I. A PART OF DUBLIN
History of the Guinness Steam Ships
The river Liffey, which is tidal to a point on the river above St. James’s Gate, has for
very many years carried no traffic except the well known Guinness Barges, otherwise
called Steam Lighters, that carried casks of Guinness from the brewery to Dublin Port.
The number of barges in operation was gradually reduced to zero by June 1961.
In the 1870’s the Guinness site grew rapidly and expanded towards the river Liffey and
in 1873 Guinness had a jetty built on the Liffey at Victoria Quay. This enabled barges
to load and unload wooden casks of Guinness directly at the gates of the Guinness
Brewery. The Jetty at Victoria Quay was extended from 1887-1892. An average of
about ten or twelve barges were in operation in the early decades of the 19th century.
The first barge to be built in Belfast by Harland and Wolfe was called the “Lagan”.
Guinness Barges loading at Victoria Quay, Since demolished.
The first Guinness Liffey barges were stream operated and named after all rivers
around Ireland. With design input from Guinness engineers in 1927 Guinness
launched ten new type of barges known as the ‘Farmleigh’ type barge and were
entirely built by Vickers (Ireland) Ltd. at the Liffey Dockyard. These new barges were
named after place names around Dublin e.g. Killiney, Farmleigh, Castleknock. The
first vessel, the Farmleigh was launched in November of that year, the other nine
appeared in quick succession up to January of 1931.
These new type barges could travel at a speed of 7.50 knots while carrying 90-100
tons of cargo, roughly three hundred hogshead of Guinness. They were 80 ft. long, 17
ft 1” wide, were steam driven and equipped with jib cranes.
The Liffey mile journey from the Guinness Brewery to the Custom House at Dublin Port
took approximately 20 minutes and incorporated 8 Liffey bridges. The barges were
part of everyday Dublin life transporting wooden barrels full of Guinness from the
Brewery to the waiting cross channel steam ships at Dublin Port; and brought the
empty barrels back to the brewery to be re-filled. Each boat had a mate, an engine
driver, two boatsman and an elegantly dressed captain dressed in dark blue corduroys,
a shiny peaked cap and a dark blue jersey with the letters “Guinness” in red on the
front. As they passed underneath the Liffey bridges, young Dublin ‘jackeens’ used to
stand on the Ha’Penny bridge calling out “Hey Mister, bring us back a parrot” as they
thought that the barges were sailing off to rolex replica sale places laden with Guinness! The
captains generally used to ignore the ‘jackeens’!
These captains were considered established characters of Dublin of that time, pillars of
the community, men with an urgent job to do in getting Dublin’s primary export safely
over the Liffey mile to the ships that would then carry it to the furthest ends of the
The Guinness barges were an integral part of the heart of Dublin. 1920-1921 was the
period of the Black and Tans and at one time all drivers and all boatmen had a pass
from Dublin Castle to permit them to be outside during curfew, as work started on the
jetty very early, depending on the tide on the day. Another example of the history
attached to these barges was in the late 1920’s when there was an early sailing. This
was the morning the Custom House was set on fire. Some of the barges in the area
had their cargo discharged when the fire started and were ordered away by the
military. Another historic encounter was in 1922 on the morning that the Civil War
began. It started with the attack on the Four Courts and an early morning barge sailing
was also scheduled for that morning.
However, there was a question mark as to
whether the barges would sail or not. In the event, the barges did indeed continue to
sail in the mist of the chaos, as there was a lot of firing around O’Connell Street, but
the skippers were the only men on deck that morning!
The last barge built was in 1931 and a total of nine barges was added between 1929
and 1931. In 1938 only six barges remained. The last Guinness barge sailed down
the Liffey from Victoria Quay to the Custom House on 21 June 1961, drawing to a
close a colourful chapter in Irish maritime history.
There was a suggestion back in the 60’s that one of the barges would be preserved for
posterity in some way. This unfortunately never actually materialised…. Until now !!!