Who were the Egans and where did they come from? What national and international impact did they have on nineteenth century Irish political reform? How did they become successful lawyers and businesspeople? For many years, my cousin David and I would pose and tease out these and many other unanswered questions. Too often the anecdotal and evidential answers were vague at best and often hearsay or random recollections from family members. We both eventually concluded that there was enough intrigue to pique our interest into doing proper research on the period of social history of the 1800s and early 1900s. We discovered a treasure trove of fascinating stories which we felt warranted publishing.
Why write this book now, one may ask? The surviving older Egan generation have fond memories of the days past and several of them learned the business of business and held their first jobs in the family firm. Many local people also retain fond memories of the firm and the employment offered to themselves and their antecedents. These past five years have launched us towards trawling the local, national, and international historical archives, the growing on-line family and probate databases, libraries, churches and cemeteries from Ireland and England to South Africa and from New Zealand to Argentina. What we were able to unearth was substantial and provided the factual background to the fascinating social histories we have been able to share with you today. As amateur historians with a keen interest in research, David chose the period of the late 1700s through to 1850, whilst I was particularly interested in the period 1875 to 1925. It made for a great and concomitant partnership. Based on different continents, our homes some 10,000 kms apart, did not deter our enthusiasm. The reader will encounter two different styles of writing for the periods mentioned above, which we believe complement one another.
So, what did we learn? The Egan’s were not from Tullamore as we originally thought but were from Westmeath and specifically hailed from the townlands east of and around the town of Moate. They were well educated, politically astute, had varied interests in land, law, libertarian politics and business. They were Irish nationalists and advocates of Home Rule. They were well connected and were adherents and significant donors to their Catholic religion.
Ireland in the 1800s was notably defined by the British government passing the repressive Act of Union of 1800. It was primarily driven by the failed Irish rebellion of 1798 and the brutality and bloodshed carried out in its aftermath. Catholic emancipation was being striven for and became a clarion call for the likes of Daniel O’Connell and his political Catholic Association. Patrick Egan senior of Moate and a fellow alumnus of The King’s Inn, Dublin, befriended O’Connell, and they formed a potent partnership debating and agitating for Home Rule in Ireland. Much new information has been uncovered in an under researched period of Ireland in the first three decades of the nineteenth century.
Our research into the impact of the Great Famine (1847) brought into sharp relief the duality of Irish society from the starving poor, landless peasants to those that were well off. The post famine years saw much political reform and freeing up of draconian laws to enable the fostering of new business and much needed employment. Repressive Coercion Acts were liberally used to quell the agitation for land and prison reform. The sons of Patrick senior were particularly active in the 1880s. Henry Egan served jail time in 1881 in his quest for prison reform and recognition of the tenets of the Irish Land League and support for his lifelong friend Charles Stewart Parnell. The late 1800s to early 1900s saw the Egan business enterprises flourish. Notably, their general provision dealerships, malting, bonded whiskey, and brewing businesses experienced tremendous profitable growth. Significant import and export trade were conducted. Much international investment occurred during this prosperous period for their firm P. & H. Egan Limited. These diverse investments were cashed in to tide the business over two World Wars, the 1916 Rising, Prohibition, the Irish War of Independence, and Irish Civil War. In fact, the business headquartered on Bridge Street, Tullamore provided much needed employment for over one hundred and sixteen years when it went into voluntary liquidation in 1968.
The family’s contribution to the upliftment of local communities, the provision of piped potable water and gas, the arrival of electricity and first building of social housing, was pioneering. Their deliberations left an enduring positive impact wherever they conducted interactions throughout the Midlands of Ireland.
Who might find the social histories of interest? It is our wish that local families can find interest and remember how their family members helped forge lasting change in the evolving independence and ultimate establishment of the Irish Republic. Historians too will be intrigued with the new research and how the stories connect to those already written about Irish statesmen. Researchers themselves can tap into the social context of the day and how influential families and personalities stood against repression and agitated for reform and universal franchise. Makers of documentaries may conclude there is enough material here for them to close out long fingered projects of this era. The extended Egan family left footprints over many parts of the world. There was a Victoria Cross awarded at the battle of Rorkes Drift, South Africa. In New Zealand, the Egan brothers, with their pioneering farming helped set up the pip fruit farming sector, which later led to the establishment of the wineries. The missionary zeal of Bishop John Rooney and his immense list of achievements in South Africa’s Cape Province, was legion. The insightful business opportunism realised when supplying Egan’s Irish ales to Scotland and northern England was game changing.
Fig 4. Egan’s Whiskey, an illuminated metal plaque promoting the once popular Egan’s Number 8 Irish whiskey
Fig 5. Egan’s Centenary whiskey launched in May 2019
The pain and suffering brought upon branches of the family as sides were chosen during World War 1 and the subsequent dreadful ten-month, Irish Civil War, was poignant. Furthermore, during 1919, the very public family split (over money) was no doubt particularly painful for its time.
Writing this book required choiceful decisions around where to start and where to finish. We chose a period from around the late 1700s through to the late 1960s. An incomplete picture for sure, but a highly illuminated and fascinating history that we hope will help to fill in the dots of an extraordinary family’s endeavours during a critical period of change in the Irish historical landscape. We hope you enjoy reading these enduring stories as much as we enjoyed researching the veracity of them.
The book is published by Esker Press and co-authored by Maurice and David Egan. Available in hardback including never seen before exhibits, many of them in colour, it is a must for those with a national and international interest in social history and social justice. This is an excellent read and retails at €24.99, available in Offaly History’s Tullamore book shop and online.
About the authors:
Both Maurice and David Egan were born in Tullamore and attended the Christian Brothers School.
Maurice Egan is a retired beverage industry executive. He is chairman of P. & H. Egan (Tullamore) Limited, the brand owner of Egan’s Irish whiskey. He resides in Johannesburg and has a keen interest in social history from 1875 to 1925.
David Egan lives in Athlone and is retired after a long career working as a disability advocate. He is a former director of Córas Iompair Éireann and Dublin Bus. He has a keen interest in local history.