In the days before the licensing laws became all pervasive ale houses, taverns and inns were to be found everywhere. The ale house sold ale and beer only while the tavern in addition supplied wine. The inn not only provided drink but also food and shelter.
The production of alcohol, now very much a large scale operation centred in but a few locations in Ireland, was once a cottage industry. Every town and village, indeed every ale house and tavern produced its own alcoholic drink. Breweries and distilleries were few and far between but in time they were established in large towns where a good supply of water was to be had and where there was ready access to markets. Athy, long famous for its substantial number of public houses was the centre of small scale brewing and distilling industries in the 18th century.
An important element of the brewing and distilling process is malt which is germinated barley. The grains of barley are allowed to begin germinating in controlled conditions of humidity and temperature and then dried to arrest the conversion of starch to sugar. This was originally done by soaking the barley grains and leaving them to germinate on floors requiring extensive premises easily recognisable by their pyramidal roofs with capped vents.
The largest producer of malt in Ireland is Minch Nortons which was first established in Athy in 1847 by the Minch family. It was not until 1921 that M.J. Minch & Son amalgamated with P.R. Norton to form Minch Norton Limited.
The original Minch Maltings was believed to have been in Offaly Street on the site of the former Picture Palace and in Stanhope Street between the Parish Priest's house and a small house once occupied by the Wall family. Here floor malting was carried out on the large floor space provided for the soaked grain to begin to germinate. Men were employed to turn the barley and upwards of 130 men once formed the backbone of the Minch Norton Malting Works in Athy.
Nowadays with machine malting, first introduced to Ireland and to Athy in 1959 with the commissioning of the Wanderhaufen plant the numbers employed have dropped dramatically. Despite this additional new plants have increased the malting capacity of the Athy factory so that today it has become the largest producer of malt in Ireland.
Some of the older residents of Athy and certainly the Minch Norton workers will recall the names which were given to some of the malting buildings over 90 years ago. Immediately opposite the Duck Press Restaurant is "Ladysmith", so called because of the involvement of a number of employees of Minch & Son in the siege of Ladysmith during the Boer War. On the 2nd of November, 1899 the Boers laid siege troops to the English at Ladysmith and the entrapped garrison was not relieved until the 28th of February, 1900 in an action which marked a turning point in the Boer War. Unfortunately I have not been able to identify the Athy men who were involved. I also understand that the first batch of asbestos corrugated sheeting produced in Ireland at the then new Asbestos Factory in Athy was put on the Ladysmith building to replace the original timber roofing.
Directly opposite the small houses on Canal Side is another malting building which like its neighbour bears a name which recalls another long forgotten battle. "Port Arthur" was the name of the siege which took place during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/1905. There can be no question of any Athy men participating in that conflict so presumably the siege, which lasted from May 1904 to January 1905, captured the publics imagination and being so reminiscent of the earlier Ladysmith Siege prompted the naming of the building.
Nowadays Minch Nortons, as it is still called by the locals despite the inter-Company amalgamations and take-overs which have occurred in recent years, continues to occupy an extremely important place in the economic life of Athy. The intake of barley in July and August leads to a year long activity centred around its drying, storing and malting, giving employment to upwards of 60 or so persons at managerial, staff and operative levels.
In two years time Minch Nortons will celebrate 150 years in Athy and perhaps it is now an appropriate time to consider the possibility of recording and displaying the history of malting in Athy in a manner and in a setting which will complement the Company's present operations and add to the heritage status of our town.