Thomas Ryan was born in Toomevara, Co Tipperary in 1873, the eldest of the 12 children of farmer Michael Ryan and his wife Maria née Troy. Michael and Maria’s own parents lived through the Great Famine (1845-52), when Tipperary saw its share of tragedy (25% drop in population 1841-51). An already established pattern of emigration from Ireland to the New World had increased 8- to 10-fold. This saw the population of the island of Ireland halve from 8 million to 4m between 1845 and 1930 (while that of Europe as a whole doubled, and that of Great Britain rose from 18m to 46m). By 2015, the combined population of the Republic and Northern Island has only recovered to 6.5 m, while that of Britain has soared to 62m. Is there any other comparable country that has less people now than say, 150 years ago?!
During Thomas’ childhood, all of Europe was in turmoil; countries such as Germany and Italy were forming, there were republican movements across the continent, both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were unravelling, and the Balkans was a real hotspot. Ireland too was going through its usual cycle of grudging acceptance of the Union with Britain, and resistance, even rebellion. Much later in his life, in 1916, a year after the birth of his son Jack, Thomas was to see this turmoil visit his own doorstep, as rebels and soldiers (with Irishmen on both sides) exchanged fire at Mount Street Bridge on Northumberland Road, a hundred yards from his pub, the Beggars Bush on Haddington Road Dublin (considered by many to be, after London, the second city of the British Empire).
And what was the state and status of Irish whiskey around the time of Thomas’ birth, given the subsequent development of the Ryan family tradition, through son and scion Jack, to Eunan and his brothers now? Ah now, there’s a story and a half, a story of the half one! When Thomas Ryan was a boy, there were 5 distilleries within 50 miles of the Ryan farm in Tipperary. Archibald Walker had the Limerick Distillery, Bernard Daly the Tullamore Distillery, John Locke had the Brusna in Kilbeggan, W & J Wallace operated the Parsonstown in Birr and Cassidy & Co owned the Monasterevin. All were visited by Barnard between 1885-7 and found to be in good fettle, most investing in expansion, to feed a solid local and rapidly growing worldwide demand. When Thomas died in 1949, the only one of these still distilling was the Brusna, and it was on its last legs. Irish whiskey was down. But not out!
Whereas Thomas Ryan was a farmer’s son from Tipperary, and served a long apprenticeship in the licensed trade, his son Jack was born into it. He was a Dubliner and grew up in the business, the boy apprenticed to the father, the Beggars bush and Ryan’s Malt part of his DNA. By his teens he was adept at bottling beer and spirits, serving customers, operating off-license sales, accounting, dealing with brewers and distillers. And of course, selecting whiskey to finish, bottle, serve and sell.
His was a city world, and his neck of it – Ballsbridge, Lansdowne and Haddington Roads – hustled and bustled. Rugby in Lansdowne Road. Horse Shows in the RDS. Writers and poets in every which direction (American poet John Berryman a particular friend). Characters, businessmen, clerics, workers, civil servants, traders, the whole panoply of Dubliners.
His children remember Jack as a consummate publican, listening to his customers, soothing, advising, sometimes admonishing. Standards had to be maintained. Quality of drink and quality of service were foremost. Ryan’s Malt was a big part of the Beggars Bush. At a time when off-licenses were few, customers bought their whiskey from their publican, and reputations were often made and lost, based on the quality of the malt on offer. The Beggars Bush clientele liked their whiskey and loved their Ryan’s Malt.
Back in those days, the licensed trade was just that – a trade that took a lot of learning, and was much respected in the community. The priest, the publican, the bank manager, the teacher, the policeman; pillars. When a customer died, the publican was prominent at the wake and his attendance both expected and much appreciated.
The Beggars Bush prospered but Jack found it increasingly difficult to source the malts he wanted. Irish whiskey-making was in freefall by the 1950’s and Ryan’s Malt went into a long hibernation. Jack died too young, in 1977, and friends and customers were so numerous at St Mary’s church (where he’d been baptised) just up from the Beggars Bush, that the road had to be closed and traffic diverted.
