Kilbeggan – a reason to believe

Kilbeggan is Tullamore town’s nearest neighbour to the north and was once part of the Tullamore Poor Law Union. It has been part of the county of Westmeath since the 16th century. Like Tullamore it depended greatly on milling and distilling. Locke’s Distillery fell into decay in the 1960s and was restored by the local community in the 1980s. It is again an active distillery. Thanks largely to the foresight of John Teeling the name of Kilbeggan is once again known throughout the world. Two midland towns, Tullamore and Kilbeggan, have given their name to world-class products. Both towns now have thriving whiskey distillery visitor centres.

Community activist and historian, Stan McCormack tells the story and looks to the future.


We seem to be living in this strange twilight zone, where a billionaire reality TV host becomes President of the USA, with issues regarding women, immigrants, tax, and ‘alternative facts’; where Britain exits the EU almost by mistake; Putin waits for his next move on Ukraine; and Kim Yong plays with nuclear bombs in North Korea, plus other right wingers waiting in the long grass. It is a reason to be, at the very least, afraid economically. The recovery of metropolitan areas in Ireland, where almost all the multi-national jobs have gone, has not travelled to rural areas. The myth of recovery

Kilbeggan Distillery improvements 1980s. The mill wheel was the first target of the local group in 1983.

is disproved by failures in the health service, homelessness, demand for wages, almost every type of insurance, and property valuations for business. In Westmeath even Mullingar and Athlone struggle to attract large companies and the remainder are fighting to hold on to post offices, libraries, garda stations, or attract new business. The positive side is perhaps the hope that the €60 million Rural Link Fund, Leader Funding etc will make a difference.

Kilbeggan is best known for having the oldest pot still distillery in the world (1757) and the famous Kilbeggan Races (1840), the only one in the area. It is interesting that both of them were saved by local people volunteering. The races were threatened in the 1950s/60s, but the voluntary committee raised up to £13,000 to save the races. The distillery was saved in the 1980s by a voluntary committee, who symbolically restored the wheel in 1983, which ultimately led to the saving of the distillery. As a native you can only be proud of the many organisations that have helped to make Kilbeggan a better place from the Development Associations, Renew Kilbeggan (the Cycling route etc), Tidy Towns, ICA, Young At Heart, Festival Committee, Graveyard and Hall committee, Canal Committee, Men’s Sheds, Drama Group, sporting organisations (GAA, Pitch and Putt, soccer, tennis) and many more. The two schools are of the highest quality in terms of learning and developing young people. Kilbeggan has many issues from parking to lack of businesses and poor facilities, but the struggle must go on.

Kilbeggan town square c.1940

Historically, Kilbeggan is unique in that almost every major event took place on the extended Main Street, from the distillery, the 1798 rebellion, the story of the knighthood, the Market Square (1606), the Fair Green with four memorials, the RIC/Garda Barracks (handed back to Ireland on 20/2/1922), the Protestant church (1764), the graveyard including the Cistercian monastery (1150), Sisters of Mercy/The Convent (1879), St James Hall (1944), many famous visitors like Michael Collins(1918), Hannah Sheehy Skeffington (1919), Countess Markievicz, Owen Roe O’Neill (1640s), Daniel O’Connell, John Wayne (1950), Gene Tierney actress and Prince Ali Khan (1953) etc. Artists like Liam C. Martin, Eileen Coughlan, Gerry Jennings, Manco Scally aviator, and Seamus Fenton famed teacher, all lived on the street. Two of the most famous 18th century political figures were John Philpott Curran and Henry Flood, who both represented Kilbeggan as members of parliament from 1784-91. Curran defended the United Irishmen after the 1798 rebellion & was father of Sarah Curran girlfriend of Robert Emmet. Side streets like Puddle (Pudden) Lane & Mill Lane dated back to 17th century. The bridge at the bottom of the hill was the scene of a battle in 972 between the Irish and the Danes in the 10th century at Ath na gCeann (Ford of the Heads).

Stan McCormack, Stephen McNeill and friend at the restored Kilbeggan courthouse in 2011.

The point about all of this is that history sells and can help any town economically. I am hoping that a History Timeline can be put in The Square, some plaques representing some of the above events, and that a leaflet/booklet with a map will show the sites in the town and be available for visitors. The idea is to get people to come up the town and perhaps encourage someone to open a business. In co-operation with Kilbeggan Distillery it might be possible to provide some tours etc. As part of the above and in line with the Westmeath Diaspora Project(which includes other counties), I am hoping to have a project A Walk Through History showing the recorded history of the houses, businesses, families over the years and sites on the Main Street, on Cemetery Sunday weekend 2018. Many people come home for that weekend and the aim and create at least the possibility that it might encourage people to open a business (as a few have done successfully recently in addition to established successful ones , some of which have received awards). It should be possible to have an event in the Parish centre with music etc and bring people together.

In line with the above it is interesting that a number of important anniversaries are coming up. This year is the 50th anniversary of the last movie in Kilbeggan. In 2018 it is the 50th anniversary of the formation of the first ever soccer team and also the 50th anniversary of the Pitch & Putt. In 2019 it is the 100th anniversary of Kilbeggan GAA team winning the Westmeath Senior Football title for the first time in 1919 which should be a great occasion. They went on to win seven senior titles by 1935 (their last) and the team included many of the men who were part of the Kilbeggan section of the North Offaly Brigade between 1916/1921. It is also the 120th anniversary of the 1798 rebellion in the town in 2018 and John McManus (son of Matthias McManus founder of Kilbeggan Distillery in 1757) the leader was arrested before the event. We have the full transcript of the tragic trial, where he defended himself brilliantly until a last minute letter condemned him to death in Mullingar. Hopefully, some Kilbeggan/Rahugh producer and actors might adapt this true story on stage? If anyone has information, stories, photos, etc., related to the street, I would like to know about them and I hope to call to people this year. If anyone is interested in any of the above and would like to help in any way I would appreciate it. I am hoping that maybe windows could be made available for displays and that local artists, the schools etc might participate in this endeavour, as there are very talented people locally. The intention would be to film the event and use it to present the positive side of our town.

From Lilliput to Shanette via town square Kilbeggan

Perhaps none of the above might help to improve my home town, but in the immortal words of one of Rod Stewart’s songs “there must be a reason to believe”.

Stan McCormack