The Story Begins
Edmund Rice was born in the townland of Westcourt near the village of Callan in County Kilkenny on June 1st 1762.
His parents, Robert and Margaret Rice, were prosperous farmers. Edmund had six brothers and two stepsisters, Edmund’s mother having married previously. The family spoke Irish but would also have spoken English in order to conduct their business affairs.
The Rice family were known in the locality for their warmth and generosity.
Ireland in 1762, however, was under British rule and the anti-Catholic Penal Laws were in force. These laws prevented a Catholic from owning land over a certain value, from entering the professions and from owning a weapon. The Penal Laws also prevented Catholics from attending Mass in public and from receiving an education. A Lord Chief Justice at the time declared that “The Laws of Ireland did not presume a Roman Catholic to exist.”
The Penal Laws severely limited the career prospects of Catholics. Opportunities were limited to farming, emigration, religious life or the world of business.
However, these laws were relaxed at the time of Edmund’s childhood and were eventually dropped in 1829. In the meantime a growing middle class of Catholics was beginning to emerge.
As a result of the Penal Laws, Edmund was forced to receive his primary school education from a “hedge school”. These were illegal schools established by travelling teachers. Edmund’s parents provided his religious education and were assisted by a local Augustinian Friar, Fr Patrick Grace.
Edmund later attended a commercial academy in Kilkenny city which prepared him for his future business career. From his youth, Edmund was attracted to the business world.
At the age of 17, Edmund began an apprenticeship with his uncle, Michael Rice, in Waterford city. Waterford was the second busiest shipping port in the world at the time. Edmund, a hard worker, eventually became the manager of the business.
He also led a vibrant social life and his hobbies included horse riding, boating and dancing. He was no angel and a story from the time tells of him being reprimanded by a neighbour for being unruly at a Sunday Mass!
Love and Business
At the age of 24, Edmund’s uncle signed his business to him. By now a shrewd businessman, Edmund invested his growing fortune in land and property.
At the age of 25, Edmund married the daughter of a local businessman, Mary Elliott.
However, Mary was killed in a horse riding accident and the baby she was carrying was born with a handicap. The baby was christened Mary and Edmund’s step-sister Joan took charge of looking after her.