120 years of Whelehans Pharmacy – 5 generations of service
As you’re out and about in town this festive season, busy with the Christmas shopping, catching up with friends or taking some time out for yourself with a coffee and a mince pie, it may not occur to you to ponder the history of the many long-established Mullingar businesses that are in and around town.
This December, one business, Whelehans Pharmacy in Pearse Street Mullingar celebrates its 120th birthday. Established in 1898, Whelehans Pharmacy has had the proud distinction of serving the community of Mullingar and surrounding areas without interruption from their premises at 38 Pearse St for almost five generations.
I’m sure you would agree that 120 years of continued service, especially through the ups and down of business over such a long-time span, is a significant milestone. If you’re from Mullingar, look at your own family tree, it’s quite likely that your great grandparents used Whelehans then just as many of you do today.
In this article, we look at the history of Whelehans from its inception right up to the present day.
The original Whelehan
Back in the early 19th century, the Whelehan name was already familiar business name in Mullingar, not as a pharmacy however. John Whelehan opened a public house, Whelehans Spirit and Wine merchants, in Mount St (the current Karlamber Hair Studio). The pharmacy connection comes through John’s grandson, Thomas Patrick Whelehan (TP) who opened Whelehans Pharmacy on Earl Street (now Pearse Street) in 1898.
Prior to opening his own pharmacy, TP Whelehan trained initially for six years with his cousin, Dr Larry Kerigan, who ran a chemist shop on Greville Street (now O’Brien’s Pharmacy in Oliver Plunkett St). Following his time with Dr Kerigan, he left to garner further experience in posts with other chemists throughout Leinster, which included Jackmans of Thurles, Michie’s Medical Hall in Blackrock, Dublin and Murtagh’s Medical Hall in Drogheda amongst others.
Whelehans Pharmacy Opens
With a wealth of experience under his belt, TP returned to his home town of Mullingar keen to now have his own business and so, in December 1898 he took the lease of premises, which had formerly been a saddlery, on Earl St (now Pearse St). Following a refit, he opened Whelehans Pharmacy, which still trades under the same name and at the same location today. The rent then for twelve months was £50 which would be around €7500 in today’s money. A copy of the original hand-written lease from 1898 is still currently on display at the pharmacy. Interestingly, Queen Victoria, was queen of Britain and Ireland at the time and the Queen Victoria duty stamps can be seen on the lease.
When it opened, Whelehans was the fourth pharmacy in Mullingar. The other three pharmacies were Kerrigans, Englishs, where Danny Byrne’s pub is now and Garrys which later became Winkworths on Oliver Plunkett St. There is a connection here as TP was related to the 3 other Mullingar pharmacists at the time, so you could say pharmacy was in his blood. TP Whelehan continued to run and grow his business and reputation until his death in 1931.
Traditional Tonics and Mixtures
After TP’s death, the pharmacy was taken over by his son Kevin. Like many chemists in Ireland at the time and perhaps taking an entrepreneurial lead from his father, Kevin made many of his own Whelehans branded mixtures and tonics in store. These proved to be extremely popular with people coming from throughout Westmeath and beyond to purchase Whelehans’ own remedies.
Building on this, Kevin developed a very good working relationship with Dr P.J. Keelan who had a surgery on Bishops Gate St. Dr Keelan made his own hand and hair lotion called “PK Hand Lotion” and “PK Hair Lotion” with Kevin obtaining exclusive supply of these through the pharmacy. These lotions were considered essential by generations of Mullingar families right up to the 1960s. Making Whelehans “own brand” mixtures is a tradition still carried on at the pharmacy today, with “Special cough mixture” and “Whelehans Tonic” being especially sought after to this day.
Whelehans of Finglas
Not one to rest on his laurels, Kevin also set up one of Ireland biggest pharmaceutical company’s, Whelehans of Finglas, who are still trading today. Whilst the company itself was sold in 2010, the name and original guiding principles are still at the core of the business. Many readers will perhaps recognise the Whelehan’s name due to their sponsorship of the “Whelehans programme” with Peter Murphy in the morning’s on RTE Radio which ran until the 1980’s. This 15-minute programme dealt mainly with Farming issues and distinctively started off with a cock crowing.
Whelehans Pharmacy, with its emphasis on community, service and innovation, became a popular place for young pharmacists to learn their trade. Amongst those to serve their time in Whelehans before going on to open their own pharmacies in town were Joe Weir who went on to open Weirs Pharmacy, itself having recently celebrated 60 years in business. and Annie Farry, who had a pharmacy where Just Books trades today on Pearse St.
Some of our more senior readers will perhaps remember Jack Gaye from Barrack St. in Mullingar. Jack would be regularly seen on the streets of Mullingar on the Whelehans bicycle doing the pharmacy deliveries. As the business grew, Whelehans supplied many small shops throughout north Westmeath, the bike was upgraded to a van, which Jack drove all over, delivering products such as epsom salts, bread soda, sulphur, and washing soda. Again, maintaining the tradition, todays’ Whelehans operate several vans offering free delivery of patients’ medication throughout Westmeath and beyond.
With his strong work ethic, Kevin turned Whelehans into one of the top chemists in Ireland. Always looking for a competitive edge, Whelehans obtained sole agency for Rexall in Mullingar, this was a big advantage at the time, as Rexall was a global company that supplied practically all the patent medicine’s and cosmetic’s that a pharmacy would need.
