Nun’s Island

The below is taken from The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom by Alfred Barnard first published in 1887.

Nun’s Island Distillery, Galway.

IT was very early when we started from Tullamore for Galway. The morning was one of enchanting loveliness, and, as it afterwards turned out, too bright to last. Insects on leaf and flower were busy in the coolness of the morning, the rivulets rippled musically along amid the creepers and ferns, and the brilliant sun threw his rays on the many-hued foliage of the trees, the whole presenting a rare picture of summer beauty.

“Sweet day! so cool, so calm, so bright,The bridal of the earth and sky;The dews shall weep thy fall to-night,For thou must die.“Herbert.

We were travelling through the so-called discontented country, but could see no signs of agitators; the peasantry that we noticed at the railway stations, or from the carriage windows, looked neither ferocious nor turbulent; on the contrary, they looked merry and contented amidst their poverty and distress. The genuine Irish peasant is full of gentleness and affection, and although sometimes indolent, is generous, frank, and hospitable. We have seen them pass suddenly from the wildest and most extravagant gaiety, to a brief melancholy that is very touching, at other times displaying an impetuous courage that nothing could arrest; and it is well known that they are passionately fond of their home and country. As we passed along, we could help noticing that their dwellings and little farm buildings were dreadfully out of repair and fast falling into decay, and it was quite evident that they were not let out on repairing leases. There was a motley crowd outside the principal stations as we passed along, and at one of these, where we changed carriages, we noticed a number of poor people, but no outward signs of a Nationalist amongst them; the many-vestured gossipers were happy enough telling stories and relating local scandal. The whole group composed a fertile study for lovers of the novel and picturesque. Most of them were dressed in garments which had evidently reposed in the obscurity of an old clothes’ shop. One man had an ancient ragged-tail coat, far too small for him, the cuffs reaching just below the elbows; another a frock coat, the tails of which touched the ground; and it was very amusing to see how proud he was of this latter feature. A bright-eyed looking fellow was very happy in the possession of a soldier’s faded tunic, and a pair of fustian knee-breeches in the last stage of consumption. Our first stoppage was at Athlone, built on both sides of the river Shannon, a garrison town, and considered one of the most important military positions in the Kingdom. We next passed Ballinasloe, celebrated for its annual fair for cattle, sheep, and horses, to which buyers from all parts of the Kingdom and the Continent resort. At Athenry we broke our journey for an hour to visit this old place, which was once a celebrated ecclesiastical city, but now a town of ruins. Whilst inspecting the remains of the old castle the weather changed, and we were glad to take shelter on the railway station. There is a branch line from Athenry to Tuam, and we regretted afterwards that we did not go up to see “the most splendid Catholic cathedral in Ireland.” Resuming our journey, in less than an hour we arrived at our destination. As you approach Galway, “City of the Tribes,” the general aspect is wild and gloomy, and the eye is seldom relieved by trees or landscape. The monotony is broken only by sterile hills, and the grass makes its way with difficulty through the stony surface. On arriving at the hotel we changed our damp garments, and fortified ourselves with a draught from the Nun’s Island Stills to keep out the cold. Galway is situated most advantageously at the head of the Bay, and is built on both sides of a river issuing from Lough Corrib, which is crossed by two bridges. It is arranged on the plan of a Spanish town, many of the old houses being quadrangular, with an open court and arched gateway. In the Middle Ages Galway did a great trade with Spain, and many Spanish merchants settled there. Some of the houses they built still exist. We visited one of them, and found that it had been divided into small tenements, and was inhabited by several families.

Galway will always be memorable for the event which took place therein during 1493. James Fitzstephen Lynch was a wine merchant, and sent his only son to Spain with a purse of gold to purchase a cargo of wine. The son spent the money in riotous living, and purchased the wine on credit, bringing back with him in the ship the son of the wine-grower to visit his father and receive the money for the cargo. On the voyage young Lynch had the lad killed by his seamen, and swore them to secrecy with bribes. Some years afterwards, one of the seamen dying, disclosed to the father of Lynch, who was now a Judge, the history of the murder. Judge Lynch immediately had his son arrested and brought to trial, when he himself sentenced him to death. To prevent an intended rescue, this more than Roman father hanged his son from a window of his own house, under which we saw carved a skull and cross-bones in memory of the tragic event.

