The famous suit of ‘ Tullamore Tweed’: a story from the Land War of the 1880s by Maurice Egan

Tullamore gaol and a cartoon from St Stephen’s of November 1887

The remarkable story of Land Leaguer, Henry Egan and his inspired visits to Tullamore Gaol. (November 1887-May 1888)
The brothers Henry and Patrick Egan were well known in the Midlands as proprietors of the acclaimed merchant firm P. & H. Egan’s Tullamore. Both brothers were active Irish nationalists. Henry was a founding member and secretary of the Tullamore branch of the Land League. On Monday 17 October 1881 he was arrested under the Coercion Act of 1881 and imprisoned at Naas gaol. He was accused of being one of the organisers of a monster meeting held at Clara, protesting the imprisonment of Charles Stuart Parnell, the Land League President, four days earlier. Henry was released after 5 weeks.

In 1887, when the Land League leaders William O’Brien, M.P. (Mallow) and tenant farmer John Mandeville were imprisoned at Tullamore gaol, Henry Egan became a regular visitor of his fellow members. In fact, he and his brother-in-law, Dr. George A. Moorhead, visited the gaol upwards of thirteen times per day. They were not alone as hundreds of townsfolk joined them in their quest to put pressure on the authorities to release the two ‘political prisoners’. Mandeville and O’Brien refused to wear official prison garments, protesting their non-criminal status and declaring themselves ‘political prisoners’. The wardens, on instruction from the Tullamore gaol governor and the Chief Secretary of Ireland, Arthur Balfour, responded with beating them, stripping them of their clothes and putting them on a diet of coarse bread and water. Both were released on Christmas Eve 1887. Mandeville died seven months later, and an inquest found his death was because of the severe treatment received at the hands of the wardens in gaol.

In nationalist circles the two became known as ‘The Heroes of Tullamore’.

It is said that Henry somehow managed to smuggle a suit of Blarney Tweed, a soft hat and an emerald green tie into the gaol for O’Brien to wear in defiance of the authorities.

Upon his release and his subsequent return to the House of Commons, O’Brien wore the same tweed suit to rankle Arthur Balfour during the chamber sittings. Balfour was later to call Egan’s planned agitation, the ‘Tullamore Tweed’ incident. Because of the uproar surrounding their harsh treatment, demonstrations were held in Ireland and in Trafalgar Square, London. Soon thereafter, Egan’s actions and the ‘Tullamore Tweed’ incident had the effect of forcing the prison authorities and the British government into reviewing gaol appointments and the treatment of ‘political prisoners’ interred under the Coercion Act.
Sales of Blarney tweed suits soared and became world famous.

Henry Egan (died 1919) and C.S. Parnell

Henry Egan:
Henry Egan was born at Clara in 1847. His mother, Elizabeth was a Barton from the town and his father Patrick Egan, a King’s Inn alumni, was a merchant and crown solicitor for Co. Westmeath. The family of five sons and one daughter resided on Main Street, Moate. Their business traded under the name P. Egan and Sons.
Henry and his eldest brother Patrick set up business at Tullamore, King’s County (now Co. Offaly) in 1852, trading under the name P. & H. Egan. On the 1st of January 1898, it was incorporated as a public liability company and traded under the name P. & H. Egan Limited.
Henry was an ardent nationalist and was the face and voice of the Egan commercial enterprise. He was a Tullamore town commissioner, and chairman, a J.P. (magistrate, justice of the peace) and the first chairman of the King’s County Council. He married Elizabeth Toole of Kilbeggan in 1874, and they had seven sons and five daughters.
He became active in the Land League movement and was a friend of its national leader, Charles Stewart Parnell.
‘Henry Egan…a practical Home Ruler since he first joined Isaac Butt’s original Home Rule Association. He was one of the founders of the Land League in Tullamore and he was secretary of its branch, when Mr Forster (Chief Secretary of Ireland) did him the honour of imprisoning him in Naas gaol in 1881. On the very day that the ‘suspect’ was lodged in prison his fellow members of the Tullamore Town Commissioners Board unanimously selected him as their chairman.’1
The two main aims of the Land League were ‘first, to bring about a reduction of rack-rents (extortionate rent); second, to facilitate the obtaining of the ownership of the soil by the occupiers’.2 Although the League discouraged violence, agrarian crimes increased widely.
On the 17th October 1881 Henry Egan, along with fellow Land Leaguers, Patrick J. White, Merchant, Clara, James Lynam, Rahan and Thomas Conway, solicitor, Birr, were arrested under the Coercion Act, on instructions from W. E. (Buckshot) Forster, Chief Secretary of Ireland and imprisoned at Naas gaol. The Coercion Act allowed for an appeal process only for those held in prison for less than 5 weeks.
The Kerry Sentinel newspaper reported on November 18th, 1881 that ‘political prisoners White [Clara] and Egan were visited at Naas gaol by Mr. S.C. White and Mr. L. J. Barton of Clara. All were in excellent spirits and their incarceration has not affected either their health nor loyalty to the principles of the Land League.’3 The Cork Examiner of the 1st December reported, ‘Release of Suspect. Mr. Henry Egan, Chairman of the Tullamore Town Commissioners was released from Naas gaol yesterday after five weeks detention under the Coercion Act.’4

