The return of an Irish ale

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If you’re tempted to raise a glass in commemoration of St. Patrick’s Day, you might want to hold off toasting with that pint of Guinness.

While the famous ale has been marketed as a classic signature of Ireland, and its Guinness Storehouse is one of the most popular tourist sites in Dublin, as a matter of national history, the brewers of Guinness had little to do with Irish nationalism and more than a little to do with frustrating the dreams of Irish independence from Britain.

Indeed, if a small team of Boston and UK based investors are successful, you may soon see the return of a classic ale more directly connected with the Irish struggle for independence than Guinness.

It’s called O’Connell’s Ale, and it’s appropriately named after Daniel O’Connell, the father of the Irish emancipation movement.

Known in his time as “The Emancipator,” O’Connell campaigned tirelessly for the right of Irish Catholics to run for Parliament in the early 19th century and was the driving force behind the attempt to repeal the Act of Union between Ireland and Great Britain in 1841.

At this time, O’Connell’s younger son, Daniel Jr., acquired rights to a brewery and launched O’Connell’s Ale. It was an immediate success with Irish nationalists who regarded Guinness as more of a ‘Protestant porter’ they associated with British rule. Arthur Guinness and his family had supported O’Connell in his campaign for the right for Catholics to run for office, but they were staunch opponents of any break with England. Guinness wanted Ireland to remain attached to the British Empire and retain all the privileges of the British House of Lords.

Nationalists regarded this as an affront to the poor Irish in the cities and the countryside — and only a few short years before the disastrous Great Famine.

And so O’Connell, the champion of Irish liberty, publicly disavowed Guinness, his former ally, during the election of 1841. The ill feelings caused dozens of Irish firms to boycott Guinness brews during the campaign (though O’Connell himself did not support boycotting). Ultimately, of course, the Repeal failed although O’Connell did become Lord Mayor of Dublin.

In an ironic twist, O’Connell became more sympathetic to the growing temperance movement in Ireland toward the end of his life. His son subsequently sold the rights to “O’Connell’s Ale,” and after a few decades of modest success under different owners, the brew began to fade under the competition from the more pervasive ‘Protestant porter’.

Fast forward: This April marks the 100th anniversary of the great Easter Uprising, which began on Easter Monday in Dublin and saw another valiant attempt by Irish nationals to break from Britain — this time by trying to capture key public buildings in Dublin in protest of British rule.

On April 24, 1916, members of several Irish Republican groups led the insurgency, but the effort fell short. After only a week the British defeated the rebels, many of whom were court-martialed and executed.

O’Connell’s Ale had by this time long been displaced by Guinness — and by the 1930s had vanished altogether. But with the acquisition of the rights to the brew now in the hands of some Boston investors, you may soon see a restoration of the historic brew at your nearby pub.

John Farrell is the author of “The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaitre, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology” from Basic Books. He writes about science, technology and media for Forbes.