Wednesday 20 November 2019

Obituary: Phil Meagher

Leading light of Irish pub trade who helped create the Heineken Cup

Tremendous company: Phil Meagher
Tremendous company: Phil Meagher
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Phil Meagher, the son of a Dublin publican, who has died at the age of 90, was a gregarious and colourful figure in the drinks industry for decades and helped 'invent' the Heineken Cup when he persuaded the Dutch brewery to make its first foray into rugby sponsorship.

Born in Dublin in 1926, Phil's father, who was the lessee of Meagher's, of Richmond Road in Drumcondra, near Croke Park, died when he was 11 years of age, leaving behind a widow and seven young children.

Phil, who attended O'Connell's Schools played football and hurling with St Vincent's and won a senior county football championship medal in 1949 on a team that included Kevin Heffernan, 'Danno' Mahony and Oliver Freaney.

As a result of his involvement with the club and a desire to help his mother left with a large family, Meagher's became a 'local' for the club and the Dublin team and supporters for after-match celebrations.

Phil would later learn that he was actually born 'Maher' but when his father first took over the pub it was extended to Meagher by the sign-writer to 'fill out' the signboard above the pub door'. One of his uncles later changed his name back to the original spelling by deed poll.

By the time he was 17 Phil Meagher was running an auctioneering business, which he sold after discovering that you had to be over 18 to get a licence.

He also operated a sausage factory in The Coombe and worked in the family pub, before getting a steady job with Dublin Corporation.

He spotted Teresa Lyons, from Longford, in Bray in 1950 and 'stole' her from his best friend. They married in 1954, and his best friend was an honoured guest at their wedding. "He remained devoted to her until she died in 1995," his son Fintan told mourners at his father's funeral.

Phil joined the drinks distribution company Showerings and was part of the team that introduced Babycham, the first drink aimed specifically at women, to the Irish market.

Executives at the company were somewhat perplexed to discover that large quantities of Babycham were being consumed in obscure rural pubs - only to discover that it was being used as a mixer (and cover) for men drinking poteen.

Phil then spent 10 years with Guinness Group Sales where he was extremely popular, not least for extending favourable credit terms when he spotted talented young publicans, or barmen who wanted to go out on their own.

In one city centre pub he still couldn't put his hand in his pocket decades later.

He left Guinness to rejoin the family pub business, but moved again after 18 months becoming a consultant to Murphy's Lady's Well Brewery, in Cork.

At a rugby match in Twickenham in February, 1974 (Ireland 26-England 21) he and publicans Ned Finnegan, Frank Gleeson and Frank Towey read in the Irish Independent that businessman Conor McCarthy was buying the Cork brewery out of receivership for £65,000.

By the following Monday they had arranged a meeting of the Licensed Vintners Association where 50 publicans put up £2,000 each and the Colgan, Madigan and Belton pub groups contributed £25,000 each to a war chest to buy the brewery themselves.

When 350 publicans in Cork who were 'tied' to Murphy's joined the consortium, they acquired the famous brewery founded in 1856.

As sales and marketing director of Murphy's, Phil was instrumental in bringing Heineken lager to Ireland and having it widely distributed through the pub network he was so familiar with.

He also got to know Freddie Heineken of the Dutch brewing family and when financial difficulties persisted at Murphy's, was part of a delegation that persuaded him to buy the brewery in 1980. Although the Irish publicans could not be re-paid their original stake, a deal was done which gave them free Heineken to the value of their original investment so none of them lost out.

With a generous marketing budget Phil would take publicans on legendary jaunts to great sporting occasions, like rugby internationals and the racing classics.

When he was approached to sponsor the Irish rugby Interprovincial Championship, before the era of professionalism, he found "a spare" £10,000 and it became known as the Heineken Cup, a sponsorship that eventually spawned the international tournament bearing the name.

Following his retirement he bought Ryan's pub in Rosslare, Co Wexford, which he ran until 2002 and was later acquired by Irish international soccer player Stephen Hunt.

Phil Meagher, who lived on the Howth Road, Dublin, before moving to Rosslare, died on April 3.

He is survived by his two sons Fintan and Philip. "He was convivial, gregarious, engaging, charming and tremendous company," said Fintan at his father's funeral mass in Cabinteely, Dublin.

Sunday Independent

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