Sunday, May 23, 2010

Stephen Mansfield's "The Search for God & Guinness": Book Review

How does beer express theology? How can brewers enhance goodness? What's moral about a corporation? An historian specializing in inspirational biographies and motivational works investigates Guinness, taking the example of Arthur G., whose signature graces every bottle, for his Christian self-help values inculcated for 250 years of the company.

Although Italian giant Diageo bought it out recently, Guinness with its harp symbol taken from Brian Boru's legendary instrument represents Irish pride. Less of its produced now in Dublin, contrary to lore, and although the water's not the Liffey but from the Wicklow mountains to the south, the associations with the island and city endure. This study, however, does not give as Mark Griffiths did a cultural overview in offbeat fashion, nor does it follow Bill Yenne's recent corporate history (published by Wiley). Mansfield brings his own admiration of Christian charity harnessing leaders to improve the lot of the poor and the laborer. It's a practical and philanthropic notion pioneered by Cadbury chocolate, Lever soap, and Guinness stout, even though the last named example for most people may be even far less known than the other two English counterparts.

Chapter 1 links Squanto's request for English beer, already his acquired taste, to the Pilgrims-- when they arrived to the medieval phrase "bridal ale" turned "bridal". He examines provocatively a theology of beer, from Sumerian and Egyptian times to medieval and Reformation leaders-- such as Luther and Wesley. Mansfield reminds us how it was very late, in the 19c temperance movement, before Protestantism became linked with abstinence. Before that, beer was a moderate indulgence, a necessary nutrient for young and old, and a healthful way to drink water after it had been safely boiled.

Dublin had in 1610 four thousand families but 1100 alehouses and 100 breweries and brewpubs. Everyone drank back then. As Chapters 2 and 3 show, Arthur Guinness later the next century came along to roast barley into a smooth, easily quaffed beverage. His sons followed his example, more or less, but transformed each generation the company into a larger one, as technology allowed production to increase and exports to soar along with profits. Many of these heirs grew wealthy, but many also channelled their privilege commendably back into helping the poor around the brewery.

The Guinness Trust funded their health. Education, welfare, and safety all became laudable priorities, in the view of Mansfield, who admires this example. Victorian devotion to craft, attention to detail for a job done right, and loyalty by bosses to workers and vice versa seem antiquated. Yet, Mansfield finds in the tale of this famous brewery dynasty many inspirational stories of missionaries, doctors, financiers, and benefactors who don't let their wealth go only to feathering their own soft nests.

It may be a bit hard to believe for us, used to sinister profiteers and uncaring employers. This short text focuses more on the past than the present; the corporate giant does seem to have today conquered the earnest reformer who once ran it. But, that tale's beyond the motivational direction of this tale. While I was not sure how the legacy of Guinness will fare under an Italian conglomerate aggressively marketing the Irishness of a product that to America comes from Canada these days despite the lore sold to us in the packaging, Mansfield does remind us that the historical maxims upheld by the family in their running of their business can guide us today, in his epilogue to a thoughtfully written, easily accessible, and briskly told family saga. (Posted to Amazon US 10-18-09)

6 comments:

John said...

That looks interesting. Is there anything in the book about the Lockout of 1913?

To the best of my knowledge Guinness managed to keep out of the dispute totally because they treated their workers much better than the average Dublin employer of the day.

Fionnchú said...

Nothing on the Lockout, but in passing the author praises the company's pride in workmanship that filtered between boss and worker. Mansfield book's more a motivational writer's story of the corporate example than a company history, but I checked Bill Yenne's book too and he doesn't cover the Lockout either!

John said...

Mmm, bit of an oversight there, it was only the biggest ever strike in Irish history!

I'm interviewing Padraig Yeates, historian of the lockout next week, must remember to ask him about Guinness. (It'll be on The Irish Story)

But, to be fair, Guinness always did always have a good repuation in Dublin. The little red-brick houses in the city centre are sometimes called "Guinness houses" because a lot of them were built for the company's workers. Bewleys would have been another of these paternalistic Protestant (well Quaker) families.

Fionnchú said...

Mansfield mentions Lever soap & Cadbury's chocolate as similarly philanthropic enterprises, but again he leaves out Bewley's as I recall. (His book lacks an index.) I was meditating on this connection only last week with a packet of tea from Bewley's, before you posted this, John! One of my pet causes when I take over the world is that when buying products from such enterprises we should be able to count them off as tax-deductible charitable donations. But, I'd apply this first to Belgian Trappist beer...

John said...

Belgian Trappist beer??!!

Sounds interesting, care to elaborate?

Fionnchú said...

TrappistBeer.net elaborates! Trappist Beer on Wikipedia defines the styles and makers clearly.