One Degree of Separation: Charleston, The Giants Causeway, The Little Giant and the Oldest Distillery In The World.
Behind the fence and up on the porch at Hibernian Hall is an unusual monument. If you don't know to look for it or glance over at the wrong angle, you will easily pass it by without noticing. It’s a pillar of joined stone, shored up by a small wrought-iron fence. One of the rocks is inscribed-
“A section from one of the pillars of the Giants Causeway
County Antrim, Ireland.
Why was this heavy stone carried across such a vast distance to be placed in front of a building in Charleston? To answer that question we must back at its history. Hibernian Hall was built in 1840, as the headquarters of an Irish benevolent society founded in 1801.
Besides hosting balls, dinners and other charitable functions it was an important part of the infamous 1860 Democratic Convention in Charleston. Delegates representing Stephen Douglas, who debated famously with future President Abraham Lincoln, used Hibernian Hall for their headquarters and lodgings. Douglas’ nickname because of his stature, but powerful oratory was “The Little Giant.”
Ultimately, Southern and northern democrats split over the mention of the topic of slavery on the party platform. A second convention would be called a few months later in Baltimore to try to mend the political damage. It didn’t help; their votes remained divided and the Republicans with Lincoln at the helm captured the White House.
Hibernian Hall remains the only standing building in Charleston with a tie to one of the most crucial political assemblies in the history of the United States (There is a recent historical marker in front of the former Secession Hall site a block north). The building was heavily damaged by the earthquake of 1886. It was repaired and remains an active fellowship and popular spot for receptions. The stone out front is dated 1851, likely the date it was brought into Charleston. Thus, it would have been in the city during these events. I am unable to document when the stone moved into its current place, however. A glance at photographs from the Civil War and 1886 earthquake do not show it in its familiar spot. At best I can say post-earthquake, but likely 20th century.
Given the Irish heritage of the Hibernians it is understandable a piece of the homeland would be sought-after relic. As a pub guy I was very interested in the “County Antrim” connection. On the 20th April 1608, King James I granted “a licence was granted to Sir Thomas Phillips to make, draw and distil uisce beatha within the territory called the Rowte in County Antrim.” A translation of that from ye olde speak is “On 20th April, King James I granted Sir Thomas Phillips - landowner and Governor of Co. Antrim Ireland – a license to distil.”
The result of this license is Bushmills Irish Whiskey. The actual Bushmills trademark comes about in 1784. Debate rages, as it often does when “The Oldest” title is applied to anything, but Bushmills claims, due to that 1608 license to be the oldest distillery in the world. Whatever the case may be, it can be more certainly claimed that it is the oldest legal whiskey distillery in Ireland and the only one still open to the public (in Ireland). In 2006 The New York Times hailed Bushmills malt as the best Irish Whiskey.
So there you have it - One Degree of Separation: Charleston, The Giants Causeway, The Little Giant and the Oldest Distillery In The World. I will be be posting more "One Degree" blog entries soon- so please come back and check it out! Cheers!
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Michael D. Coker is a Charleston native, published author, and licensed tour guide. He has worked in local museums for 15 years, and has developed a reputation for his extensive knowledge of history. You can reach Michael by email by clicking on the links above.