Irish Whiskey Pt. 15: Ghosts of the Irish Rebellion and a Day In Belfast // McConnells

A pivital time in Irish history and the ghosts it produced.

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Show Notes

It seems appropriate that an episode featuring me taking a walking tour of Belfast with McConnell's Sarah Kennedy would sync up with the story of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. It was a pivital time in Irish history, when a last ditch effort was made to separate from the control of Great Britain. Its an event that would echo down through Irish history - especially in Belfast and Northern Ireland.

Hear the story of one of the rebellion's central figures and how one of the United Irishmen's own came to haunt one of Ireland's most historic distilleries.

And enjoy a cruise around Belfast, where - dare I say, I tasted the greatest beer I've ever tasted.

Cheers and Slainte mhaith!


To those who had heard the tales of Rochambeau and the mighty French fleet that brought down the British at Yorktown just a few years earlier, the harbor at Brest, France on this cool December morning must have seemed the perfect recreation. And it seemed fitting, the target of all of this activity would again be His Majesty King George III’s redcoats. 

There some forty three vessels slowly sailing their way past Pointé Du Diable or Devil’s Point, into the Celtic Sea with Irish liberation on their mind. For the 33 year old Irishman who had helped lobby the French government for this military flotilla, one can only imagine the tremendous feeling of pride and excitement that must have come over him. 

He knew his brothers-in-arms in Belfast, Dublin, Wexford, and throughout his homeland were at the ready. What a glorious sight it would be, seeing a swarm of French ships on the horizon beyond the beautiful green cliff sides and rocky beaches of County Kerry and Cork in Ireland. In the mind of this dreamer patriot, December 16, 1796, seemed destined to be a day long remembered in the annals of Irish history. 

And all because a coachmaker’s son had seen fit to carry the cause of Irish independence on his very capable shoulders. 

Setting The Tone

As a youth, Theobald Wolfe Tone was a dreamer. Tales of the sea and a fascination with military maneuvers and the activities of the Dublin garrison seemed to crowd out the normal pleasures of a young man. To those that knew him, few likely saw him heading toward a career in law - yet he would find his way to earning his way to the bar after studying at Trinity College. It was during his time there that he fell in love with a beautiful sixteen year old girl named Martha. The two would elope and she would take on his pet name for her, Matilda. After Wolfe’s father hit hard times and saw his business go bankrupt, the two would move in with him. 

During his time as a barrister in Dublin, Wolfe Tone made fast friends with an army ensign named Thomas Russell. Russell, a native of County Cork in the south, would share many political beliefs with Tone, and although they didn’t hold the same level of religious passion, it never got in the way of their friendship. Tone’s religion was shaped by his family, who was a member of the Anglican church, but had descended from Huguenots, Protestants that had escaped religious persecution in France, perhaps awareness of this persecution that made him acutely aware of the plight of the non-Anglican ascendancy, who had no power in the Irish Parliament or the courts.

As Tone became more politically aware, he learned of Captain Cook’s discovery of islands in the Pacific. At once he put together plans for a military colony for one of the chain of islands, Hawai’i, and sent his plans off to William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister of Great Britain, with the hopes of taking hold of the islands before the Spanish had a chance to seize control. Pitt didn’t respond.

Not long after, he began contemplating England’s dominance over his home country. He wanted to bring together a group of politically curious men to discuss the feasibility of Irish independence from British rule. Members included Russell, along with William Drennan, William Johnson and others. Tone was beginning to believe that Ireland could only be happy as an independent nation. 

Tone went to work on a paper called An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland. Frustrated that the 1782 return of power from England to the Irish parliament didn’t include some level of Catholic and Non-Anglican emancipation, he wanted to make his voice heard on the subject and drew the favorable attention of the Catholics. Meanwhile, his allies Russell and Drennan moved north to Belfast. Tone decided it was time to take his Catholic alliance and merge it into an alliance with the Protestants of the north. He felt the only way he could win "equal representation of all the people" in parliament was with a unified Ireland, free from religious sectarianism. With his friends he formed a secret society known as The United Irishmen. 

