Background: Ireland 1850 to 1918
The emergence of an Irish Catholic religious revival can be traced back to mid-1770s. Tony Fahey writes of the ‘Catholic Revival in Ireland’, being a major feature of 19th century Irish history affecting politics, culture and social structure.
The punitive Penal Laws discriminated against and marginalised the Catholic church and were instrumental in ensuring that the 18th century Irish Catholic church was in disarray. Certainly, it was disorganised, had few priests and often places of worship and human internment, were by law, positioned away from places of population density.
However, the charismatic and potent drive by Daniel O’Connell and others, for Catholic emancipation (Roman Catholic Relief Act) started to change public opinion and forced the then Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel to change their position. They in turn signed the act of emancipation into law in 1829.1
‘The number of priests had increased from 1,850 in 1800 to almost 3,500 in 1900 despite the rapid population decline in the later half of this period.’2
The Roman Catholic approach to women in the church in Ireland began to change in the 1800s. It started to move away from the Council of Trent (1563), Tridentine dictates which confined women religious to a life of seclusion and silence, where they remained in cloisters. Instead the church in Ireland introduced several innovations, most notable of these was the evolution of female religious congregations allowed to become involved in pastoral community work.
The first of these were the Presentation Sisters founded in Cork by Nano Nagle in 1775. They were soon followed by the Sisters of Mercy, founded on Dublin’s Baggot Street by Catherine McAuley in 1831. Tullamore was her first Mercy Convent outside of Dublin.
In Catholic Ireland, cultural life typically bestowed any due inheritance upon the eldest son. No roles of consequence were available for Catholics in the administration of the British colonial government. Third level education was a non-starter, as all religions, (including Methodists, Presbyterians and Jews) other than those of the Church of England (the established church) were prohibited entry into any University throughout the British empire. This was the case until the passing of the Universities Tests Act of 1871.
The British armed forces often became an economic choice made by numerous sons of Ireland. For unmarried girls [generally well off ed.] the opportunity of a life of community giving and education became attractive with the growth of female religious orders.
The number of sisters grew rapidly from the middle of the 19th century. The numbers recorded in religious life were around 1,500 in 1851 and grew to just under 9,000 in 1911. This number peaked at around 16,000 in the 1960’s. (Fahey, 1990:250).
The Egan family: Brothers, Sisters and Cousins.
Michael Egan O.F.M. (1804-1849).
It is believed James Egan Esq., a tax collector and farmer, was born in 1765, close to the borders of County Westmeath and King’s County, possibly near Doon. He married Mary Potts from a landed Protestant family near Moate in County Westmeath. They had five sons and two daughters. From what we know, Michael, their third eldest was born in 1804 and studied in Spain. He was ordained a Franciscan Priest in 1830 and appointed a curate at Eglish, Ballymore and Milltown parishes. He died on the 2nd May 1849 and is buried in the Clara Franciscan Monastery. He was age 45.
The following has been recorded, regarding the Clara Franciscan Monastery:
‘Several priests have been interred likewise in this grave- yard viz. Rev. Mr. Molloy, formerly pastor of Rabin (sic.); Rev. Mr. Barry, late pastor of Clara; also Rev. Messrs.
Egan, Kelly, and Ryan.
A monument commemorates Father Egan, with the following inscription:
” Sacred to the memory of the Rev. Michael Egan, who departed this life on the 2nd day of May 1849, in the 45th year of his age, and 19th of his ministry. Kind, benevolent, and warm-hearted; in private life, attentive, laborious, and truly exemplary in the faithful discharge of each duty of his sacred calling, he died equally revered and lamented
by all who ever knew him. Requiescat in pace. Amen.”
The Rev. Mr. Egan was born in the neighbourhood, studied in Spain, officiated as curate in Eglish, Baltimore, and Milltown. He was a Franciscan friar.’3
Interestingly, his brother Patrick Egan Esq., Crown solicitor of County Westmeath for 40 years, chose for his family an interment plot located right up against North Western wall of the Franciscan burial enclosure at Clara, in which his brother Father Michael Egan is interned. This practice was also preceded by his, above mentioned, father James Egan, who is interred with his family in their plot positioned right up against the church’s North Eastern wall at Kilcummeragh Cemetery, near Rosemount and Moate.
Mother Gabriel, Sisters of Mercy Convent, Tullamore. (1847-1898).
Born Bidelia Julia Egan on the 20th May 1847, she was the eldest daughter of John and Catherine Egan (nee Mulrooney) of Kilbeggan, County Westmeath.
Her father John was the younger brother of Father Michael Egan O.F.M. and Patrick Egan of Moate and Crown solicitor of Westmeath. John Egan and Co. operated a very successful merchant and brewing business down the Main Street of Kilbeggan from around 1854 until his death in 1876.
