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Part 1 of 3 | Words by Eric Ryan. Strangely, for a northerly country that is quite the great banqueting hall, at Tara, and noted how damp and cloudy, a vibrant wine drinking tradition has existed in Ireland for over two millennia. A further oddity is that Irish whiskey has been inextricably linked, for centuries, to this vigorous Irish wine trade. This three-part series will focus initially on “Irish wine”, or the heritage of wine in Ireland, before linking this heritage into the wine merchant/whiskey bonder business of later centuries. The Celts can be credited with first importing wine, most likely of Greek origin, to Ireland. Shards of wine-stained pottery, found in Irish archaeological sites, date as far back as 500BC - approximately the same period that saw the burgeoning of a long-lasting Celtic culture in Ireland. Dating from the first century AD, the “Táin Bó Cúailnge” (Cattle Raid of Cooley) is the earliest and most famous epic in Irish literature. It vividly describes how Forgall Monac, of the Gaulish Menapii (the only Celtic tribe specified on Ptolemy’s first century Roman map of Ireland), ventured to Emain Macha, the royal capital of Ulaidh and home to the great Ulster warriors of the Red Branch, with a tribute of gold and Gaulish wine for King Conchobar. The royal courts of ancient Ireland were renowned for their feasting. One king of Connaught is said to have gone “from one feast of purple wine to another”. On Easter Sunday 433 AD Saint Patrick visited the great banqueting hall, at Tara, and noted how Laoghaire, the High King, royally feasted 'the Kings and Princes and Druids of all Ireland’ with much food and wine. Further archaeological evidence proves that Ireland, even though outside the Roman sphere of influence, was linked to ancient Roman trade networks that ran from Gaza, along the Mediterranean, through the Straits of Gibraltar, northwards along the western Atlantic coastline, onwards to Cornwall and finally to Garranes, Co. Cork. In the fifth and sixth centuries, the nobility of Celtic Irish society indulged themselves with expensive eastern Mediterranean wines of Syria, Cyprus and Lebanon. During the Dark Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Irish friars played a crucial role in the development of continental monastic vineyards. Alongside scripture and scribing, Irish men of the cloth were schooled in the valuable aspects of farming and crop cultivation. In the fifth century, a Cistercian monastery in County Kilkenny planted a vineyard. Lessons were learned and other monasteries followed suit, probably in an effort to guarantee supplies of altar wine. For centuries Irish monks went abroad not only to reinstate Christianity, but also as viniculturists to help fellow monks tend grapes to produce wines. André Simon, the doyen of wine and food pairings, wrote that the “vine is no newcomer to Franconia, it was first planted near Würzburg in the eighth century, when St Killian first brought the gospel and the grape to the heathen population of the upper Maine valleys”.   Irish monks, such as the saints; Patrick, Columbanus, Fiacre (the patron saint of horticulture in France), Nessan, Gall, Fridolin and Killian, are honoured, to this day, in the French vine-growing regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhône and Loire Valleys, the cantons of St Gall and Grisons in Switzerland, Lombardy in Italy, Jerez in Spain and in Franken, Germany, where humble St Killian, from Mullagh Co. Cavan, is the patron saint of wine growers. The venerable St Bede, a studious Benedictine monk, completed his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” in AD 731 and interestingly noted that “Ireland abounds in milk and honey, nor is there any want of vines”. In the following centuries, the wealth and prestige of Irish monasteries attracted unwelcome guests, in the form of Scandinavian Vikings. Although primarily associated today with plunder and pillage, the Vikings, or Norsemen, were also able merchants and seafaring traders. From the ninth century, they established coastal settlements around Ireland; Waterford, Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Wexford. The Gaelic Chieftain’s, or High King’s, tolerated these foreign settlements, because they paid regular tribute. The Limerick Norsemen paid an annual tribute of “a casket of wine (said to be a ton of circa 252 gallons/957 litres capacity) for every day of the year”, to King Brian Boru, High King of Ireland from 1002 – 1014. His palace, at Kincora, was situated on a high point above the River Shannon, by the western bank of Lough Derg, today the beautiful town of Killaloe, County Clare. For the upkeep of Boru’s thirsty royal court, the Norsemen of Dublin paid further annual tribute, delivering an additional 