“He waits. That’s what he does. And I’ll tell you what: tick followed tock followed tick followed tock followed tick.” Thus, in 1998, to the coruscating beats of Leftfield, began what, for those who lived in a time when television adverts really were better than most programmes, was one of the more surreal and self-consciously arty commercials of recent decades: moody surfers in black and white, racing fantastical, literal white horses through the sea to shore. And the product? A thick, heavy, at the time unfashionable dark beer called Guinness, once sold on the humble if unexpected claim of its high iron content being “good for you”, especially if you happened to be a new mother.
But the ad, in all its pomposity, grandiosity and memorability, was a perfect reflection of the madcap family behind it, much as those early claims that Guinness gave expectant mothers a boost was just one of any number of myths surrounding the beverage itself, and its supposed more unusual qualities. (A pregnant woman would need to drink 14 pints of Guinness to get the recommended daily allowance of iron, which would also give her around 2,786 calories; nor, despite beliefs in parts of Africa, the Far East and the Caribbean, does Guinness have a certain quality akin to Viagra. Indeed, as an apt mash-up of James Joyce and Shakespeare might have it, like any alcohol, the “crystal cup full of the foaming ebon ale which the noble twin brothers Bungiveagh and Bungardilaun brew ever in their divine alevats” “provokes the desire, but takes away the performance”.)
So there is much about what is now posited as the quintessentially Irish tipple that is more fiction than fact. For example, the relationship its makers have had with its Irishness has always been less than secure, with one descendant, in 1913, funding Ulster Volunteer Force paramilitary campaigns against Ireland being given legislative independence; and in the 1980s, amid the height of the Troubles, the company hatching plans to rebrand Guinness as an English beer brewed in west London. But that said, so much that is fact about the family also has the air of fiction.
This may be the family that produced the fashion model and toyshop owner Jasmine Guinness — arguably the Guinness family’s most famous, and most humble, member right now — or accessories designer Lulu, a Guinness through marriage. Yet it also produced, through diverse lineages over almost three centuries, not only the kind of crises any family might expect — drug overdoses, suicides — but its fair share of characters. Among them have been ministers and missionaries, musicians and soothsayers, bankers, bonkers, and even, as Frederic Mullaly, chief (unofficial) chronicler of the Guinness family has noted, “a one-time bare-breasted Las Vegas showgirl”. She was the great-great-granddaughter of the grandson of Arthur Guinness, the company’s founder and Guinness’s creator, and was just one of the great and good, bad and mad descendants — Arthur’s wife, Olivia, mothered 21 children, 10 of whom made it into adulthood, so there are a lot of descendants. All told, they have given us many tales of intrigue, scandal and historic machinations, some largely unknown.