Real history is good for you

Tourists visit St. James’s Gate in Dublin.


Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott

The plain people of Ireland were once able to express resentment and snobbery, of both the regular and inverted kinds, by denouncing “foreign games.” Rugby, for instance, was part of the curriculum for the professional classes, taught as they were by the Jesuits, the Holy Ghost Fathers and other priestly orders or at Protestant schools.

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By the same token, the plain people could also look down upon the industrial working class and urban poor playing their “garrison game.”

I’d suggest, though, that soccer was more a product of the factory floor than the barracks yard, just as it often was in other countries. A classic example of the “works team” is PSV Eindhoven, champions of the Netherlands multiple times and of Europe in 1988. It began life as a team for Philips workers in 1913. And one of the League of Ireland’s most impressive pro clubs, Dundalk FC, traces its roots directly to the Great Northern Railway Association Club.

But the most iconic name in that regard has to be St. James’s Gate, founded in 1902 for Guinness workers, which 115 years later plays in the Leinster Senior League. It was the inaugural winner of both the FAI Cup and the League of Ireland championship in 1922. It dropped from the top flight after a couple of decades and, other than a few years in the early 1990s, it has been in the amateur ranks since.

The most famous export of St. James’s Gate the soccer club was perhaps Dubliner Johnny Carey, who was the first man to lead a non-UK side to victory over England on English soil – 2-0 in 1949 at Goodison Park. The year before, Carey became the first non-UK player to captain a club to victory in the FA Cup Final and, three years later, the first to a Football League championship. Those club exploits were with Manchester United, which also started as a team for railway workers.

Both of these clubs of Carey’s have had in their different ways a remarkable history that would be a marketing professional’s dream. For its part, St. James’s Gate the brewery, whose on-site medical doctor founded the soccer team, has had an amazing history in advertising. It has given us, most famously of all, “Guinness is Good for You.”

However, like many a corporation, it sometimes hasn’t been so well served when entrusting its history to the ad men and women. And a current clip marking the stout’s 200 years in the United States has to go down as a real fail.

First of all, let me say that has a very civilized arrangement that allows you watch say 2 minutes of highlights of a given game, or sometimes just a single goal, after a 15-, 20- or 30-second ad. One of the ads shown repeatedly on a recent Saturday was a little history piece linking New York and Dublin using a series of three photographic images, which also have a barely perceptible slow-motion effect built into them. The last is an image depicting a group of 1940s New York drinkers in a P.J. Clarke’s-like establishment; it has some color, the red in a woman’s dress, for example. The middle one is an 1890s scene, again in a New York bar, and has a hint of color only in the creamy glow of the lights. The first is a still/moving image of workers in St. James’s Gate in 1817. That’s entirely in black and white because, well, you know, there was no color photography 200 years ago. There was no photography of any type, but let’s not get bogged down in too much detail. And there were no bowler hats either, which a couple of the men appear to be sporting.

You might say: “Well, let’s not take it too seriously. Photography is just the means to represent a scene.” Except that the advertisement is supposed to be about authenticity and it’s also meant to be evocative. Instead, that first scene, which would be fine as 1897 or 1917, looks ridiculous as 1817 to anyone with a sense of the past – like a colleague, who proudly counts Guinness workers among his forbears. His reaction when he saw it pop up on television was “What?!!”

“It was absurd,” he said later. “Uncle Arthur [Guinness] would be turning in his grave.”

Go looking online and you’ll find the real story, from Guinness itself. There’s a really interesting 2-minute piece featuring archivist Eibhlin Colgan, who tells the story about the beer exported in 1817 to one John Heavey in South Carolina. Three other youngish professionals based at St. James’s Gate also speak to the significance of 1817 in the company’s history. But then, you shouldn’t have to go looking.