But when war broke out between Britain and revolutionary France, the society didn’t stay secret for long. The Crown was looking for ways to tamp down revolutionary ideas in Ireland and the revolutionary ideals of the society would soon catch their attention. Catholics would also start to separate from the United Irishmen as they feared a union with the radical “Dechristianizing” French. 

Tone saw cracks as well, as the United Irishmen were doomed to fail as long as they went it alone against the Protestant ascendancy who controlled the Irish Parliament. Regardless of the feelings of the Catholics, he knew the French would have to lend support, if they were to succeed.

It was around this time he met with an Irish preacher who had spent some time living in revolutionary France. Reverend William Jackson was interested in Tone and his plans and began asking questions about the Irish commitment to a revolution, so as to maybe persuade the French to join the fight in Ireland. Tone was interested in diving deeper into the idea, but cautioned the reverend to be careful of revealing their discussions, especially to his assistant Cockayne, who Tone thought might be spying for the British. It turns out Tone’s hunch was right, and Jackson’s loose lips found him in court on charges of treason. Wanting to protect his family from losing their inheritance if he was convicted, he secured arsenic, took it before entering the courtroom and dropped to his knees in agony in front of the jurors and died minutes later. 

With no go-between between France and the Irish revolutionaries, Tone decided it was time to take his family to America, to attempt to find an ally that could get him an introduction to members of the French Directory. As he arrived in Belfast, before boarding the boat, he met with his comrades at Cave Hill and urged them “never to desist in our efforts until we subvert the authority of England over our country and asserted our independence.” 

Aboard the vessel Cincinnatus, bound for Philadelphia, Tone’s ship would be overtaken by the British and boarded. And in the height of war against the French, the British had begun boarding ships and empressing any of the able men into the British military. Fifty men from the Cincinnatus were captured and herded onto the British vessel. Tone would only escape thanks to the tears and desperate pleas of his wife and sister. For the Irish rebel, it would be his first close call.

In Philadelphia, he found the connections he was looking for. He also discovered he wasn’t a fan of what the American’s were doing with their hard fought freedom. He felt, they’d only given up the chains of a system built on class to one built on wealth. He looked forward to his voyage to Paris. 

Known under his code name Citizen Smith, Tone found revolutionary France much more to his liking. After lobbying in the French Directory, he would work tirelessly to convince the French of the Irish desire for a rebellion against the English. His plan was to utilize the French navy in the same way the American colonists had used the French fleet under Rochambeau to take the British at Yorktown. He reassured them of his countrymen’s commitment to see the battle through. For the French, who were still at war with the British, this seemed the perfect opportunity to spread their revolution to British shores and create chaos for London. The plans were approved.

Tone was put in touch with one of France’s most skillful and ruthless commanders, General Lazare Hoche, who was to lead the expedition. Tone himself joined the French military as an adjutant-general. And on that fateful day in December of 1796, forty-three ships and around 14,450 men took off from Brest, France for the shores of Ireland. 

If the men feared attack from the British, well, it was not to be. A much more formidable enemy approached. And soon such a gale arose that it put the men’s nerves on end. The path to Bantry Bay in County Cork was clear, but the French seemed incapable of landing ashore with such rough seas. Wolfe Tone’s agitation grew stronger by the day. Any element of surprise would be lost and the revolutionaries on shore, left to fend for themselves. 

To his horror, days later, the French gave up and turned the ships back to France. The chance was lost. He would sail again under a Dutch Vice-Admiral Jan de Winter, but again storms would delay the mission, just long enough that the British caught sight of them and in the fierce sea battle of Camperdown, the Dutch lead fleet was defeated. 

Meanwhile, in Ireland, the rebels had planned to take Dublin. Yet many of the rebellion’s leaders were arrested in Leinster, as the British led a successful counter-insurgency. Then uprisings in County Down, Antrim fizzled. At Wexford the insurgents saw greater success but eventually failed as some would escape into the Wicklow mountains while others would be forced to surrender. 

