How Guinness went from anti-Catholic to king of St. Patrick's

Photo via Flickr/Charlotte Marillet

How Guinness went from anti-Catholic to king of St. Patrick's

Beer + Breweries

How Guinness went from anti-Catholic to king of St. Patrick's

It is hard to imagine a brand, let alone another brewery, that has it made like Guinness does. The 259-year-old beer is almost inextricably linked with its country of origin, Ireland, and the global Irish diaspora celebrates its heritage once a year by participating in a veritable orgy of wearing green and drinking Guinness. When I went to the local boozery a few days ago, there were four full palettes of Guinness draught cans laid out, with three of them already empty.

Irish heritage festivals aside, Guinness is weirdly ubiquitous for a foreign beer that requires a more-laborious-than-average pour and isn’t a virtually flavorless light pilsner. Its taste isn’t even all that acclaimed, at least if you ask BeerAdvocate, the internet’s premier beer snob site, ranks it 40,827th globally.

The brewery sells about 220 million gallons of it per year, and an estimated 13 million people will drink a Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day alone. Make it a habit when you go into a bar from now on to check if they have Guinness on tap. If it’s not a microbrewery, and you’re in the United States, they almost certainly do. And if you’re visiting Ireland, take some time to go to the most popular tourist attraction on the Emerald Isle – no, not the Cliffs of Moher, the Book of Kells, or the Blarney stone: The Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.

How did this happen? How does a good-but-not-great Irish dry stout basically get its own holiday?

Genius marketing and world records

Guinness was popular before it needed to be marketed. For the first century and a half of its existence, it didn’t really spend on advertising. It just relied on word of mouth, and that was enough: in the 1880’s, when Guinness first went public, it was already one of the most popular beers on the British Isles, and in the 1930’s, it became the seventh largest business in the world.

But around the same time, sales slipped, and the company began its first major advertising campaign. John Gilroy, an artist at the S.H. Benson advertisement agency, began drawing ads that featured a zookeeper trying to keep the animals (most notably a toucan) from drinking Guinness. The drawings featured slogans like “My goodness, my Guinness” and “Guinness makes you strong,” and are, to this day, still hanging in many Irish-American pubs and dorm rooms. The punk band Against Me! even wrote a song based on the slogan, “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong.”

Since then, Guinness’ ad game has been on point. Probably the biggest coup was in the 50s, when the managing director of Guinness, Sir Hugh Beaver (real name, I promise) went hunting in the North Slob (real place, I promise) in Ireland, and failed to shoot a bird. He complained that it was because the bird he shot at was the fastest game hunting bird in Europe, and someone disagreed. A debate started, and it continued at the pub. Sir Hugh Beaver couldn’t find a book to confirm his “fastest bird” claim, and he realized that similar debates were likely occurring in pubs throughout the British Isles.

Wouldn’t it be nice, he thought, if there was a book that contained that information that was available at every bar? And wouldn’t it be even nicer if that book had an advertisement for Guinness stamped across the front? He hired a fact-finding agency, and the Guinness Book of World Records was born.

Cultural amnesia and diasporas

A big part of Guinness’ success globally is probably not due to the brand itself, but due to the Irish diaspora. The island itself is currently home to some 6.5 million people, but nearly 80 million people of Irish descent live outside the country, including 36 million here in the United States (this writer included). Political unrest, economic hardship and the famous potato famine of the 1840s contributed to huge numbers of Irish emigrating to other countries, and they brought their culture with them.

Guinness was already established in Ireland at the start of the diaspora and had been shipping to the United States since 1817. So homesick Irish immigrants in the Americas could have turned to a familiar beer for a bit of comfort. On St. Patrick’s Day in particular, they would reach for the only Irish beer available.

More recently, though, Guinness’s spread has been more calculated. You’ll notice if you walk into most Irish pubs in America, that the decorations tend to all be very similar, and that there are usually Guinness advertisements on the walls. This is because in the 90s, Guinness partnered with the Irish Pub Company and began opening pubs all around the world – they are now in 52 countries, and they look fairly similar regardless of where you are. In the United States, you may have been to a Fado’s Irish Pub: that’s a product of Guinness and the Irish Pub Company.

Protestant roots

A slightly ironic twist to the St. Patrick’s Day connection is that Guinness was not traditionally a Catholic company. St. Patrick was a Catholic and the patron saint of Ireland, and the colors of the day are drenched in the symbols of the Protestant-Catholic struggles of Ireland. Orange is traditionally recognized as the color of the Protestants, while Green is the color of the Catholics. You can still find Irish people in New York and New Jersey, for example, who will take offense to wearing orange or even serving carrots on St. Patrick’s Day. But Guinness wouldn’t hire Catholics until well into the 20th century. If an employee wanted to marry a Catholic, they were asked to resign. Arthur Guinness, the founder of the company, was a pro-English Protestant and Unionist.

But as any Irish native will tell you, St. Patrick’s Day in the rest of the world has become detached slightly from its original roots. In an Irish pub near me, there are pro-IRA signs hanging in the bathroom, and one suspects that most American Irish don’t fully grasp the implications of what that means, or the possible irony of being a nominal “Free Ireland” partisan while also drinking the beer of an anti-Catholic unionist. Politics, it seems, comes and goes, but Guinness is forever.


More Eat Sip Trip