Matt. D’Arcy & Old Newry Whiskies
by Michael McKeown | Old Newry Publications | 9780956055026 | £11.99
This book is a product of the author’s ambition to revive the Matt. D’Arcy distillery in Newry. Michael McKeown was inspired to do this when he came across a poster for D’Arcy’s whiskey and was so impressed by it that he had to find out more. That striking poster provides the cover for this book. McKeown is not just a successful businessman but also a chronicler of his adopted city. He has already published other books on the history of Newry and so it was to be expected that once he got involved with reviving the D’Arcy distillery, that he would want to delve into its history. Incidentally, he did succeed in reopening the distillery, and in 2020 it won three awards in the prestigious International Whisky Competition. It is an outstanding example of the recent revival in whiskey-distilling in Ireland.
The book itself is a work of art. It is beautifully designed, with lots of colour and black-and-white illustrations. There is a good story to be told here and McKeown tells it well. He follows the vagaries of the history of the D’Arcy and related families through two centuries in a way that draws the reader in. This is not a narrowly focused book, however, as it takes in the Boer War and events across the Atlantic. It is also, in its way, a history of Newry, as the people involved with the distillery also played a key role in local politics and the development of Newry as a commercial centre.
Matthew D’Arcy, the founder of the firm, was active in Newry politics as well as business. He was elected as a Town Commissioner when they were established in 1828, while his business associate, Denis Maguire, was elected Chairman, successfully being re-elected to the post up to 1861. They were both associated with liberal politics and supported the repeal of the Act of Union. Matthew D’Arcy died childless and, in his will, left the business to the family of his sister Mary Cashel Hoey. The oldest of this family and one of the heirs, John Cashel Hoey, was, along with John Mitchel, a Young Irelander. He wrote for the Nation, and took over as editor from Charles Gavan Duffy. He went on to have a successful career in Australia and New Zealand.
In 1879 John J. O’Hagan retired from his large drapery business and became a partner in the firm of Matt. D’Arcy & Co. along with Thomas D’Arcy Hoey. O’Hagan was eventually to become the sole owner of the enterprise. His father, Charles, had been a Town Commissioner with Matt D’Arcy and John J. O’Hagan himself served as Chairman of the Newry Town Commissioners. In that capacity, in 1868, he began a six-year legal battle against attempts to establish a monopoly over the town’s water supply by a private company. The case finally ended up before the House of Lords, resulting in victory for the Town Commissioners.
As well as the family and social history, this book tells us a lot about the actual process of distilling and how it developed over the centuries. McKeown manages to make the ostensibly dull subjects of legal requirements and taxation interesting with his conversational style and deft use of anecdotes. He also shows us the international significance of Irish whiskey and gives some examples of clever marketing that would not be out of place today. For example, when the Boer War broke out, another Newry distiller, Thomson, was the first to send whiskey to the British troops, thus gaining a lot of favourable publicity (from all sides when it was discovered that the Boers were drinking it too!).
Like all good local histories, this book has a relevance and appeal beyond its locality. I would not hesitate to recommend it as the ideal Christmas present for the whiskey lover or local history buff in your life.
Consultant Editor, Books ireland.