Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

Random Quote
Random Date

image title

The story of the Guinness family,
complete with a detailed analysis
of the DNA study, can be found
in Patrick Guinness’s book,
Arthur's Round:
The Life and Times of
Brewing Legend Arthur Guinness

(Peter Owen, 2007).


The Story of Arthur Guinness by Turtle Bunbury

'In Dublin there's a beauty that has no match,
It is brewed in St. James's then thrown down the hatch'
Frank Holt, 'In Praise of Guinness'

The origins of Arthur Guinness, and the remarkable dynasty that followed him, have been a subect of considerable mystery until the present age. It took a determined descendent called Patrick Guinness and an ingenius DNA survey to finally lay the legends to rest and establish exactly where the Guinness bloodline began.



Arthur Guinness maintained that he descended from the Gaelic sept of Magennis (or MacGuinness) of Iveagh in the east of Ulster, northern Ireland. He was of the view that his forbears had simply dropped the Roman Catholic sounding ‘Mac’, meaning ‘son of’ in Gaelic, from the Magennis surname in order to make themselves more amenable to the propserous Protetsants who then ruled Ireland. In 1761, he chose to incorporate the Magennis coat of arms as his own. It undoubtedly suited Arthur’s grand ambitions to give himself such grandiose origins, for the Magennis cheif had been enobled as Viscount Magennis of Iveagh in the 17th century, and had racked up a Spanish peerage too.

image title



In 1997, Patrick Guinness – a descendent of Arthur – began to investigate his family history in depth. He was quickly able to dismiss the theory that the Guinneses hailed from the small hamlet of St Genny in the English county of Cornwall. He also cast considerable doubt on those who suggested a kinship with the Dublin-Jewish merhcant family of Genese.

But he was baffled as to how he might prove the link to the Magennises of Ulster. Most of Ireland’s medieval parish records and other legal documents were destroyed in a series of fires duirng the struggle for Irish independence. Of those papers that survived, Patrick could find nothing that referred to the Guinness family origins.

And then the concept of DNA analysis reared its extraordinary head. Professor Dan Bradley and Dr Brian McEvoy of Trinity College Dublin subsequently performed a male-ancestry genetic survey on the Y-chromosome of 315 men with Gaelic-clan surnames from East Ulster where the Magennis family came from. As Patrick explains, 'like a surname, this chromosome only passes from father to son, with slow mutations over time.'

The results of the East Ulster survey were published in the eminent journal Human Genetics in early 2006. To Patrick’s delight, the results revealed that the Guinness family were indeed from East Ulster. However, it emeregd that their closest DNA cousins were not the Magennis chieftains but a family with the surname of MacCartan. The MacCartans lived in the hilly gorse-swept townland of Kinelarty in County Down where there happens to be a small hamlet variously spelled Guiness or Ginnies.


image title

One of many wonderful
advertisments for
Guinness Stout.

The first identifiable member of the Guinness family was Arthur’s grandfather, Eoin (or Owen) ‘Guinneas’, a Protesant who leased a farm near Simmonscourt in Ballsbridge on the outskirts of Dublin City. One imagines Eoin would have known precicely when the family moved from County Down to the capital city.

Born in 1691, Eoin’s son Richard Guinness moved west to Co Kildare as a young man and began selling milk from a roadside stall near Celbridge. Richard duly befreinded William Read, a local farmer who was selling home-brewed ale from a similar stall on the Old Naas Road.

In time, Richard married Read’s daughter Catherine and settled in Celbridge. He was also appointed brewer to the Ponsonby family of Bishopscourt, Kill, supplying their estate workers with ale at a time when beer was considered a much healthier alternative to water.

When the Guinness’s first moved to Celbridge, the richest man in Ireland had just built the biggest house in Ireland on the outskirts of the then small village. William Conolly of Castletown House was the son of a Donegal innkeeper and made his fortune by buying and reselling lands seized from disposessed Catholics after the Jacobite Wars.

Conolly’s private chaplain was Dr Arthur Price, an ambitious native of Celbridge who also happened to own the town’s brewey, located on the grounds of the present day St Wolstan's Convent. Dr Price duly headhunted Richard from the Ponsonbys to run his brewery. As Dr Price advanced up the clerical hierarchy, so Richard’s duties increased. In 1744, Dr Price became Archbishop of Cashel. Two years later, Richard was formally appointed principal land steward for the collection of rents on the Episcopal lands in Co Kildare.


The Guinness’s had at least three sons and two daughters before Catherine’s premature death in August 1742. The date of birth of their most famous child Arthur is a matter of some debate. In 1991, the Guinness company fixed it as 24th September 1725, a date increasingly seeping into our sub-conscious as ‘Arthur’s Day’. However, Arthur’s gravestone in Oughterard states that he was 78-years-old when he died on 23rd January 1803, indicating that he was in fact born sometime in 1724 or early 1725.

The place of Arthur’s birth is also the subject of mild controversy. Local tradition in the Co Kildare village of Ardclough holds that Arthur was born at the Read household in nearby Huttonread. This seems to be based on the notion that, in the early 18th centruy, expectant mothers often returned to their childhood homes to give birth.

However, the people of Celbridge have refused to buy into this theory and recently unveiled a plaque at the towns’ Mucky Duck pub, taking their cue from Patrick Guinness who believes Arthur was born in this building, which was originally a malthouse. As Patrick recently counseled the Leixlip History Society, ‘the first thing that baby Arthur smelt was malt.