Recognition from his peers came for Kevin when he became the President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland (PSI) from 1945 to 1947. The most notable and lasting mark of his tenure as president was the purchase (for £5000) and acquisition of a building on Shrewsbury Road in Dublin which became the home of the PSI for many years.
Kevin’s other interests
Despite his many business interests, Kevin was a key figure in both social and sporting life at Mullingar. He was a Captain of Mullingar Golf Club. During his time as captain, Kevin donated the Mullingar Scratch Cup. One of the most prestigious amateur tournaments in the country, the Scratch Cup winners read like a who’s who of World Golf having been won by the likes of Lowry, Harrington, McGinley, Clarke and McIlroy. Whelehans sponsored the tournament, held every August Bank Holiday weekend, from its inception until Kevin’s death in November 1970. In his time, he also served as President of Mullingar Rugby Club and President of Mullingar Chamber of Commerce.
Kevin had also been on the organising committee for the opening of Cusack Park in Mullingar in 1934. The official opening of the park had the distinctive ‘throw in’ for the inaugural match, the ball was dropped in by an aeroplane which flew over the park.
Kevin’s brother TP Junior, better known as Todge or Claud, owned a bar called ‘The Oval Bar’ where Lloyds Pharmacy is now on Pearse St. The bar was named ‘The Oval Bar’ due to his love of cricket. He was also one of the founders of the Old Hibernian Cinema on Castle Street, where Wilfs is now. He also founded West End Motors on Patrick St along with Edward Wheeler and Ernest Algar.
Kevin’s other brother Michael qualified as a registered druggist and spent his working life behind the counter at Whelehans. Kevin’s sister Kitty was married to Pat Keane. Pat was the Health Official for Westmeath County Council at a time in Ireland when County Councils were the local health authorities.
Kevin had two daughters, Helen and Hilda, and three sons, Tom, Dick and Harry.
Tom qualified as a pharmacist and joined the family business in 1958. He took the helm at Whelehans of Finglas, leading the business to more success. Notably, Tom became one of Ireland’s greatest authorities of wines, especially wine from Burgundy. As a renowned oenophile, he wrote in many magazines and newspapers on the subject. He became Ireland’s first wine correspondent and critic. His Son David Whelehan took after his father and is today one of Ireland’s leading authorities on wine, often discussing wines in national press and radio.
Dick Whelehan is a solicitor and only recently retired from his successful practice on Castle Street under the name Whelehans & Co Solicitors. Harry became a barrister, ultimately progressing to the top job of Attorney General in the 1990’s, initially under Charles Haughey and then under Albert Reynolds.
More Recent times
In the 1960s, Whelehans was taken over by Sligo native, John Keogh. John worked in the shop for several years before buying it. John raised his family in the apartment over the shop. John moved to France after selling the pharmacy in 1996.
Jai Sokay bought the pharmacy in 1996, employing the now current owner Eamonn Brady in 2002. Having worked in Whelehans for a couple of years, Eamonn bought the business in 2005.
Reflecting on his acquisition of the business in 2005, Eamonn commented “Whelehans has a long tradition of delivering care and providing a high-quality, friendly pharmacy service to the people of Mullingar. Some of our patients who are now in their 90’s have been customers of Whelehans since the 1930s. In an era in which there are fewer and fewer small family run businesses, I think people appreciate the personal touch and friendly approach of the staff in a community pharmacy like Whelehans. Whelehans has long been considered a very progressive pharmacy and I aim to continue this philosophy of change and innovation into the future.”
Eamonn commented further in 2012 “The core of my philosophy to date has been to place my pharmacy firmly at the centre of the community and to extend the reach through engagement “outside the front door” so to speak. My goal /vision is to continue to develop and extend this approach. Delivering health and wellbeing related activities and events for the public and local groups, schools together with related on-site services as a centre of expertise and to take our core to the wider community.“
To help realise his goal, Eamonn backed himself and initiated a “ground-up” refit of the Pearse Street premises in 2014. Along with a new, clean modern retail unit and leading-edge dispensary, the new design incorporated the previously unused upper floors of the premises into the business operation for the first time in its history, to provide custom built private therapy suites which provide physio clinic, holistic therapy, chiropody, nutrition clinic plus other ancillary services all under one roof. The refurbishment also catered for the increasing numbers of staff employed at Whelehans as part of the growth in provision of service to the Residential Care Sector.
In 2017, Whelehans growth expanded further with the opening of a dedicated Residential Care Fulfillment operation and customer service pharmacy at Clonmore, Mullingar employing around 30 people.
Commenting for this article, Eamonn said
“Small local independent businesses complement and enhance our towns by trading along-side the bigger chains to give value for money in a unique and friendly style.
With the advent of internet shopping and mega Shopping Centres and chains, Whelehans and the many other small independent traders of Mullingar, would love to think we will serve future generations for another 120 years. Mullingar has 30,000 people within a 5-mile radius, if we all spent an extra €100 in local shops over the course of the year, it would mean an extra €3 million to the local economy meaning more local jobs and more money in all our pockets. At a time when small retailers are closing, lets aim to keep a thriving dynamic town with many unique and quirky independent shops not just for us but for future generations”
With the traditional values and service still at the core of the business both at Pearse St, right in the centre of town and the growing business at Clonmore, it seems that Whelehans is in safe hands for the foreseeable future.