The ‘Other Egans’ from Birr and Roscrea By Dermot McAuley

The author of this article is  Dermot McAuley of Dublin who is the eldest son of the late Joan McAuley (nee Egan) of Acres Hall, Tullamore (now the offices of the Tullamore Municipal Council in Cormac Street. Patrick Egan (the “P” of P. & H. Egan) and Elizabeth Moorhead were married at the church of St. Paul’s, Arran Quay, Dublin on 31st August 1874. While Patrick’s Egan ancestors from Westmeath and Offaly are well documented, what is less well known is that Elizabeth too had Egan ancestors – her maternal grandmother Julia Humphrys (née Egan) (sometimes spelt Humphreys) was born into a prominent family of Egans in Roscrea. While the two different branches of the Egan clan may have had some common ancestor in the dim and misty past no close relationship between the two Egan branches is known (so far).  Nevertheless, there are some intriguing parallels between the histories of the Tullamore and Roscrea families. And of course, any descendants of Patrick and Elizabeth carry the genes of two sets of Egans, not one.

Patrick Egan Senior left Moate in 1852 and set up shop in Tullamore. Over time, and particularly once his sons Patrick and Henry came on board, the business grew into the great enterprise it had become by the end of the 1800s with its headquarters at Bridge House, Tullamore.

P&H3; P & H Egan LTD c. 1940's
Bridge House, Tullamore, c. 1930s

About 80 years earlier a young Stephen Egan left his parents Bartholomew and Catherine Egan who lived in Birr to set up shop in the town of Roscrea. Stephen Egan was born c. 1751. He married Margaret Coffee c. 1776, and in due course started a family. Stephen started his business which built up through the last quarter of the 18th century, and into the early part of the 19th century. He appears to have started as a shopkeeper, then added a bakery, and subsequently when his sons Stephen Junior and Daniel had joined the business a substantial brewery was set up. In early references Stephen’s address is given as “Cottage, Roscrea”. In later references this has changed to “Sans Souci Cottage, Roscrea”.

Sans Souci Cottage and an old brewery in Roscrea

Aerial View 1992
Roscrea about 1992.

Looking for Sans Souci Cottage on the earliest ordnance survey maps published about 1840 reveals that Sans Souci Cottage had become a very substantial residence now named Sans Souci Villa. The map also shows the extensive brewery premises close by. Stephen Senior died in 1820, and the brewery business appears to have been carried on by his sons Stephen Junior and Daniel. We know that the brewery was still in operation in 1837. However, with the passing of Stephen Junior c. 1840 and the advent of the famine brewing appears to have ceased in the 1840s although another son Edward appears to have carried on as a baker and provision merchant in the same area for some years after. The famine put huge pressure on the workhouse in Roscrea and part of the brewery premises was taken over for use as an auxiliary workhouse. The brewery has long since been demolished. Sans Souci Villa however was subsequently renamed Parkmore House and saw use at various times as a guest house for girls, a small hotel, and a convent. The house still exists and is a listed building. It is currently part of the Mount Carmel Nursing Home run by the Sisters of St. Marie Madeline Postel. The attached old brewery site has been redeveloped as a retirement home and sheltered accommodation for the elderly.

When Stephen Egan was growing his business in Roscrea the Penal laws were still in force although their application varied from place to place, often depending on the zeal of the local magistrates. While various relaxations were introduced as the 18th century progressed it continued to be difficult for Catholics to run businesses. In 1774 an Act was passed to permit the King’s subjects, of any religion, to take an oath at the local assizes (courts) “to testify to their loyalty and allegiance to him, to promote peace and industry in the kingdom”. Unlike the earlier Convert Rolls this did not require Catholics to renounce their religion. These names were then registered in the Catholic Qualification Rolls according to surname, first name, address, and date of qualification. In the majority of cases this was not a sincere oath of allegiance, as it was the only legal means whereby a Catholic could obtain some basic civil rights. About 50,000 people availed of this process, including one Stephen Egan, shopkeeper of Roscrea, at Clonmel assizes in 1793.

It is clear that Roscrea was not without its sectarian and political tensions during this period. The gradual relaxation of the Penal Laws did not sit well with some members of the Protestant ascendancy, some of whom felt it was necessary from time to time to convict Catholics of crimes often without the luxury of any real evidence “to make an example to preserve the quiet of the country”.

Hamilton hatches a conspiracy

In 1815 the Egan family found themselves caught up in this. By this time the Egans were a well-respected Catholic family in Roscrea and the brewery was well established. There was in Roscrea a Protestant curate by the name of the Rev. John Hamilton who had been transplanted to Roscrea from Enniskillen. He was described as an enthusiastic Orangeman, and he had recently been appointed as a magistrate in the town. He was also employed as a tutor to the Birch family. The Birches were Protestants who operated a rival brewery in Roscrea. The Rev Hamilton saw an opportunity to “make an example” and to eliminate his patron’s competition at the same time. With the help of a couple of co-conspirators, one a man names Dyer who was a stable hand employed by the Birches, another a man named Halpin who had been an informer during the 1798 rebellion, the Rev. Hamilton had it put about that the Egans and some accomplices were engaged in a conspiracy planning to murder members of the Protestant gentry. With the times that were in it an accusation of this sort together with inherent prejudice was enough to cause alarm within the Protestant population.

Time for the Rev. Hamilton to move to the second phase of his plan. Shortly after Christmas in 1815 he set up a straw-stuffed dummy dressed in his own clothes and placed it seated at a table in his front parlour in full view of the window. On the table was an open bible and two candles – the whole scene made to look like it was the reverend gentleman himself deeply engrossed in the word of God. He provided Dyer with a gun and instructed him to shoot the effigy through the window. Several shots were fired, some of which lodged in the wall, another in the sash, and another which hit the bible. All hell broke loose with the Rev Hamilton exclaiming that this was proof that all that Dyer and Halpin had been saying was true. The Egans and some of their supposed accomplices were arrested and put in the guard house for the night, although they were eventually bailed the following day. The Rev. Hamilton when describing his miraculous escape appears to have neglected to make clear to the authorities that the shots were fired at a dummy and not at himself.

