Oonagh O'Hagan

Oonagh O'Hagan

TWO DECADES after buying Meagher’s Pharmacy, Oonagh O’Hagan has been engaging in a publicity blitz. This will come as no surprise given her uncanny ability to generate exposure for her business and herself with a particular talent for working the social media channels in conjunction with assorted influencers. One product the loaded pharmacist has been promoting is food supplement Symprove and she has even set up her own limited company specifically for distributing it. Are some of the boasts made on behalf of Symprove by O’Hagan and her influencer pals rather close to the edge?

With the accumulated profits of Meagher’s Pharmacy Group standing at €6.3m at the end of August 2020, Ballsbridge-based Tyrone native Oonagh O’Hagan’s strategy of positioning herself as a dynamic businesswoman and online influencer has proved pretty lucrative. She is the 100% owner and MD of the group, which has nine pharmacies, some of which are real goldmines, notably Glenview in Tallaght and Kinvara in Cabra, both acquired in 2016. Less successful are the Barrow Street outlet in Googletown and the dispensary in the Mater hospital. Meagher’s also has an online business that claims to sell into 58 countries.

When the government enacted the financial emergency measures in the public interest legislation in 2009 that resulted in payments to pharmacies for the provision of services being cut back, O’Hagan’s gut instinct was to shift her focus towards health and wellness. The strategy has proven successful and, indeed, the gut is something that has come to occupy much of the pharmacy boss’s work in the area of health promotion.

Over the past year, in particular, O’Hagan has been actively championing Symprove via blogs on Meagher’s website, her Instagram account, and so-called brand ambassadorships with social media influencers.

Symprove is a water-based product made by Symprove Holdings Ltd in the UK containing live and active ‘good’ bacteria designed to thrive in the gut, also known as the gastrointestinal tract. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this sounds identical to the action of probiotics, which are promoted with claims that they provide health benefits when consumed, generally by improving or restoring the gut flora.

One complication is that probiotics are categorised as food products and cannot carry health benefit claims. O’Hagan told Goldhawk, “we do not refer to Symprove as a probiotic. Symprove is a unique supplement that contains four strains of live and active bacteria”. Meagher’s promotes the product by claiming, “many people believe that taking products which contain live bacteria found naturally in the digestive system can help their health and maintain balance in the gut”.

Goldhawk’s own gut tells him that O’Hagan’s eager promotion of the supplement – which retails at a mere €199 for a 12-week course – may be connected to the fact that she is the sole shareholder of a company called Symprove Ireland Ltd which was incorporated here in May last year.

Symprove Ireland distributes the product via online sales and a physical presence in pharmacies countrywide, including – nice one – competitors of Meagher’s.

Now 49, O’Hagan is a director of an impressive 11 companies, with most of these relating to the individual pharmacies in her group. The accounts for parent company Batavone Holdings Ltd show that the group had accumulated profits of a very healthy €6.4m at the end of August 2020.

Symprove bottle


Oddly, despite turnover having increased by a hefty 24% to €17.8m, the group managed to record a small loss of about €30,000 for the 12 months. Moreover, in the year to August 2019 (pre-pandemic), Batavone Holdings dropped almost €½m, compared with a profit of a similar figure in the 12 months to August 2018. This is some turnaround.

A bolshy Oonagh told the Sindo last month that she expects turnover for the 2021 calendar year to have increased by at least 10%. The group’s online business apparently now generates an average of 20% of total revenue, compared with less than 10% before the pandemic.

Meagher’s online business adds a few strings to its bow as the chain now offers emergency contraception online and has teamed up with Let’s Get Checked to sell at-home health testing.

Launching the internet business in 2014 meant that Meagher’s had the technology in place to offer what it says was the first free video pharmacist consultations in Ireland when the pandemic struck, and also set up a digital doctor service.

She has come a long way since studying pharmacy at Trinity College, which resulted in a mandatory pre-reg internship year at Meagher’s on Upper Baggot Street, D4. Oonagh has been regaling hacks in recent months with her story of getting the opportunity to buy the pharmacy when owner Pierce Meagher decided to exit. Despite being in her late twenties with no funds, the asking price of IR£2m did not prove an obstacle, thanks to AIB coming on board with the moolah. Undoubtedly, O’Hagan would have received strong support from her prime wholesaler United Drug, which would have eased any concerns the bank manager might have had.

