It was one of The Liberties most significant families, rising to prominence among the many brewers and distillers that established in the area in the 18thC, and developing a modest family enterprise to become the largest distillery in the world by the 1880s. The wealth of the family was poured into a monumental restoration of Christ Church Cathedral, an act of generosity that seems to have ultimately led to decline and ignominy. Read more on the history of the Roe family and their distillery.
The foundation of the Roe firm is stated to have been laid in 1757 when a Peter Roe acquired a small distillery in Thomas Street, Dublin, but in view of confusion between bearers of the same names in the family, this claim requires further verification.
Knowledge of the origin and development of Roe’s Distillery is hampered by the fact that none of its business records appear to have survived, but there are other sources which provide substantial clues. The first definite sighting of a bearer of the surname associated with whiskey is found in Dublin trade directories, which show that a Richard Roe was in business as a distiller from the early 1760s in Earl Street South in the Liberties.
In addition to such familiar names as Jameson and Power, a return of licensed stills in Dublin in 1802 features a Nicholas Roe in Pimlico, who appears to have been a son of Richard Roe.
Registered deeds show that Peter Roe, a merchant, was active as an investor in whiskey distilling in Dublin in the early 1800s. Thus in 1802 and 1809 Peter Roe and others entered into business partnerships with Sylvester Costigan. The exact relationship between Peter Roe and Nicholas Roe is not known, but while they may have been cousins the former was Protestant and the latter appears to have been Catholic.
Sylvester Costigan, a prominent Dublin distiller, also featured on the above mentioned 1802 stills list. Costigan was an interesting character who is believed to have been either a sympathiser with or a member of the United Irishmen. He was also an activist for Catholic rights and his premises in Thomas Street were occupied by rebels during Emmet’s Rising in 1803. Costigan died on 4 February 1817 and was buried in St James’s Graveyard, James’s Street, on 7 February, where his tomb survives.
Peter’s son George took over the expanding distillery business, while his second son Henry, along with his two sons Henry junior and George junior, would later become directly involved in the enterprise. The firm, located in Thomas Street, was incorporated under the name George Roe and Company, indicating that George was the prime force in the operation, although his brother Henry appears to have been a shareholder. A number of accounts have stated incorrectly that Henry
junior and George junior were sons of George Roe, when they were in fact his nephews. George Roe and his wife Mary had no recorded children.
The plant of Roe’s Distillery in Thomas Street included a 150-foot tall smock windmill, possibly one of the oldest of its kind in Europe and which it has been suggested was originally part of a corn mill. Known as St Patrick’s Tower and with sails removed, the structure survives today as a prominent Dublin landmark. A pear tree, said to be of nineteenth-century vintage, still grows beside the tower.
The public-spirited George Roe was also an Alderman of Dublin Corporation and served two terms as Lord Mayor of the city in 1842-43. Although Protestant, Roe supported O’Connell’s campaign for Catholic Emancipation. Roe’s other roles included chairmanship of the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1853, governorship of the Meath Hospital, trusteeship of the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers’ Society, membership of the Royal Dublin Society and its Botany Committee, and as indicated he was a constant source of charitable donations.
George Roe decided to step back from active involvement in the distillery business in the early 1850s and effectively handed over control to his brother Henry and his nephews Henry junior and George junior. Henry Roe senior had another son Peter Burton, who served as a colonel in the British Army and does not appear to have been involved in business. In addition to his role in distilling, Henry Roe was involved in commerce and banking, serving as a director of the Bank of Ireland from the 1830s-60s and being its Governor from 1860-62. Henry was also a member of the Royal Dublin Society and was on its executive council from the 1830s-50s.
Roe died in Torquay on 20 July 1863 aged 67 years, and his body was returned to Ireland and buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery. Such was the regard in which George Roe was held, it was reported that his funeral was the largest since that of O’Connell in 1847.
After the death of his brother George junior in 1873 and undoubtedly even before the death of his father Henry in 1881, the management of George Roe and Company became the particular responsibility of Henry Roe junior. By the late nineteenth century the operations of Roe’s Distillery were on a massive scale. The main premises were in Thomas Street, covered 17 acres and stretched down to the Liffey. In addition to the Thomas Street complex there were extensive maltings and warehouses at Mount Brown. At this stage George Roe and Company was undoubtedly the largest distillery in Ireland, and in Britain was exceeded in terms of output only by Port Dundas Distillery in Glasgow, which in the late 1880s produced 2.5 million gallons per annum, utilising both column and pot stills. Roe’s stillhouse contained eight pot stills, with none of the dreaded column stills, and was described at this time as being the largest in the world in terms of its distilling equipment. The warehouses could store 23,000 casks, the cooperage covered nearly one acre and the annual output approached 2 million gallons at its peak, although this figure was declining in the late 1880s.
Henry Roe was a notable ecclesiastical benefactor, sponsoring the building of a new chancel in his parochial church, Christ Church, Taney, in the early 1870s, where he and members of his family are commemorated with inscriptions. Roe’s reputation for charitable donation was copper-fastened by his financing of the restoration of Christ Church Cathedral, which was a counterpart to the contemporary Guinness funding of the restoration of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Between 1871-78 Henry Roe junior donated sums approaching £220,000 towards the rebuilding of Christ Church Cathedral, which would be worth about £25 million in today’s values. Roe’s cousin, Rev Edward Seymour, Precentor of Christ Church, played a major role in persuading him to support the restoration of the cathedral. Carried out under the direction of the architect George Edmund Street, the works in Christ Church were more a rebuilding than a restoration of the cathedral. While most were impressed, a number of people registered criticisms on architectural grounds, while others of evangelical leaning objected to the supposedly Catholic elements of the design, particularly the use of crucifixes.
Henry Roe’s financing of the restoration of Christ Church Cathedral undoubtedly overstretched both his own and Roe’s Distillery resources. Henry’s commitments coincided with a downturn in his company’s fortunes and he departed from the management of the firm in the 1880s. In 1889 George Roe and Company was in liquidation and was sold to the Dublin Distillers Company Ltd, which was first based in London but transferred to Dublin in 1893.
Henry Roe died in much reduced circumstances in England on 21 November 1894 and when his will was probated his personal estate was valued at only £590 11s 11d. A newspaper obituary commented on his undertakings to Christ Church: ‘a turn in the tide of prosperity having taken place, they were a source of considerable embarrassment to the firm’.
Having passed from the control of the Roe family, in 1891 the struggling George Roe and Company endeavoured to readjust to changing circumstances by amalgamating with Jameson’s of Marrowbone Lane and the more recently established Dublin Whiskey Distillery in Jones’s Road. The firms retained their individual brands but operated jointly under the aegis of the above mentioned Dublin Distillers Company Ltd. The new operation could not deal with changed market realities of the early 20th century and had ceased to be a viable entity by the 1920s. Dublin Distillers Company Ltd went into voluntary liquidation in October 1941 and the last recorded company meeting was in April 1949.
The section of Roe’s Distillery nearest the Liffey was replaced by municipal housing, while the portion adjoining Thomas Street was acquired by Guinness. A few smaller buildings and possibly some walls escaped demolition, and today St Patrick’s Tower is the most conspicuous surviving relic of the once great Roe enterprise.
Abridged version of ‘The Roe Family & Roe’s Distillery’ by Sean J Murphy (2020) via the Dublin Historical Record – full text published here.