OFFALY’S LITERARY ASSOCIATIONS: No. 4, Anthony Trollope and Banagher. Michael Byrne

020a - Banagher by George Petrie 1821
Banagher in 1820 from a drawing by George Petrie with the old bridge, barracks and mill.

Banagher, County Offaly has associations with two well-known writers of the nineteenth century – Anthony Trollope and Charlotte Bronte. Up to recent years nothing by way of notice of this was to be found in Banagher, but that has all changed as Banagher, now hard pressed along its main street, looks again to embrace tourism in a way that it did so well in the nineteenth century and in the 1960s. The rescue of Crank House was a great feat, but the challenges are growing.

Many have tackled Trollope’s Life, but none immersed himself so much in Banagher as the late James Pope Hennessy. John McCourt in his 2015 study of Trollope Writing the Frontier: Anthony Trollope between Britain and Ireland ‘offers an in-depth exploration of Trollope’s time in Ireland as a rising Post Office official, contextualising his considerable output of Irish novels and short stories and his ongoing interest in the country, its people, and its always complicated relationship with Britain’.

Trollope’s Corner of Ireland
Mark Bence Jones in an article in Country Life (13 July, 1978) described West Offaly and East Galway as ‘Trollope’s Corner of Ireland’. Bence Jones considered the country on either side of the Shannon in the Offaly-Galway area as reminiscent of the Fens ‘cut off and intersected by waterways, by the wide meandering Shannon itself, by its tributaries, the Suck, the Brosna and the Little Brosna and by the Grand Canal; traversed by a maze of narrow roads.’

Banagher was from 1841 to 1844 the home of the young Anthony Trollope when he was working as a surveyor’s clerk in the post office at a salary of £100 per year and travelling expenses. It was in Banagher that James Pope Hennessey wrote his celebrated life of Trollope while staying at the Shannon Hotel. His biography was published in London in 1971.

Anthony Trollope was the fourth son in his family and being born in April 1815 was described as a ‘Waterloo baby’. Having taken a job with the post office and spent seven years at office drudge in London the position of assistant surveyor or inspector became available in Ireland. The job involved assisting a post office surveyor (of which there were three in Ireland) and travelling about the country with them as generally an aide-de-camp. Travel expenses were good and when a vacancy arose in Banagher in August 1841 Trollope volunteered for the job. He landed in Ireland on 15 September, 1841 and at Shannon Harbour via canal boat from Dublin on 16 September, 1841. At the time the only railway line in Ireland was that between Dublin and Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire). The boat was towed by horses, of course. Trollope gives an account of travel in a canal boat in his novel published in 1848, The Kellys and the O’Kellys. He called it a ‘floating prison’. Pope Hennessey’s description of Banagher in September would be music to Bord Failte anxious as they are to extend the holiday season. He wrote: ‘The month of September in Banagher, and all along the Shannon banks, is visually a glorious one, with golden autumn mornings, the low sun making long shadows of the houses in the street. At dusk the whole river reflects the varied sunsets as the days draw in – effects of palest pink, for instance, striped by cloudy lines of green, or an horizon aflame with scarlet and orange light.’

Trollope’s supervisor was George Drought. According to Victoria Glendenning in her Life of Trollope (London, 1992) Drought was an idle and testy man. Apparently his name features in the Trollope parliamentary novels as Sir Orlando Drought, a Conservative M.P. Mr. Drought kept a pack of hounds at Banagher though he did not hunt himself. A check in the 1846 Slater Trade Directory for Banagher could find only a James Drought with Richard Sharp as Postmaster. The hotel was then known as the Harp Hotel under the management of Edward Mann.

Trollope from Spy in Vanity Fair

Trollope described Banagher as little more than a village but nonetheless it had a population of some 3,000 people and 500 houses. Trollope records in his autobiography published in London in 1883 in two volumes that ‘I learned to think that Ireland was a land flowing with fun and whiskey in which irregularity was the rule of life, and where broken heads were looked upon as honourable ledgers.’ Pope Hennessey was right (at least in 1971) in thinking that the long main street of Banagher had hardly changed at all in the 130 years from 1841 to 1971.

‘At the top of the incline stand two spired churches, Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland, and the vicarage in which Charlotte Bronte’s widower [Bell Nicholls] used to live. Up at that end also is the post office, evidently in much the same condition that it has always been, and next to this is a small bungalow which Anthony Trollope and his superior used for transacting business. Along this main street, as you walk down to the river, there are shops, bars and private houses – some of the last of very considerable size, dignity and architectural interest. Just outside the town stand the ruins of Cuba Court, a fine example of an Irish country-house of the mid-eighteenth century in the manner of the Dublin architect Pierce. In Trollope’s day this building, which contained two circular rooms, housed the Royal School, and an avenue of lime trees led to the front door. Like too many of Ireland’s great houses, Cuba Court is now being slowly but deliberately demolished. The lime trees have long been hacked down.’ It is all gone now.