Batavone Holdings was incorporated in 2000 and Oonagh’s fellow director up to 2016 was her mother Elizabeth O’Hagan. Her sister, Joanne, is the group’s director of retail, while the other significant person in the pharmaceutical entrepreneur’s life has been her hubby, barrister Ronan Kennedy, whom she married in 2006. Kennedy took silk in 2019 and received €135,000 in criminal legal aid fees from the state in 2015 – the year in which he was part of the defence team for Graham Dwyer in the most high-profile criminal trial in recent decades.

Dwyer was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder in 2012 of childcare worker Elaine O’Hara and is currently challenging the 2011 law under which mobile phone data pertaining to his case was accessed, with Kennedy leading his legal team along with Remy Farrell. It is likely to be a lucrative gig, given that it has rumbled on since 2018 and is before the European Court of Justice.

Kennedy is regularly featured on his wife’s Instagram page at family events and holidays and, certainly, O’Hagan is very active on the social media outlet, albeit with a relatively modest 31,000 followers. (There are 72,000 followers of Meagher’s Pharmacy account.)

The photogenic marketing-savvy Oonagh’s own page is a combination of product-promotion, posing prettily before sunsets and nice backgrounds, sharing pics of her family and pets, and running competitions on her page to increase followers. Statements about how Meagher’s “supports strong women”, probably taps into the demographic of young women, many of whom are in thrall to influencers.

Maybe this is why the pharmacy chain’s strategy of collaborating with influencers with plenty of followers usually pays off. An example is when Meagher’s invited Faces by Grace, aka Grace Mongey (168,000 followers), to compile a “selection box” of her favourite products for €69. It contained her pick of beauty and cosmetics items on sale at the pharmacy chain and was an instant sell-out online.

Mongey was selected as winner of the Best Influencer at Ali Ryan’s Gossies in 2017, and her award was sponsored by Meagher’s and presented on the night by O’Hagan.

Prior to the pandemic, many product launches, masterclasses and a ‘beauty breakfast’ were held at the Baggot Street store, with O’Hagan at the helm and a swathe of influencers on hand to generate some positive online coverage.


Oonagh is also popular with hacks, due to her willingness to give quotes and participate in puff pieces. She was happy to open her “gorgeous home” on a “leafy road in Dublin 4” to the Sindo in 2016, and posed for photos in different rooms of the “dream” three-storey period house. Kennedy had purchased the dilapidated Victorian pile in 2009 for €2.55m, which was a whopping €600,000 over the advised minimum value. Given the timing, however, this looks a good buy on a leafy stretch where houses had been selling for €4m-€5m a couple of years earlier.

Mary O’Sullivan, the Sindo’s features editor at the time of the puff piece on O’Hagan, drooled over the pharmacy boss, describing her as “achingly glamorous” with “perfectly tweezed” eyebrows. It was “finally OK to be brainy and beautiful, seem a little ditsy, yet be dynamic, stunning and hugely successful”, she simpered. “Oonagh is all of these, and much more.” Indeed.

Meagher’s has entered into paid partnerships with various social media influencers to promote Symprove, all of whom appear keen to describe health benefits they have experienced since taking the supplement.

While the company behind the brand itself is prohibited from making health claims due to Symprove’s categorisation as a food supplement, popular influencers making these claims seems like a good way to legitimately circumvent that particular obstacle. (The endorsement of Symprove by influencers is a strategy also employed in the UK by the British arm of the brand.)

A giggly O’Hagan teamed up with the popular James Kavanagh (see The Phoenix 16/12/020) for an Instagram Live on his page in June last year. She told Kavanagh’s 156,000 followers that Symprove was “brilliant” and described it as a food supplement that rebalances and resets the microbiome, a collective term for the trillions of bugs that live in and on the human body.

