In the summer of 1959 Andy Killian decided to stroll down to the beach and catch some rays. It was a brilliant day on the Alaskan coast, and the heat felt good on the muscles he'd developed hauling in salmon on a fishing trawler, his first real job out of high school. He threw a towel down on the sand and stretched out, glad to be lazing in his bathing trunks in the Sunday sun instead of freezing in icy wet oilskins during the predawn hours. Suddenly a glint from something buried in the sand caught his attention. He sat up and began digging. Buried among seashells and pebbles was a heavily embossed dark amber bottle of something called Guinness Stout.
Nineteen-year-old Killian wasn't a worldly kid. This was his first experience away from his hometown, and he certainly had never heard of Guinness Stout. He didn't know what actually was in the bottle, but at three years below the minimum legal drinking age he wasn't taking any chances of getting himself into trouble and losing his job. Hot and thirsty as he was, he just dusted off the bottle and stuffed it in among his things, where it was to languish for the next half-century.
In October 2010, before leaving his Reno, Nev.-area home to visit his son stationed in Germany, Killian rediscovered the bottle. He finally succumbed to his curiosity and opened it. Instead of a well-aged brew, it contained a colorful proclamation from King Neptune identifying the bottle as part of a "strictly limited rare and unique label that will never be reprinted," along with a booklet recounting the story of Guinness, a special gold-colored Guinness Stout label, advertisements for Ovaltine and instructions on converting the bottle into a table lamp — a true snapshot of U.K. life in the 1950s.
So what was he to do with a half-century-old bottle that contained a personal letter from King Neptune extolling the qualities of a beer he had never tasted?
Taking his cue from Elvis Presley's 1962 hit "Return to Sender," Killian left his Reno home for a trip to Dublin, gave the bottle back to its maker, and reveled as a VIP guest in the newly discovered taste of stout and all things Guinness. During his visit Killian learned that his bottle was part of an amazing publicity stunt in which Guinness dropped 150,000 specially embossed bottles into the Atlantic Ocean from 38 different ships over a six-week period to mark the company's bicentenary.
Unless a person knows where to look on a visit to the Storehouse at the Guinness Brewery, it's a hard slog locating other bottles, which, like Killian's, have been returned to sender. Displayed almost as an afterthought in a poorly lit case in the Storehouse's advertising section are a handful of specimens that have come home to roost. In the archives are a series of letters from the people who found them .
"The natives who found the bottle remarked that it contained a sweet and pleasant perfume," wrote the British consul from Papeete, Tahiti. "I was therefore forced to demonstrate that it has a sweet and pleasant taste, too."
F.M. Collett, head teacher at Tarpiem Bay School, Bahamas, wrote to inquire if the company would throw any full bottles overboard.
Though Killian's bottle and those found by other beachcombers have no great monetary value, Killian was delighted to discover that his was one of the first bottles discovered and the most recent to be hand-delivered from more than 5,000 miles away.
The archives chronicle a lot more than the saga of sailing stout. Anyone committed to family genealogy who has a hunch that an ancestor worked for Guinness can access the company's new interactive genealogy pods to retrieve historical details of their lives and experiences working at the brewery from the 1880s to the 1960s.
Take James Murphy, whose application for a job as a laborer at Guinness on Aug. 18, 1943, is exhibited in the archives. The medical officer's report reveals that Murphy, age 27 and four months, was a slight fellow just 5 feet 6 inches and 148 pounds who had had four dental extractions and an "average" rather than a "smart" appearance. Married with two children, Murphy had previous experience as a laborer and acceptable references from John Power and son, presumably previous employers. What really cinched the deal with Guinness, both the largest employer in Dublin and arguably the best and most progressive in Ireland, was Murphy's father's long service with the company. Thanks to his dad's service, Murphy got the job and became one of 20,000 employees whose personnel files remain stored in the company's archives.
Now Murphy's descendants are able to discover home addresses, spouses, dependents, previous employment, pay rates, career progression and even workplace accidents. For 5 euros it is possible to get a certificate with all the pertinent information recorded.
Sleuthing one's roots might even often insights into a bit of social history. When German filmmaker Martin Duffy was sleuthing the Guinness employment records for his brother-in-law's father, Duffy learned of the role that a managing director played in supporting the trade union movement.
"While the craftsmen in the brewery had their national unions and guilds, there had been no trade union representation for the huge number of laborers in the brewery," Duffy said. "That's probably because Guinness was such an exemplary employer that there were no grievances lodged. But records in the archive show that Sir Charles Offley Harvey, assistant managing director for personnel, realized the value of having an experienced trade union representing this segment of the workforce, paving the way for a healthy new age of union-management in the company."
It's not necessary to be on a genealogical quest, however, to learn what working conditions were at the brewery. For this visitors can visit an exhibit called "Brewery Life."
WHEN YOU GO
The Guinness Storehouse, St. James's Gate, Dublin 8, 353-1408-4965, www.guinness-storehouse.com.
The Gibson Hotel, Point Village, 353-1681-5000, www.thegibsonhotel.ie. Opened in June 2010, this striking property is the epitome of green eco-friendly design. Located in the fashionable Docklands, it often has very affordable room specials, plus a savvy concierge staff and a tram across the street that whisks you into the city center in minutes.
Brooks Hotel Dublin, 59-62 Drury St., 353-1670-4000, www.brookshotel.ie. 1 670
A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, this elegant, meticulously maintained property has an atmospheric residents' lounge with computers, outstanding staff and a perfect location just steps from Grafton Street's boutiques, ethnic restaurants and Brown Thomas, the city's most famous department store, as well as charming arcades, Temple Bar and Trinity College.
The Ely CHQ Brasserie, Custom House Quay, 353-1672-0010, www.elywinebar.ie. One of Ireland's top 100 restaurants, the well-prepared organic food is just $80 for a three-course set dinner for two. One hundred wines are offered by the glass.
The Church Cafe, junction of Mary and Jervis streets, 353-1828-0102, www.thechurch.ie. It seems everyone is enjoying lunch in this converted 18th-century church in the city center, so it's madly busy. Lunch for two from $32.
Photo courtesy of Richard N. Every.