The Surprising Irish Contribution to Winemaking

International Museum of Wine in Desmond Castle, Kinsale, Ireland

Desmond Castle, a 16th-century tower house in the pretty, pastel-coloured port of Kinsale, hosts the International Museum of Wine, which tells the surprising story of Ireland’s significant contribution to winemaking.
ALLAN LYNCH/Meridian Writers’ Group

WHEN THINKING of wine, thoughts go to sunny nations like France, Italy and Spain, or to New World vineyards in Australia, Chile or America. Rarely does the idea of the Irish and wine come up. Yet this country’s involvement with the grape goes back 16 centuries and its expertise has guided the hands of winemakers around the globe.

The details of this surprising history are laid out in Desmond Castle in Kinsale, a pretty, pastel-coloured port on the south coast of Ireland, 20 minutes’ drive from Cork.

The castle, a tower house built by the earl of Desmond about 1500, has served as a customs house, a prison, an ordnance store and a workhouse. It had fallen into ruin before being declared a national monument in 1938. Revitalized, it now hosts the International Museum of Wine exhibition.

In a display called “The Gospel and the Grape” we learn that Irish involvement with wine started with monks. Monasteries needed wine for mass. So in the 5th century a Cistercian monastery in County Kilkenny planted a vineyard. Others followed. In time Ireland became the centre of a far-flung trade based on monastic wine links.

Irish monks also played a crucial role in the development of monastic vineyards on the continent. For centuries they went abroad not only as missionaries, but as viniculturists, helping their brother monks tend the grapes and produce sacramental wines. In 1300 an Irish Dominican friar, Father Geoffrey, who spoke Latin, Greek, French and Arabic and had travelled to the Far East, committed his wine expertise to paper, formally establishing Irish knowledge as the leader in viniculture and fermentation. In succeeding centuries, as fewer men of the cloth were needed, the wine-educated Irish stepped in to commercialize the industry.

The Irish were such good wine merchants that they even supplied the English armies fighting their Celtic brethren in Wales and Scotland. For soldiers, wine was the safer alternative to local water of uncertain purity.

In our age, Ireland plays no significant role among the wine-making nations (although global warming could change that). But even today, the list of the world’s great wine producers shows the influence of the Irish. There are French chateaux named Barton, Galway, Lawton, MacMahon, Phelan, Lynch, Kirwan, MacCarthy, Clarke, Boyd and Dillon. In Spain, wine, sherry and brandy production is carried out by families like O’Neale, Murphy, Garvey, and Terry. In America, wineries were founded by the MacMahon, Concannon, Lee, and Mahoney clans, while the Hogans, Lagans, Murphys, and O’Sheas planted vineyards in Australia.

It fits that Desmond Castle (open from early April to mid-September) should tell this story because food and drink go together and Kinsale (pronounced KIN saaaaaalll, as if expelling air from your lungs) is a culinary hotspot. The best Irish chefs are drawn here by the abundant seafood and the farm-fresh produce. Restaurant menus are so proudly local that the food suppliers are listed along with the dish ingredients.

Kinsale is a place to eat and drink well, and, while you’re gourmandizing, to contemplate Ireland’s holy contributions to your pleasure.



For more information on Desmond Castle and the International Museum of Wine visit

For information on travel in Ireland go to the Tourism Ireland website at