| 8.6°C Dublin

The Guinnesses

The sisters are all witches, lovely ones to be sure, but witches nonetheless," film director John Huston once said about three famous Guinness beauties. It set the tone for almost all subsequent media and public interest in the fascinating family.

Although Arthur Guinness and less than a dozen of his direct descendants developed and created one of the world's great brands , the family came to be better known over the last century for its socialites and their attached relationships, scandals and tragedies.

The reasons are not hard to find.

The "Golden Guinness Girls" to whom Huston was referring -- the three daughters of Ernest Guinness who came of age in the late 1920s and early 1930s -- were beautiful and extremely rich.

Their grandfather, Edward Guinness, the first Earl of Iveagh, had ended the 19th century widely considered to be the second richest man in Britain, then the ruler of the world's biggest empire.

Between the three, Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh, they chalked up eight husbands and several tragedies. Oonagh, for instance, saw three of her children die young; a boy within days of birth, a 14-year old daughter of a reaction to a diphtheria injection, and a 21-year old son in a controversial car crash in London memorialised by the Beatles.

The only problems the Guinnesses never had was money, Maureen once complained near the end of her long life.

It's no wonder that putting the words Guinness and heiress together is so favoured by headline writers. Not surprisingly, it is not generally looked upon so favourably by members of the Guinness family. For one thing, not all beautiful young women called Guinness are heiresses in the conventional sense.

While most of the thousands of Guinnesses now alive are descended from one Richard Guinness who died in 1766, not all are descended from his eldest son, Arthur, the famous brewer. Many are descended from Arthur's brothers, who created equally successful dynasties in banking and religion although they never matched the fabulous wealth of the brewers.

The focus on Guinness heiresses, real, half-real, or imagined, has obscured an equally fascinating story of how Arthur and the six generations that followed him built up the brewery through thick and thin, made it the largest in the world, and spread their family and brand name around the world.

They came from modest origins: Richard Guinness's antecedents are unclear and their Irish credentials were only established firmly in recent years by Patrick Guinness through DNA testing, as outlined in his book Arthur's Round.

There was nothing inevitable about Arthur's success when he came to Dublin from Celbridge, via Leixlip, in 1759. He was only one of scores of city brewers: he didn't invent porter; nor was he the first to brew it in the city. Far from relying on Liffey water or a secret holy well, he attached an illegal pipe to the city's supply for his water, leading to a 20-year battle with the corporation.

But he was a good brewer and businessman, attributes that also ensured success in the brewery in succeeding generations. Interestingly, in the first three generations the eldest son never inherited the brewery; the most able one did and was also put in charge of the growing family fortune. Long before wealth management became an industry, the Guinnesses were very good at it: Arthur Guinness's 16-page will, written in 1802, is an object lesson in how to conserve family wealth.

They were good spin doctors, too. Nineteenth century Dublin could be a difficult place in which to do business, especially for a Protestant family whose customers were mainly Catholics. Few had compunctions about using politics and religion as business weapons: Daniel O'Connell, for instance, had no scruples about promoting his son's brewery on the strength of his political standing.

The Guinnesses managed to steer a successful course through these treacherous currents and grew steadily on the back of good business decisions, but like their 20th century female successors, the men who controlled the brewery did not always avoid scandal, including sexual, political and financial scandals.

THE third Arthur shocked his God-fearing father, the second Arthur, by turning out to be gay and having a relationship with a young male clerk in the brewery who went on to become a famous playwright, Dion Boucicault. He was banished to an estate in Stillorgan.

The next generation's Arthur (later Lord Ardilaun) was an MP for Dublin but lost the seat because of bribery and corruption. While Arthur was personally cleared of blame, his party organisers were revealed to have bribed voters with crisp new £5 notes and a campaign of dirty tricks.

Ardilaun was probably gay and had an unconventional marriage which, it was agreed in advance, would not involve sex. He went on to become a political maverick, at odds with the unionist party, a spokesman for landlords, and anti-English: four of his employees at Ashford Castle in Co Galway were murdered during the Land War. But he made a bad move in selling his half share of the brewery to his younger brother Edward for some £600,000.

It was a huge sum in those days -- double the brewery's annual payroll at a time when it was the largest in the world and a generous employer -- but not as huge as the £4.25m Edward received from floating it on the London stock exchange some years later in 1886.

The flotation created a major scandal when Baring Brothers allocated most of the shares to their friends, leading to outrage about a golden circle.

Edward, the most successful of all the Guinnesses, moved to England, and effectively bought a title, Lord Iveagh, through the well-established (even then) method of making large contributions to the Conservative Party and public philanthropy.

Two of his sons, Rupert and Walter, became MPs, Rupert winning a seat which the family held for 85 years from 1912 to 1997 and was known in the House of Commons as Guinness-on-Sea.

Walter, later Lord Moyne and the most interesting of all the Guinnesses who controlled the brewery, was Britain's Agriculture Minister during the 1920s, retired as Lord Moyne and pursued a real-life Indiana Jones lifestyle as an explorer on his yacht, often accompanied by one of his of exotic mistresses.

Back in the British Government during the Second World War, he was shot dead in Cairo in 1944 by the extreme Jewish Lehi group (better known in England at the time as the Stern Gang).

Incredibly, Walter and his brother Ernest (father of the Golden Guinness Girls) were shipwrecked at Killary Harbour in separate incidents. Both escaped injury but four people died in the accident involving Ernest's boat.

The men who created the brand were no strangers to scandal or controversy but generally did a better job at keeping out of the public eye than their sisters and daughters.

The Guinnesses by Joe Joyce (Poolbeg) €19.99