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Not fond of Guinness? Does the thought of green beer turn you, well, green? With St. Paddy’s Day coming up, why not celebrate by pulling the cork on a bottle of Bordeaux? Bordeaux may be viewed as quintessentially French, but there’s a bit o’the Irish in Bordeaux: fourteen chateaux, ten streets, two villages and one monument all bear Irish names.
During the early 18th and 19th centuries, Ireland imported more fine Bordeaux than England. The Irish presence in Bordeaux was so pervasive that the nickname, “Wild Geese” was given to emigrant Irish families and their descendants, who by the middle of the 18th century had become the most powerful of the Bordeaux expatriate communities. Abraham Lawton (aptly from Cork), was Bordeaux’s most important wine-broker. Thomas Barton (Fermanagh) was the leading wine-shipper and Nathaniel Johnston (Armagh) owned Ducru-Beaucaillou and Dauzac as well the largest warehouse on the Quai des Chartons cellaring barrels equivalent to six million bottles of Bordeaux. The ‘’wild geese’’ eventually made Bordeaux their permanent home and their descendants nowadays refer to themselves as ‘’Winegeese’’, gathering occasionally under the auspices of the tongue-in-cheek “Les Oies Sauvages” (Order of the Winegeese).
Rebellion, violated treaties, religious suppression and military opportunity drove ambitious Irish youth to emigrate to Bordeaux. Henry Clarke (Chateau Clarke) was a Marshall in Napoleon’s early campaigns. Vineyards now comprising Giscours were once owned by John O’Byrne, an Irish merchant who became known as Chevalier O’Byrne. The Phelans arrived from Tipperary around 1796. Col. John Lynch arrived in Bordeaux after the Irish lost the battle of Aughrim to the British in 1691. The Barton family have the longest unbroken Irish line in the Medoc – nine generations – with their firm Barton and Guestier surviving independently until 1956.
The best-known Lynch is Jean-Baptiste who, born at Dauzac in 1749, was variously a staunch parliamentarian, a royalist, a Bonapartist and – after Napoleon fell – a royalist again. Many Irish families bought chateaux, but retained the ancient names. In addition to Dauzac and Ducru-Beaucaillou, the Johnston family once owned Lascombes and shares in Latour. As did the Barton family. A century later, Alain Miailhe (mee-EYE) also briefly owned Dauzac. Miailhe and his sister, May de Lencquesaing who owns Pichon-Lalande, are descendents of the Burkes, an Irish family that made their fortune in the Philippines. It seems the luck o’the Irish holds after all.
My wine-loving Irish friends argue that Haut-Brion also has Irish roots – Haut-Brion being a corruption of O’Bryan. I’m sorry to disappoint, but that’s a persistent myth probably due to Samuel Pepys. On 10th April 1663, while visiting the Royal Oak Tavern in London, Pepys noted in his diary, “There I drank a sort of French wine call Ho-Bryan, which hath a good and most particular taste which I never before encountered.” Clearly his spelling was impaired by the wine’s ‘most particular taste’ – not an unusual problem for a wine writer. Rumour further purports that neighbouring La Mission Haut-Brion was so-named because the vineyards were tended by Irish missionaries. The missionary reference is correct, but they were most decidedly French Lazarists.
Founded by the Pontac family, the Haut-Brion name stems from an ancient dialect indicating a small hill. Centuries later Haut-Brion was purchased by American financier Clarence Dillon – the only first-growth ever to be American-owned. Though the name Dillon sounds as reassuringly Irish as O’Bryan, do not pull the cork yet. Clarence was of Polish descent having changed his name as a young man. It is said that Dillon was interested in purchasing Cheval Blanc or Ausone, about one hour’s drive to the east. Unenthused about making the trip on a chilly, rainy day, he was driven to nearby Haut-Brion instead. Apparently he liked what he saw because he bought Haut-Brion immediately. And they say he never got out of the car. Now, that’s a good Irish legend.