The Midlands of Ireland 50 Years Ago. Closure of P & H. Egan Limited 31 July 1968. By Maurice Egan

Patrick Egan senior, was born in 1805, at Moate, County Westmeath. He was an alumnus of the King’s Inns, Dublin and a lifelong friend of fellow alumni, The Emancipator, Daniel O’Connell. During a heated discussion in the House of Commons, in February 1835, O’Connell proposed Patrick Egan as candidate for the position of Sessional Crown Solicitor, County Westmeath. This position Egan subsequently held for forty years. Additionally, Patrick Egan was a successful merchant and trader, with extensive buildings and stores on Main Street, Moate.

Trading under the name P. Egan and Sons, the business thrived. Patrick married Eliza Barton of Clara and they had six sons and two daughters. In 1852 he decided to expand and to set up his sons, Patrick and Henry, in business, and called the business, P. & H. Egan. He bought the Bridge House premises and extensive yards, on Bridge Street, Tullamore.

The P. & H. Egan business was involved in Brewing, Malting, Bonded Whiskey and Spirits, Licenced Liquor outlets, Grocery provisions, Ironmongery, Seed and Fertiliser, Sawmills, Fuel and Transport and was to expand, thrive and grow throughout the Midlands of Ireland.

The enterprise was to provide extensive and much needed employment and was heralded as ‘one of the finest employers throughout the island of Ireland’.Surviving World War 1 and 2, the 1916 Easter Rising and later the Irish Civil War, American Prohibition and the Wall Street crash, the firm continued in business well into the 1960s.

The late 1960s was a time of rapid economic change, demanding a move away from general grocers and dealerships to large format and capital-intensive supermarket chains. The directors and shareholders of the firm P. & H. Egan Limited, elected to enter voluntary liquidation, on the 31st July 1968, thus ending a period of 116 years of amazing unmatched enterprise.

1852 to 1910: A period of rapid expansion and political turmoil

Patrick Egan junior, was born in 1842 and was to become the commercial genius behind the growing enterprise. Patrick married Elizabeth Moorhead of Tullamore in 1874 and they had eight daughters and one son, residing at Acres Hall, High Street. Today it is Tullamore’s Town Hall.

Henry was born in 1847 and was to become the known ‘face and voice’ of the expanding firm. Henry was a J.P. (magistrate, Justice of the Peace) and a Tullamore Town Commissioner and became the first chairman of King’s County Council. In 1875, Henry married Eliza Toole of Kilbeggan and they had seven sons and five daughters.

PatrickEgan1896
Patrick Egan jr

Their father, Patrick Egan, crown solicitor for County Westmeath, bought the Bridge House in Patrick junior’s name and commenced trading under the name P.& H. Egan. Over time, Patrick and his brother Henry expanded from their headquarters in Tullamore and had branch houses in; Ardagh, Athy, Bagnalstown, Ballycommon, Ballycumber, Banagher, Birr, Castletowngeoghegan, Clonaslee, Doon, Edenderry, Ferbane, Foigha, Kilcormac, Kinnity, Moate, Moyvore, Newtowncashel, Rathangan, Riverstown, and Tubber.

In 1866, the firm bought Deverell’s Brewery, Tullamore and commenced a major expansion in brewing and packaging capacity. They opened the Brewery Tap public house opposite O’Connor Square, with their well-known Tullamore Brewery, malt houses and bonded whiskey stores to the rear. Egan’s Ales were heralded across the country and their brand, Tullamore Ale was described as ‘the finest dinner ale in Ireland’.

Following their father’s footsteps, both Patrick and Henry were fervent Irish nationalists. Henry Egan, secretary of the Tullamore Land League, whose purpose it was to seek national land reform, along with fellow Land Leaguers, James Lynam, Rahan, Patrick J. White, Merchant, Clara and Thomas Conway, Solicitor, Birr, organised a monster meeting at Clara, for the national president of the Land League, Charles Stuart Parnell. They were subsequently arrested under the Coercion Act on October 20, 1881, on instructions delivered by the Chief Secretary of Ireland William E. (‘Buckshot’) Forster. They were imprisoned at Naas gaol for being Land League leaders and organisers of the illegal Clara meeting. Parnell was later arrested and imprisoned at Kilmainham gaol. Egan was released after 5 weeks.