Gladstone and the Land League

Arthur Balfour.
Arthur Balfour was educated at Eton. In March 1887, when he was only 38, he was appointed as Chief Secretary for Ireland by his uncle and British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury (Robert Cecil). He got this senior role because of his uncle and it is believed this is where the idiom ‘Bob’s Your Uncle’ originated.
Balfour suppressed agrarian unrest whilst taking measures against absentee landlords. He opposed Irish Home Rule, saying there could be no half-way house between Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom or becoming independent. A brilliant debater, he was described as aloof, viewing himself above criticism and bored by the mundane tasks of party management.

arthur balfour

Arthur Balfour
The Plan of Campaign was a strategy adopted in Ireland between 1886 and 1891, co-ordinated by Irish politicians for the benefit of tenant farmers, against mainly absentee and rack-rent landlords.
In response to the Plan of Campaign, Arthur Balfour secured the Criminal Law and Procedure (Ireland) Act 1887 or ‘Perpetual Crimes Act’, a Coercion Act aimed at the prevention of boycotting, intimidation, unlawful assembly and the organisation of conspiracies against the payment of agreed rents.
Tullamore Gaol:
‘Intensified Home Rule and land reform agitation, coupled with the Conservative Government’s Jubilee Coercion Act of 1887, led to the imprisonment of most important nationalist leaders. Leaders like William O’Brien M.P. and John Dillon M.P., plus hundreds of their followers, were subjected at the direction of Chief Secretary Arthur J. Balfour, to the plank bed, prison diet and uniforms, regulation haircuts and shaves, and all other restrictions placed on ordinary prisoners. Balfour and the Irish nationalists hotly disputed the government’s refusal to recognize Crimes Act prisoners as political offenders.’5
On the 2nd November 1887, William O’Brien M.P. and chairman of Mitchelstown Board of Guardians, John Mandeville, were imprisoned under the Coercion Act at Tullamore Gaol. They were to have appeared at Mitchelstown court on September 9th to answer charges of inciting tenant unrest and rent boycotting on the Kingston Estate. They refused to attend.
Later in 1887, when O’Brien and Mandeville were taken for trial to Mitchelstown, fellow Land Leaguer John Dillon M.P. was present and after he delivered a speech denouncing Balfour, the crowd of 8,000 threw stones at the police, who retreated and then opened fire, killing three people in what became known as the “Mitchelstown Massacre”.
In the House of Commons, Balfour defended Divisional Magistrate Plunkett’s instruction to the police under threat: ‘Do not hesitate to shoot’.6 This stance had O’Brien respond by calling him “Bloody Balfour” in the House of Commons.7
‘This political contest had important consequences for the prisons and their officers, no administrators more so than the men who served as medical members of the General Prisons Board. These were men pulled in opposing directions, and their actions, real or supposed, were subject to public criticism. As bureaucrats, they helped set general diet, work, and punishment regulations which as doctors, they had to moderate in individual cases.’5
Daily, Henry Egan T.C. J.P. took it upon himself to visit his fellow Land League members. Joined by his brother-in-law Dr. George A. Moorhead J.P. both men would visit Tullamore Gaol upwards of thirteen times each day. They in turn were joined by hundreds of Tullamore townsfolk on these visits, to pressurise the prison authorities to release the two men.
O’Brien and Mandeville declared themselves ‘political prisoners’ and refused to comply with the prison requirements to wear prison garments, the same as other prisoners. They were beaten and stripped for refusing to wear official prison outfits and put on rations of coarse bread and water. Mandeville was singled out. Though suffering from diarrhoea, he nevertheless was put on harsh rations for 48 hours at a time and nine times in total before his release. Dr. Moorhead complained constantly and wrote in the prison book, imploring the prison authorities to stop sanctioning Mandeville, as Moorhead believed he was too unwell for such a restricted diet and ill treatment.
Henry Egan, it is believed, somehow smuggled in a suit of Blarney Tweed, a soft hat and an emerald green tie, for William O’Brien to wear. He duly obliged. The following morning, the prison warders, to their consternation, found O’Brien, sitting upright in his bed with a full and fine suit of Blarney Tweed.
Balfour was later to refer to this period as the ‘Tullamore Tweed’ incident.
Both O’Brien and Mandeville were released on Christmas Eve 1887. O’Brien was subsequently to wear his Blarney Tweed suit on all occasions his adversary Arthur Balfour was present in the House of Commons. John Mandeville had this to say: ‘I have had my two months of suffering, but I forgive the majority of the English people. It was more a Tory spirit that prompted my jailors to persecute me. I come out of jail as unfettered as I went in, and the principles I hold I will continue to advocate to the last moments of my life.’8

