1. Fermentation, distillation and facilitation.
Jonathan Swift called it ‘Irish wine’ without elaboration. He knew his correspondent would catch the reference. (Swift 23) At least one Lord Lieutenant of Ireland built temporary fountains in and about Dublin Castle to splash it by the hogshead for the city’s citizens in celebration of the king’s birthday. (Powell 155)
Arthur Guinness first brewed the porter that would become stout in eighteenth century Dublin, a drink that would conquer the nation. Poitín, an ancient spirit, still flows from illicit stills kept up and down the social scale; the mayor of a London borough used to bring bottles of it from Ireland for the Editor. By the nineteenth century hot whisky would lubricate the wheels of commerce, hunting and hospitality at the Big Houses of the Ascendancy to the west. In 1995, Patrick Cooney wrote:
“It’s a land of mad gallops across damp turf, of hot whiskies to ward off the freezing Atlantic mists at early morning meets, of hound-rustling between rival packs, of jealousies, feuds and minor treacheries. North Galway is perhaps the best hunting country left in the British Isles, a last redoubt of the old Protestant Ascendancy…. ” (Cooney)
Hot whisky remains a stalwart there today and in the wintry pubs of Dublin. Swift, however, did not have beer or whisky in mind. He was describing the red wine of Bordeaux that the British call claret.
2. On origins.
It seems evident that the term derives somehow from the Latin clarus, for clear, and specifically from vinum claratum, or clarified wine. Ironically, however, its origin as a synonym for red Bordeaux is not at all clear.
The Online Etymology Dictionary dates ‘vin claret,’ but not ‘claret’ per se, to the mid-1400s as an Old French term for a light-colored wine. By 1700 however the vin would disappear and the term went from adjective to noun and from anything light to something specifically from Bordeaux. (etymonline)
A blogger from Boston believes that claret
“seems to derive from light red or yellowish wines like vin clairet. As far back as 1398 the word was employed to describe hippocras--wine mixed with honey and sweet spices. Later, claret was merely descriptive of anything (especially wine) with a dark red hue--which explains why claret has been a slang term for blood since c.1604.” (trivium)
Our Boston blogger, who describes himself as a ‘military latrine scrubber,’ interested in ‘monkeys’ but ignorant of the terms ‘movie’ or ‘book,’ provides no citation for his claims, but then neither do any of our other sources. He does, however, exude a whiff of false precision if not insincerity.
Merriam-Webster online offers next to no help with etymology but does date the first known use of ‘claret’ to 1578. The likeliest source of the word, however, is outlined at the Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, which appears the most reliable explanation because it forges an unbroken chain of custody. Oxford dispenses with the various references to light, yellowish or blood and darts instead direct to ‘clear.’ It derives the French or English claret from the older clairet, which in turn superseded the Old French claré, itself descended from the Latin claratum vinum, or clarified wine.
This reference to the clarification of wine gives us no assistance in linking claret to Bordeaux because clarifying amounts merely to filtering or fining a wine before it gets bottled. So we find ourselves back to the mysterious beginning in etymological terms.
Happily enough, however, the term has leapt the sea to America, where people not only now know what it means, but vintners, including Francis Ford Coppola in California and the estimable Basel Cellars out of Washington’s Walla Walla Valley, call their blends of Bordeaux varietals clarets too.
3. Too much is never enough.
Back in Ireland, anecdotal evidence abounds about the historical consumption of claret in Ascendancy circles. To cite but several, Lord Orrery complained, and complained about much else as well, of “Bumpers of Claret… perpetually under my nose,” during a visit in 1737, priggish fool that he was. (Somerville-Large 130)
Not all viceroys approved of excessive largesse. Chesterfield, who served as Lord Lieutenant from 1747 until 1747, disapproved too.
