Up until the early 1700s, brewing on a large scale was a rarity, this resulted in many small breweries springing up all around the country, with little or no consistency in the beer that was being produced. Back then, to guarantee that each pint was as good as the last, required brewing on a bigger, more exacting scale.
Enter Mr. Sullivan, a man of high morals, integrity and a good nose for great beer. Through his belief and hard work he established a brewery the likes of which had never been seen in Kilkenny. He only used the very best local ingredients and the very best brewing methods to ensure that every barrel of Sullivan’s Red Ale that left his brewery was as good as the one that had gone before.
After one particularly heated parliamentary quarrel, O’Connell even called a boycott of Sullivan’s Ale by the people of Kilkenny. But you’ll know if you’ve ever had a pint of Sullivan’s Red Ale in front of you that it can be very hard to resist, and the boycott was soon called off.
Despite this rocky start, Richard and Daniel went on to become firm friends. So good in fact, that when O’Connell was stripped of his seat in Parliament due to some underhand dealings, Sullivan was one of the few who had his back. He wrote to Daniel and offered him his seat to ensure that O’Connell’s Catholic Emancipation Act would get through Parliament.
The year marked the beginning of the Great Potato Famine, a dark chapter in the country’s history that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and the emigration of millions more. By day Richard Sullivan continued to brew his by-then world famous ale, but at mealtimes and in the evenings, the brewery transformed into one of Kilkenny’s largest soup kitchens. Brewery staff served tasty, nutritious meals to those most in need, using many of the same ingredients essential to the making of Sullivan’s Red Ale – and giving a whole new meaning to the expression of being ‘On The Soup’.
This gesture of goodwill and kindness was never forgotten by the people of Kilkenny and it’s a big part of the reason why the Sullivan Family is held in high esteem in the city to this day.
The story goes that the Sullivan Family took the day off brewing to attend the funeral of a recently departed family friend in a Kilkenny hilltop chapel. Leaving a funeral before all the formalities were completed was the height of bad manners. The Sullivans could see the brewery ablaze from the hillside, but could do nothing about it.
As the first flames began to lick the outside of the brewery, the alarm was raised and the local fire brigade was sent for. But The Kilkenny Fire Brigade consisted of a few volunteers, a horse and a cart and a useless, leaking hose. Due to all their good deeds over the years, the Sullivans were a tremendously popular family in Kilkenny, so men, women and children from far and wide rallied together and grabbed the nearest buckets, pales and pots, filling them with water and battling the fire. Within an hour the fire was under control and the brewery was saved, all because a community came together.
The hard work and backbreaking toil of Master Sullivan’s predecessors had left a thriving and profitable business to inherit, but he did not care much for the art of brewing. His passions were for the dice. It was at Deauville Racecourse, France on a fateful day in August 1918, that the shot of the starting pistol sent shock waves all the way back to Kilkenny. Legend has it that, in an attempt to impress a beautiful young lady from an aristocratic French family, Master Sullivan made a wager with a rival Venetian Count for her hand through a high-stakes bet on a horse. And as his horse lost spectacularly, Master Sullivan knew he was in a spot of bother.
Faced with either paying the Count in full or facing the count in a duel, Sullivan – more a lover than a fighter – went with the first option and within a year the doors shut on Sullivan’s Brewery.
Over the coming decades, the independent breweries that were once synonymous with Kilkenny began to drop off one by one, until its final working brewery sadly closed its doors in 2013. However, there wasn’t long to wait for a change of fortunes for Kilkenny-brewed ale, as 2016 saw two great families coming together to return traditional Irish brewing to its spiritual home.
The Smithwick Family in partnership with direct descendants of the Sullivan Family had a vision to re-open the once-great brewery in the city where it all began. They enlisted the help of Ian Hamilton, one of Ireland’s most eminent contemporary master-brewers. Together they are bringing artisan brewing back to Kilkenny. If people thought that brewing in Kilkenny was dead and buried, they are in for a rude awakening…