31 December 1759: Ireland’s most famous drink is born

Arthur Guinness launches his beer empire in the city of Dublin

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In the last day of 1759, a young man signed a 9,000-year lease on a dilapidated brewery on James Street, Dublin, for which he agreed to pay the sum of £45 a year.

His name was Arthur Guinness and he now enjoys near-legendary status in the Republic of Ireland. He was a member of the island’s Protestant Anglo-Irish elite. His father was a land steward for the archbishop of Cashel, but Arthur had decided to make his living as a brewer.

Since, at the time, there were already some 70 breweries in Dublin, it might have been thought that Guinness stood little chance of success. The country’s most popular drinks tended to be spirits and the quality of its beer was generally low. But Guinness’s business boomed, and by 1767 he had been elected master of the Dublin Corporation of Brewers.

By the time Guinness died, almost 40 years later, his brewery was turning out some 20,000 barrels of the black stuff every year. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, it was the biggest brewery in the British empire.

The key to Guinness’s success was his embrace of porter, a drink that for decades had been associated with London’s street and river porters. It was a dark, heavy beer, made from roasted barley and much more flavoursome than the thin ales then associated with Dublin’s brewers.

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Contrary to popular belief, however, it has evolved considerably since then. Who knows whether Arthur would recognise the drink inside the bottles that, even today, still carry his signature?

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

31 December 1600
Birth of the East India Company as Elizabeth I granted a Royal Charter to a consortium of London merchants giving them a monopoly of trade with all companies east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan.
31 December 1877 
The French realist painter Gustave Courbet dies in Switzerland.
31 December 1908
Birth in Buczacz, Austria-Hungary of Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. His work at the Jewish Documentation Centre in Vienna will lead to the arrest of over 1,000 Nazi war criminals.
31 December 1912
British soldier and paratrooper John Frost was born in Pune, India. During Operation Market Garden, Frost commanded the 2nd Parachute Battalion, which he led into Arnhem where they held out for four days before being forced to surrender.
31 December 1981
Former flight lieutenant Jerry Rawlings overthrew the Ghanaian government of President Hilla Limann and seized power for a second time.

Browse more On this day in history

Authors

Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

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