After 50 years of tippling Bass Pale Ale, Bertie Ahern finds it’s no longer on sale in these parts due to Brexit. This is a curious footnote to a long intertwining of the three-times Taoiseach’s favourite tipple with Ireland’s sometimes troubled political history.
Don’t order a ‘Black and Tan’ in an Irish pub,” early British visitors to the new Free State were advised by one guide book. The name for that mix of Guinness and Bass Pale Ale had very different connotations on this side of the water, the cautionary explanation went – not needing to add that innocent foreign drinkers collected a broken jaw for far less.
But the Irish political links to Bass go back much further, intrepid researchers assure us. Take the notorious murders of two of London’s most senior officials, Burke and Cavendish, at the Phoenix Park in Dublin on the evening of May 6, 1882, by the notorious Invincibles, a splinter group of the Fenians.
The Invincibles had been in the business of plotting slayings with limited success for quite a long time before this murderous incident and they were a well-established secret cell operating in Dublin. Legend has it that much of their reconnaissance work was done by observing comings and goings on the streets around Dublin Castle from the comfort of various nearby pubs. Well, not even a revolutionary on duty could clutter up a pub without buying a jar.
The Dublin folklore specifically had it that a leader of the Invincibles, Patrick Tynan, was nicknamed ‘Number 1’, after the subtitle of his favourite tipple, Bass Pale Ale. “But it’s an apocryphal tale – it’s far more likely the nickname derived from his status as the first member of the cell in this secret society, which gave him Number 1,” says Senan Molony, author of the engaging book, The Phoenix Park Murders, published by Merrion Press in 2006.
Still it is a rattling good tale. And since Tynan was one of the lucky ones to escape the subsequent rash of executions and jailings, by fleeing to New York, we hope he was able to get the odd drop of Bass stateside. At all events, it is more than likely that many Irish revolutionaries liked a drop of Bass in their day.
We could be here for a while giving you the long and distinguished history of Bass ale itself, but this writer would quickly exhaust his poor knowledge of brewing history and lore, around which there is a rich literature. Briefly, Bass takes its name from the entrepreneurial brewer, William Bass, who started a business in 1777 at Burton-upon-Trent in England.
A century later Bass was doing one million barrels per year and boasted universal recognition of the first registered trademark for its pale ale, which was a red triangle. The political side of beer is evidenced by the brewer’s adoption of the slogan “The Drink of the Empire” from early in the 19th century.
Around that time Bass and other brewers in Burton-upon-Trent began crafting India Pale Ale, a brew that would survive long transport and hot temperatures. The Empire and ale were soon inextricably linked.
And that is where a deal of needle comes into the story of Bass and Irish politics. Historian Tim Pat Coogan in his book, The IRA: A History, notes a campaign of intimidation against Dublin publicans in late 1932 and early 1933 by Republicans. They issued ‘A Cease Sale Order’ for Bass as part of their campaign against “foreign beer” which was a subset of the IRA-led “boycott on foreign goods”.
The historian and broadcaster Donal Fallon notes that the Tipperary North TD, Dan Morrissey spoke on the issue in the Dáil and argued that there was a better Irish-made ale which he knew well. Fallon speculates, very probably correctly, that the Tipperary TD was talking about Smithwicks and quite likely to have been a Smithwicks man.
Those unlikely Bass drinkers, the Dubliners, gave the tipple back some Irish street cred via a television and billboard advertising campaign in the early 1970s. The commercial depicted the hirsute balladeers arriving at an airport, and progressing on to a pub where their leader, Ronnie Drew, slugged a pint of Bass and declaimed: “Ah, that’s Bass” – a phrase that became a synonym for expressions of deep satisfaction for a generation.
That is very likely about the time that Bertie Ahern began frequenting pubs and drinking the odd beer. He has long been known for his Bass preference and the drink was even on tap at the occasional bar he had at his long-time Drumcondra offices and political headquarters, St Luke’s.
When the Belgian multinational, Interbrew, decided to close their Belfast Bass brewery in 2004, Ahern was asked by then West Belfast MP, Gerry Adams, to intervene. But no joy ensued.
Thus we come to the sad end of our political Bass tour.
Last week the former Taoiseach spoke as he prepared to celebrate his 70th birthday – without Bass. “It has fallen foul of Brexit regulations and is no longer available,” he said simply but with finality.