Guinness, Arthur (1725–1803), brewer and iconic pioneer of Ireland's most famous alcoholic beverage, was born 12 March 1725, eldest of four sons of Richard Guinness of Celbridge, Co. Kildare, and his wife, Elizabeth Read (1698–1742). His father was for many years the estate agent and steward for the Rev. Dr Arthur Price (qv), rector of Celbridge and client of Speaker William Conolly (qv), who despite elevation to the episcopal bench as bishop of Clonfert in 1724 continued to reside for the rest of his life at his north Kildare seat.
The family tradition is that Arthur Guinness was named after Dr Price; certainly both he and his father were handsomely remembered in the archbishop's will. A bequest of £100 provided the capital for Guinness's first venture as a small-town brewer in Leixlip c.1755, and four years later he managed to purchase the leasehold interest of the former Espinasse brewery in Dublin, a disused property that was strategically located beside the city reservoir and close to James's Gate, at the west end of the city. He married (1761) Olivia (d. 1814), daughter and co-heiress of William Whitmore, a city gentleman, and through her he established kinship links with the city recorder, James Grattan, and his son Henry Grattan (qv). Two of his younger brothers also entered city business, in their case through apprenticeship, Benjamin (d. 1778) becoming a merchant, and Samuel (d. 1795) a goldsmith. He fathered at least twenty-one children in the course of his marriage, a large brood by the standards of his bourgeois peers, and twelve of his children (seven daughters and five sons) appear to have survived to adulthood. For most of his career his main place of residence was beside the brewery at the end of Thomas St. However, in 1764 he acquired a small suburban property that enjoyed a fine prospect of the city from the north-east; this became his villa retreat of Beaumont. So began the family's long association with north Dublin.
Arthur Guinness remained for the rest of his long life a successful brewer in a city where the local product only slowly achieved ascendancy over imported English ales and beers. He was intimately involved with that shift in preferences. But his rise to be the one of the largest producers and brewer to the Castle was quite long-drawn-out, and his business career was more diverse than the founding myth might suggest. It was not until the 1770s that he became one of the top half-dozen brewers, and by London standards his plant would still have seemed quite modest, with nearly all its sales being made in the neighbourhood of the city. Like other brewers he was active in the grain trade, and for much of his career operated as a flour factor for country millers selling to the city. He became the principal partner in the Hibernian flour mills, erected in Kilmainham c.1790; seven years later, profits at the mills were running at about a third of those obtained from the brewery.
Porter, cornerstone of the brewery's later fame, was not brewed in the early years, and may indeed have only been introduced in the 1780s, in imitation of a similar black ale pioneered in London. But it seems that, long before its introduction, ale from Arthur Guinness's establishment was of a more predictable and more agreeable standard than that sold by most of his rivals. In an age of economic turbulence and short-lived partnerships, his success lay in building up the core business, in consolidating its profitability and assets over the forty years that he was involved, and in training up a competent and willing heir to take over the reins – his second son, Arthur (qv) (1768–1855). These achievements were what set him apart from all but a very few of his commercial contemporaries.
In the institutional memory of the firm, Arthur Guinness has been cast as a heroic figure, gifted with remarkable foresight. There is surprisingly little documentary evidence to test the myth, but the pattern of his career suggests that he was commercially astute, personally tough in his business dealings, and politically canny rather than fashionable in his views, which were tempered with a strong streak of religious conviction that was to find fuller expression in the next generation. His business innovation has perhaps been exaggerated and the role of good fortune understated.
From his first years in the city he was, like his brothers, involved in its corporate life, becoming warden, then master of the small but influential Brewers Guild in 1767, and he remained a dominant presence in the guild for the rest of his life. Despite being on the common council of the corporation for forty years, he did not seek out higher municipal office nor elevation to the status of alderman. Indeed, he flagrantly defied the corporation in a dispute over water rights that was to drag on for twelve years; through stubborn persistence he secured a very favourable arbitration in 1785. He was not short of influence in higher places, most evident in his friendship with his cousin Henry Grattan, through whose lobbying major changes in the fiscal status of beer were eventually secured, most dramatically with the abolition of the excise duty on beer in 1795. His business was also assisted by the desire among the elite to discourage the consumption of spirits, which greatly assisted beer producers in the late eighteenth century.
The Guinnesses more than repaid the episcopal legacy that had launched Arthur Guinness's career: they later became bountiful patrons of the Church of Ireland. Arthur Guinness himself helped in the refinancing of the cathedral school of St Patrick's, and together with the quaker merchant Samuel Bewley (qv) he was the driving force behind the first non-denominational Sunday school in the city, which opened near the brewery in 1786; this became the Dublin Free School in 1798 and remained the most important educational institution in the city Liberties until the 1830s. He became treasurer and active supporter of the Meath Hospital, the infirmary for the industrial quarter of the city. His views on education, philanthropy, and religion were those of a tolerant but committed anglican, and he no doubt approved of the passage of his eldest son Hosea (1765–1841) through Oxford to holy orders. Hosea spent his ordained life in the diocese of Dublin, serving as rector in the city parish of St Werburgh's for some thirty years.
On the surface at least, the Guinness family passed unscathed through the political turbulence of late eighteenth-century Ireland. Arthur senior remained involved throughout the 1790s in business and to some extent in public affairs, but passing references to the public position taken by ‘Mr Guinness’ in politics – supporting the ‘popular’ party in the great city election of 1790, supporting catholic relief in 1793 and 1795, opposing the union in 1799 – are ambiguous. The elder Arthur certainly consorted with Grattan's circle of city patriots in 1790 and supported catholic relief, but it was his son who seems to have taken a public stand against the union. The characterisation (by the maverick republican Watty Cox (qv)) of Guinness the brewer as ‘an active spy’ in 1797 is unlikely to have been aimed at the father. The younger Arthur was indeed to become a demonstrably conservative figure in post-union Dublin, but this reflected more the changed political world than any marked contrast in political outlook between the two Arthurs. The elder Arthur Guinness died 23 January 1803.