Monday, June 9, 2014

The Holihan Clan Could Fall and Rise Again

The name “Holihan” is derived from an ancient Celtic word meaning “proud.”  The family, that is found in several parts of Ireland, took as its motto, in loose translation, “Supported by God, I am not depressed. “   Yet it must have been a depressing time in the Holihan family of Lawrence, Massachusetts, when the progenitor,  a successful whiskey man named Patrick Holihan, died in middle age and his business fell into other hands.  The story lies in  his three sons regaining the company and bringing it into prosperity and prominence.

Patrick Holihan was born in Ireland in May 1831 and as a young man had emigrated to the United States, along with other family members.  By the age of  25 in 1856 with his brother, Peter, he established a grocery and liquor business in Lawrence,  the downtown shown above as it looked in the early 1900s.  The brothers called their enterprise “P & P Holihan.”  A year later Patrick married Julia O’Riordan who was three years his junior.  Within a decade, Julia died.  At the time they had a two-year-old daughter, Mary .  In 1868, Patrick married a second time to Bridget Gibney, also a native of Ireland.  She would give him three sons,  James Peter born in 1872;  Joseph Patrick, 1874, and Charles, 1876.

During those years, the Holihan firm was prospering.   Then at the relative early age of 51 Patrick died.  At the time his eldest son was 10; the youngest only 6.  His brother, Peter was married but had no children and, somewhat older than Patrick, may have been unable to carry on the business by himself.  Patrick’s wife and family may also have been strapped for money.  Whatever the reason, the Holihans sold their grocery and liquor business and it became known as Murphy & Davis.

One can imagine James, Joseph and Charles Holihan huddled around their mother, Bridget, plotting to take back what their father Patrick had built.  That opportunity came sooner rather than later.  When James was just 18 in 1890, according to the record, the Holihans were able to buy back the business.  The 1900 census found all three boys engaged in the business.  James was the proprietor;  Joseph (shown here in maturity) and Charles were liquor salesmen.   Living with their mother and sister Mary, none of the Holihan males were married.  By that time they had renamed the company  “Holihan Bros.” and were located in a four story building at the corner of Common and Hampshire Streets in Lawrence.

Their firm carried a general line of liquors, including two brands they claimed as proprietary, “Banquet Pure Rye” and “Old 56,”  the latter presumably for the year their father and his brother had founded the business.   They issued giveaway shot glasses for both flagship brands.  Banquet Rye advertised with the slogan, “The People’s Choice.”  Old 56 “Hand Made” Whiskey was touted as “pure whiskey...dining & family use.”  The Holihans also  gave  an unusual corkscrew to favored customers like bartenders,  The sheath for the instrument read:  “Holihan Bros., Wholesalers to the People.”

In 1912, the Holihans took a step unusual for whiskey men -- they started a brewery.  At the time the beer and liquor trades were often at odds about their respective business practices and how to offset Prohibition forces.  That conflict did not deter the Holihans. With the profits from their liquor trade they built a brewery on the site of an old farm at the corner of Andover and Beacon Streets and called it the Diamond Spring Brewery.  The main building was five stories with two adjoining four-story storage facilities.  Adjacent were the engine and boiler houses.  The brewery was capable of producing 75,000 barrels of beer annually.  The business employed about 75 people.  The Holihans advertised their brewery products heavily in the Northeast and built a strong customer base.  In addition to their ales, they featured lagers, porters, stocks and half stocks.  They chose clear bottles for many of their brews.

Following the death of their mother, Bridget, in 1902,  the sons continued to live together with their sister   Then in June 1909 James wed Mary Alice Behan.  Born in Massachusetts she was from Haverhill in  Essex County.  They were recorded as having one child, a son named William born in 1911.   Joseph and Charles remained bachelors, working for Holihan Bros.  In 1917 Charles died, leaving James and Joseph to manage the company.

Apparently feeling the pressure of Prohibition, the Holihans turned to new products.  For  years the spring water that was present in Diamond Spring beers and ales had been sold to the people of Lawrence as Knowles Diamond Spring Water.   In 1917 the brothers began to use the water as the basis for the manufacture of Diamond Springs ginger ale.  When it proved popular they expanded production into a variety of soft drinks.  A specialty was fruit tonics, turning out out beverages flavored by real fruit  --  strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon.  They found this an increasingly important part of their business just as markets for beer and whiskey were diminishing.

With the coming of National Prohibition, the Holihans were forced to close their liquor wholesale house,  dating back almost 65 years, and ending their beer-making as well.  One historian believes the company stayed in business through the dry spell by selling soft drinks and possibly “near beer.”   James Holihan died in 1924 and was buried in a Holihan family plot in Immaculate Conception cemetery in Essex County.   According to one source,  Joseph Holihan married at the advanced age of 61 in 1935.   His bride was Grace E. Towle,  some nine years his junior. 

After Prohibition, Joseph Holihan with other family members apparently revived the Diamond Springs Brewery in Lawrence about 1934.    Joseph died in 1938 and is buried near his brothers in the Immaculate Conception Cemetery.  Other family member kept the brewery operating until about 1970 when economic pressures from national brands forced it to close.  Shown here is a tip tray from the post-Prohibition Diamond Spring Brewery It includes the coat of arms for the Holihan clan as well as its motto -- “Supported by God, I am not depressed” -- in Latin.  Although the Holihans had experienced untimely deaths,  National Prohibition, the Great Depression, and two World Wars,  they never considered giving up and thus were able to prevail for more than a century.


  1. Hi great article. I wrote a wikipedia article for Diamond Spring Brewery, largely based on your blog post. What are some of your sources so that I can cite them? Thanks. Carl McCarthy (

  2. Dear Unknown: Glad you liked the Holihan article. If you will send me an email at, I will send you my notes as well as any other documentation that I might have.

  3. I loved the Holihan article too.Very inspiring as I looked for it after discovering the Banquet shot glass in my Nana's attic. my grandfather was from Andover and Lawrence I believe.If young know anything of the value of the shot glass or if it is a collectable I would live to know.Thank You, Cher

  4. Great article! As a Holihan, we're very interested in the history of Holihan beer, after we've discovered some memorabilia. We've also researched our family tree and discovered they emigrated from Ireland during the famine. Just wondering Jack if your research uncovered the town that Patrick emigrated from in 1831? A long shot, but perhaps his a long lost cousin! If you could let me know, I'd really appreciate it! Thanks. James Holihan(