Any hope Tone had of a grand fleet soon dissipated as his ally General Hoche passed away from consumption, and Napoleon Bonepart seemed more interested in Egypt than Ireland.

Eventually, a couple of missions were sent north. Fittingly, Tone joined the mission headed by the French ship Hoche. But unfortunately for him, the boat was captured off the coast of Donegal at Buncrana. He was taken to Letterkenny and placed under arrest. 

During his court-martial in Dublin, Tone didn’t back down from his rhetoric. He knew he would be put to death. Defiant to the last, he suggested that all he wanted was to meet his enemies  “in fair and open war to produce the separation of the two countries.” His last request was that "the court should adjudge me to die the death of a soldier, and that I may be shot." The decision was handed to the Lord Lieutenant who denied it and had him sentenced to hang. 

A Mysterious Death

It was here that the seeds of a grand mystery would be planted.

It seems that, while in custody, awaiting his fate, Wolfe Tone would die in prison after a knife slit his throat. But, did he slit his own throat in an apparent suicide, or was it slit for him by his British captors? Either way, it would take eight days before Wolfe Tone succumbed to his wounds.

To add to the mystery, years later a Military surgeon named Benjamin Lentaigne who had attended to Tone before his death, said that around this time he had treated a man with an odd neck wound, where apparently a bullet had passed through the man’s throat. Was he speaking of Wolfe Tone? 

As for Tone’s hoped for revolution, that would die out around the same time as he did. Negotiations would soon begin with the British and on January 1, 1801, the dream of an independent Ireland, free to rid itself of religious persecution, was lost in the Acts of Union, which officially bound his country to the newly formed United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Irish parliament was dissolved.

Tone’s darling Matilda would live on in America, dying some 50 years later, but always holding a torch for her husband, hoping to keep his name alive. By many, he is seen as the father of Irish republicanism. 





Now, you may be asking, why I am I telling this story - and what does it have to do with whiskey? Well, nothing really. Yet, the story of the Irish Rebellion is critical to the understanding of future stories about Ireland, as this was a pivotal time in the country’s history. And there actually is an odd whiskey connection that I found.

Apparently one of Tone’s supporters, a man named John McManus would be hanged. Some say because he was breaking curfew, others say it was because of the association with Tone’s United Irishmen. John McManus’ son is Matthew McManus, the man who founded the distillery at Kilbeggan. 

Word abounds that John’s ghost still haunts the distillery, unable to rest because of his unjust hanging. In 2007, a TV host named Derek Acorah, brought his show Most Haunted to the site to attempt to confirm the existence of the spectral being and was said to have met the ghost of John Locke and Matthew McManus. These are just 2 of several ghosts the distillery claims.

Belfast Day 2: Sarah’s Tour

It was Friday the 13th and while one might consider that an unlucky omen, for me, who thinks everyone else obsessed with numbers sucks up all the bad karma on that day, I was ready for a real treat. A tour around Belfast with Sarah from McConnell’s. 

It was a day she likely didn’t think was going to happen. We had been chatting during my interview with her a year before and she mentioned that if I ever came to Belfast, she’d show me around. You can’t make an offer like that and not expect me to show up! I had no idea it would be in the midst of a 44 distillery tour of Ireland.

Our meetup was to be at 10 AM at a cool little whisky shop and bottle museum called A Friend At Hand. I’d slept in as long as I could, having not gotten back to my AirBnB until after 3 AM the night before, but the chirping birds and the sun beaming in at 7 AM had me up and alert long before I wanted to be. I took a shower and headed downtown to find some breakfast. After killing some time looking for landmarks around town and then trying to find an ATM to get some more Ulster pounds in my pocket, I started to make my way towards the whisky shop.

Belfast has always held some fascination for me. The only time I ever heard about it, it was always in regards to the Irish Republican Army or IRA. It seemed like the place was a war zone and not one I should ever try to visit. In fact, I never really considered it, until Sarah started talking about its revival. Then I started connecting its rough past with the rough past of my own hometown Detroit. 

