ByRoute 13.1 Co. Meath // Co. Offaly
Kilbeggan Racecourse, Ireland’s only all-National Hunt (steeplechase) course, traces its origins to 1840 and has hosted races at its present location in Loughnagore since 1901. Stories range from the horse that drowned during a race; the telegram from the House of Commons that saved the races in 1917; and the victory of Prince Aly Khan on the unpronounceable Ynys in 1953. The course holds six one-day / evening meetings a year; the Midlands National Race Day at Kilbeggan has become established as the social event of the year in the midlands.
Kilbeggan (Co. Westmeath / South)
Kilbeggan (Cill Bheagáin – “The church of Bécán / Pecan”) (pop. 1000), an agricultural service hub that has increasingly become a dormitory community for DUBLIN commuters, is situated on the River Brosna amidst the gently rolling hills known of the Esker Riada, ridges left across the midlands by retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age.
The toponym derives from a monastic settlement founded c.600 AD by Saint Bécán / Pecan, one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.
A battle was fought between the Danes and the Irish in 972 AD at a ford on the River Brosna near the present bridge at Kilbeggan; the crossing was long called Aghnaccanor (“Ford of Heads”) due to the numbers of the slain that floated down the river.
Having fallen into disuse, the ancient monastery was refounded c.1150 by a member of the MacCoghlan family, taken over by Cistercian monks from Mellifont Abbey, and rebuilt c.1200 by the Dalton family.
It is recorded that the great Clonmacnois priest, O’Catharnaigh, died here in 1196; Melaghlin MacCoghlan, prince of Devlin, died in pilgrimage to the abbey in 1213; and Hugh O’Malone, Bishop of Clonmacnois, was buried here in 1236.
Killbeggan Abbey monks were involved in the 1217 riot at Jerpoint Abbey, part of the Conspiracy of Mellifont (1216 – 1228), as a result of which the abbot was punished and the monastery was made subject to Buildwas Abbey in Shropshire. Kilbeggan Abbey was one of the poorest religious houses in Ireland upon King Henry VIII’s 1539 Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The property was granted to the Lambart family. They rebuilt and enlarged the abbey church as an Anglican place of worship and in 1818 added a tower, the ruin of which is all that survives, surrounded by the town’s burial ground. The site was deconsecrated in 1962.
Sir Oliver Lambart was granted a licence for a weekly market and an annual fair at Kilbeggan in 1606, and the town was made a borough in 1619 by a charter of King James I. The following year Charles Lambart procured a grant of two additional fairs. Kilbeggan’s became an important market hub for the surrounding agricultural hinterland.
The Lambart dynasties
Sir Oliver Lambart, knighted for his role in the 1596 looting of Cadiz during the Anglo-Spanish Wars, played a prominent role in the Nine Years War and was made Governor of Connaught in 1601, High Sherriff of Cavan in 1613, and Baron Lambart of Cavan shortly before his death in 1618. He is buried in London’s Westminster Abbey.
His son Charles Lambart helped to suppress the 1641 Rebellion, served as Governor of Dublin and was created Viscount Kilcoursie and Earl of Cavan on 1st April 1647.
The 1st Earl’s eldest son Richard, MP for Kilbeggan from 1647 to 1649, was declared insane in 1670, but inherited the Earldom in 1690. (The titles have since been held by several interesting descendants in military, political and religious careers, and are still extant).
The post of MP for Kilbeggan was held by Richard’s brother Oliver Lambart and four descendants until its abolition under the Act of Union 1800, for which a solatium of 15,000 pounds was paid to Gustavus Lambart, whose son Gustavus William served as State Steward to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and fathered the first of two holders of the Lambart Baronetcy, created in 1911 and extinct as of 1986.
The 1798 Rebellion saw a regiment of Northumberland militia under Col. Blake defeat a party of insurgents under John McManus, who was executed in Mullingar. The incident is recalled in A Westmeath Rebellion … Kilbeggan in 1798, written and published in 1998 by Kathleeen Flynn and Stan McCormack, an extract from which can be read here.
