Above: Sonny Egan.
‘I have a theory as to why Kerry won their thirty-six All-Ireland titles. It’s because of all the fecking lovely beaches down there. I was watching Paul Galvin out on Inch Beach on telly the other night. Running away, with not a house or a person in sight. It’s No Man’s Land! You could run along that beach all day and still not get to the end of it. That’s why the feckers win the All-Ireland. If Offaly had beaches, we’d win more All-Ireland’s. But we’ve no beaches!’
Sonny is something of a Gaelic football enthusiast. ‘I’m mad on football. It’s the only game.’ And for all his talk of beaches, he still rates Kerry’s Mick O’Connell as the greatest player of all time. ‘He had such style,’ marvels Sonny ‘He was a beautiful kicker, pinpoint accuracy. And he had a bit of madness too. When he was training he threw himself up in the air, as high as he could, and then he’d whop himself down on the ground, the full length, so he’d get used to falling. I would say he went to the very limits of endurance.’[i]
Sonny is an only child, as was his mother before him. Christened Mary Bridget Cantwell, she descended from Thomas de Kentewall, an Anglo-Norman crusader who served alongside the Butlers of Kilkenny during the 12th century. Known as Cantwell Fada or Long Cantwell, his tomb in Kilfane, County Kilkenny, is engraved with an image of a tall, slender knight in chain-mail brandishing a shield bedecked with the Cantwell coat of arms. ‘Long Cantwell?’ says Sonny, taking stock of his own height. ‘Well, I didn’t take after him so!’
The Cantwells fell from grace when they refused to conform to the Protestant faith in the 17th century. A branch subsequently established itself at Clara, County Offaly, from which sprang John Cantwell who, as Bishop of Meath, was one of the key figures in Irish Catholicism during the mid-19th century.
Mary Bridget’s family hailed from Kilcolgan More, close to the Offaly-Westmeath border. The road on which they lived was known as Cantwell Street because there was so many of them there. Mary’s father Tom Cantwell was in the rather formidable circumstance of being an only son with eleven sisters. ‘Thirteen in the one house and only two of them men’, declares Sonny in sympathetic awe.
In 1928, Mary Cantwell married John Egan who hailed from a 100-acre farm on the slopes of Endrim Hill, just north-west of Ferbane. Born in 1898, John was the son of another John Egan, born in 1866, and his wife Sarah (nee Leonard) from Killoughey parish near Kinitty.[ii] ‘Nearly all the marriages were arranged in my grandfathers time and maybe in my fathers time too,’ says Sonny. ‘Love didn’t play in those times. Love wouldn’t put bread on the table!’
Following Tom Cantwell’s death, John and Mary Egan moved to Kilcolgan and took over the farm where young Sonny grew up. He went to school in Ballyclare, west of Ferbane, a five-mile trek from Kilcolgan.
In 1962, he began working part-time for Bord na Móna, initially digging drains and tapping the bog at Boora, later ‘graduating’ to driving machines to mill and harvest the peat.[iii] ‘We were delighted when the machines came,’ he says. ‘It took all the hardship out of it. Before that we had to work so hard to get the work done manually. And then there were machines to cut the hay and harvest the corn and cut the turf. That was brilliant in my opinion.’
Sonny remained with Bord na Móna until 1964 and speaks fondly of his time on the bogs. [iv] ‘The crew I was working with were brilliant, all auld country lads from different parishes in an area about twenty miles round. Most of them had small farms so the fellows that didn’t have farms would be ribbing the ones that did. The crack was ninety at the tea breaks.’
‘We were all so fit then’, he says reflectively. ‘God we were flying. We could go out through stone walls.’ Sonny kept himself in robust shape by playing his beloved football as often as he could.[v] He played on the Ferbane minor team when they defeated Clara to win the county championships in 1949. He was also on the junior team that won the 1952 championships, beating Doon, and the intermediate team that won both the 1957 and 1959 county championships, beating Kilcormac and Gracefield respectively.
After he left Bord na Móna, Sonny teamed up with his neighbouring farmer Mick Moore. ‘We’d often do a week’s work together, manual labour, making hay and things. One of us would have the hay rake with the horse yoked up to it. The other fellow would have the two-pronged fork and he’d be making the cox of hay out of it. Trams of hay, that’s what we called the round bundles.’
Sometimes Mick and Sonny joined forces with other small farmers to help draw in the corn or hay. ‘There might be ten or twelve men making the ricks and then there’d be twenty men at the thrashing after that. The crack was mighty. There’d be porter going, spilling and everything, the middle of the day. It was fierce dirty thirsty work so maybe you’d get a bottle on the hour.’