By now, their younger brother Luke Egan and his wife Jane (née Reddy) were running the original P. Egan and Son’s business in Moate, the former Bank House. It is today, the premises of publican and businessman Terry Coughlan. P.& H. Egan’s were steadily growing and were employing over 50 men producing 30 to 40 barrels of beer per day at their Tullamore Brewery.

 

Improving fortunes

In his annual report, the High Sheriff of King’s County, Capt. Thomas Armstrong Drought pronounces of Egan’s; ‘their beer is very good and their eau de vie (whiskey) is excellent.’

BallyBoyDan and Mollys
Guinness bottled by J. L. Stirling & Co. Courtesy of Dan and Molly’s,
Ballyboy.

That same year, 1895, the senior partner of P. & H. Egan’s, Patrick, with a further eye on business expansion, convinced his brother Henry, that they buy the highly successful competitor firm of James Lyle Stirling, Stirling and Company. Stirling bottled cordials, whiskey, mineral waters and manufactured shaped corks for bottle sealing. They were based out of Athy, High Street, Dublin and Tullamore. In preparation for the acquisition, P. & H. Egan was incorporated as a limited liability company, changing its name to P. & H. Egan Limited on the 1st January 1886, at Bank House, Moate. The purchase price paid in March 1896 was £80,000. With some of these proceeds, James Lyle Stirling, many years later, assisted in financing the establishment and launch of The Irish Press, a national daily newspaper. He became a director and its first chairman was Eamon de Valera.

Further expansions to the brewery occurred in 1882 and 1886. In 1888 the impressive maltings in Henry/O’Carroll Street were built to meet the growing needs of their Tullamore Brewery, as well as supplying the brewing and distilling industry countrywide.

P&HEgans
P. & H. Egan premises, Tullamore, c. 1896

Tragedy strikes twice within 21 months

Patrick Egan gave much of his time to his business, his employees as well as those who travelled from near and far seeking his counsel. A workaholic, his family and brother in law Dr. George Moorhead, beseeched him to take more rest and daily exercise. On the afternoon of the 3rd May 1897, his two eldest daughters Edith (21) and Elizabeth (Bessie, 20), arrived at his third-floor office in the Bridge House headquarters, to take him for his daily walk. They were distraught to find him lying prostrate on his office floor next to his desk, with little much they could do but call the doctor for assistance. He died the following day, as a result of a cerebral haemorrhage and exhaustion.

Tullamore, a town of 5,000 inhabitants, witnessed the biggest ever funeral in its history. Close on 8,000 mourners attended the funeral to St. Mary’s cemetery, Clonminch. P. & H. Egan Limited had suffered a dreadful blow. Patrick’s death left his widow, Elizabeth Egan, age 44, to look after seven surviving daughters and a 10-year-old only son, Francis J. Egan. Twenty-one months later, in 1898, Henry’s wife Lizzie, died at age 40, of a cardiac arrest. Henry had lost his life partner, quick on the heels of his brother and business partner Patrick. Henry had to look after seven young sons and four surviving daughters.

‘What’s your poison?’

As a result of people dying from drinking beer in the North of England, the first post Victorian formal investigation was instituted in July 1901. The purpose of which was to investigate the cause of death of 70 people due to beer poisoning. This occurred around Salford, Manchester as well as in Liverpool and Birmingham. The appointed chairperson was the acclaimed ‘temperature man’, Lord Kelvin. He and his scientists discovered the cause of death was as a result of arsenic poisoning. The source of the arsenic was discovered to be the ill-advised use by brewers of cheaply manufactured fermentable sugar, into which arsenic penetrated, from open coking coal fires. Using this fermentable sugar to extract more alcohol and resultantly more profit, the arsenic contaminated sugar was added to the brews, was consumed by the unsuspecting beer drinkers, who over a year, died a slow painful death from arsenic poisoning. From whence comes the idiom, ‘what’s your poison’.