The Brosna / Brusna Distillery, established on the banks of the River Brosna in 1757, is believed to be the oldest licensed distillery in the world. (Photo – www.irishwhiskeysociety.com)
Towards the end of the C18th it was owned by Mathias McManus, father of the local 1798 Rebellion leader John McManus.
The distillery was taken over in 1843 by the first John Locke and remained in the same family for three generations. The Lockes were considered good employers, and helped establish the local Convent of Mercy in 1879. Many of the houses in the town are distillery houses which the workers rented or gradually bought out.
The company was reorganised from the 1870s by John Edward Locke and James Harvey Locke, who totally modernised production while proudly using pot distillation methods tested by time. When they died the distillery was inherited by John Locke’s two daughters Florence Eccles and Mary Hope Johnston, nicknamed “Flo” and “Sweet”, as directors and main shareholders.
High taxes and economic depression reduced the demand for whiskey in Ireland during the 1920s and 30s, while the American market was also closed during the Prohibition era (1920 – 1933), when illegal whiskey of poor quality sold by Bootleggers under the Locke’s label gave the brand a bad name in the USA. The number of distilleries in Ireland decreased from 26 in 1924 to only 5 in 1937.
The business was almost sold in 1947 to a government-approved outfit called Trans-World Trust, set up by flamboyant Swiss / Austrian businessmen Georges Endiguer and Hubert Saschell. At the last minute they were discovered to be on the run from various police forces, and had evidently intended to asset-strip the distillery of its valuable bonded whiskey stocks. They fled the country, while their supposedly British secretary / translator, “Horace Smith”, exposed as a Russian national called Alexander Maximoe, was deported to the UK to face passport charges, but jumped off the Dun Laoghaire – Holyhead Mailboat in the middle of the Irish Sea, and presumably drowned.
Locke’s distillery ceased production in 1954 and closed in 1957. In the whole of Ireland, only the Midleton Distillery in County Cork and Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, both owned by the Irish Distillers Group, remained in production until the mid-1980s, when the Cooley Distillery opened in County Louth.
Restoration of the surviving distillery buildings began in 1982, when the Museum opened as a visitor attraction under the supervision of local townsfolk. Some of the old warehouses are used to store whiskey produced at Cooley’s Distillery. Distillation has recently recommenced at the Kilbeggan complex.
The Market House, a substantial limestone edifice erected c.1818 by Gustavus Lambart, who also intended it as a Court House, was used for the latter purpose and as a Fire Station over the years; restored and extended in 2005, it now contains a library, exhibition space and County Council offices.
A branch of the Royal Canal was opened in 1835 to serve the town. The canal basin, closed in the 1960s, is now dry, but the harbour buildings have been repaired and are now in use as offices etc. An ambitious local project aims to restore the entire branch line.
St James church (RC), originally erected in the ealy C19th, ha s recently been replaced by a new structure.
A local horse who won the 1916 Irish Grand National had to walk home because of the Easter Rising.
On 12th June 1921, during the War of Independence, a number of policemen on their way to church in Kilbeggan were attacked by IRA activists, and H/Constable James McElhill was killed.
The Convent of Mercy, designed in a subdued Tudor – Gothic style by the prolific WH Byrne and completed in 1898, now houses the co-educational Mercy School.
Kilbeggan is near Durrow, north of Tullamore (Co. Offaly).
Ros Dealla / Rosdalla / Rostalla, near Kilbeggan, was the location of the first recorded tornado in Europe (and possibly the world), on 30th April 1034. Part 16 of the Annals of the Four Masters contains the following account (p. 867): “A steeple of fire was seen in the air over Ros-Deala, on the Sunday of the festival of George, for the space of five hours; innumerable black birds passing into and out of it, and one large bird in the middle of them; and the little birds went under his wings, when they went into the steeple. They came out, and raised up a greyhound, that was in the middle of the town, aloft in the air, and let it drop down again, so that it died immediately; and they took up three cloaks and two shirts, and let them drop down in the same manner. The wood on which these birds perched fell under them; and the oak tree upon which they perched shook with its roots in the earth.”