At the lower end of Banagher are some more big house, one of them now a hotel. All such houses in small Irish towns have an unexpected and very long garden (or ‘yard’), at the back; one of those in this lower region of Banagher has a great arched carriage gateway and, behind it, four acres of orchards and fields. The bridge itself, a handsome structure of seven stone spans, replaces an earlier bridge which was demolished while Trollope was first in Banagher, the new bridge being built by the Commissioners for the Improvement of Navigation on the Shannon and opened in 1843. In the very centre of the bridge you pass from County Offaly into Galway or, if you prefer, from the province of Leinster into that of Connaught. At the Banagher end of the bridge are the ruins of the former British barracks, and the picturesque Old Maltings – great, grey-brown warehouses with reddish roofs standing upon the river’s brink. On the Connaught side is a defensive fort of uncertain date, and a Martello tower. The bridge at Banagher affords a splendid view over the level reaches of the river, which here flows glassily between a countryside as flat as that in some Dutch picture. In winter-time the flooded river spreads across these meadows to create an inland sea. In spring and early summer kingcups bloom amongst the sedge and reeds along the Shannon’s bank, wild yellow irises abound and cowslips also. In early summer, too, plumes of mauve and purple lilacs hang over the white walls of the yards of Banagher, and the whole countryside beyond the town displays brilliant variations of the “forty shades of green”.

That was in the late sixties. Now Cuba House and the post office are both demolished and the Maltings are in ruins.

10 Ruin of Cuba House Banagher
Cuba House in the 1970s

On arrival Trollope established himself in the hotel only a few minutes from the old post office (now replaced with (a 1970s) new building). He worked next door to the post office in a two- roomed bungalow (now so much altered and modernised that it has only an outline of its old character). It was while in Banagher that the young Trollope (he was 26 years old when he arrived) developed his life-long passion for fox-hunting aided by Banagher groom, Barney MacIntyre (who remained with him for the rest of Trollope’s life). Trollope’s role was to assist the surveyor or inspector in supervising the many small post offices (especially the accounts) in the region and was known to the Irish at that time not as a writer ‘but as the impersonation of the serverest officialdom’. His brother Tom visited him while in Banagher was shocked to see children in rags and barefoot.
As Frank McNally noted in the Irish Times in 2015 (Trollope’s bicentenary):
Either way, it was during his own cross-country rambles that Trollope found a literary voice. Where Irish writers of the era followed a well-beaten track to London in search of fame, he did it in reverse, and then some. The muse descended in Leitrim, of all places, where a desolate scene near Drumsna inspired the setting of his debut novel, published in, of all years, 1847.

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The MacDermots of Ballycloran
It was at Banagher that Trollope commenced his first novel The MacDermots of Ballycloran in September 1843. He had written one volume by the time of his marriage in June 1844 to Rose Heseltine. Trollope brought his wife back to Banagher for a time. Unfortunately, few of Rose Trollope’s letters survive thus depriving us of perhaps a view of Banagher at the time. Reviewing his time at Banagher Trollope wrote ‘For though during three years I had been jolly enough, I had not altogether been happy. The hunting, the whiskey punch, the rattling Irish life, of which I could write a volume of stories … were continually driving from my mind the still cherished determination to become a writer of novels.’ In a remark that must pinch at least some of us he said that: ‘The vigour necessity to prosecute two professions at the same time is not given to everyone.’ Pope Hennessey wrote of the bride’s arrival in Banagher. ‘We dare not speculate on the reactions of this fashionably dressed English girl, with her crinoline and her parasol, to the nauseous canal boat which brought them at a snail’s pace from Dublin to the hotel at Shannon Harbour. Nor can it be supposed that she was much impressed by the hotel at Banagher, where her husband would have taken fresh, larger rooms. Rose did not hunt, and her husband was away a great deal on his postal duties – duties vital to the Trollope’s own domestic economy, since the farther afield he went the larger was the increment to this pay.’ Her stay in Banagher was short as later that year the Trollopes moved to Clonmel and, save for his groom, this ended his association with Banagher. After his marriage Trollope did not feel comfortable with Banagher. ‘On my arrival there as a bachelor I had been received most kindly, but when I brought my English wife I fancied that there was a feeling that I had behaved badly to Ireland generally’. He felt that it was expected that he would marry within that society. ‘’I had given offence and I was made to feel it.’ He finished his first novel a year after his marriage in July 1845 and it was published in three volumes in 1847.

The germ of the plot for his first novel Trollope picked up while on a visit to Drumsna, Co. Leitrim where the ruins of Ballycloran House stood in to the 1840s and were still there in the 1970s. Trollope had been up in Leitrim inspecting the accounts of an errant postmaster. He thought the ruins of Ballycloran ‘one of the most melancholy spots I had ever visited’’ and he later described it in the first chapter of his novel.

