Brewing a legacy, Michael Donaldson

Guinness Down Under: The Famous Brew and the Family Come to Australia and New Zealand
Rod Smith
Eyeglass Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9780473408428

Guinness – like the citizens of its country – has travelled to all parts of the world. 

It is truly a global beer: brewed in 50 countries, sold in 150, and 10 million glasses of the famous stout are consumed every day, the brewery claims.

So there’s no surprise there’s a Guinness connection to New Zealand – yes, the beer has been brewed here under licence, on and off, for 50 years. At the Tui brewery, the old Lion brewery in Auckland’s Newmarket, the Lion brewery in Christchurch before it was destroyed by the 2011 earthquake, and now at Lion’s East Tamaki brewery, known as The Pride.

But the Guinness family – direct descendants of brewery founder Arthur Guinness – have also played a small part in shaping New Zealand history. For instance, did you know that Burke’s Pass between north and Central Otago is named for Michael Burke – a grandson of Arthur Guinness – who emigrated from Ireland to Canterbury on one of the first four ships to that province?

All this – and a whole lot more – is contained in Guinness Down Under: The Famous Brew and the Family Come to Australia and New Zealand by Tauranga historian Rod Smith. Guinness is the kind of beer that brews facts and figures – a perfect pint of the stuff should take 119.5 seconds to pour (not two minutes, mind, but 119.5 seconds) – and Smith has gone deep into the data. 

Smith was prompted to write the book because of a family connection to the Guinness family through his wife, Glennis, a descendant of Arthur Guinness. In 1992, his mother-in-law casually mentioned some family history that featured the name Guinness. He immediately started digging into his wife’s family history, and this book, built on 15 years of research, took him around 10 years of writing.

Possibly because there was so much research, and equally because it’s so close to home for Smith, the book is a huge tome of 140,000 words. As Smith himself notes, it could easily have been two books. It’s fair to say that, with a hard edit, it could lose 40,000 words without losing any of its integrity. Having said that, the book can be dismantled in digestible chunks, rather than in a linear fashion. It’s as much a collection of interconnected short stories as it is a family history.

Yet it’s the family connection which is the thread that justifies the book, with Glennis Smith’s great-grandmother Sarah (later Zara) Guinness featuring prominently. She was the daughter of Reverend William Guinness, the grandson of the brewery founder. She travelled with her father to Melbourne as a teenager, married and moved to Christchurch, then to Fiji, and finally back to Auckland and the Far North. Smith has peppered the book with fictional letters and musings by Sarah. He owns this device, admitting in the preface that it possibly has no place in a non-fiction work, but counter-argues that history shouldn’t be tied completely to facts and details. Whether the reader gels with the Sarah pieces is moot. It feels contrived, but also offers a gentle change of pace from the dense tapestry of facts and figures.

The heart of the book is the story of four cousins – all grandsons of Arthur Guinness – who emigrated to New Zealand and Australia. There are family trees that help with navigation, but it almost pays to write down the family lines on a piece of paper to keep handy – because it does get complicated. The four are two Burkes, Arthur and Michael, and two Guinnesses, William and Frank. The most appealing stories for New Zealanders are those of Michael Burke and Frank Guinness. 

As noted, Michael Burke’s is immortalised by Burke’s Pass, where in 1855 he was the first European to drive a bullock dray through the cut that connects north and Central Otago. Frank Guinness wasn’t such a success – he struggled to hold down jobs and moved all around the South Island. At the end of his life, he was a campaigner for workers’ rights, but his ambitions for public office were thwarted. Where he failed, his son, Arthur Guinness, succeeded: he was a member of parliament for over 20 years and finished his career as speaker of the house.

Outside the core elements of the family, there is more than enough about Guinness, the drink. Early chapters give the history of the brewery in Dublin, a story that’s available elsewhere, but is probably a requisite element here. There’s a lot for the uninitiated to learn about brewing and bottling and the intricacies of distribution.

The later chapters are also beer-oriented, focusing on how Guinness came to be brewed in New Zealand. This chapter is a much-needed addition to New Zealand’s beer history, as it has not been documented as fully and precisely as Smith manages – though, again, there is a lot of padding in the chapter.

Smith has relied heavily on first-hand source material such as newspapers and archive material from an array of Guinness family members to tell these stories. It is thorough and meticulous research and obviously a work of love.

Michael Donaldson is a freelance writer and editor, and author of six books including Beer NationThe Art and Heart of Kiwi Beer and The Big Book of Home Brew – A Kiwi Guide.

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