When Kavanagh stated that the supplement got rid of his “low-humming stomach discomfort”, Oonagh explained during the half-hour session that the clinical trial behind the product was “done on IBS [irritable bowel syndrome]. It came on the market first for IBS and IBD [inflammatory bowel disease] – digestive disorders lower in the gut … Lots and lots of people take it for stomach problems like you’ve described there, gastritis and heartburn – so it seems to just settle the microbiome the whole length of the gut”.

She also told the story of how Symprove founder Barry Smith developed his own animal feed based on germinated barley – a form of probiotic – and it had a positive impact on the cattle at his farm in Surrey.

Oonagh regaled listeners with the tale of how local ostrich farmers who asked if they could use the product on their animals noted that their feathers became more plump, and pig farmers observed their animals’ coats “became pinker”. On that basis, Smith was encouraged by a microbiologist to develop a product for human use.

In 2018, Meagher’s flew influencer Niamh Cullen (149,000 followers) to visit Smith’s farm in Surrey. Brand ambassador Cullen told followers that since taking Symprove, she had “felt amazing benefits in regards to my gut health, immune system, my skin and mental health”.

The following year, Smith and O’Hagan participated in a Glasshouse event in Dublin called The Importance of Gut Health, along with identical Scottish twins Alana and Lisa Macfarlane of The Gut Stuff, and social media influencer Maeve Madden, author of Beat your Bloat.

O’Hagan also does Instagram Live chats on Symprove with her own followers, and has written articles on various health topics for the wellness section of Lisa McGowan’s website (Lisa’s Lust Lust). McGowan has 144,000 Instagram followers, and all of the articles are marked as a sponsored partnership between Meagher’s and McGowan.

The pharmacy boss recommends Symprove to Lisa’s followers in three articles on navigating the symptoms of the menopause, two on supporting the immune systems, and three on winter self-care routines. Other pieces describe how this remarkably versatile food supplement can help with aiding sleep, resetting overall health and wellbeing and handling stress.

Lisa McGowan

Lisa McGowan


There is also an article penned by O’Hagan called, ‘What is Symprove and Who Would Benefit from Taking it?’ (hint: all of us) and Celebrating World Microbiome Day (guess how?)
In the most recent entry, ‘The Importance of Finding Balance this January’, Oonagh tells Lisa’s followers that “investing in Symprove means that your overall health and energy levels will improve and physically and mentally you will feel much more capable of taking on all that life throws at you”.

There are also various blogs on Meagher’s own website, including one in June 2021 by supervising pharmacist Cliona Loughnane, whose description of Symprove as her “top recommended supplement of all time” should have pleased her boss.

According to Loughnane, Meagher’s “constantly receives incredible feedback” from people suffering from Crohn’s disease, colitis, Coeliac disease, IBS, IBD, Parkinson’s, low mood, low immune system and stress to say that taking the supplement has “significantly improved their quality of life”.

O’Hagan has also embraced the world of podcasting by launching a series called ‘Meagher’s Matters’ last October. Subjects covered include gut health, fertility, anxiety, sleep and menopause and all are helmed by other presenters. The podcast on gut health is fronted by Dr Rangan Chatterjee, a GP in the UK and author of The Stress Solution, who – qu’elle surprise – is also a Symprove ‘ambassador’.

Oonagh is quite the attender at and supporter of women’s events and award ceremonies. She won the ‘Wellness Award’ at VIP Publishing’s ‘Power of Women’ event in November 2021, and was a finalist in the ‘Industry’ category at the EY Entrepreneur of the Year competition that same month.

She was also Image Magazine’s ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ at its Businesswoman of the Year Awards in 2016.

While some of these awards could be considered lightweight, others are prestigious, and their cumulative effect positions Meagher’s and O’Hagan herself as a serious voice of authority on health and wellness.

This is why the endorsement of Symprove is significant, as Meagher’s is presented as standing at “the head of our industry and at the heart of health”.

O’Hagan emphasises that Meagher’s is a family-run, community-based pharmacy business, and vows to “delight customers by exceeding their expectations through outstanding care and a unique product range”.

The pharmacy chain’s customers have clearly been happy with what has been delivered but it is impossible to ignore the sort of boasts that are being made about the Symprove supplement, in which O’Hagan has an additional personal commercial interest.

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