Midleton is a bastardisation. The name actually comes from the notion that it was the middle town between Cork city and Youghal. Not the most flattering name for a place – the sole distinguishing fact about is that it lies between two places that have names with local meaning. But its actual name goes considerably farther back. In around 1100AD, Cistercian monks from the Burgundy region of France built a monastery in the town, located where the Church Of St John The Baptist sits now (next to the Mad Monk craft beer pub, if you need a more secular landmark).
A hundred yards past this site, the Owenacurra river runs, and, just on the other side of the river, I sit typing this in my kitchen. The name Owenacurra comes from the Irish ‘Abhainn Na Cora’ – The River Of The Weirs, for betwixt my home and the site of the monastery, there was one of several weirs. And this was where the town took its name – Mainistir Na Corrann; The Monastery By The Weir.
It seems fitting that in a town built around a monastery, the area’s most famous product was invented by Irish monks. For it was they who discovered the alembic still on their travels across Europe. Moorish alchemists used it to distill essential oils – but Irish monks, dab hands at brewing, saw another potential use. They distilled their ale into what we would now call new-make spirit, and then once it started being stored in casks, whiskey was born. The Irish monks brought this incredible knowledge across Europe, most famously when they landed at Islay off the coast of Scotland – where the Scots claim whisky was first created. Of course, they are not the only ones with a loose grasp on history – even here in Midleton, few people remember that there used to be two distilleries in the town. In the 1800s, the Owenacurra river was the engine that drove Hackett’s distillery, located close to Avoncore and the hulking presence of the Erin Foods silo.
The Hackett’s didn’t have the best of luck, as local historian Tony Harpur points out in his excellent blog, Midleton With 1 D:
The other establishment producing alcohol in Midleton was Hackett’s Distillery, which must have been in operation in 1824 in order to be included in the Pigot’s list. Called James Hackett & Co, this was run by a number of brothers who were descended from a family of leather tanners in Cork. The Hacketts took advantage of the 1823 Excise Act to found their newly built distillery on a plot of land between the Mill Road and the banks of the Owenacurra, just north of Midleton. But they got into difficulties for some reason – presumably Fr Mathew had something to do with it. Another issue was a family row – one brother withdrew his share of the capital and went off to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania in Australia) and set up a distillery there!
Given that Tasmania was then the principal dumping fround for all sorts of criminals convicted by the law courts in Britain and Ireland, the establishment of a distillery there did not bode well and eventually the authorities took fright and closed the distillery down. The government also delayed in paying out compensation for the closure so the brother returned to Ireland virtually penniless. By 1850 the Hacketts had put the premises up for sale on the instructions of the Encumbered Estates Court (a new court established by the British government to sell off bankrupted Irish landed property). It was later acquired by the Hallinans who ran it as a grain mill.
Sadly, nothing remains of this distillery, which, bizarrely, seems to have been built from stones removed from the site of the medieval Cistercian monastery of Choreabbey (Midleton). Even the stone from the old St John the Baptist Church of Ireland seems to have been incorporated into Hackett’s distillery – the authorities were building an new church at the time! It gives a whole new meaning to the Irish phrase ‘holy water’, a euphemism for whiskey and poitin!
The downfall of the Hacketts saw them slump into poverty – quite a fall for merchant princes who once lived in Lotamore House, which also was once home to Sir Anthony Perrier, one of the first inventors of the continuous still – later to become the Coffey Still.
This book gives a sense of the Hacketts’ decline:
The point about them preferring to eat sheep’s head and wallow in poverty rather than turn to the nearest distillers for help was brought to my attention by another local historian, Barry Crockett. Barry is born of distilling lore – literally. His father Max was master distiller in Midleton distillery, and lived on-site in the Distiller’s Cottage (ironically, a rather large building with a couple of dozen rooms). It was here that Barry was born, and he grew up to be in charge of Midleton distillery, and played a very large role in the rebirth of Irish whiskey we are now seeing. With a lead-in time of ten to 20 years for premium stocks, it was in Barry’s time in charge that the plans were laid that are now coming to fruition. He is retired now, but still plays an active role in the distillery – last year he gave a talk on the history of the distillery, and it was during this that he spoke of the Hackett’s and their loathing for the Murphy brothers, who ran Midleton distillery with a keen business instinct. He said that the Murphy ledgers and papers held almost no records of the times, other than business data. One exception was the request by the brothers to their insurer to be allowed to use their mill to grind flour for locals during the Famine. They were refused. In contrast, Bartholomew Hackett was a poor businessman but an obsessive diarist, and his colourful papers – of which there are several volumes – are kept in the city and county archives in another distilling heritage area, Blackpool.
