History

A rare bird indeed

Gavin Smith looks at the history of Phoenix Park in Dublin.
By Gavin D. Smith
The name ‘Phoenix Park’ resonates in the Irish consciousness. It has been described as “Dublin’s playground” and is the largest urban, enclosed park in Europe. In its time ‘The Park’ has played host to motor racing and horse racing, and on 6th May 1882 the newly arrived chief secretary of Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his under-secretary, Thomas Burke,were stabbed to death there by members of the Invincibles, a radical Irish nationalist secret society.Alfred Barnard wrote, after passing through ‘The Park’ in 1886, that “Of late years it has received terrible notoriety from the foul murder of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Mr Burke, under circumstances of brutality never surpassed, the details of which must be strong in the memory of all.” At the time, Barnard was on his way to visit a relatively recently established distillery, named after Phoenix Park, and it is one which claims a unique place in Irish distilling history.For devotees of whisk(e)y themed quizzes and trivia it is worth noting that Phoenix Park is the only Irish distillery to have been established by a Scottish distiller. The distiller in question was the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), familiar to regular readers of this feature for the role it played in sustaining the Scotch whisky industry through some tough economic times in the years between the two World Wars,and then for its radical programme of distillery closures during the 1980s.In 1878 the DCL had only been in existence for a matter of months, yet the fledgling organisation grasped the economic sense in expanding across the Irish Sea and developing its own Dublin distillery. In order to understand why, it is necessary to appreciate the strong sales that Irish whiskey enjoyed in the UK at this time.Whiskey distilled in Dublin boasted a premium of up to 25 per cent over its Scottish cousins, and the DCL was quick to appreciate the economic advantages of having its own, guaranteed source of Irish whiskey.Accordingly, the company purchased a former spinning mill at Chapelizod, located on a six-acre site beside the River Liffey and close to Phoenix Park. It was bought from the receiver for £26,250 and was rapidly converted into a pot still distillery, with maltings also being constructed.The distillery opened in November 1878 under the management of William Stein.Following his visit, Alfred Barnard wrote that “The Still House is a fine building, and fitted with every appliance. It contains four pot stills, holding 5,000, 11,000, 12,000 and 18,000 gallons respectively, all of them heated by furnaces. There is no steam power on the premises, the Liffey supplying all the motive power required,by means of a waterwheel, which stretches right across the river, and is said to be the largest in the kingdom…” Although comparatively small by the prevailing scale of Irish distilling operations, Phoenix Park distillery produced some 350,000 gallons of spirit per year from its quartet of pot stills and was actually larger than any Scottish pot still plant of the day.According to Barnard,“The make is called Dublin Whisky, and the annual output finds a market chiefly in London (pictured above) and the Colonies.” It is also likely that DCL blended quantities of the Phoenix Park ‘make’ with that of its Scottish grain distilleries before offering it for sale.The distillery survived until 1921, when, as EB McGuire explains in Irish Whiskey,“…it ceased producing following a policy of the company to reduce output and concentrate its activities to Scotland. At the time the danger of over-production was a serious menace. It was also a time of serious civil strife and uncertainty which would doubtless greatly influence the decision of a Scottish-based firm.” DCL continued to list Phoenix Park in its inventory of distilleries until 1930,perhaps in relation to existing stocks of spirit, but exactly when it finally severed its ties with the site is not clear.Today, much of the original distillery remains intact, with some buildings dilapidated and unused, while others have been converted into apartments.Although its existence as a distillery was comparatively brief, Phoenix Park played a notable role in the early history of DCL. There is, alas, no prospect of this Phoenix rising from the ashes...