For those that have moved away, there is a very strange allegiance to the Motor City. Whenever I hear someone talking down Detroit, I always have to pop in with, “it’s not that bad” or “have you ever actually been there?” That, of course, is a lot easier to say now - now that the city has become a mecca for bicycles, foodies, and urban explorers. It was interesting to hear Sarah say she has that same reaction when she hears people poking fun at Belfast. 

I arrived at A Friend at Hand a little early, and the amiable man in charge was rolling deep into a sales pitch with a traveler, extolling the virtues of Irish whiskey. I loved it. It’s the passion I feel for a world of whiskey and it felt good to hear him so enthusiastic about spreading the word on his native spirit. We started to chat a bit about some of the historic bottles he had in the shop. I was still obsessing over whether there were “e’s” or not in the word whisky. I don’t always let go of things easy.

That’s when I spotted the bottle of Redbreast I’d had the night before - $300, whew. But it definitely was an impressive selection. Just then, Sarah walked in. She had a handful of McConnell’s marketing materials. Looks like she was going to get some work accomplished while we went on our tour. She pointed out the old McConnell’s bottles. They really did mimic the old bottle with their new reproduction. She showed me the medicinal recommendations on the bottom of the old bottle - definitely not something they could reproduce on the new one!

When we walked outside, she solved my mystery of the day before - the word Bushmills on the side of the building. Apparently this was an old bonded warehouse for them and Bushmills had had their offices down here. She said this whole area was quite run down at one time - but was rejuvenated with the opening of A Friend at Hand, the Duke of York, Dark Horse and Harp Bar - all owned by the same person. She said the bottle museum was going to take up another part of the building at some point, as it was becoming too big to stay a part of the shop. 

Then she showed me some silver poles that stuck out of the ground, about waste high. Each with its own icon. The Harp of Erin stood for government and industry, pot stills were for the area’s whisky heritage, I can’t remember what the bananas were for.  

We walked down Dunbar Street and she showed me where the old McConnell’s warehouse was. Lost in a fire during the second decade of the 20th century, there is nothing left of the original McConnell’s business that died out soon after that. What’s interesting is that she said the McConnell’s once owned a distillery in Scotland, the Old Orkney Distillery. I have so much to learn about these two island’s whisky past. Likely the McConnell’s opened a distillery in Scotland because of their own heritage, which was that of the Ulster-Scots. 

As we continued walking, she asked me if I wanted to grab a drink somewhere. I said sure - and told her of my first trip to Ireland where I’d traveled through the south and into Dublin looking for where the best Guinness came from. She took me back to a curious brick flat iron building that I had noticed earlier during my walk around town. Bittles Bar. She asked me if I wanted a Guinness. I said sure, so we walked in.  It was a bit cramped at first, and a sea of activity, even though it was 11 AM on a Friday. She had told me John, the proprietor, can sometimes catch some people off guard, I got visions of the “no soup for you” guy from Seinfeld. But she ordered me a beer and had a nice conversation with him as he was over and over pulling the Guinness tap. She handed me that beautiful brown and tan beauty - I took a sip - and almost melted. In all of my travels I had no idea the best Guinness I would ever taste would come from Belfast. A combination of chocolate and almost a malted milk ball maltiness, not a hint of bitter. It drank like a dream.

We sat in a booth, surrounded by plexiglass shields, a remnant of the COVID era. I told her I had stopped off at Blinkers downtown for breakfast and that my hangover was only a minor irritation. It was surprising actually, especially after a couple of beers, cocktails, and a few cask strength whiskies. She asked me if I’d had Guinness 0.0, the non-alcoholic version - I told her I was kind of afraid of it. She said, it actually was quite similar to the regular stuff. We talked over whiskey taxes and why Irish whisky was so much cheaper in the states. And like with Michael over at Boann, she gave me a bit of a lowdown on some of the other distilleries and distillers I might meet along the way. That is where I learned about Daryl McNally’s Limavady and Titanic. It seemed like my list of whiskey brands was somewhat inadequate. She talked about Dunville’s history, the football team that still exists in its name and a railway business associated with it. It was so great seeing her excited to talk about Northern Ireland. I was really taken with the place - a place I had never really considered visiting before. In many ways, I felt like I’d be right at home if I lived here.