“Nine gentlemen out of ten in Ireland are impoverished by the great quantity of claret which, from mistaken notions of hospitality and dignity, they think it necessary should be drunk in their houses.” (Lecky 287; Connolly 66)
Sir Jonah Barrington displayed a different attitude when he encountered Ascendancy hospitality later in the century, observing with fascination near to wonder that the claret flowed freely before, during and after dinner, and then well past dawn. (Barrington 42)
Barrington’s experience was not unique. Drinking did permeate this culture of extravagant hospitality. In 1769 an English traveller called John Bush explained of the Irish gentry that “ ….the Englishman that can drink will find them as hospitable as any people in Europe; for if he will but drink like an Irishman, he is welcome to eat like an Englishman.” (Bush 15)
The prospect could be daunting to the uninitiated. Bush describes another traveller astonished by his reception on arrival in Ireland during the late 1760s. He was told with utmost sincerity by “a very hospitable gentleman” that “as you come over quite a stranger to the country, it behooves us to make it as agreeable as we can. There is a company of us to meet at Black Rock on a jolly Party on Sunday next, and, by Jesus, there is to be five or six dozen of claret to be emptied.” (Bush 15-16)
Bush himself, who did not much like this Irish largesse, found it amazing to admit “that a middling drinker here will carry off his four bottles without being the least apparently disordered.” Those bottles often were smaller then than now but no matter: “A man is looked upon, indeed, as nothing with his bottle here, that cannot take off his gallon coolly…. The Irish drink the most of any of his majesty’s subjects with the least injury.” (Bush 21)
Tara Kellaghan cites the example of Edward Melville, an American who traveled through France as well as Ireland and “frequently expressed great fondness for the Irish.” (“Claret” 5) He visited Cork in 1811 (which fits within the long eighteenth century by four years for our purpose) where his hospitable hosts plied him with
“ ….three meals crowded into less than six hours, which would be fully sufficient for the temperate French in twenty four, and as much wine consumed as would serve the same number of Frenchmen, mixed with water, for a week.” (quoted at “Claret” 5)
According to Lecky, the brilliant nineteenth century historian and wordsmith, during the eighteenth century
“[d]runkenness and extravagance went hand in hand among the gentry, and especially among the lesser gentry…. Berkeley noticed that while in England many gentlemen with £1,000 a year never drank wine in their houses; in Ireland this could hardly be said of any who had £100 a year.” (Lecky 287)
Berkeley meant claret more than anything else, asking himself whether there was “any kingdom in Europe so good a customer at Bordeaux as Ireland?” (Murphy 159)
“Indulgence in claret” was, according to Constantia Maxwell, one “symptom of that extravagance which brought the descendants of so many Irish gentry of the period into the Encumbered Estates Court” because “no one of any position in Dublin would have thought himself truly hospitable unless he provided large quantities of claret for his guests.” (Maxwell 101, 102)
A perverse inventiveness facilitated the depravity.
“In Ireland… there were many stories of decanters which, having no flat bottoms, would never stand still; of wine-glasses with their stems broken off, in order that they should be emptied as soon as they had been filled; of carousals that were prolonged day and night, til the most hardened drinkers were under the table.” (Lecky 288)
And long after the Act of Union should have destroyed demand for Claret among the Irish swells, it evidently did not. Toward the mid-nineteenth century Thackeray describes a debauched evening with a group of young gentleman at a Dublin flat. He found the food they cooked delicious, including lobster flamed with whisky, and marveled at the quantities of claret consumed. (Thackeray 23)
4. They demanded the finest wines available to humanity.
Quality as well as quantity was said to contribute to the cost of constant claret; Chesterfield added in his eighteenth century correspondence that “ ….except in providing that their claret should be two or three years old, the Irish gentry thought less of two or three years hence than any people under the sun.” (Lecky 287)
The Ascendancy Irish may have bought to excess but they bought well; Irish and English alike attested to the superior quality of their claret, although the usually reliable Arthur Young disagreed. Young supports the notion that the Irish favored Bordeaux but disparaged what he drank:
“Claret is the common wine of all tables, and so much inferior to what is drunk in England, that it does not appear to be the same wine.” (Young 152)
He disliked most of the food too, but not everything Irish. The Port he found “incomparable, so much better than the English to prove, if proof is wanting, the abominable adulterations it must undergo with us.” (Young 152)
Young is an outlier in another important respect. He did not encounter the drunken excess chronicled by our other sources. Writing in the second half of the 1770s, he claimed that “[d]runkenness ought no longer to be a reproach” to “the gentlemen of Ireland.” Young would appear to accept the notion that it had, however, been a legitimate reproach, “but the change in manners that has taken place in that kingdom is not generally known in England.”
(Young 152) Unaccountably none of our sources cites him.
Sailing across the Irish Sea, Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire and Tara Kellaghan cite three examples of Irish travellers in England who complained about the inferior claret they found there from 1725 to 1761. (“Royal Pomp”) In her own engaging study of the nexus between Ireland and Bordeaux, Kellaghan claims that “[q]uality wine for ‘the quality’ was the order of the day and cites an English officer who “heard,” early in the nineteenth century, “Dublin claret highly extolled in England.” (“Claret” 8, 10)
5. Numbers may or may not lie: Crude cliometrics.
Anecdote can constitute an unreliable barometer of the historical record, and English visitors with entrenched predilections often found in Ireland what they wanted to find for purposes of prejudice or propaganda.
Bush at least would not seem like one of them. He found the habits of the Irish gentry so outlandish that he feared his readers would disbelieve him. The phrases “You will think it rather marvelous, but it is no less true,” “you will think, perhaps, that I have too freely given into the satyric [a nice if unintended double entendre--Ed.] strain” and the like pepper his descriptions of Irish excess.
