Photograph: Magnus

H.S. Persse Nun’s Island (Galway) Distillery

This distillery had a chequered early past. Originally run by a Patrick Joyce, it had already closed down when it was bought by Burton Persse in 1840. He already owned two distilleries, but converted the Nun’s Island distillery to a woollen mill. However, when Persse’s lease on his Newcastle Distillery lapsed, and the woollen trade declined, he converted Nun’s Island back to a distillery, probably around 1846.

During the middle ages, Galway traded extensively with Spain and during the reign of Henry VIII supplied nearly the whole of the Kingdom with wine. Many Spanish merchants settled in Galway and the old town was actually arranged on the plan of a Spanish town. Despite this rich past in wines and spirits, the Nun’s Island Distillery was surprisingly the only legal distillery operating in Connaught for the later half of the 19th century.

When Alfred Barnard visited the distillery in 1886, he was very impressed by the location of the distillery on a small island, formed by a fork of the river Corrib, in the centre of Galway city. He had travelled by train from Tullamore and for anyone interested in Irish history of the time, his description of that journey and his sensitive observations of the Irish people, is well worth a read. He commented that the power of Lough Corrib discharging its mighty volume of water through Galway could have turned all the mills in Manchester. The Nun’s Island distillery had, as with all distilleries of this time, its own maltings and corn stores and operated a triple distillation process. There were 5 warehouses on site, containing 5,000 casks of whiskey at the time of Barnard’s visit. He noted hoses and pipes lay all over the premises, for the prevention of fire, there being an inexhaustible supply of water on all sides.

The whiskey was known as Persse’s Galway Whisky and the annual output was about 400,000 gallons. The label proudly displayed “as supplied to the House of Commons”. Barnard did sample some of the whisky upon arrival in Galway but did not comment as to whether it was a pure pot still or malt whiskey. They also would appear to have been one of the first Irish distilleries to bottle their own miniatures. Persse’s Galway Whisky did hit the headlines back in 2002 – a full size bottle turned up for sale in the UK, claiming to be the rarest bottle of whisky in the world and with a price tag of….Stg£100,000! Had it sold at that price, it would have made it the most expensive bottle of whisky ever sold, but the publicity it generated meant that a few other bottles of Persse’s whisky surfaced from attics around the world!

The distillery closed earlier than most Irish distilleries, around 1913, though this date is not certain. It may have succumbed to increasing competition from the big Dublin distilleries who conquered Galway’s markets after the railways made access to the West of Ireland that much easier. Some distillery buildings were demolished to make way for housing, and the main building was used as a chemical factory. In 1979 University Galway bought most of the site, and the main remaining building is no longer in use. Its original roof is gone, but the view from the city side of the river is easily recognisable to what Barnard saw in 1886. It is well worth taking a stroll to Nun’s Island to admire it close-up.

Information by Ireland whisky trail

About the distillery

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