Walker’s Distillery – Limerick City
c. 1820 - c. 1919
In the first half of the 19th century, Limerick had several small distilleries, though only one had survived by 1846. It was listed as being owned by James Stein, quite possibly related to the powerful Scottish Stein family of distilling fame. It was leased by William Hale John Charles, Earl of Limerick in 1868 to another Scot, Archibald Walker, who already owned a distillery in Liverpool and would later acquire the Adelphi distillery in Glasgow.
Alfred Barnard had just visited the Persse’s Distillery in Galway, when he took the train to Limerick in 1886. Before writing about the distillery, he entertains the reader with accounts of his travels, the scenery and local history, and as with so many of the chapters in his book, it is interesting to note how he seems to have had a soft spot for the Irish people and the Irish cause. He mentions how Limerick is the only city never taken by the English, how it is called the “City of the Violated Treaty” and how this violation of a solemn treaty has hung as a curse on England for nearly two centuries.
He appears to have been most impressed on arriving at Walker's. The distillery, with the words Walker Distillers, was an impressive sight from across the bridge. The expanse of the River Shannon, on which it was located, the views over the city and surrounding counties from the elevated water tanks, and the distillery’s modern equipment, especially the fire engine, all made for a very positive experience. The distillery covered upwards of six acres, and was built so as to work principally by gravitation, the water from the Shannon providing much of the necessary power. The distillery’s buildings appear to have been handsome structures with the barley lofts and maltings having the appearance of an old baronial castle. The condensers were the same as those found at Jameson's in Dublin and the distillery, which had suffered a fire in 1880, had built an impressive network of fire hoses and hydrants all connected to the water tanks. The distillery operated with 3 copper pot stills all heated with open furnaces underneath, the most recent dating to 1885 and being described by Barnard as a model still, embracing every modern improvement. The distillery had four bonded warehouses on site and the Engine House possessed four steam engines. As always, the distillery incorporated Carpenters’, Engineers’, Coppersmiths’ and Brassfitters’ shops and a Cooperage. Upwards of 70 men were employed by Walker’s and the annual output of the distillery was 300,000 gallons, much smaller than most of the other distilleries in Ireland at the time.
The whisky did have a local trade, but was also exported to the United Kingdom. It would appear that it was good stuff. Barnard was invited to sample the “make”, known as “Pot Still Real Irish Whisky” in the Manager’s picturesque mansion, known as Island View House. Although not named by Barnard, the Manager was more than likely John Riddell, who worked at the distillery from the early 1880's until around 1920. Interestingly, he came to Ireland from Scotland, maybe either on the invitation of Archibald Walker, or maybe as his replacement. Riddell took many photographs of Limerick at the time, some of which are included on this page. The whisky certainly appears to have extended even Barnard’s usual eloquence, for he devoted an entire chapter to the beauty of the house and its location, saying that the view of the Shannon and Limerick city from the drawing room bay window could not be surpassed from any house in Ireland.
The Walker Distillery appears to have been badly affected by a financial downturn in 1900-02 and the distillery was sold to the Scottish Distillers Company Limited (DCL), which it seems, closed all 3 of the Walker distilleries. Brian Townsend in his book The Lost Distilleries of Ireland estimates that the distillery may have closed in 1905, but there is confusion over this date, as there is confusion over the date of Archibald Walker’s death. Archives from Limerick City Council show Archibald Walker, proprietor of Thomond Gate Distillery, as having died in Scotland on 19 June 1880, a full six years before Barnard’s visit. Barnard does not actually mention him, referring only to a distillery manager, but he does list the Proprietor as being Archibald Walker. Another web based article, retracing an uprising in Limerick in 1919, the Limerick Soviet, refers to two of the cities largest factories Cleeves condensed milk and butter factory and Walkers Distillery being cut off from the rest of the city.
Whatever the exact details of Walker’s Distillery demise are, it can be said that more or less nothing remains. We know of no bottles (it is possible most of the whisky exported was blended with whiskies from Walker’s two other distilleries) and although it is possible some of Limerick’s old pubs may have one or two old Walker’s bar mirrors, we have never seen any yet. But you will find a great dedicated Whiskey Pub in Limerick, Michael Flannery's on Denmark Street, which should definitely feature on everyone's itinerary. The Distillery was demolished in the 1930’s and the area is now just monotonous housing. One building remains, a fine Georgian House, now called Walnut House. Whether this is the original Manager’s house which Barnard so loved, is unclear. The view he so admired has changed very little, but the bay window from which he gazed has certainly disappeared.
Walker’s Distillery – Thomond Gate, Limerick City
If you have any information, photos or know of any old bottles from the Walker's Distillery in Limerick, we'd love to hear from you, so please don't hesitate to contact us.
The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom by Alfred Barnard