‘You had to be careful though because the belts on the tractor that were powering the threshing mill were deadly dangerous. You wouldn’t be long getting gobbled up. It was a fierce machine, with rotating teeth. An awesome looking thing, worse than a lion’s mouth to look into. If you put in your hand, you were gone.’
Away from the sports field, the cornfields and the peat bogs, Sonny liked to party. ‘We worked hard and we played hard,’ he says. ‘I ate and drank and I done everything under the sun. I lived life to the full, yes. And sometimes it nearly flowed over.’
Sonny was one of the first in the parish to own a car, a Hillman Minx. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he and his pals would drive down to Dublin City in pursuit of ‘the women and the beer and all the new films.’ ‘Ah, we had a great life’, he says. ‘For four years solid there was hardly a Sunday when we didn’t drive to Dublin. We saw films like ‘The Sound of Music’ three months before anyone up here saw them. We were way ahead of the posse, that was the Gospel truth!’ Lengthy refreshments tended to follow the movie, and ‘we’d drive home and distribute the passengers at about seven or eight in the morning.’
Sonny took over the farm upon his fathers’ death in 1970. However, he quickly decided farming was not for him. ‘I could see no future in it so I pulled out.’ As a youngster, he had once spent a Sunday chauffeuring his neighbours around in the Hillman - to Mass, to relations, to a match in Portlaoise. At the end of the day he had made £26 which compared favourably to the £6 a week he was paid at Bord na Móna. Nonetheless, he stuck to the day job.
In the mid-1970s, Sonny reinvented himself as a hackney driver. By then he’d traded in the Hillman for a Morris Minor. ‘It was a scream’, he says of his hackney years. ‘You’d be meeting all kinds of characters and hearing all kinds of stories, good and bad. I once drove a man to Cork City. You couldn’t go any further unless you had wings.’[vi] There were scary nights, like the time he had to take a minibus full of brandy-swilling ruffians from Kilbeggan to Mullingar. ‘They were the biggest desperadoes you ever could come across, punching women and everything’. But he has happy memories too, such as his frequent encounters with an old cattle drover called John Joe Gannon, ‘the nicest old man you could meet.’ John Joe told Sonny that he averaged fifty or sixty miles a day, every day of the week. ‘And he was so fit that he was still gliding when he was ninety. Flying it! Lord I used to envy him!’
In 1970 Sonny went to a dance in Mullingar and met Agnes Olwill, a nurse from Seeharan, near Virginia, Co. Cavan. The couple were married in Cross, Mullagh, County Cavan. They settled in Breehoge, just north of the Cantwell farm of Kilcolgan, where they raised four children. The view from their kitchen window affords an unbroken stretch over a series of nine-acre fields to the Slieve Bloom mountains.
Sonny still likes to entertain himself, although he admits he doesn’t sing quite as often as he used to. ‘I’d sing forty years ago alright. I’d have to have forty pints before I started and well, then you couldn’t stop me.’ He had enjoyed a lively session shortly before our encounter and estimated that it would be ‘another month’ before he was fully recovered.
With thanks to Annette Egan.
[i] He is amazed that Mick O’Connell’s son is married to Mary McAleese’s daughter. ‘I couldn’t believe it’, he says over and over. ‘I’d say that was a great feather in her cap.’ He greatly admires Mick’s silence and recalls how O’Connell would head home straight after a match even when he’d won the All Ireland or the Railway Cup.
[iii] He was milling and harvesting the peat.
[iv] The company gave him such an insight into the way the turf industry operates that Sonny has enough turf in a shed beside his house to keep his family warm for several years.
[v] The first time he wore a senior’s jersey, he was marking Dan Edwards the blacksmith from Clonmacnoise.
[vi] ‘I had one of the first cars in the parish that time and Mikey Moore is nearly next! The two of us had cars going around. We were working hard and we had a few bob. T’was no sweat. I was driving a Morris Minor. The first car I ever got was a Hillman Minx. I bought it for £100, maybe 1958. The insurance on it was £9. I drove the daylights out of it for two years and I traded it in and got £200 for it. I was working in Bord na Mona that time when the standard wage was £6 a week. One Sunday, I counted up I drove to mass, to neighbours to a match in Portlaoise and somewhere else and he earned £26 that same day … into my pocket! Unofficial taxiing. Isn’t that some contrast. Years after when I retired from ESB I started taxi out of boredom and to get a few bob.’