interests are looking for a site on Parliament Street for a micro-brewery, we all hope that the Cellar Bar will continue in its present capacity and the fact that the 25 acre site has been purchased by the city and will be used for the benefit of the people of the city is good and will help this objective.
The Cellar Bar is an institution and if it isn’t a listed building it should be immediately added to the register. To walk down the stairs from the Parliament Street entrance feels you with anticipation and when you enter you are not disappointed.
Come next year, gone will be the smell of the hops and malted barely along with the huge trucks trundling through the city centre. There will also be a reduction in the use of the city’s water supply because the brewery is by far the biggest user of City water. Gone too will be the huge general purpose vessels which can hold up to one million pints of beer each and which reach skyward like something out of the NASA complex in Florida, USA.
Do the Smithwicks tour before it is too late and hope you get Ronan Morrissey, if so you are in for an informative hour and a half.
His knowledge of the brewing process and the history of all facets of brewery life is incredible and his passion for the place comes through. And at the end of the tour when he does his thing: That famous roll of the glass as the ruby red beer descends from the tap; placing it gently on the counter to letting it “settle” for around 20 seconds, before again lifting it, and rolling the glass over and over again with his fingers as the liquid red comes out. Eventually the pint is full and after a further period of settling it is ready to consume, and at this stage the taste buds are gone into over-drive, just like Pavlov’s dogs.
It does taste exquisite and the three men on the tour with me: Mr Thos Farrell, Mr Mick Walsh and Mr Dishy Walsh agreed it was the best they ever tasted and just to prove a “point” Ronan forced them to take a sip of a pint poured straight without a break. It wasn’t as good. According to Ronan with 30 years experience of working in the brewery it is all about balance and body. We agree. Is it the intoxicating atmosphere of the Cellar that gives it that extra kick?
The next gem in the complex is the tasting room, which is only around 50 years old. Every morning, religiously, the brewers come here to the sound-proofed “beer basilica” to taste the brew at various stages of production and of course there is always a placebo thrown in to try and catch them out the professionals. What a job. The room is fantastic and located as it is beside the oratory and the abbey, it’s priceless in terms of our built heritage.
One of the oldest places in the city is at the centre of our tale. It is the grey, lonesome looking, almost forbidding St Francis Abbey.
Built around 1254, it is held captive by a concrete jungle. Imagine that it once went all way down to the River Nore and was completely self sufficient with grazing fields, orchards, fruit trees, shrubs and of course, barley.
Much of the fallen masonry is inside and it might have been a good thing that it was in a private site because it has not been vandalised. The abbey started as a small rectangular chapel but then expanded as funds allowed, reaching out from the city walls to the River Nore taking in Evan’s Turret. Development continued throughout the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. This expansion was, however, halted with the dissolution of the monasteries in the middle of the 16th century.
Ronan Morrissey explained how the monks were constantly fasting and the beer was, for them, liquid food and kept them going during their all night devotions. The manufacture of beer at ecclesiastical sites is a European thing and what happened here is a reflection of what went on in the Continent and especially Germany and hence the Bavarian type beer festivals of the 1960s.
The hope now is that the abbey will finally be given the TLC it requires and the concrete around it removed to allow the soil to breath again and make it a green oasis. Who knows in a few years from now Mass might once again be celebrated there by a Franciscan.
It was used as a cavalry barracks in the 1700s before the monks came back in again before it was again put to a civil use as a tennis court. And a Mrs Morrissey who was guardian in the late 19th century had the floor covered in a green carpet!
Throughout the 18th century, the friars moved into parish work and the number of friars continued to decline. In 1766, there were only two friars left in the Kilkenny community, with a couple of other friars working as parish clergy in the diocese. The last friar was Fr Philip Forristal, who worked as a curate in the diocese rather than actually living in a Franciscan community. The Franciscan connection ended with his death in 1829. At present only a few people at a time can visit the abbey which is under the care of the Office of Public Works (OPW).
The intimate little oratory next door was built by the workers in the brewery, during their time off, in the 1950s. It’s a place where Mass was said, sometimes to crowds of 150 or 200 people and, as Ronan tells us; “the very best place in the whole world to say an ‘Ale Mary’.” It’s like a Marian grotto and a notice board on the side wall has memorial cards of brewery workers, one of whom helped to build the place. This little shrine has to be preserved in memory of the men who worked there and of the few who lost their lives there.
Evan’s turret also known as the Castle In The Garden has remained in private ownership, within St Francis Abbey Brewery compound for generations, without public access, and this may have saved it from vandalism or accidental damage.
In 1650, the Civil Survey describes it as ‘a little castle in the garden’ of the priory. The tower became known as Evan’s Turret when the land on which it stands was leased by the Corporation to an Alderman Evans in 1724 (there was a lot of corruption back then).
We know that in 1851 it was still roofed. Located at the extreme north-east corner of the St Francis’s Abbey Brewery complex,where the Breagagh meets the Nore, access is by a rising stairs over a vault which collapsed many centuries ago. It has a basement level (with an internal arched entrance, a first floor, and an upper level with apertures. Judging from its appearance when still roofed, it is likely that the tower was modified and heightened to form a garden feature overlooking the river in the 18th century.
The external masonry is in reasonable condition, though there are some external cracks in the tower walls; the internal collapsed stair vault suggests that some movement has occurred.
Again we hope it will be linked back to the abbey and what a delightful teahouse it would make.
Carpe diem was the slogan for a Smithwick’s beer and it is imperative that we seize the day. Opportunities like the one that has presented itself come along once every 50 years and we have to make sure we put this 25 acre space to good use as a space and not cluttered with buildings and place the abbey, oratory and tasting room at its centre with a direct link to the Cellar Bar and make sure we preserve the Smithwicks name.