Breadcrumb history gets underway: So, who was “Bully” Egan?

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.

Dublin in the 1780s: It’s Hell, Jim, but not as we know it

Recently, as I trawled through Google Books archive looking for various tidbits that would service my twin Irish historical interests – economic history and genealogy – I stumbled across an edition of the Quarterly Review from 1852 which contained a fascinating lengthy article, essentially a proto-Lonely Planet for Dublin. I’m still going through it – there are an amazing amount of anecdotes about daily life in Dublin, as well as guides to all the sites of prominent buildings, still standing now, standing then but gone by now and those which had even gone by then.

Early in the article, there was a fascinating diversion in a footnote, containing a discussion of an area of Dublin long since gone – Hell. My first thought was that this must have been one of the slums of Dublin, possibly the most notorious. It turns out, however, that it’s just another example of Dublin wit. The area itself was quite posh – rooms in Hell for lawyers working in the nearby old Four Courts were advertised in local papers. Dubliners just liked the idea of having an area right beside the main Cathedral, Christ Church, called Hell. It even had a statue of the devil! To better follow the story, you might cross-reference against this map of Hell, Dublin, circa 2008, courtesy of Google Maps.

Dublin's Hell Region, circa 2008


I’m hoping to dig out a series of little interesting anecdotes about Dublin from this excellent trove – I’ve spotted a list of pubs and gentlemen’s clubs later in the piece, so that might be up next! Here’s the footnote in full, though. The bulk of it is a direct quotation from about 1830, the reminiscences of an old man, presumably thinking back to his youth in the 1780s or so – enjoy!

The “London Tavern” appears to have been destroyed by a fire which broke out in 1729, in the “London Entry” between Castle-street and Fishamble-street, the greater part of the houses in these two streets, as well as in Copper-alley, close to the back of the “London Entry”, being then built of timber or “cage-work”.

The iron gate of the passage through which the judges entered the old Four Courts of Dublin, stood about ten yards from the present west corner of Fishamble street, in Skinner’s-row, now called Christ Church-place. The widening of the upper part of the west side of Fishamble-street and the adjacent alterations, totally obliterated this passage, which was known as “Hell”. The following description of it appeared in a Dublin periodical twenty years ago:-

“I remember, instead of turning to the right down Parliament-street, going, in my youth, straightforward under the Exchange and up Cork-hill, to the old Four Courts, adjoining Christ Church cathedral. I remember what an immense crowd of cars, carriages, noddies, and sedan chairs beset our way as we struggled on between Latouche’s and Gleadowe’s Banks in Castle-street – what a labour it was to urge on our way through Skinner-row – I remember looking up to the old cage-work wooden house that stood at the corner of Castle-street and Werburgh-street, and wondering why, as it overhung so much, it did not fall down – and then turning down Fishamble-street, and approaching the Four Courts, that then existed, through what properly was denominated Christ Church Yard, but which popularly was called Hell.

This was certainly a very profane and unseemly soubriquet, to give to a place that adjoined a Cathedral whose name was Christ Church; and my young mind, when I first entered there, was struck with its unseemliness. Yes; and more especially, when over the arched entrance there was pointed out to me the very image of the devil, carved in oak, and not unlike one of those hideous black figures that are still in Thomas-street, hung over Tobacconists’ doors. This locale of Hell, and this representation of his satanic majesty, were famous in those days even beyond the walls of Dublin. I remember well, on returning to my native town after my first visit to Dublin, being asked by all my playfellows, had I been in Hell, and had I seen the devil. Its fame even reached Scotland, and Burns the Poet, in his story of ‘Death and Doctor Hornbook’, alludes to it when he says –

‘But this that I am gean to tell, / Which lately on a night befell / Is just as true as the dell’s in hell, / Or Dublin city.’

As Hell has not now any local habitation in our city, neither has the devil – but I can assure you, reader, that there are relics preserved of this very statue to this day; some of it was made into much esteemed snuff-boxes – and I am told there is one antiquarian in our city, who possesses the head and horns, and who prizes the relic as the most valuable in his museum. At any rate, Hell to me, in those days, was a most attractive place, and often did I go hither, for the yard was full of shops where toys, and fireworks, and kites, and all the playthings that engage the youthful fancy, were exposed for sale. But Hell was not only attractive to little boys, but also to bearded men: for here were comfortable lodgings for single men, and I remember reading in a journal of the day, an advertisement, intimating that there were ‘To be let, furnished apartments in Hell. N.B. They are well suited to a lawyer.’

Here were also sundry taverns and snuggeries, where the counsellor would cosher with the attorney – where the prebendary and the canon of the cathedral could meet and make merry – here the old stagers, the seniors of the Currans, the Yelvertons, and the Bully Egans, would enjoy the concomitants of good fellowship – there Prime Sergeant Malone, dark Phil Tisdall, and prior still to them, the noted Sir Toby Butler, cracked their jokes and their marrow bones, toasted away claret and tossed repartee, until they died, as other men die and are forgotten.”