ArsenicAleAlarm1901

Too scared to drink beer, patrons from Northern England and Scotland stopped drinking local beers. Egan’s, Tullamore Brewery, saw a gap in the market and went on a campaign with their, Egan’s Irish Ale’s, exporting into Scotland as much as they could brew. The campaign was not exactly subtle, proclaiming Egan’s beer did not contain poison and also encouraging local Irish patrons, not to purchase ‘those death-dealing imported drinks’.

Further Growth

P. & H. Egan Limited, continued to grow its profitability, and started to diversify, investing in equity stakes across a range of international businesses, from banking, other brewing companies and railways. Their bonded whiskey and spirit stores, had inventory of over 36,000 bottles at the turn of the century.

They set up The Midland Hotel Company, housing their hotel chain, which included Hayes Hotel and Colton’s Hotel, High Street, Tullamore and Dooly’s Hotel, Birr.

To celebrate 58 years in business, they refurbished their headquarters, The Bridge House, and the imposing cut limestone edifice, solid brass window and door frames still exist to this day.

 

Dark Uncertain Clouds Gather: 1910 to 1968

Since 1910, the Grand Canal Company was increasingly encouraging more use of its network. Resultantly in 1913, P. & H. Egan Limited placed an order on Bright’s Patent Pulley Company Limited, Portadown, to build a bye trader barge to transport their goods to and from Dublin. Its number was the 42B (today called The Snark, berthed at Shannon Harbour). Tullamore man, Jack Roache of Clontarf Road was one of its first bargemen. Fifty tons of cargo would be loaded over the weekend at the Tullamore Harbour for departure Monday morning. Arriving into Dublin early Wednesday morning, the barge was loaded and turned around Wednesday evening for return, arriving into Tullamore late Friday afternoon.

The menace of the Great War now stood on the horizon, and in order to fund the war effort the excise on beer rose twenty-fold from 5 shillings per barrel to £5 per barrel. Egan’s Tullamore Brewery had little choice but to temporarily close its doors, moving the employed men to other parts of the family firm.

Henry Egan passes away

During the strain of these time, already in poor health and aged 72, Henry Egan, died of heart complications at Acres Hall in May 1919. His eldest son, P. J. Egan of Annaghmore House,  near Kinnitty took over as Managing Director.

In an era of significant change, King’s County was renamed County Offaly in 1920. Great progress was witnessed by the Tullamore townspeople when the Town Gas Company’s street lights were replaced by electric light in 1921. (The last gas lampstand can be seen today as part of the Moore Hall railings on O’Moore Street). Egan’s started major upgrades to their maltings, and other premises, replacing their old oil-fired electricity generating sets with national grid electricity. Similarly, as the road to Dublin was improved, the premises on Tanyard Lane were expanded to accommodate Egan’s transport department, its delivery trucks and vans.

These were difficult political times in the new Irish Free State and ongoing civil disobedience occurred during the summer of 1923.  Random criminal acts and burglaries occurred on a number of premises including to some Egan branches, namely, The Cat and Bagpipes in Tubber, as well as in Ballycumber.

Tullamore Brewery Closes

The newly formed Irish Free State was cash strapped during its formative years. Despite countrywide representations from Brewers and Distillers demanding the dropping of war time excise duties on alcohol, a total of five breweries were forced to permanently close their doors between 1923 and 1928. Sadly, Egan’s Tullamore Brewery was one of them. P.J. Egan was later elected a member of the 4th Dail and served between 1923 and 1927. He became a good friend of President William T. Cosgrave, who spent the weekend with the Egan family at Annaghmore House, in September 1929. A lavish garden party was held in the President’s honour including many invited local guests and employees from the firm.

