‘Dickie Beamish would be turning in his grave’

IT SURVIVED famine, wars and recessions but there was anger on the streets of Cork yesterday after a boardroom decision to close the country’s oldest brewery.

One of the city’s best-known characters said Ireland, and not just Cork, will lose part of its heart and soul when Dutch brewing giant Heineken closes the 1792 founded Beamish & Crawford next year.

Comedy legend Billa O’Connell, 79, a former Beamish sales rep and one of its best known faces, said the firm’s great figurehead, Richard (Dickie) Beamish, would be disgusted.

“I knew Dickie Beamish well and he’d be turning in his grave. The company meant so much to him. A huge piece of Cork has gone,” said Billa.

A total of 120 people will lose their jobs when the axe falls on Beamish next March as a result of Heineken’s multibillion euro takeover of Scottish & Newcastle.

Heineken boss Gerrit van Loo described the Beamish closure decision as the most difficult faced by the Dutch brewing giants since they first arrived on the Irish market in 1983.

Standing on the banks of the Lee on the city’s famed South Gate Bridge, just a stone’s throw from the historic brewery, Billa reflected as 400 years of brewing history comes to an end.

“It was more like working with family than with a company,” he said.

“Look around you. You’ve got the South Gate Bridge, the Elizabeth Fort, St Fin Barre’s Cathedral — this place in reeking with tradition and history.

“It’s the real heart of old Cork. The brewery was a central part of that and now it’s gone.

“Generations worked there — the O’Learys, the Kenneallys, the Barretts — it really was a great place with a tremendous atmosphere.

“They were a lovely company to work for — decent and kind, and very kind to me when I was doing pantomime.

“I’d be missing, doing a matinee, and nothing was said but they would know where I was.”

He recalled with fondness how Mr Beamish, wearing a carnation and matching handkerchief, would join him on sales calls.

“He was a well-educated man. He dressed like a model, in the best of suits,” said Billa.

“I remember one day we were at a regatta that Beamish was sponsoring down by Páirc Uí Chaoimh. I was hungry and I went up to a chip van and got chips and two sausages.

“I turned around and there was Dickie Beamish — the president of the company — sitting down behind the van, eating the very same thing. He was a gentleman and he had the common touch.

“Another time we were in a pub in Crosshaven and he bought a pint.

“And the barman says to him as he handed it over: ‘And what’s your name?’

“Beamish, he said. And the barman says: ‘That’s right boy! And my name is Guinness.

“Well, he got such a roasting from the publican.”

Billa attended every traditional post All-Ireland luncheon for Cork’s senior hurlers and footballers at the brewery’s legendary hospitality suite.

“Every Tuesday after the final, win, lose or draw, the team would come in for a lovely meal, a few pints and a sing song.

“Ray Cummins told me one day that it was the best and nicest part of his All-Ireland weekend.

“There was one time when Cork won an All-Ireland semi-final and Kevin Hennessy came into the dressing room after and said: ‘Well lads, at least we’re in Beamish’s anyway!’

“That’s what it meant to them.”

Billa will join retired colleagues for their Christmas party next Tuesday amid concerns that it could be their last.

“It will be a sad, sad occasion,” he said.

City manager Joe Gavin said it was a sad to see the end of such a long tradition of brewing at such a historic location.

“From the city council’s point of view, we were happy to see two breweries in the city centre. They gave great character and intimacy to the city,” he said.

And he said the brewery’s famous listed and protected 200-year-old mock Tudor style front will have to be maintained as part of any future possible development of the site.

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