john mandeville
Statue of John Mandeville in Mitchelstown, courtesy of Bill Power

Demonstrations and Prison Reform:
Seven months after his release from Tullamore Gaol, John Mandeville died on the 8th July 1888. The inquest unanimously declared he had died from the harsh treatment he received inside as a ‘political prisoner’. Mass demonstrations were held throughout Ireland as well as in Trafalgar Square, London.
On the 17th May in the House of Commons Dr Fox M.P. (King’s County) asked the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, ‘Whether the Lord Chancellor has received a requisition from the Board of Town Commissioners of Tullamore, asking for the re-appointment of Mr. Henry Egan to the Commission of the Peace, for the purpose of the Towns Improvement Act; and, whether there is any special objection to his re-appointment?. In answering, The Chief Secretary (Mr. Arthur J. Balfour, Manchester East) replied: The Lord Chancellor of Ireland has favoured me with a statement, to the effect that last December he received the requisition alluded to; but that he declined to make the appointment. In so declining he acted in the exercise of the discretion vested in him by law.’9

tullamore tweed poem
Tullamore Tweed verse

The New Zealand Tablet and The Kentucky Irish American newspapers reported in June 1899: ‘when Coercion swept over the land again, he (Henry Egan) was promptly deprived of the magistracy. The Town Commissioners refused to nominate a successor, and the position remained vacant for a time. Mr. Egan is still a member of the Town Board, now the Urban Council, and as a staunch Nationalist, earnest advocate of unity. An experienced and widely appreciated administrator of public affairs, his election to the chairmanship of the County Council is naturally very popular.’3

Balfour quieted the prison dress issue by announcing new rules allowing all prisoners permission to wear their own clothing and to enjoy other privileges. These rule changes were confirmed by a Royal Commission.’10

Henry Egan, the proud and determined Nationalist continued his active campaign for Land Reform and subsequent Prison Reform. He had, in his own way played his part in forcing governmental change, not least with the assistance of some ‘Tullamore Tweed’.

1 New Zealand Tablet, June 29. 1899 and Kentucky Irish American June 24. 1899
2 Meeting minutes, of first Land League gathering. Imperial Hotel, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. Wikipedia.
3 Kerry Sentinel, Nov 18. 1881
4 The Cork Examiner, Dec 1. 1881
5 Medical History, 1982,26: 371-394. Irish Prison Doctors- Men in the Middle. 1865-1890. Beverly A. Smith
6 Balfour to Ridgeway, Nov 8. 1887, Balfour Papers. BM. Add. 49808.
7 William O’Brien and the Course of Irish Politics, 1881-1918 O’Brien J. V.
8 John Mandeville speech on returning to Mitchelstown. Mitchelstown Heritage Society.
9 Hansard: 17 May 1888. Fox to Balfour

10 ‘Report of the Committee of Inquiry as to the Rules concerning the wearing of prison dress, & c.’, SP, 1889 [c. 5759], LXI, p. 269 et seq.
Henry Egan b.1847 Charles Stuart Parnell b.1846 Arthur Balfour b.1848
Tullamore Tweed, poem from Tullamore Gaol, anon. Gladstone and the Land League, Almay.

John Mandeville b.1849. Statue, Mitchelstown Tullamore Gaol
Square. Bill Power Photography

The painting depicts William O’Brien, a nationalist journalist who represented Ireland in the British Parliament, as a naughty child. When he was arrested and imprisoned in 1887 for organizing a ‘rent strike’ in County Cork, which was part of a larger agitation for land reforms, he refused to wear the prison uniform. His sympathizers smuggled a Blarney tweed suit into the jail – a suit that O’Brien liked to wear in later life in the British House of Commons.