But back to Midleton: The Hacketts used the Owenacurra to distill, but the Murphys used the second river in the town, known as the Dungourney river (actually named the Roxboro). It rises in Clonmult, site of a War Of Independence-era massacre, and passes through the village of Dungourney, very close to the woodland area where Irish Distillers have built a large maturation complex: If we get another winter like those in 2009/2010, it will be interesting to see if the whiskey aging up there in the snow-bound hills is any different from the maturing stock in the town where milder temperatures prevail. That said, any difference will be so minor that it would take a considerably more forensic palate than mine to discern any difference.
But the Dungourney river isn’t the only water source that Midleton distillery takes water from.
The whole town of Midleton is built on limestone. This makes the water hard, and perfect for distilling. It also means the porous rock beneath our feet is riddled with caves. Roughly halfway between the site of Hacketts and the Jameson Heritage Centre lies the town’s award-winning SuperValu. When it was being built, it was said that more steel and concrete went into the ground as was over it, as the site previously hosted a hotel which slowly came asunder as the ground beneath it gave way. In fact, in the last couple of years, three cottages on Park Street, to the rear of the SuperValu, started to subside.
Through some of this sprawling network of caves, a small river runs. Mostly underground, it makes a rare appearance in a dip on the grounds of Midleton College, a spot where we used to smoke, and sixth years used to prove their manliness by sneaking through the chest-deep, ice-cold waters in total darkness to get into Midleton Distillery via another sinkhole on the other side of the wall. Here is a terrible map:
The cluster of foliage right below the all-weather hockey pitch is the college sinkhole, while the tree just below it on the other side of the wall is where the distillery side access point is. The white rectangle is the beautiful Garden Still House. Here’s a couple of photos of the dip down to the water from the distillery side:
There is a point to all this waffling I’m doing – and it all comes down to the recent floods here in Midleton. Both rivers burst their banks – an event which hasn’t happened in about 40-plus years. The weir in the gif at the top – located at the site of the Hackett distillery – was totally submerged as the Owenacurra burst its banks at Avoncore and also broke downriver into my estate. My house was spared, others in my estate were not so lucky. The Dungourney river also burst, flooding the lower half of the town, including the Jameson Heritage Centre. But the real damage was past the new distillery, as the water above and below ground reached capacity and flooded the area. The rugby pitch was flooded, Lauriston estate was flooded, and the back of the distillery warehouses was hit too.
This image shows that side:
Or this helpful gif:
What you can see there is a small portion of the 28 acres of farmland that was under up to three feet of water. If the distillery warehouses weren’t there, the whole town would have been hit by that water. And yet there are some who blame the warehouse complex, in classic luddite style. The phrase ‘now I’m no engineer but…’ now causes as much anguish in me as ‘now I’m not a racist but….’. Invariably what comes next is some incredibly stupid theory about how the warehouses caused the waters to back up. Did they fuck. If the distillery wasn’t using the water from the river and underground, we would be flooding every winter. Apart from that, when floods did come, it was IDL who brought in private contractors to clear the flooding from the whole area – the estate across the road, the rugby club, and their own site.
This video show just how far upriver from the town the flooding goes:
Throughout human history, we have built on floodplains. They have the fertile soil, the trade routes, the water – they are the obviously place to build settlements. But sometimes, as the term ‘floodplain’ suggests, they flood. Midleton has one of the world’s greatest distilleries because we live on a floodplain – fertile ground to grow lots of high-grade barley, plenty of water to make whiskey, and plenty of people settled nearby to work there. As a final denouement and debunking of the musing of a ‘non-engineer’, the basement of the town hospital flooded days after the waters had subsided. The hospital is on a raised area, overlooking the town; meaning the water came up from underneath. This hospital was also once the town Poor House – the same Poor House overseen by Bartholomew James Hackett, before he slipped into obscurity and became the Midleton distiller that time forgot.