A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about Dublin in the 1780s. While the whole idea of a suburb called ‘Hell’ was what got me writing, references to characters long since gone, such as “Bully” Egan and Yelverton, got me thinking: ‘What do we know about these guys? Can we bring them guys back to life, at least in some sense?’ But then I thought, hmmm, that’s a bit tangential – where would that lead me next? And then, I though – that’s right… where would it lead me next? Twenty iterations later, it would be quite a journey from start to finish.
So, welcome to “Breadcrumb History” – I’m hoping this will be an ongoing ramble, from Dublin’s 1780s Hell last time round, through today’s subject, the bauld “Bully” Egan himself, on to something else next time – more on that later! But first off, who was this legend, “Bully” Egan and what did he do to write himself into the history books?
It turns out that there are a few little scraps that can help us bring Mr. Egan back to life – there’s even a portrait, which for licensing reasons I won’t embed here, but to what he looked like, just click here.
John “Bully” Egan was born in 1754, in Charleville, county Cork, the eldest son of Carbery Egan, a member of the “ancient and numerous” Egan family, originally from county Tipperary. His father Carbery was also born in Cork, in 1720, and at the age of 20 entered Trinity College, Dublin, graduating twice, in 1743 and again with a Masters in 1747. In 1748, Carbery was ordained deacon in the Church of Ireland at Cloyne and served in the parish of Charleville until 1770 (he died a year later).
Like his father, John Egan went to Trinity College, Dublin, before going on to study law in London, returning back to Dublin to marry “a widow lady of some fortune”. Described frequently as a ‘corpulent’ man, he was admitted to the Irish Bar in 1788, and in 1789 entered Irish Parliament, as a member for Ballinakill, Queen’s County (Laois). From 1790 until 1800 and the Act of Union, sat for Tullagh, an area near Baltimore, County Cork (more on the Act of Union, which changed his fortuntes forever, later).
So far, so dry. We still have to get to why he would be remembered fondly as “Bully” Egan. To answer that, there are two more parts to the story – one on why he was remembered as a character, and the other explaining why he was called “Bully”. On the latter, from 1790 to 1800, he was Chairman of Kilmainham, in Dublin – i.e. he was County Court Judge. As part of the deal – jobs such as that being quite the prize back in the day – he owned some of the land out in Kilmainham. His nephew, Pierce Egan, probably the most renowned boxing correspondent in early nineteenth Century England, while in Dublin many years later, visited the grave of ‘Sir’ Dan Donnelly, the famous Irish boxer, at Bully’s Acre, near Kilmainham. In his work, Every Gentleman’s Manual (1845), Pierce states that ‘Bully’s Acre’ gave its name to his uncle John, its erstwhile owner. (Incidentally, Bully’s Acre seems to be quite a common term for older burial grounds in Ireland.)
That explains the Bully part, I guess. What about the implication that he was a bit of a character? Well, true to form, he did have an adventurous side, being a noted duellist (presumably being called “Bully” Egan, no matter how innocent a reason, helped strike fear into his combatant!). John Reid’s 1971 biography of Pierce Egan contains this interesting passage of the antics that Bully Egan got himself involved in:
He appears to have been celebrated less for his own wit than for being, like Falstaff, the occasion of wit in others. It is recorded that he once challenged his intimate friend, Curran, but when the time for the duel came round, Egan complained of the advantage his bulk gave to his adversary. ‘I’ll tell you what, Mr Egan’, said Curran. ‘I wish to take no advantage of you whatsoever. Let my size be chalked out on your side and I am quite content that every shot which hits outside that mark shall go for nothing.’ ‘Bully’ Egan’s retort, if any, has not come down to us, but the duel was fought without injury on either side.
Pierce Egan wrote that ‘in a law contest with that great wit and eloquent pleader, the Master of the Rolls, Mr Grattan, observed “if that latter did not leave off his abuse he would put him in his pocket”, an allusion to his being a small man. “If you do so,” replied Grattan, “you will have more law in your pocket than you ever had in your head”.’
Yep, that’s presumably the same Curran that was mentioned in the article on Hell. (Incidentally, the third name in that article – Yelverton – seems to refer to a lawyer and an MP from more or less the same time, according to one of his descendants still in the legal business.)
In the final debate in the Irish Parliament on the Act of Union, Bully Egan is said to have delivered a strong speech against the motion and is said to have exclaimed, after sitting down upon finishing his speech: “Ireland – Ireland for ever! and damn Kilmainham!” With the Act passing, his vote against Union saw him deprived of his ‘chairmanship’. John “Bully” Egan died in poverty in Scotland in 1810.
Fortunately, though, the Bully Egan story does not end there. James, one of his sons, went to Germany in the early 1800s and became a page at the Court of Zweibruecken, in that interesting period after the French Revolutionary expansion into German lands but before German unification later in the century. James later moved to Austria and had four sons. His eldest, also called James, became a professor at the University of Budapest. Another son, Alfred, became Chief Engineer to the Hungarian State Railways and acquired large land-holdings in Hungary. Alfred’s eldest son, Edward, that is Bully Egan’s great-grandson, was Inspector-General of Dairy Farming for the Hungarian Government, while Lewis, another great-grandson, was Chief Engineer to the Maritime Government of Fiume, better known to us now as Rijeka, in Croatia, a town I’ve passed through twice on my railway travels.
So, that was certainly some tangent, and it’s definitely presented a whole host of new tangents to look up… I’m happy to take suggestions for the next instalment of breadcrumb history – if my Polldaddy extension works, you should be able to vote on your choice below!
EDIT: I’m not sure why, but the poll doesn’t seem to be showing… Will try and fix. In the meantime, you can vote by clicking this link straight through to Polldaddy.