Norbury as trial judge

About two weeks later the Rev. Hamilton with the support of some prominent ascendancy figures managed to have the Egans and a couple of their alleged supporters arrested and charged with attempted murder, which at that time was a capital offence. The case duly came to court before the judge Lord Norbury. Lord Norbury had a fierce reputation and was widely referred to as “the hanging judge” due to his particular liking for handing down the death penalty, often delivered with inappropriate jokes. He didn’t always follow the evidence too closely, and was known to occasionally fall asleep during his trials. Lord Norbury’s main claim to fame had been as the judge during the trial of Robert Emmett some years earlier in 1803.

The prosecution started their case. However, under cross examination of witnesses Dyer, Halpin and Hamilton the case started to fall apart with witnesses contradicting themselves and each other. The details of the straw dummy and the fact that no shot had been fired at the Rev. Hamilton himself soon came out. The Rev. Hamilton tried to save the situation by claiming that the straw dummy had been a clever stratagem to prove that the earlier allegations that were being circulated were true. This was all too much even for Lord Norbury who kicked the case out of court and acquitted everyone even before the defence presented their case.

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Stephen and Margaret Egan had a large family, at least ten children that we know of, though records are a bit patchy. Civil recording of births deaths and marriages was still several decades away meaning great reliance has to be put on alternative sources such as church records which can be a bit hit and miss. Availability can be an issue as is also legibility.

Egan and Huguenot connections

Portarlington Sq.

Of particular interest in the context of exploring the links between the Roscrea and Tullamore Egans is Stephen and Margaret’s daughter Julia (1801 – 1850). Julia married a captain in the 15th Regiment of Foot called John Goulin Humphrys in Roscrea on 3rd April 1826. John and Julia Humphrys would eventually become the grandparents of Elizabeth Egan (née Moorhead) of Tullamore. John Goulin Humphrys was the son of Thomas Humphrys, apothecary in Portarlington, and his wife Sara (née Goulin). Sara Goulin was the great grand daughter of one Pierre Goulin who was one of the original Huguenot settlers in Portarlington. Pierre was from the commune of Lourmarin in the department of Vacluse in the south-east of France. In 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes which since 1598 had guaranteed Huguenots the right to religious freedom in France. There followed sustained persecution of the Huguenots causing many of them to flee France. Pierre left France and headed for the Valais canton in southern Switzerland. From there he progressed north to Brandenburg around Berlin where many other Huguenots had also gathered and joined the forces of the Elector of Brandenburg under Schomberg. These forces joined up with the forces of William of Orange and were sent to England in 1688, and then to Ireland in 1689. They fought at the battle of the Boyne in 1690, where Schomberg was killed, and the following year at the battle of Aughrim. Pierre Goulin was demobilised in 1692 on a pension of 2 shillings per day, his condition being described as “Malade” (sick). Pierre found his way to Dublin where he met and married Anne Costard. Several hundred of the demobilised Huguenots were allocated lands from the estates which the king had conferred on the Marquis de Ruvigny, around what would become the town of Portarlington in recognition of their services. Portarlington itself had not been built yet – it was a rather dilapidated village called Cooletoodera so the new arrivals were located in various surrounding villages until building works in the new town of Portarlington had been carried out. Pierre settled at first in Monasterevin where he still was as his first children were born.

Humphreys and Moorhead marriage, Roscrea, Portarlingon and Tullamore

Acres Hall TULLAMORE c 1900
Acres Hall, Tullamore, home of Patrick Egan until his death in 1897

John Goulin Humphrys was born at Kilmalogue, Portarlington in 1788. He joined the 15th Regiment of Foot, and was made 2nd Lieutenant at the age of 19 in May 1807. He progressed to Lieutenant in July 1808. He saw war service with the 15th at the capture of Martinique and Saintes in 1809, and of Guadeloupe in 1815. He was made Captain in April 1825, and the following year married Julia Egan. The 15th Regiment of Foot tended to get moved around a lot. When John Goulin Humphrys got married they were based in Templemore. In the autumn of 1816 they were moved to Oughterard Barracks in Co. Galway. While there their first child named Thomas was sadly stillborn at the end of January 1827. In April the regiment was on the move again, this time to Fermoy where they prepared for a stint in Canada. They sailed from Cobh in May of 1827 and arrived in Québec the following month. The regiment were immediately dispatched to Upper Canada. Upper Canada was the name given to that part of Canada up the St, Lawrence river above Montreal towards the great lakes. They were stationed at Kingston close to where the St. Lawrence river joins Lake Ontario. While in Canada Julia gave birth to their second child Julia (who would become Elizabeth Egan’s mother), in Québec City on 17th July 1828. John was clearly still in Upper Canada since he missed his daughter’s christening, a point which is noted with a curt “le père absent” in the baptismal register of the Basilique Notre-Dame, Québec. The regiment remained in Canada for several more years. However, John Humphrys returned to Portarlington and was put on half-pay. This was a form of semi-retirement where officers could get half their pay in recognition of their past service, and for being available in the event they might be needed in the future.

P&H6; Patrick Egan (Director) c.1897

John and Julia Humphrys settled in Portarlington and their family grew. In due course their eldest daughter Julia married Michael Joseph Moorhead in Portarlington on 21st September 1848. In 1874 their daughter Elizabeth would marry Patrick Egan of Tullamore, thus closing the link to the ‘Other Egans’.

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