Cormac MacConnell: End of the Big House, birth of a famous beer

Famous Guinness ads since 1929 are now on display at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin: about 170 years earlier, the drink may have been invented in Roscommon, according to local lore. Picture: Robbie Reynolds

I passed through the gentle town of Strokestown in North Roscommon earlier this week, on my way to a great wedding in Galway.

It was my first sight of Strokestown for many years, though I knew the town well decades ago, and always liked it and its citizens.

I had not time to stop, but the sight of the entrance to Strokestown House at the heart of the town triggered the recollection of one very special evening back in the Seventies, and the concurrent and connected recall of a great yarn which, in all honesty, I cannot prove to be the pure truth.

A great yarn nevertheless. and I just have to let it fly.

Before that though, I have to tell ye about the afternoon I visited Stokestown House for the first and only time.

It was in the interim months after it had been reluctantly left behind by the last of the genteel and powerful Pakenham-Mahon family, whose home the huge Georgian mansion had been for generations. It was being purchased by a local family who were at that time, I think, involved in the motor trade.

The last Pakenham-Mahons who had resided there had been two spinster sisters.

Old age and infirmity drove them from their natural upstairs habitat to the downstairs area of the servants who had previously served the family.

That area had been converted into a comfortable apartment. No more stairs to climb. One sister passed away eventually, and the other had to spend her last days in a nursing home.

She had moved there shortly before I passed through the front door, to write a story about the old Palladian mansion, which the new owners were going to preserve and develop as the unique attraction which it is today. Fair play to them on all fronts.

I will never forget what I experienced that evening.

One felt the old ladies were still in residence. Their spirits were still strongly present. On a table in the apartment, for example, a photo album was lying open to show the photographs of their debs year in high London society. They were very young and very beautiful.

Upstairs, there was a gun-room with the fowler’s shotguns leaning against the wall, the tweed hats studded with the bright flies that were lethal for the local trout in the rivers, the snowshoes for the annual European skiing winters beloved by those who lived in the Big Houses of wealth and privilege.

Much more too. Higher up in the living quarters, there were hugely ornate four-poster double beds, in which were conceived the babies who later filled the huge high prams in the corners of the nursery.

Even teddy bears with big brown eyes.

And away downstairs, in the large kitchen area, over the giant iron stoves, the line of pull-operated bells which summoned the maids to come upstairs with the family breakfasts and lunches and dinners.

Icons of another era. It was a memorable experience, and I gather that much of what I saw that day has been preserved in the house today.

But, finally and with relish, to the yarn I heard in the town that evening. Outside the gates of the Big House is an hotel, which I was told was once a traditional alehouse in the old days. They brewed their own ale, as was fashionably necessary at the time, and, at one stage, their best customer was the butler from the Big House.

He had a mighty thirst altogether on him. One evening, there was a local disaster in that alehouse, because the servant in charge accidentally overcooked the ale. It turned thick and black, and the locals turned up their noses at it.

However, the thirsty butler, when he arrived in after serving dinner for the Pakenham-Mahons, still chanced a pint of the black stuff, then two or three more, and had a quiet chat with the lad in the doghouse who had burnt the ale.

A week later, according to the yarn anyway, he handed in his notice, returned to his home in Kildare, and shortly afterwards launched a black ale on the market which later came to be called Guinness!

That is the yarn told to me in Strokestown. I somehow hope it is the pure truth.


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