Professed Sister Gabriel in 1866, she became a qualified nurse and subsequently became superioress of the Mercy convent in Tullamore where she lived and worked for the 32 years of her ministry. She is an acknowledged pioneer and builder of girls’ education in Tullamore (today’s Sacred Heart school) and was an able and compassionate minister to the wretchedly condemned at Tullamore Gaol. She died a pitiful death on the 23rd November 1898, at the Sisters of Mercy’s, Mater Hospital in Dublin having contacted typhoid fever while nursing one of her fellow Mercy sisters. She was 51.
Father William Egan, Parish Priest of Skryne, County Meath. (1852-1917).
William Egan was born in late 1851. He was the third son of John and Catherine Egan and was baptised at Kilbeggan on the 24th February 1852.
He entered the diocesan seminary, probably at Maynooth and upon his ordination the Rev. William Egan was appointed curate to the Meath diocese in the parish of Dunderry, Navan4. He was likely there for 10 years. The parish priest was the Rev. Richard Blake.
From Dunderry he was appointed curate at the parish of Trim, County Meath in 1884 and 1885 and continued there as curate until 1894 under the parish priest, the Rev. Philip Callery of later Tullamore fame (Callery Street) 5.
When his father John Egan died in 1876, letters of administration of his estate were granted to his widow Catherine. However, when she subsequently died in 1884 a small residue of the estate (~£95) remained to be administered. On 1st October 1885 new letters of administration relating to the part of the estate “left un-administered by Catherine Egan his widow, were granted at Mullingar to the Rev. William Egan of Trim, Co. Meath R.C. Priest one of the residuary legatees”6
Age 50, his first appointment as parish priest was at Mount Nugent, Kilbride parish, County Cavan in 1901³. It is interesting to note that he presided over the marriage of his first cousin, Patrick J. Egan, who like William’s father John Egan was also a brewer. Patrick was a son of Henry Egan (Tullamore) and Lizzie Toole (Kilbeggan) and director of the firm P. & H. Egan Limited. His bride was Annie Browne of Kilcormac (Frankford). Annie was daughter of Dr. Thomas and Mrs Annie Browne of Collinstown House Kilcormac, County Offaly. The ceremony took place at the church of St. Francis Xavier, Gardiner Street, Dublin on the 18th July 1906.
Two years later in 1908, William was appointed to the position of parish priest at Skryne, Co Meath. His base was the historic church of St Columcille close to the hill of Tara. He was the parish priest of Skryne for nine years.7
Suffering poor health, he retired from his daily tasks and went on light duties. He handed over the running of the parish to his curate Rev. Christopher O’Farrell. The Rev. O’Farrell took over from him and continued as parish priest from 1917 until 1939. William passed away at St. John of God’s Hospital, Stillorgan due to heart failure, on the 7th September 1917. He was age 66.
He is buried in the churchyard of St. Columcille, Skryne.
Mother M. Columba Egan, Sisters of Mercy Convent, Trim (1854-1932).
Born Mary Catherine, the middle daughter of five girls born to John and Catherine Egan (nee Mulrooney) of Kilbeggan. She was professed Sister Columba in 1873. In 1867 as one of four nuns sent from Tullamore, she became co-foundress of the Mercy Convent at Trim. For many years she was their superioress. Aged 78, she died on June 26, 1932.
Sister Mary Bridgit Egan, Sisters of Mercy, Kells. (1855-1936).
Mary Bridgit Egan was the only daughter of Patrick and Eliza Egan of Moate. Her father was Crown Coroner for County Westmeath and he along with his wife and their son and daughter-in-law Luke and Jane Egan ran the very successful merchant business of P. Egan and Sons down on Main Street. Her brother William became a solicitor, her brother John farmed at Coolvuck near Glasson, while the well-known firm P. & H. Egan Limited, merchants and brewers, in Tullamore was successfully managed and expanded by her other brothers Patrick and Henry Egan.
Mary was born on the 19th March 1855, and was educated at Loreto Convent, Navan and later at the Dominican Convent Sion Hill. She was a talented all-rounder and music was a passion. She was an accomplished harpist, organist and enjoyed the arts. She entered St. Columba’s Convent of Mercy, Kells on the 9th June 1873 and was received by the Bishop of Meath, Dr. Nulty.
Sister Mary Bridgit was to spend close on 60 years a nun. She died on the 2nd February 1936 just three months short of her diamond jubilee. An exemplary member of her community.
With the revival of the Gaelic language her primary passion became the goal of learning and becoming fluent in Irish. She was the first nun at the convent to receive the highest qualification in Irish, despite being well into her 40’s. Regarded always as an excellent teacher, she was a favourite to the many pupils that passed through her classes.
Her obituary in the Drogheda Chronicle of 1936 described her as ‘a model religious, simple and unaffected in manner and quite unconscious of her great talents. When failing health no longer allowed her to carry out her customary duties, she took charge of the Sacred Heart Messenger and worked zealously for the Far East Missions and her efforts in this direction earned for her the name of the “Pagan Nun” ‘.
Extract from the Obituary of Sister Mary Brigid Egan ‘Drogheda Independent, Saturday February 8th,1936
Sister Mary had been in poor health for a number of years, a condition she bore with humility and patience. The high mass was celebrated by the Bishop of Meath, Thomas Mulvany and the large funeral was attended by members of the clergy, her community and close family members and friends. She was age 80.
