For much of the 19th century, the Persse family ran one of the most successful distilleries in Ireland. Their product became world famous. They were major contributors to the industrial life of Galway and provided much needed employment. In addition to their staff, they were also supplied by a number of artisans working in the Nuns Island area — coopers, cork manufacturers, printers, carters, case makers, etc.
It is not known where their bottles were made, but the Straw Envelope Factory produced straw woven containers into which the bottles fitted neatly and were thus protected. Because of the annual output of 400,000 gallons, and also the length of time the whiskey remained in storage, it was necessary to lease extra storage space outside the distillery. One report in 1900 estimated that the company had one and a half million gallons of whiskey in bond, and that the entire distillery complex alone was over an estimated seven acres.
Rural Galway also benefited from the business as the distillery used all local grain in the manufacturing process. Persse’s insisted on using the finest ingredients for their whiskey, and as a result the barley market in Kinvara grew and thrived. Persse would arrive in Kinvara with a large number of his staff and there were times when his boat was loaded with 200 tons of barley for the journey back to Galway
They began to bottle their seven and 10-year-old whiskey in 1893. Once bottled, it was placed in cases by the dozen and this is how it was sold to customers. They always stood by the quality of their product, but eventually became victims of their own success when some of their publican customers began interfering with the whiskey by diluting it. This resulted in a number of court cases and damaged their reputation, and was probably a factor in the closure of the factory, as was the increased competition from large distilleries.
On May 10, 1911, a report in The Galway Express stated that a poster had been placed on the gates of the Nuns Island Distillery stating that the premises were now officially closed and business had ceased. “This announcement ends a chapter in the long career of a famous industry.” In fact, there was a sufficient supply of whiskey left to last for several years.
The distillery was in the middle of a small island formed by a fork in the river. It was reached by a small bridge from Nuns Island (probably the one in our photograph ). One entered by a stone gateway into a large triangular courtyard round which were ranged a series of buildings
Our thanks to Chetham Library in Manchester for this image which dates from c1865.
If you want to find out more about the subject, then we can recommend you go to a lecture by Willie Henry in Galway City Museum on Saturday next at 2.30pm. Willie is putting the finishing touches to a book on the distillery and so knows more than anyone else about it.