The long eighteenth century was an age fueled by alcoholic exuberance throughout the English-speaking world. In the circumstances it is fair to ask whether these accounts exaggerate the indulgence of the Irish.
Enter the cliometricians, if only in a tentative way. In A Kingdom of Wine, Ted Murphy has compiled statistics on the export of ‘grand’ and ‘fine’ wines from Bordeaux to England, Scotland (which had a longstanding vinous connection to its Old Ally through the Port of Leith) and Ireland during 1739 and 1740. An even thousand tuns of claret landed in England, 2,500 in Scotland and a comparatively vast 4,000 in Ireland, which had a considerably smaller population than mainland Britain. (Murphy 35)
The sample is small in terms of time--only as much as two years--but it does support the anecdotal evidence. Kellaghan cites a bigger sample, from a Francophone source unavailable to the Editor, covering the years 1771-1812, but the statistics are problematical.
She labels her table “French Wine Imports into Ireland, 1771-1812” and cites it to conclude that “Irish claret consumption dramatically decreased in the years approaching the Act of Union (1800) and in its immediate aftermath.” (“Claret” 4-5) France however is bigger than Bordeaux, many of its other regions produce a lot of wine, and the table does not appear limited to the ‘fine’ wines we are told the Ascendancy favored, so the conclusion is flawed unless the table is mislabeled.
Nonetheless the numbers impress. In the decade covering 1771-1780, for example, French shippers landed nearly 29,000 tuns holding 252 gallons apiece of wine at Irish ports. (“Claret” 5) That totals some 7,300,000 gallons averaging 730,000 a year.
And shipments do decline as Kellaghan claims, all the way down to just under 5,000 tuns from 1802-11 and under 3,000 from 1812-21.
6. Exodus and importation.
A demographic factor does favor Kellaghan’s conclusion even if she is dealing with exports from the whole of France. The eighteenth century Irish population of Bordeaux was big, and many of its leading lights engaged in the wine trade as both vintners and shippers.
The great wines of Chateau Dillon, Haut Brion, Leoville-Barton,and Lynch-Bage, for instance, have names derived from the Wild Geese who found themselves on the wrong side of the Jacobite wars and fled in several waves. Among them were Dillons, O’Byrnes, Bartons and Lynches. Somewhat infelicitously, Murphy calls them the ‘Winegeese,’ but his point is apt.
Better statistical analysis would help, but the anecdotes are fun and it does look a lot like claret was after all the Irish, or at least Ascendancy, wine. And notwithstanding Arthur Young, it also would appear that they drank it by the gallon.
To make hot whisky, put a spoon in a tumbler to prevent it from cracking. Add a shot of Irish whisky, a couple of cloves, sugar to taste and a round of lemon. Fill the small glass with boiling water and warm your soul.
A “wild goose”
The drinking of claret requires no instruction. Decent bottles of Bordeaux from lesser estates than the ones named for Wild Geese can, against expectation, be affordable these days, even for those of us not of The Quality.
John Bush, Hibernia Curiosa: A Letter from a Gentleman in Dublin to his Friend at Dover in Giving a general View of the Manners, Customs, Dispositions, &c. of the Inhabitants of Ireland (London 1769)
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (Oxford 1996)
Patrick Cooney, “A Passion For Hunting,” The Irish Independent (18 February 1998)
S. J. Connolly, Religion, Law, and Power: The Making of Protestant Ireland 1660-1760 (Oxford 2002)
Tara Kellaghan, “Claret: the preferred libation of Georgian Ireland’s élite,” Submission for Dublin Institute of Technology Gastronomy Symposium 2012
W. E. H. Lecky, A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century vol. 1 (London 1892)
Máirtin Mac Con Iomaire & Tara Kellaghan, “Royal Pomp: Viceregal Celebrations and Hospitality in Georgian Dublin,” Articles: Dublin Institute of Technology School of Culinary Arts and Food Technology (1 January 2011)
Constantia Maxwell, Dublin Under the Georges (London 1946)
Ted Murphy, A Kingdom of Wine: A Celebration of Ireland’s Winegeese (Cork 2005)
Martyn Powell, The Politics of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century Ireland (Basingstoke, Hampshire 2005)
Peter Somerville-Large, The Irish Country House: A Social History (London 2002)
Deane Swift (ed.), Letters Written by the Late Jonathan Swift, D. D., Dean of St. Patrick’s Dublin and Several of His Friends From the Year 1710 to 1742 (London 1769)
William Makepeace Thackeray, The Irish Sketchbook (Orig. publ. London 1842; Gloucester, England 1990)
Arthur Young, A Tour in Ireland 1776-1779 vol. II (London 1892)