Sister Mary Egan, Dominican Sisters, Sion Hill, Blackrock. (1878-1957).
Born Mary, the third of eight daughters born to Patrick and Elizabeth Egan (nee Moorhead) of Tullamore. She was professed Sister Mary at the Dominican convent of Sion Hill in 1900 and was later joined by her younger sister Eveline Agnes Egan.
She passed away in the 57th year of her profession on the 1st April 1957.
Mother Stanislaus Egan, Dominican Sisters, Sion Hill, Blackrock, Dublin. (1881-1971).
Born Eveline Agnes, the fifth daughter of Patrick and Elizabeth Egan of Tullamore on March 16th1881. She was professed Sister Stanislaus on April 26th1905 at Sion Hill.
She was their Mother Superior and was fondly remembered by many a pupil as Mother Stan. In an interview in 2018 with well-known Irish golfer Mrs Catherine Carty of Tullamore, recalled: ‘I remember Mother Stan Egan when I attended school at Sion Hill, she was already elderly having retired in the late 1960’s. She was a revered Mother superior and educator’.
Mother Stan celebrated her golden jubilee in 1955, she was sister to Frank Egan snr. of Tullamore, a director of P. & H. Egan Ltd. She died on the 20th December 1971 in her 90th year and is buried along with her sister, Sister Mary Egan in the Dominican convent community cemetery, now part of the Blackrock Clinic property.
Mother Judith Egan, Sacred Heart Sisters, Roehampton, England (1886-1960).
Born Judith Mary Egan on the 9th February 1886, the seventh and second youngest daughter of Patrick and Elizabeth Egan of the merchant firm P. & H. Egan Limited Tullamore.
Judith was educated at the Convent of the Saint Union des Sacres Coeurs, (The Bower) Athlone and at the Convent of the Faithful Companion of Jesus, Upton Hall. Liverpool. She graduated B.A. languages at the pre-cursor of UCD, the Royal University on St Stephen’s Green. Later she studied at Trinity College, Rome.
She was professed Sister Judith on the 9th September 1918. She helped form the Legion of Mary in Hammersmith, Malta and Newcastle. She was a friend of Frank Duff and was assigned by the Roman Catholic Church to the position of envoy for the beatification of Pope Pius X, and with others was successful in this mission when Pius X was canonised in 1954. Another candidate for canonisation whom she would have known and would have engaged with, was her fellow Tullamore native, Alfie Lambe of the Legion of Mary, Latin America.
She taught at Mount Anville School, Dublin between 1920 and 1922
Blind in her last six years and suffering from asthma she died amongst her Hammersmith community members whilst on vacation at Hove in Sussex, England on the 9th August 1960.
She is buried at the Sacred Heart Convent (closed 1966) cemetery, now part of the grounds of the Cardinal Newman Catholic High School, Hove.
Mother Judith Egan was aged 74.
Other related religieuse:
Additionally, through marriage Clara brothers, the Rev. Henry (1822-1887) and Luke (1826-1907) Barton, parish priests at Oriston and Kilberry, Kells and Castletowngeoghegan, Westmeath respectively, whose sister was Eliza (Barton) Egan of Moate, mother to Sister Bridgit Egan of Kells.
Sister Enda (Angela) Fitzgerald of the Infant Jesus Sisters (Aunt to Brian Fitzgerald, Betty Egan and Bunny Fitgerald), spent her lifetime in Yokohama, Japan and educated the recently retired Empress of Japan, Michiko Shōda.
Uncle-in-law to Mother Stan, Mother Judith and Sister Mary and from Edenderry was the right Rev. Bishop John Rooney of the Cape Province, South Africa.
In conclusion, the Tullamore Egans were of very Old Stock:
With such a rich legacy of serving a religious life, the following story makes these related achievements even more remarkable.
During the Jacobite wars of the late 1600’s two Egan brothers were killed fighting on the Catholic King James II side, and were ensigns in Lord Galway’s infantry regiment.
One was killed at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and the other was killed the following year at the Battle of Aughrim in 1691.
In order to preserve the Egan family name their father withdrew his third and only living son from his priestly studies. From there a suitable alliance was formed from which the present members of the family descended!
1 Catholicism and Industrial Society in Ireland, Tony Fahy, St. Patrick’s College Maynooth. 1990.
2 Catholic Revival, Tony Fahy 1990: p. 249
3 http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/anthony-cogan/the-diocese-of-meath–ancient-and- modern-volume-2-ala/page-43-the-diocese-of-meath–ancient-and-modern-volume-2-ala.shtml
4 Sadlier’s Catholic Directory, 1880.
5 Thom’s Almanac, 1884, 1885.
6 Census of Ireland, 31st March 1901 and Wills 1874
7 A History of St. Columcille’s Church, Skryne. Louis Morris
8 National Archives of Ireland, Census of Ireland 191