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Bittersweet History Of Coca Cola

by John Fitzgerald

This year’s Abhainn Rí festival in Callan was scaled down due to Covid restrictions but still managed to get the town humming, with music, art, fun, pub life and culture.

Officially opened by Councillor Joe Lyons the event began with what proved to be one of the most spirited and enlightening presentations to grace an Abhainn Ri festival since the tradition began over a decade ago. 

Members of Callan’s Syrian community addressed a capacity audience in the parish hall and related the moving, sometimes heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting account of the harrowing journey that brought them to our town. 

Locals were engrossed in the story of how these fellow human beings had endured hardships nobody should have to experience, in an oppressed, war-torn country…one that also has a rich and diverse culture stretching back thousands of years.  

Locals were invited to sample delicious Syrian cuisine and the verdict was evident even on faces half concealed by masks: surprise and gastronomic delight. 

Overall response to the presentation was a wonder to behold. For some it was cathartic. 

People now saw neighbours and fellow townsfolk rather than people from a far off land who might sound a bit ‘different’. 

Councillor Joe Lyons (far left) with locals and Syrian families


Those unfamiliar with the Syria’s fraught political and humanitarian plight felt the talk had shed light on a complex chapter in middle-eastern and world history. 

But everyone was relieved that these Syrians had found a haven of peace and non-violence at the end of a long and heart-rending ordeal.  

Locals approached the speakers and told them that, yes, they were welcome in Callan.

A Retrospective exhibition of work by local Artist Margaret Walker at the KCAT Centre drew huge acclaim. 

Margaret joined the KCAT Studio in 2003 and excels in the application of mixed media techniques. 

She draws, sews and paints her favourite themes, most of them inspired by Callan’s built heritage.

At the exhibition you could savour all the local cultural attractions: like St Mary’s in Green Street, the ruin of the old Augustinian Abbey, the Garda Station that once served as an RIC barracks and Keogh’s Bakery Shop in Bridge Street. 

No part of her beloved town has escaped her ever-vigilant aesthetic eye. 

She has drawn, painted or sewn the monuments and relics of our past in celebratory mode, with colour that seems to live and breathe, weaving them into the magnificent art works that so entranced the visitors to KCAT during the festival.

Entrance to Cherryfield famine graveyard


A first for Callan was the arrival of a psychic medium to hold forth at Keogh’s Pub in Mill Street. 

Carlow-based Helen Star, who’s had the ‘gift’ almost from birth, was out of this world in almost a literal sense as she offered advice and consolation via her trusty crystal ball and angel cards. 

She put Callan folk in touch with people on the other side and counselled clients anxious about what the future held for them, answering questions about love, romance and financial affairs.

Psychics tend to provoke controversy, with some professing belief and others scoffing at anything ‘otherworldly’.  

Publican Kevin Keogh stayed neutral on the subject, though he continued to serve spirits.

Face painting made a pleasant change from mask wearing, and a vintage car rally brought the town to life, with much honking and cheering as the revered and tastefully preserved or restored old bangers rolled past. 

Lords and ladies of the dance showcased their kinetic skills, stepping it out to entertain. 

CMD Dance School has built up a superb reputation and its return to the local musical scene was hailed as a triumph.

Health was to the fore, as it has been even more so since the pandemic.

Psychic Helen Star at Keogh’s Pub


Callan Cardiac First Responders demonstrated how they stabilize patients and care for them via such interventions as AED/defibrillation until emergency services arrive. 

Callan pubs, for months locked and bolted, erupted into song, laughter, and the joy of renewing old acquaintances.  

Musicians were back after a dry spell that seemed like an eternity. Among them was the irrepressible Mick Dawson. 

The former solider regaled with his multi-instrumental prowess, but his song, composed in honour of locals who perished in the Great Famine was especially apt because it coincided with the recent provision of a tarmacadam walkway around Cherryfield Famine Cemetery. 

The site, about two miles outside Callan, is where famine victims in the town and district were buried in a mass grave during the Great Hunger of the 1840s. 

The burial site was so-called because cherry trees grew there. 

Carts carried bodies daily from Callan Workhouse to be heaved into open pits. 

In the 1980s, locals cleaned up the site, cutting away weeds and bushes and erecting a monument to the countless people who died in that dark era. 

The addition of a walkway will further enhance Cherryfield as a memorial, not just to locals but to victims of famines everywhere in the world. 

Asa Candler, a direct descendent of a couple who emigrated from Callan.


A week seldom passes without visitors calling to connect with a historical event of incalculable magnitude. 

