Edmund Rice was born in the town of Westcourt near the village of Callan in County Kilkenny in the south east of Ireland on 1 June 1762. His parents, Robert and Margaret (nee Tierney) Rice, were tenant farmers. Edmund had six brothers and two stepsisters, Joan and Jane, Edmund’s mother having married previously.
Ireland in 1762 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 commerce and business. These laws were relaxed at the time of Edmund’s childhood and were eventually dropped in 1829.
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, usually only one teacher was in each school. Edmund’s parents provided his religious education. Edmund later attended a commercial academy in Kilkenny city which prepared him for his future business career. Generally, he received a limited education.
In 1779, Edmund began an apprenticeship with his uncle. Michael Rice, who owned a very successful merchant trading business in Waterford city. Waterford was the second busiest shipping port in the world at the time. Michael died in 1785, and the business was passed into Edmund’s ownership.
In 1787 Edmund married the young daughter of a Waterford tanner, believed to be Mary Elliott. The marriage was short due to Mary’s untimely death in 1789. The baby she was carrying was saved, and was born with some kind of disability. The baby was christened, Mary. Edmund, due to his immense grief and business commitments was unable to care adequately for his baby daughter, so he invited his spinster step sister, Joan (Murphy) to be housekeeper for him and to share the parenting of young Mary.