After an exhaustive two year restoration programme that has seen the almost-derelict former St James’s Church of Ireland transformed into a pristine, newly-minted visitor attraction, the new Pearse Lyons Distillery & Visitor Centre on James Street is set to open its doors to the public in September.
The project is the brainchild of Dr Pearse Lyons and his wife Deirdre, who purchased the historic, but failing building in 2013 and set about a €20m restoration. Pearse Lyons is the Irish-American owned of Alltech, a major international food and drinks conglomerate, whose family hails from The Liberties. Pearse’s uncles and grandfather were coopers in the nearby St James Gate Brewery and as many as 9 family members are thought to be buried in the graveyard adjoining the church.
St James Church stands on an historic site at the edge of The Liberties in one of Dublin’s oldest parishes (being founded in the 12th century). A shrine to St James was located nearby at what is now St James’s Gate Brewery and the parish has had strong links to Santiago de Compostella in Spain since the 13th century. The Church of Ireland parish dates to the early 1700s, and the original church on the site gave way to the present church building in 1859. The small, refined building with its elegant spire was designed by Joseph Welland. Its catholic counterpart sits opposite at the junction with Echlin Street and dates from 1844. However the graveyard adjoining St James was for many years the main burial ground for this part of the city and is thought to contain over 100,000 burials (with suggestions of as many as 200,000).
The church suffered over the years from a dwindling local Church of Ireland population, and gradually the church fell into disuse and was finally closed and de-consecrated in 1954. Its steeple had been removed in 1949, when it became unstable following storm damage. In latter years, the church went into a number of uses, most recently a lighting showrooms.
The new owners have transformed the building into a small working distillery and showcase for Alltech products. However the area’s vivid history features strongly: newly commissioned stained glass windows enhance the storytelling at St. James. On the west side, the window honours the Camino de Santiago. To the north, the stained glass, housed in a frame in front of the original window, depicts Robert Dunne, Pearse’s uncle, who was one of the last coopers who worked in Dublin. The window to the east tells the story of distillation, while the south window explains the brewing process.
The church building has been painstakingly restored by Carrig Historic Consultants and John Paul Construction, and a design team led by The O’Toole Partnership Architects. The new building is complemented by a newly constructed entrance pavilion containing ticket offices, office and services, while an adjoining terrace of Victorian buildings are also being renovated to provide a new cafe and a revitalised McCann’s Public House, alongside the main attraction.
“Bringing the old church back to life has been a monumental job,” said Deirdre Lyons, who directly oversaw the project. “It was a protected building, and then it became a national monument,” she continued. “This added many layers on the conservation side. Restoration costs, additional facilities, distillery equipment, artworks and our new glass spire, which we have named The Liberties Lantern, has pushed the cost of the entire project to more than €20 million. It has been an arduous process, respecting the historic site while trying to build a working distillery and tourist attraction.”
“The nature of the layout of Pearse Lyons Distillery means we will always be a boutique visitor attraction,” said Deirdre. “The tour guides will be called storytellers because the difference between our distillery and others is the fabulous history of the location and of the church itself. It all becomes a story — a story of whiskey, a story of The Liberties and the history of the graveyard.”
“We are thrilled to add another chapter to my rich family history of brewing and distilling,” said Pearse, founder of Pearse Lyons Distillery. “Our distillery and visitor centre will showcase the history of distilling in Dublin’s Liberties. Visitors will have the opportunity to witness, smell, taste and learn all about the process of distilling Pearse Irish Whiskey.”
The new visitor attraction, which employs 20 people, opens for business shortly. Its the latest in a series of projects announced for The Liberties that is reviving the brewing and distilling tradition in an area previously synonymous with the trade.