So, when Mick Dawson strummed his guitar and sang of Cherryfield, our minds strayed to other times and other places. 

While enjoying the music and the lyrics, we were also reminded of happenings in a grim past that is an intrinsic part of our heritage. 

On a less sombre note, another part of Callan’s multi-faceted legacy was celebrated in a talk by local historian Joe Kennedy. 

Joe’s theme at this year’s festival was Callan’s historic link with Coca Cola. 

 He recounted how Coca Cola has been around for over a century and is one of the world’s best-known soft drinks.

But the product might never have got off the ground, Joe informed us, had it not been for a star-crossed romance in Callan.

Asa Griggs Candler who founded the Coca Cola company, was a direct descendent of Daniel and Hanna Candler who emigrated from Callan in the 1730s. 

The couple did not leave by choice. Intolerance and religious bigotry forced them into exile.

Daniel Candler, son of a Cromwellian army officer, had announced his engagement to a Catholic girl and such a relationship was taboo in 18th century Ireland. 

Inter-marriage between Catholics and Protestants was almost unheard of. 

Callan Workhouse by Margaret Walker.


Any gentleman entering into such a contract was flirting with disaster. He would be ostracized, barred from holding any civil or military position and boycotted by family and friends.

Thomas Candler almost exploded with rage when he heard the news. He expected his son to uphold the family tradition by wedding ‘a lady of the Ascendancy class’. 

To him, a woman’s ‘pedigree’ and religious upbringing were of paramount importance. 

He warned Daniel of the consequences of flouting this time-honoured custom.

But his son was adamant that the marriage would go ahead. Love was blind for Daniel and Hanna, his sweetheart whose surname is unknown to us.

An embittered Thomas Candler cut Daniel out of his will. He banished him from the family home and provided a sum of money to enable Daniel and Hanna to emigrate to America. 

In about 1735, they settled in Bedford County, Virginia and converted to Quakerism. 

Fast forward to 1851 and to the birth of Asa Canndler, a direct descendent of the Callan couple. 

He was born at Villa Rica, Carroll County, Georgia, the son of Samuel Candler and Martha Beall. 

Though hampered by a lack of formal education, he sought employment at a pharmacy in Cartersville, Georgia in 1870.


The 19 year old was determined to serve an apprenticeship. He worked long hours for low pay and used every spare moment to study medical textbooks. 

In 1873, he moved to nearby Atlanta to work at George Howard’s pharmacy. He married Howard’s daughter, Lucy, in 1878, and they had five children.

By 1882, the ambitious young man had set up Asa G. Candler and Company to pursue business interests. 

Three years later something happened that was to change the course of his life and revolutionize marketing concepts in the western world.

An Atlanta-based pharmacist, John Pemberton, conceived the original Coca Cola formula in 1885. 

In 1886, the first bottle of the soft drink was produced in the USA Pemberton’s bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, created the name Coca Cola as a trademark for the product.

Between 1888 and 1891, Asa Candler took a keen interest in the product. 

He invested heavily in the Coca Cola business with the aim of taking it over. 

The manufacturing operations were transferred to his own company headquarters in Atlanta.

Together with Pemberton’s assistant, Frank Robinson, he devised a new formula for the making of Coca Cola that has been used ever since and remains one of the world’s best company secrets. 


In January 1892, Candler obtained a charter from the courts to establish the Coca-Cola Company. 

Sales of the soft drink rocketed. It soon became a household name across the USA and many other countries.

In 1916, Asa Candler retired as Company President and was replaced by his son, Charles. 

In the same year, he was elected Mayor of Atlanta. In 1919, he sold the company for the staggering sum of 25 million dollars.

Asa Candler died in 1929. Atlanta remembers him as a great benefactor. 

Aside from the Coca Cola success story, he had financed the building of Emory University and a teaching hospital on the outskirts of the city.

And the Kilkenny connection is also remembered. Asa Candler’s mansion in Atlanta, known as Callan Castle (after the home of his Irish ancestors) is now a beautiful museum. 

It is open to the public and is a major tourist attraction in Georgia.

Mention of Callan Castle brings us back to the opening scene of this real-life drama, to that home in West Street, Callan, from which Thomas Candler banished his son forever.

Joe Kennedy concluded his talk by opining that this was a ‘tale of unshakable romance.’

Without Daniel and Hanna going to America, “there might never have been the Coca Cola Company”, he reminded, “and without falling in love they might never have left Ireland anyway. You could say, I suppose, that Coca-Cola exists because of love.”

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