Harp launched in 1959 from brewery with rich tradition in the industry in Dundalk

Toasting the new brewhouse in Dundalk back in 1986 from left, Lough Iveagh, then President of Guinness, Earnest Saunders, then Chairman and Chief Executive of Guinness, the Taoiseach, Garret Fitzgerald and Brian Slowey, Guinness Ireland.

The inspiration behind adapting the Great Northern Brewery for the brewing of Harp Lager has brought Dundalk great benefits over the past four decades, but it was really the entrepreneurship of a group of local businessmen in the late 1800s that laid the foundations to make it possible.

The growing popularity of ales and beers led to these businessmen coming up with the idea in 1896 of establishing a new brewery, with the capital needed fixed at £30,000, a large part of which was raised in Belfast through the drink trade.

The brewery was located beside the Great Northern Railway (hence the name) on a site that had been part of the Demesne property, and just across the road from what was then the walls of the jail.

The brewery water was particularly good for the brewing of ale, and three kinds were produced - light dinner ale, amber ale and strong ale.

The Great Northern Brewery carried on until 1955, when it was taken over by Smithwicks of Kilkenny, and then Guinness acquired it in 1959, launching it as the Harp Lager Brewery.

It was a move that showed great foresight at the time as they were in effect setting up a brewery to supply a market which, for all practicable purposes, did not exist, and what was there was a variety of lagers imported from Denmark, Holland etc.

One of the main reasons Dundalk was chosen was the water supply from the Ravensdale reservoir, fed by springs from the Cooley mountains, which was found to be very similar in quality to that from which the world-famous Pilsener Lager was produced, while Dundalk was ideally situated to supply Ireland north and south and also Britain.

The greater part of the old brewery was demolished in that initial building programme, although one of the parts that remained was notably the fine old office building which still fronts on to the Carrick Road, which in the days of the Great Northern Brewery had been the Head Brewer’s residence and brewery offices.

The original capacity for the Harp Brewery was planned to be under 20,000 barrels a year, and there are still fond memories, which have now become legend, of how the first crate and bottles from the brew to hit the shelves was sampled across the road in the Railway Bar, then owned by the late Benny Kennedy, what is now Loughran’s.

Perhaps the greatest stroke of genius behind the success of the Dundalk operation was the appointed by Guinness in 1959 of Dr Herman Muender to develop the Harp product.

He was to have a profound influence on the whole operation, bringing to Dundalk a lifetime of experience in the brewing of lager to the highest continental standard.

Responsible for formulating a product that would match the best of German beers, he insisted that Harp would be brewed and matured in a traditional continental manner.

The standards Dr Muender set were the foundation on which Harp was driven forward, and demand proved to be so great when the product was launched, that a number of drastic changes were made to the original plans.

By 1963, the brewery had grown to have a theoretical capacity of 150,000 barrels a year and which had cost around £2 million to build and equip, a substantial investment.

Draught Harp was introduced in both the Republic and Northern markets in 1965, and proved to be a dramatic success, with the result that output by 1971 had grown to 250,000 barrels, and that steady progress continued.

By the mid-1980s, employment had grown to around 215 people fulltime, and there was also another significant milestone when in 1984, local man Jim McClean was appointed Managing Director, and the Brewery continued to expand during that period into the export markets, with a special Export Harp going most notably to such diverse markets as the USA and Italy.

The brewery also diversified into other products over the years like Steiger Lager, Satzenbrau Pils and the non-alcoholic beer Kaliber, but it has been the brewing of Carlsberg under licence which has proved the most successful for the Dundalk brewery as the quality of the product had made a major impact on the Irish market, and earned commendations for the brewery.

Major investment and constant expansion have also continued at the Carrick Road site, with Guinness in recent years reverting to the name of the Great Northern Brewery, but the use of the greater technology available has also led to a drop in the number employed there to around 140.

Harp has also played a significant role in the community through sponsorship at a number of levels, particularly the Dundalk Maytime Festival and Dundalk FC.

The company has had a major impact on the economic life of the town over the years as under the Guinness umbrella, the wages rates have been among the highest in the area, backed up by an excellent non-contributory pension scheme, and the services of a company doctor.