At any rate, Richard took the opportunity of the boys’ birth to show his appreciation to Dr Price. He not only requested that the prosperous clergyman stand as godfather to his son but also christened the baby ‘Arthur’ in his honour.

Arthur was 27 years old when his godfather passed away in the summer of 1752, leaving him £100. That same year, his father was married secondly to Elizabeth Clare whose family ran an inn in Celbridge, believed to have been called “The White Hart” and located where Londis is today.

Arthur used Dr Price’s bequest to expand the Celbridge brewery. In 1755 he transferred operations to a new site in Leixlip, where the Court Yard Hotel is today.


In September 1759, Arthur Guinness decided to leave his younger brother Richard in charge of the Leixlip enterprise and have a stab at establishing his business in Dublin City.

Brewing was an enormous industry in Georgian Dublin and many families like the Leesons and Darleys made enough money from it to build vast mansions. However, by the time Arthur reached the city, the trade was in trouble. London, which dictated Ireland’s economic policy, had placed a severe tax on Irish brewers in a bid to boost sales of English beer in Ireland.

Undeterred, Arthur acquired what was then a small, disused and ill-equipped brewery at St James's Gate. The lease, signed on 31 December 1759, was for a whopping 9,000 years at an annual rent of £45. The premises comprised of four acres with a copper, a kieve, a mill, two malthouses, stabling for twelve horses and a loft to hold 200 tons of hay.

On 1 December 1759, Arthur entered his signature, as a new brewer, in the Minute Book of the Dublin Brewers and Maltsters Corporation. Within eight years he had risen to become Master of the Corporation. He was also one of the four brewers' guild representatives on Dublin Corporation.


In May 1769, Arthur is said to have made his first export when six and a half barrels of ‘Dublin Ale’ were shipped to England. But his nose was increasingly twitching at a new strong black beer that had appeared in London. The drink was known as ‘porter’ from its popularity with the City’s street and river porters. Dublin brewers were quick to experiment with porter but exports from London dominated the market until Arthur entered the game in the 1770s. One of his smartest moves was to bring members of the Purser family from London to Dublin. The Pursers already had several decades of experience in brewing porter and were to become vital partners in the brewery for most of the 1800s.

Arthur’s first porter sales were listed on excise data from 1778. He was also now official brewer to Dublin Castle, the seat of government in Ireland.


In the spring of 1761 Arthur married Olivia Whitmore, a 19-year-old heiress from Dublin. They had 21 children, ten of whom lived to adulthood. From 1764 they lived at Beaumont House, now part of Beaumont Convalescent Home, between Santry and Raheny in north County Dublin. Olivia Guinness was a cousin of Henry Grattan and Arthur was a valuable supporter of Grattan’s Parliament during the 1780s and 1790s. He was undoubtedly in favour of Grattan’s policy to reduce the tax on Irish beer. Like Grattan, Guinness was publicly in favour of Catholic Emancipation from 1793, but he did not support the United Irish during the ill-fated 1798 rebellion.

Some insight into Arthur’s character can be gained from an event in 1775 when Dublin Corporation attempted to make him pay for his water supply. Arthur’s lease entitled him to free access to water and he was adamant that his rights be upheld. When the Sheriff and a body of men arrived at St James’s to cut off his water source, Arthur seized a pick-axe from one of the men and began to shout ‘with very much improper language that they should not proceed.’ He clearly made an impression on the Sheriff who duly retreated.

Arthur remained active at the brewery right into his 70s, working closely with three of his sons. In 1797, he began to expand the brewery considerably and the family made the momentous decision to stop brewing ale and focus solely on ‘Guinness’s Extra Superior Porter’.

Stout, meaning ‘strong’, was an off-shoot of this porter. It evolved after the invention of patent malt (ie: malted barley roasted until black) in 1817. Guinness adapted this distinctive burnt flavour to their brew and, in 1840, renamed it ‘Guinness Extra Stout’. The aesthetically pleasing thick creamy head on pints of Guinness is simply the result of the beer being mixed with nitrogen as it is poured.


In public life, Arthur was Governor of the Meath Hospital and Secretary to the Friendly Brothers of St Patrick, the anti-dueling club. He donated 250 guineas to the Chapel Schools attached to St Patrick's Cathedral. His philanthropy transpired to be genetic and in the century following Arthur’s death, the Guinness family did much to improve life in the City of Dublin. In 1876, for instance, Guinness became one of the first businesses in Ireland to provide proper pensions and healthcare for its employees and their families.


Upon his death in January 1803, Arthur was buried in his mother's family plot at Oughterard. In his will, he left a considerable personal fortune of £23,000 and a flourishing business. To put that in perspective, bear in mind that D'Arcy from Pride & Prejudice was considered a rich man with an annual income of £10,000. In 1803, the annual brewery output was over 20,000 barrels. With Arthur’s son and namesake, Arthur II, at the helm, the brewery expanded its links to the Isle of Man in 1810, Lisbon in 1811, Bristol in 1819 and the Channel Islands in 1822. By 1840, you could drink the famous black stout in Trinidad, Sierra Leone, Barbados and New York. And by 1855, Arthur II’s son, Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, was the richest man in Ireland.

With thanks to Eoghan Corry, Art Kavanagh, Regina Lavelle, Martyn Cornell and Eibhlin Roche of the Guinness Archives.

Up arrowOther Titles