The business was forced to yet again re-focus and now concentrated on Maltings, supplying Arthur Guinness and Sons, the Mountjoy Brewery and a number of Dublin distillers. They invested significantly in their bottling capability. Apart from bottling their own highly successful Egan’s whiskey and spirits, P. & H. Egan bottled under licence Guinness and Bass beers. Additionally, Power’s and Jameson Whiskies were also bottled in their packaging halls at the back of the Brewery Tap. Their grocery and Agri-Business continued to thrive across the Midlands. Kilcormac’s grocery outlet (today’s O’Sullivan’s Centra supermarket) and Agri business (today’s J. Grennan and Son) was expanded in 1930.

In order to attract the best possible talent to the company they built eight fine red brick faced semi-detached houses on Clonminch Road to provide accommodation for management. Building commenced in 1936 and the development was unofficially called ‘Banker’s Row’. The business was successfully run by P. J. Egan, Kevin Fergus Egan, Frank J. Egan and non-family named director’s, including Danny Lynam, George A. Moorhead, Michael Kelly and Frank Slattery.

World War 2 and Global Change:

During the dreadful days of the second world war, further trading difficulties, rationing and price increases were the order of the day. As in World War One a number of family members and employees of P. & H. Egan Limited joined up and fought on the Allied side.

Much was to change post the devastation and loss of life during the war. Re-building of economies and societies required greater emphasis on social justice, manufacturing size, scale and greater efficiencies. Many of the old family businesses were beginning their decline. Consolidation of businesses and partnership was a common business theme. Egan’s continued to provide manufactured goods and services through these times and into the late 1960’s. In 1966, holding a majority shareholding, Egan’s formed a partnership with the well know malting firm of Tarleton (established in 1883) to form Egan Tarleton Limited.

Voluntary Liquidation 1968

By this time a number of Egan businesses were struggling to run profitably, what with the advent of supermarkets, advanced transportation, consolidation of brewers and distillers. As much as the business tried to diversify and raise additional capital, the Sword of Damocles hung ever closer.

On the 31st July 1968, after one hundred and sixteen years in business, the family members and other shareholders elected that P. & H. Egan Limited should enter into voluntary liquidation. Thankfully, this decision enabled a number of good businesses to continue trading and a number to be sold as going concerns.

Egan’s had owned and operated Dooly’s Hotel, Birr since 1902. Director Frank J. Egan, jnr. and his wife Carmel Egan (nee Duffy) decided to buy this going concern and successfully ran it for many years until their retirement.

Kevin Adams, eldest son of Roseleen Adams (nee Egan, eldest daughter of Henry Egan and Patrick F. Adams) bought the Brewery Tap, from the liquidated firm.

Auctioned off were a number of their business premises. Their famed headquarters, The Bridge House was auctioned in 1969, for a sale price of £27,000, soon after setting up Ballymahon native and Mullingar businessman, Christy Maye.

Hayes Hotel (later the Phoenix Arms) Tullamore continued in business until 2000. Egan Tarleton of Henry Street, Tullamore and its branches at Edenderry and Kilcormac continued to operate and supply malt and Agri services until 1980.

P & H. Egan Limited had completed a ‘great trot’. In so doing it had set up many emerging business people who ‘cut their business teeth’ at the firm and went on to be highly accomplished people in their own right.  Over those years, the firm, its directors and employees provided enormous benefit and improvements to the development of the Midlands and specifically the town of Tullamore.

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Egan’s 15-year-old Legacy Reserve, Egan’s 8-year-old Single Grain,
Egan’s 10-year-old Single Malt

The old firm legacy lives on today with some new generation Egan family members recently resurrecting their famed Irish whiskey.www.eganswhiskey.com

About the author: Maurice Egan is a great grand son of Patrick Egan of the firm P. & H. Egan Limited. He is chairman of P. & H. Egan (Tullamore) Limited

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