The final frontier

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In June 1940, a man walked from the surf onto a beach on the Dingle peninsula. He stopped to bury a radio transmitter in the sand, walked inland until he stumbled across an old railway line and then headed towards the town of Dingle. With an hour to kill until the bus to Tralee, he accepted an invitation into a local pub – even though it was 7am. There, he had three whiskeys and, in the grand Irish tradition of drinking on public transport, he bought a bottle of whiskey for the journey. In Tralee he got on the Dublin train, and spent much of the journey talking about how ‘that great man Hitler would set Ireland free’. Unsurprisingly, he was arrested in Dublin, and identified as Walter Simon – a German spy. In fact, he was one of two spies who tried to enter England via the wild western frontiers of the Kerry coast, although he was the only one undone by a lethal combination of Kerry hospitality and Irish whiskey.

If you saw the Dingle peninsula, you could see its appeal to a U-boat captain looking to land a covert operative – miles and miles of jagged coastline and sparse population give parts of it the feel of an abandoned outpost on some deserted, beautiful planet. When you go to Dingle from almost anywhere outside Kerry, it feels like you have crossed a timezone or two. You can’t just got to Dingle for the night – you have to commit to a trip down there, clear your schedule for a few days.

The last time I spoke to Oliver Hughes, he asked me to come down for a festive celebration in Dingle Distillery to mark the release of their first whiskey. I could have made it, albeit for just a few hours, but then I wouldn’t be able to relax, as I had work the next morning. So with a heavy heart I declined. I felt terrible about it – when I was took part in the Dingle Whiskey School I had been talking to Oliver and the rest of the staff about how hard it was to get journalists to cover events outside The Pale, especially at the far end of the country. He made the point that he could have built the distillery somewhere in the hinterland of Dublin, but he loved Dingle, and knew it was a special place, so for him there was nowhere else.

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One evening during the whiskey school he drove myself and fellow journalist Eleanor Cosgrove along Slea Head, pointing out various landmarks such as the Sleeping Giant, the site of the village in Ryan’s Daughter (sadly levelled after filming finished because the council couldn’t sort out the insurance) and the iconic Dunquin Pier. At the top of the long zig-zag down to the pier is a shed, held to the ground with ropes and rocks, because when a storm hits here, everything is fair game – the terrifying storm scenes of Ryan’s Daughter weren’t shot on a soundstage; in fact, due to the temperamental Irish weather, some of the beach scenes where sun was required were shot in South Africa. The trip around the peninsula was a memorable one, as Oliver told us some great stories about his time in Kerry, as well as a few insane tales from his days as a barrister.

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That night Oliver brought us and some of the Founding Fathers (the title for investors in the distillery) out for dinner to Ashe’s. It was there we got to see the actual bar tab run up by Bob Mitchum during the filming of David Lean’s beautiful epic. Much like Walter Simon, Mitchum indulged in a dram or two when in the area.

Over dinner we all chatted and got to know each other, Oliver cracking jokes and keeping the chat and wine flowing. He was a great host, despite the fact that he was a busy man – when I met him for a dram before dinner in Dick Mack’s, he was tucked away in the back talking over some new ideas he had with business associates. He was an ‘idea guy’ – someone who was almost plagued with creative visions. How else could he have had the foresight to start a craft beer business in Ireland? I remember walking into the Porterhouse on Parliament Street in the late Nineties and ordering a pint of Heineken, only to be told they didn’t have it on tap. I thought ‘haha this place is doomed’ and ordered a bottle of the heinous swill instead, refusing to try anything new. Thankfully, there are people out there who weren’t as obnoxiously close-minded as I, and his business thrived. But I don’t believe he was trying to create an empire, or even build a legacy, he just wanted people to try something new. What he did for Ireland was to change the way people thought about beer – no longer was it a few different types of nondescript swill to get shamefacedly blotto on. With the craft beer movement it was now something to be enjoyed, explored, celebrated.

The last time I saw Oliver in person was at Whiskey Live Dublin. I was at the Tamdhu/Glengoyne stand trying a few drams when suddenly he appeared and started talking to the assembled group about his distillery, his whiskey, his vision. I’m not sure the Scottish reps quite knew what to do as he completely took over their pitch by sheer force of will. He had a gloriously punk DIY attitude, despite the pinstripes. He was a pioneer, a man on the wild frontiers of food and drink. Little wonder then that he chose to build his distillery on Ireland’s western front.

In a world of bland corporate personalities, he was a breath of fresh air – electric, acerbic, outspoken – and, at 57, far too young to die.

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Footnote: You can read some of Oliver’s posts on the original Dingle Distillery blog here.

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