Pope Hennessy viewed The McDermots of Ballycloran as an inchoate work lacking in discipline. It dealt with the turbulence of Irish society under British rule and showed that Trollope had a ‘good ear’ for the Irish scene and character. His description of Mohill could be any village in west Offaly or indeed elsewhere in the era of the famine. “The miserable appearance of Irish peasants, when in the very lowest poverty, strikes one more forcibly in the towns than in the open country. The dirt and filth around them seems so much more oppressive on them; they have no escape from it… On a road-side, or on the borders of a bog, the dusty colour of the cabin walls, the potato patch around it, the green scraughs or damp brown straw which forms its roof, all the appurtenances, in fact, of the cabin, seem suited to the things around it… Poverty, to be picturesque, should be rural.”

The MacDermots is a novel running to some 700 pages in one volume but an enjoyable holiday read. It was not a success for Trollope and did not sell. It appeared in mid-March 1847 when the Famine had been raging for two years. Trollope tended to overstate the failure of The MacDermots in his autobiography. William Gregory of Coole Park in Co. Galway believed that Trollope had written the best Irish novel in fifty years as did Sir Patrick O’Brien who represented King’s County in parliament (1852-1885). The novel is about the survivors of the old Irish Catholic gentry clinging to a few impoverished acres and a tumbledown house. As Robert Tracy said in his introduction to the Oxford edition ‘They are doubly marginal, excluded from the society of their fellow landlords by religion and poverty, and from the peasantry by their still remembered rank.’ Trollope’s characters are trapped in history.

Of Ballycloran Tracy sees it as an invention by Trollope of an Irish placename. There is no such place in Ireland although there are many places named Cloran. He had invented a name suggestive of stony ground, a profitless estate.

Trollope revised the novel in 1860 when a new edition appeared including three chapters. The Oxford edition includes these chapters for the benefit of the reader. Concluding his introduction Tracy notes: ‘The modern visitor to Drumsna will find that Trollope and his story have their place in local memory. Near the river, a wooden plaque records his stay at the former mailcoach inn, now Taylor’s pub, with topographical if not chronological accuracy: “Anthony Trollope, 1815 – 1882, celebrated nineteenth century novelist, stayed at this house, then an inn, and commenced his first novel The MacDermots of Ballycloran here in 1848.” Local tradition mingles Trollope’s account of his visit to Ballycloran in the first pages of the novel, where he describes himself as alone, with the Autobiography account, where he is accompanied by John Merivale: he was alone ‘because he was waiting for his friend who was delayed’, then later showed Merivale the ruin.

In Drumsna, Trollope’s coinage Ballycloran has displaced the official name of the townland and the ruined house it contains. Feemy Macdermot is said to be buried in the Protestant churchyard – a circumstance locally explained by noting that, though of course she was Catholic, ‘in those days they buried them all in together’. Thady is remembered as ‘the last man hanged in Carrick gaol – after him, they hung them only at Galway gaol’. The non-denominational character of Irish country graveyards, and the sinister reputation of Galway gaol, are indeed accurate. Trollope’s imaginary characters have come to inhabit the real landscape he described so carefully.

Nowadays the road away from the river is neither dusty nor disagreeable. The little bridge has been rebuilt. The woods are gone, but a short walk up a low hill brings you to Ballycloran. The hill is as boggy as it is stony, a ‘weeping hillside’ in Irish phrasing, rich with iris in summer. Only fragments remain of the house that Trollope saw already ruined. Roof, floors, front and back walls are gone, but both end walls stand, about fifty feet apart. Twisted vines spring from the ground and climb – probably sustain – one wall. The partly ruined stables and outbuildings are still used to store hay and farm implements. Ballycloran is no longer a symbol of foolish grandeur, as Trollope saw it. It has become another stark Irish ruin, one with Cashel and Clonmacnoise. But in Trollope’s novel it remains for us an image of pre-Famine Ireland, peopled and doomed.”

Offaly too has its Ballycloran in the spread of ruined houses across the county. But we know little of the old Catholic gentry save, perhaps, the MacCoghlans who remained on in possession of some part of their ancestral lands until near the end of the eighteenth century. Of the great families of Dunnes, O’Connors and O’Molloys almost all were displaced by the Cromwellian settlement of the 1650s with the loss of the O’Connor family coming almost a century earlier, in the mid-1550s and 1560s.

Trollope may have left little or nothing of Banagher in his writings but nonetheless it provided a home to him in those first three years in Ireland and sent him through his own efforts and his reaction to the milieu in which he found himself on the way to a brilliant career as one of the most distinguished writers of the nineteenth century and still very much read and admired.

For the earlier articles  in this series see the blogs by

James Scully on Arthur Bell Nicholls of Banagher, Noel Guerin on Andrew Merry and Michael Byrne on Joyce and a quid of Tullamore.