Whereas there were around 30 distilleries in Ireland when Thomas Ryan was born, at the time of Jack’s death, only one of these was left – Bushmills. However, the new distillery in Midleton had been built by the regrouping Dublin and Cork distillery survivors, and Teeling’s arrival on the scene with Cooley, was tantalising. It’s nice to imagine that Jack could see a revival on the cards, maybe even a Ryan comeback. Here’s to him!
Dublin Distilling and the Ryans
Jones Road, Jack Ryan, Ryan’s Malt
Dublin boasted the biggest and best whiskey distilleries in the world when Thomas was a young man arriving to find his fame and fortune in Dublin City. How had this come about? Thomas’ grandparents were almost certainly more likely to buy the whiskey they drank from illicit sources (poteen makers), yet the legal distilleries had bounced back to dominate young Thomas’ world, when Irish whiskey dominated the world.
And then after another cycle, his own grandchildren lived through the 1960’s when there was the distinct possibility that the last few distilleries left in Ireland would go cold forever. As it turned out though, it might have looked like the beginning of the end, but it was only the end of the beginning. It’s now begun, and Jack Ryan Beggars Bush whiskey is there to prove it.
Thomas Ryan and Jones Road
1873, the year Thomas Ryan was born, also saw the stills heated up for the first time in the Jones Road Distillery. Thomas (1873-1949) and son Jack (1915-1977), were to source much of their whiskey from this establishment, maturing and finishing it as Ryan’s Malt.
Malt beside Boru
Jones Road Distillery was built in Clontarf, on the northern edge of Dublin, beside the Tolka river, across the bay from Haddington Road and the Beggars Bush. It was yards from the battle site where the old King Brian Boru defeated a force of Danes in 1014, losing his own life in the struggle The seven businessmen who put up the cash to build the Jones Road Distillery, though not born into the whiskey trade, knew the outstanding reputation of Irish whiskey. A limited company, Dublin Whiskey Distillery was set up (capital £100,000, with the 200 shares split between the 7 directors).
“Best and Latest” – Barnard
Steam engines and the Tolka turned the wheels that drove the water used (itself sourced from a 100-foot well drilled on the site). Maltings were bought and leased in Russell Place and Cork Street. Experienced staff were enticed and poached from Dublin rivals, attracted by the financial incentives and also by the advanced technology of this new distillery. Barnard visited in 1886 and regarded it as having the best and latest equipment. He visited all distilleries in the UK – including the 29 then in Ireland – between 1885 and 1887, and wrote the resulting monumental “The Whiskey Distilleries of the United Kingdom”.
Jones Rd Amalgamates, Thomas Ryan apprentices
There was a fly in the ointment however. Although the whiskey was top-class, Jones Road started up just as that 19th century golden age of Irish whiskey was ending and a perfect storm was approaching. The timing was bad. The “full sea” of Irish Whiskey had been and gone and the investors were not seasoned or seaworthy for what was to come. Jones Road never reached its 800,000-gallon annual output capacity. As the whiskey markets fell, there were amalgamations. George Roe of Thomas Street joined with William Jameson of Marrowbone Lane to form the Dublin Distilling Company, and in 1891, with Thomas Ryan about to start his long Dublin apprenticeship in the licensed trade, DWD joined and the trio became the Dublin Distillers Company (DDC).
Coffey grinds a halt to Ryan’s Malt
Although the Ryans were to source much of their whiskey from them, over-capacity, declining markets and lesser-known (though high-quality) brands (competing with each other) were ongoing problems for DDC. And of course, there were no Coffey (patent) stills; it was all pot stilling, the best but also costlier. The three distilleries eventually operated on a rota system, and whiskey-making finally stopped around the end of WWII, though stocks were available for a time thereafter, and increasingly sought-after. Thomas and then Jack Ryan continued to source the best whiskey available, to finish and bottle Ryan’s Malt, but it got harder with each year, pausing in the 1950’s. The Marrowbone Lane distillery had operated from the late 1700s until the 1920s, and Thomas Street distilled from 1757 to 1926, with Jones Road the last of the trio to open and to shut down.