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Distillers and St James’s Church and Graveyard

Distillers and St James’s Church and Graveyard – In this article, Historian Sean J Murphy provides us with an insight into the Liberties’ Distilling history

Sean J Murphy

In Dublin on 25 July 2017, St James’s Day, the formerly disused Protestant St James’s Church in James’s Street was given a new lease of life as the Pearse Lyons Distillery. St James’s Church had been used for business purposes since its closure in 1963. The building might well have fallen into complete decay had it not been acquired, restored and converted by the late Dr Pearse Lyons and his wife Deirdre Lyons. The adjoining St James’s Graveyard is now owned by Dublin City Council and hopefully will be accessible to the public when current conservation works are completed (and Coronavirus restrictions are lifted).

Dr and Mrs Lyons were both born in Ireland and founded the Kentucky-headquartered multinational firm Alltech, which operates primarily in the field of animal nutrition and whose interests also include distilling and brewing. Dr Lyons is actually not the first distiller to be associated with St James’s Church and Graveyard, so it might be interesting to look at these earlier distilling connections.

Whiskey history is frequently served with a large dash of blarney, with claims that the drink was invented by Irish monks as far back as the sixth century. In fact, whiskey, from the Gaelic ‘uisce beatha’ or ‘water of life’, was first documented in Scotland and Ireland in the 1500s and had acquired great popularity by the 1700s.

The production of beer and whiskey has been particularly associated with the Liberties district of Dublin. While brewing survived in the form of Guinness, distilling seemed to have been brought to an end when Power’s Distillery closed in 1976. This is what makes the current revival of distilling in the south-western quarter of Dublin so remarkable, with no less than four distilleries now in operation, Teeling, Pearse Lyons, Dublin Liberties and the revived Roe & Co.

Power’s Distillery originated about 1791 when James Power, an innkeeper in business at 109 Thomas Street, constructed a small distillery. Starting with a production of about 6,000 gallons of whiskey annually, Power’s Distillery grew in succeeding years. James Power died on 13 January 1817 and was buried in St James’s Graveyard on 16 January, but no memorial survives. While St James’s was a Protestant Church of Ireland graveyard, this reminds us again of its popularity with Catholics, who were not allowed maintain their own graveyards during the penal era.

James Power was succeeded by his son and grandson, John and James, who built up a six-acre distillery at John’s Lane, fronting on Thomas Street. By the end of the nineteenth century Power’s Distillery produced nearly a million gallons of whiskey annually. War, temperance campaigns and lack of flexibility saw Irish distilling decline rapidly during the twentieth century. Power’s and Jameson’s managed to survive and are now owned by Irish Distillers, which is at the forefront of the ongoing whiskey revival.

Another prominent Dublin distiller, Sylvester Costigan, died on 4 February 1817 and was buried in St James’s on 7 February, less than a month after James Power. A tomb survives at the rear of the graveyard, and the inscription, which gives Costigan’s year of death incorrectly as 1816 instead of 1817, also lists his wife Catherine, children Mary and Margaret, and a John Costigan, possibly his brother. Sylvester Costigan was an interesting character who is believed to have been either a sympathiser with or a member of the United Irishmen, and he also agitated for Catholic rights.

In comparison to Power, Jameson and Roe, the name Costigan appears to be largely forgotten today. This can be explained by the fact that after Sylvester Costigan’s death his distillery located at at 161 Thomas Street was taken over by his partner George Roe. Roe would expand his distillery operations under the name George Roe and Company and when he died in 1863, his nephew (not son as is often claimed) Henry Roe took over the firm.

By the late nineteenth century Roe’s Distillery covered 17 acres between Thomas Street and the Liffey, making it the largest distillery not just in Britain and Ireland, but in the world. Henry Roe was a great benefactor of churches, including St James’s, to whose parochial fund he contributed. However, Roe’s grant of a massive £250,000 in 1871-78 (equivalent to about £29 million today) for the rebuilding of Christ Church Cathedral probably contributed to the decline of his company and his personal finances. While the original Roe firm was eventually wound up in the 1940s, Guinness owners Diageo recently decided to revive the name and opened a new Roe & Co Distillery in the old Guinness Power House in James’s Street in 2019.

There were other distillers for whom St James’s was the family graveyard, for example, Edward Kelly of Church Street in St Michan’s Parish. The surviving tombstone in St James’s commemorates Edward Kelly’s parents Matthew and Mary, as well as his daughter Elinor who died on 15 February 1797 aged two months. While Edward Kelly’s death is not recorded on the tombstone, the burial of a person of that name in St James’s Graveyard on 3 July 1803 could refer to him.

Coming back to modern times, when Dr Pearse Lyons saw that the disused St James’s Church was for up for sale in 2013 he acquired it with the intention of converting it into a distillery. Over the next few years and at considerable expense, restoration and conversion work proceeded, sometimes having to overcome delays resulting from required careful archaeological excavations on a protected site. In July 2017 the Pearse Lyons Distillery and Visitor Centre were opened, with the beautiful church interior restored and interesting features added to Mrs Lyons’s designs. The latter included new stained glass windows and a bold glass spire replacing the original removed for structural reasons in 1948. Dr Lyons unfortunately passed away in Kentucky in March 2018, eight months after the opening of the distillery which bears his name.

When I was carrying out historical research on his behalf, Dr Lyons informed me that his grandfather John Hubert Lyons had been buried in St James’s Graveyard. I was able to confirm from the surviving registers in the Representative Church Body Library that the burial took place on 1 October 1948. Entry-by-entry searches established that eight other Lyons family members were buried in the graveyard also, including Dr Lyons’s great-grandfather, a grandaunt and three granduncles and an aunt and an uncle.

John Hubert Lyons was born in Echlin Street in 1887 and baptised in St James’s Catholic Church, both located not far away from the graveyard where he would be buried. Completing the remarkably close links between his family and the area, Dr Pearse Lyons himself was born in August 1944 in Inchicore, now a suburb but historically an outlying part of the sprawling city parish of St James.

History rarely proceeds in a predictable fashion. St James’s Church in James’s Street, originally built to serve spiritual needs, now witnesses the dispensation of spirits of a different kind. This evolution might have surprised even those distillers who lie buried in St James’s Graveyard, but distilling has become an inextricable part of the history of the old church and graveyard in Dublin’s James’s Street.



For further articles on the history of St James’s Church and Graveyard, see

One Response

  1. Patricia Day says:

    My maternal grandfather is buried in St James’s cemetery along with 3 of his wife’s sisters. When my grandmother passed there was no room for her a d she had to be buried in Mount Jerome. I visited St. James’s cemetery ma y times with my mother as a child and it was quiet over run the with weeds etc.

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