Then she talked about McConnell’s big plans. Yes, they were in the process of securing a building for a distillery. She told me to promise I wouldn’t say anything about the distillery location just yet, as they didn’t want to jinx the project’s approval. When I returned home from my trip, I was happy to see that the plans were officially approved. I felt like an insider there for a while. 

The prison it is being put into is one that once held not only people arrested during what was known as The Troubles in Northern Ireland, but also suffragettes. She talked about how many families in the area have been touched by that prison. Again, my lack of knowledge about the specifics of the events there - I knew of the disputes between the Catholics and Protestants. What really brought it all home to me was watching the movie Belfast on the plane flight home. With Dame Judy Dench in it, it is a chilling account of the struggles of a neighborhood in Belfast during The Troubles. I highly recommend it - it was a very emotional movie. It was hard to imagine seeing the place I was visiting as being a war zone.

I told her of my ignorance of Irish history and she said, don’t worry, she had the same blind spot with American history. 

We talked about the whiskies on the shelf at Bittles. It’s funny, she said, Bushmills doesn’t really sell as much there as you would think. It was probably because of the big selection he had. An apparently there was less concern over Catholic and Parliament whiskey, Method of Madness and Jameson sold just fine there. This was all great to hear. It really showed me how a new age was evolving, thanks to the long ago settled Good Friday agreement. There were still murmerings that things could be undone, but as always we hope, as Abraham Lincoln says, we bow to the better angels of our nature.

As we walked to a place called Maddens, I mentioned that I was going to end my trip in Dublin and was going to Bar 1661, she said - you have to have a Belfast Coffee. I thought it was kind of interesting that I was having to go to Dublin to have a Belfast Coffee - but I definitely locked it away in the back of my mind.

When we got to our next destination, I was introduced to Brian at the pub and she dropped off some McConnell’s Sherry Oak samples and branded supplies. He and I got into a discussion about new distilleries and that’s when I learned about another soon to come distillery I’d not heard of “Glens of Antrim.” He asked if I wanted to try their Lir whisky, named after King Lir. I said sure. It was very good, full of toffee notes. 

I asked her how much they knew about the old McConnell’s distillery, their namesake. She said, even everyone’s resident Irish historian Fionnan O’Conner was having trouble finding information on it. The history dates back to 1776, but I have to say, even my own searches have netted me little. 

We walked back to the Duke of York, and there was a wedding reception going on. So many amazing historic mirrors hanging in this place. All of them authentic. We sat and sipped one more Guinness and finished up our chat. Before I knew it, it was time to call it a day and head back to my AirBnB. I was excited. The next day would be a drive up the Antrim coast. I was going to see if I could find the Glens of Antrim distillery project and then go to the historic Bushmills distillery and enjoy an evening walking the Giant’s Causeway. But before then, it was time to grab dinner and soak in the last few moments in Belfast. A great day, thanks to Sarah and the graciousness of McConnell’s sharing her with me for a day. 

I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore. 

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life LLC

Production, stories, and research by Drew Hannush

And if you want to learn about McConnell’s and all the distilleries in Ireland and Northern Ireland or you want to draw up your own dream vacation visiting Irish whiskey distilleries - grab a copy of my new book Whiskey Lore’s Travel Guide To Experiencing Irish Whiskey, it features all the information you need to plan and prepare for an incredible trip to the Emerald Isle, including travel tips, and full profiles of 27 distilleries and information on 24 more that are on the way. Just head to whiskey-lore.com/irishbook for a quick link to Amazon or ask your favorite bookseller or distillery to order you a copy.

Thanks for listening! I’m your host Drew Hannush and until next time, cheers and slainte mhath!

For show notes, transcripts, and more, head to whiskey-lore.com

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