During the reign of Henry VIII. Galway supplied nearly the whole of the Kingdom with wine, for which purpose they had most extensive vaults at Athboy, the ruins of which, however, are still to be seen. The trade has declined, and the wine is no longer imported to Galway, but the manufacture of Whisky has now taken its place. Lough Corrib discharges its mighty volume of water through Galway in a foaming torrent, that would turn all the mills in Manchester. Alas! it is turned to little account, except for working the water-wheels of the Distillery and two or three flour-mills. This river is crossed, as we have mentioned before, by two bridges, and is as clear and rapid as the Rhone. It supplies all the water used in the works we were visiting, and about to describe.

The Nun’s Island Distillery was established at the beginning of the century, and is the only Distillery in Connaught. It was purchased from the Encumbered Estates Court in the year 1840, by the father of the present proprietor, who considerably enlarged and improved it. Prior to that date, from 1815 to the period mentioned, it belonged to the Joyce family. During Mr. Persse senior’s occupation, he turned the distillery into a woollen factory, and it quickly became noted for its excellent friezes, but when the trade for this article declined, and Mr. Persse’s lease of Newcastle Distillery expired, he restored the works at Nun’s Island to their original business, and carried on all his distillery operations there. The Distillery is planted on the centre of a small island, formed by the fork of the River Corrib, and is reached by a bridge from the main road. We entered by a stone gateway into a large triangular courtyard, round which are ranged a series of buildings. As you enter the yard the first object that strikes the eye is a large circular tank, elevated on stout iron columns, painted a bright scarlet, and which can be seen above the stone walls from the outside of the premises. We first visited the Maltings and Corn Stores, two lofty stone buildings on the right-hand side; five floors therein are devoted to the storage of corn and two for malting purposes, these latter have cement floors. Attached to this building, and up a few steps, is the Kiln, a lofty apartment, 40 feet square, whilst the Malt Deposit is at the rear of the general offices, and is an ingeniously constructed place, being almost hermetically sealed to prevent the action of the air. We then entered the Stone Loft, which is the top floor of the Mill building, where the malt and dried corn is pulverized through six pairs of stones, driven by a water-wheel. The ground floor of this building is used for taking in the barley from the farmer’s carts; also the mill machinery. Adjoining is the Grist Loft, 145 feet by 43 feet; it is placed underneath the two Corn Lofts. We were then conducted to the Brew House, next door, an elegant building, and quite equal to any we have seen in Ireland. It contains two Mash Tuns, 27 feet in diameter and 8 feet deep, with the improved mashing gear driven by water power. Under the floor of this room are two Underbacks of a proportionate size, from which the worts are pumped up to the Coolers on the roof. Passing through a doorway on the right we came to the Back House, wherein are placed thirteen Washbacks, each holding about 18,000 gallons, and switched by machinery.

The Wash Charger is outside this building, and commands the Stills. It is a fine vessel and holds 16,000 gallons. Connected with the back House is the Still House, a neat and well-lighted building, which contains a Wash Still, holding 16,000 gallons, Spirit Still 10,000 gallons and a Low-wines Still 6,000 gallons; also five Receivers of various capacities, and the Safe and Sampling Safe. The Worm Tub is in the open, and consists of a metal tank, 42 feet long, 18 feet wide and 10

Retracing our steps we visited the Spirit Store, conveniently arranged, and which contains a Vat, which holds 12,000 gallons, and from thence to the five Warehouses which are distributed over the premises. At the time of our visit they contained 5,000 casks of Whisky. Adjoining the Maltings there is a capital Smithy, Joiners’ and Painters’ Shops, etc.; and, at the end of the yard, Cart Sheds, Stables, and Store Houses. On the left, as you enter the gateway, are the Offices for the Distillery and Excise officers, the former contain private rooms for the Principal and Manager, and general clerks’ offices.

For the prevention of fire, hose and pipes are laid all over the premises, there being an inexhaustible supply of water on all all sides.

The make is called Galway Whisky, and the output is 10,000 gallons, 25 o.p., weekly, or annually about 400,000 gallons.

Images of Nun’s Island