Recent reports that the pub trade is clawing its way back from a near 10 year decline will be welcome news for town centres. The hardest years for the industry were between 2007-2012 when some 950 pubs closed throughout Ireland. Even at its lowest point the industry was still providing over €2 billion in quietly received VAT and excise receipts to the State.
An unexpected but welcomed result of those lean years was that the alcohol trade had to diversify to survive and today local breweries and distilleries are again to be found throughout Mayo. The trade is in essence returning to its roots. The sight of a brewery and more often too a distillery in the centre of Mayo’s main towns was once common. The late 18th and early 19th centuries were a boom time for the liquor trade, both legal and illicit. In the late 1700s, funds were made available to promote industries based on Irish produce, such as barley, and many took advantage. The inhabitants of Westport were no doubt spoiled for choice by the product from their brewery and distillery. The county capital Castlebar also had a brewery on what is now Hopkins Road and a distillery on Main Street which stretched down to the river. The banks of the River Moy was the location for Ballina’s town centre brewery and a brewery operated on Bridge Street in Ballinrobe.
Many of Mayo’s early 1800s population of 250,000 were not content paying top shilling for their drink and the distillation of illegal poitín was rampant. In the first six months of 1814 alone, 228 fines were imposed in Mayo for the illicit distillation of alcohol. The average fine was £25, a huge sum considering the income for a weaver in Connacht was 2s 6d a day. The harsh fines were set to inhibit avoidance of excise due to the Crown. Duty on alcohol was as important a contributor to the national coffers then as it is now.
The availability of alcohol and its deleterious effects on society were zoned in on by temperance advocates, most notably Fr Theobald Mathew, who in the 1830s preached of the righteous path of abstinence. Fr Mathew was successful in convincing tens of thousands of Irish people to take the pledge. But Mayo’s fondness for a drop of the dew returned after the bleak years of the Famine. The pub’s popularity as one of the county’s main pastimes is evident in figures supplied to the courts service during the hearing of licensing applications. By the late 1870s, it was felt some Mayo towns had reached saturation and licenses were being refused. At the Castlebar Quarter Sessions in 1878, Judge JH Richards refused all Castlebar applications on the grounds that the existing 58 licensed premises in the town were sufficient to supply a population of 3,700. Applications were refused for Newport as there were already 20 premises catering for only 500 residents. 53 premises in the Westport locality was more than enough to convince Richards that a cap must be applied and he again refused applications.
The judiciary was not the only group saving the county from itself. Fr Cullen’s Pioneer Association and the Government targeted alcohol in the name of religion and revenue. Publicans countered in the 1890s and the Licensed Vintners Association established itself in Mayo to organise traders, and so the battle for Ireland continued into the 20th century.