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Kilbeggan

Kilbeggan (in Irish Cill Bheagáin) is the main town in the Barony of Moycashel in County Westmeath.  The name signifies: The Church of [St] Becann.

Kilbeggan, like Mullingar, is located on the River Brosna – here the river has been harnessed to power the water-wheel of the local distillery.  The town lies south of Lough Ennel and quite close to the Offaly border and the nearest villages being Rahugh, Ballinagore and Tyrellspass.  Kilbeggan is also on the line of the Esker Riada the great chain of eskers which were deposited across central Ireland after the last Ice-Age.

St Beccan, a sixth century saint, is said to have studied under St Finian at Clonard and it seems that he founded his monastery at Kilbeggan on a piece of high ground close to the river.  He was a contemporary of St Columcille who held him in high regard.  The original monastery probably fell into decline but in the 12th C it took on a new life when the McCoghlans founded a Cistercian monastery on the site. Monks from Mellifont came to settle here in 1150 and the monastery flourished until the Dissolution c1549.  In 1228 the abbey had been made subject to the Cistercian Abbey of Buildwas in Shropshire because of problems in Mellifont at that time.  After the Dissolution of the monasteries the lands at Kilbeggan were granted to the Lambart family.  The monastery was subsequently rebuilt and a bell tower was added and it served as the Church of Ireland for Kilbeggan – the ruins of this later church still stands in the town graveyard located off the main street.

Following the granting of lands to the Lambarts they became the dominant political family in the area.  Sir Oliver Lambart who had a distinguished military career against the Scots at Clandeboye, and later on the continent, accompanied Essex to Ireland when he came here as Lord Lieutenant in 1599.  Lambart took a firm stance against the rebels in Laois-Offaly in 1600 and afterwards obtained a grant for Kilbeggan which allowed a weekly market and an annual fair.  In 1612 James I granted a charter to Kilbeggan.  Sir Oliver, by then styled 1st Baron Lambart of Cavan died in 1618 and was succeeded by his son Charles who in 1620 procured a further grant for Kilbeggan allowing three fairs to be held each year.

Kilbeggan became an important market town as evidenced by the substantial Market House which still survives in the Square though it is no longer used for its original purpose. The market was saved in 2006 and is held in the Square each Saturday morning.

The town of Kilbeggan is synonymous with the production of whiskey.  The distillery which later became Locke’s in Kilbeggan was founded in 1757, most likely under the patronage of the Lambart family.  The distillery was capitalising on the barley crop which was grown extensively in the Midlands and the plentiful supply of fuel from the Midland bogs.  John Locke who had been involved in distilling in Tullamore in the late 1830s took over the Kilbeggan distillery in 1843.  In 1869-70 Locke’s whiskey sales amounted to 59,469 gallons of which almost 12,500 gallons was exported to England.  A member of the Locke family established the Convent of Mercy in the town in 1879. The story of Locke’s Distillery has been very well documented and recorded by Andrew Bielenberg.  In the 1980s the local Development Association restored the water-wheel and started the development of a museum.  In more recent times the arrival of Cooley Distillers and Beam Inc has seen the Kilbeggan Distillery Experience become a major tourist attraction offering great insights into the world of distilling in Ireland.

In the 18th C two of the most famous figures in Irish history were Members of Parliament for Kilbeggan at the same time.  John Philpot Curran (1750-1817), politician and lawyer, represented Kilbeggan from 1783-90 and later served as MP for a Cork constituency.  He defended many of the leaders of the United Irishmen including the Sheares Brothers and Hamilton Rowan.  Henry Flood (1732-91), patriot and politician, was returned for the second seat in Kilbeggan in October 1783 and served until his death in 1791 he was one of the most important members of Grattan’s Parliament.

During the disturbances in Ireland in 1798 unrest in Kilbeggan was sparked with the arrest and subsequent execution of John McManus the son of a local distiller.  On the day of the local fair in June 1798 when the town was being defended by about sixty troops of the Northumberland Militia a force of about 1,000 insurgents marched into Kilbeggan resulting in an obstinate engagement with the Militia.  The rebels were armed with only pikes or pitchforks and so were no match for the Militia who were armed with muskets – in the ensuing riot over 100 insurgents were killed.  The story of Kilbeggan in 1798 has been very well recorded by Kathleen Flynn and Stan McCormack.

Apart from its prime location on the main route from Dublin to Galway one of the most important infrastructural advances in the nineteenth century was the construction of a spur of the Grand Canal to Kilbeggan.  The eight-mile canal from Ballycommon to Kilbeggan was funded as part of the general scheme for poor relief in Ireland.  The contractor for the work was William Dargan.  The Kilbeggan canal was opened to traffic in 1836.  Like a number of other short canals in Ireland it was eventually closed in the early 1960s when a dam was built across the entrance and the canal bed was allowed to dry out.  The Grand Canal Committee has transformed this into a wonderful amenity with beautiful walkways developed along the site of the canal.

Kilbeggan is also associated with horse-racing – the first races were held there in 1840.  It is the only racecourse in Ireland where all the races are over jumps under the National Hunt Rules.  Since 1992 the number of meetings has increased from three to eight with about half the races sponsored. The Midlands National each July is the highlight of the season and is the biggest summer steeplechase outside the Galway Festival.  A day out at Kilbeggan Races offers fun for all the family.

Kilbeggan holds a Knighthood Festival on the June Bank Holiday weekend to commemorate the 18th C knighting of Kilbeggan inn-keeper, Thomas Cuffe, by the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

In recent years Kilbeggan has been very well served by a number of local historians including Kathleen (Kitty) Flynn; Stan McCormack and Vincent Abbott.  Two of Ireland’s best-loved illustrators and artists Liam C. Martin (1934-1998) and Eileen Coghlan (1909-1990) were natives of Kilbeggan.  Liam C. Martin was well known for his various illustrated books on Dublin published in the 1960s and 70s which chronicled the changing face of the city.  His works are much sought after.  Eileen Coghlan was an illustrator who worked extensively for The Talbot Press, Brown & Nolan’s, The Educational Company of Ireland and Folens – she designed several book covers and illustrated many school text books, she also illustrated a number of books including children’s books.  Original works by both artists are displayed in Kilbeggan Library.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Abbott, Vincent A Parish called Kilbeggan (Kilbeggan: the author, 1989)

Abbott, Vincent A Place called Rahugh (Kilbeggan: the author, 1986)

Bielenberg, Andrew Locke’s Distillery a history (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1993)

Delany, V.T.H. & Delany, D.R. The Canals of the South of Ireland (Devon: David & Charles, 1966)

Flynn, Kathleen & McCormack, Stan Westmeath 1798 a Kilbeggan rebellion (Kilbeggan: the authors, 1998)

McCormack, Stan Against the odds: Kilbeggan races 1840-1994 (Kilbeggan: the author, 1995)

McCormack, Stan Kilbeggan past & present (Kilbeggan: the author, c2006)

McCormack, Stan Kilbeggan 2000, Millennium book of photographs (Kilbeggan: the author, 1999).