150 bulging wine casks, per annum, to his already overflowing cellars of mead, ale and wine. When the Anglo-Norman’s came to do battle in Ireland from the late 12th century, they were accompanied by a somewhat biased historian named Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), who noted of Ireland; “Imported wines, conveyed in the ordinary commercial way, are so abundant that you would scarcely notice that the vine was neither cultivated nor gave its fruit here”. It seems Irish monastic vineyards of previous centuries had succumbed to the worsening Irish weather conditions.Once the native Irish were subjugated, the import of wines to Ireland became a valuable revenue stream for the Crown. Normandy, Bordeaux, and Gascon were at that time controlled by the Plantagenet monarchs of England. The possession of Bordeaux and Gascon came about not through conquest, but through a dowry received by Henry II upon his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitane. The southern Irish port cities prospered greatly from this trade in French wines. In an age when many families took their name from their trade, the first mayor of Cork in 1273 was Richard Wine. Between the years 1436 and 1644, excepting just four years, every mayor of Cork was engaged in the wine trade. Such a statistic is unmatched anywhere in the world, even in the traditional wine-producing ports of Spain, Italy and France. One of the most eminent 13th-century wine critics in Europe, based in Paris, was Gotofrides de Waterfordia (Geoffrey of Waterford), an Irishman, a Dominican friar and noted scholar, who spoke fluent Latin, Greek, French and Arabic. The first unequivocal proof of distilling in Ireland is from the medieval Red Book of Ossory, recorded in 1324 by the Franciscan Bishop Ledred, which details the distillation of wine, rather than beer, to produce Aqua Vitae. Imported wine was expensive. It wouldn’t have taken long for someone to experiment with distilling beer, to produce a kind of whiskey. From this point too, the European oak wine casks would have been used to transport the various forms of Aqua Vitae, Uisce Beatha and Usquebaugh. Maturation, specifically for the sake of flavour development, would not happen however for many centuries to come. Just three years after Bishop Ledred put his distilling recipe’s to parchment, Edward III was proclaimed King of England and Lord of Ireland. He encouraged imports by offering special privileges to traders from the Low Countries and Gascony. Even greater quantities of Bordeaux and Gascon wine was shipped to Ireland, greatly bolstering the royal coffers by means of the ancient customs duty. The Great Charter Roll of Waterford, produced in 1373, beautifully details a successful petition on behalf of the royal port of Waterford, rather than the upstart New Ross, to maintain its monopoly to import wine and collect such taxes on behalf of the king. Much like Roman times, wines of the Eastern Mediterranean - of Italy (particularly Vernage), Sardinia, Tyre, Cyprus and Crete – were also, at this time, supplied to the British Isles by Venetian traders. Malmsey wine, from Crete, and to a lesser extent Greek Rumney wine, were much prized for their sweetness and body. In 1386 the Treaty of Windsor established a close political, military and commercial alliance between England and Portugal. Under the terms of the treaty, each country gave the merchants of the other the right to reside in its territory and trade on equal terms with its own subjects. Many English merchants settled in Portugal and traded in local wines. By the second half of the 15th century a significant amount of Portuguese wine was being exported to England and Ireland, often in exchange for salted cod. In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Turks and, at the bitter culmination of the Hundred Years War, the English were finally pushed out of France. That momentous year signalled a slowdown in the relatively inexpensive French wine imports to Ireland. A bloody war soon followed, between the expanding Turks and the all-powerful Venetians. Thus, began the gradual erosion of Venetian domination of Mediterranean trade, which included the export of sweet Eastern Mediterranean wines to Britain and Ireland. The Spanish were only too happy to step into the breach to supply the thirsty English, and Irish, with their sweet wines. Overseas sales of Andalusian wines, with its superior reputation, underwent a further period of expansion after the wedding of Catherine of Aragon, youngest child of the Spanish Monarchs, first to King Arthur of England in 1501, and later to King Henry VIII in 1509. It was recorded that Catherine once voiced the complaint that “The King, my husband, keeps the very best wines from the Canar
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