This famous phrase or exclamation or some version of it has been in use for hundreds of years. There are few instances if any in the English-speaking world where a placename appears in this manner. In all cases it was used dramatically to emphasise in a humorous way what has been said or written. The phrase was seldom if ever employed in a derogatory sense. It was regularly used by public speakers such as members of parliament or lawyers and judges in court. While it was often referred in Great Britain, and indeed in other countries throughout the world, the most common usage was by people at all levels of society in Ireland and it was very much an Irishism. It appears in the works of many famous writers such as AnthonyTrollope, William Carelton, W.B.Yeats, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Plunkett’s Farewell Companions. It also featured regularly in newspapers and on other media as can be seen in the selection below:
I ran down. I could barely speak. Mam and Dad were sitting there, the teapot covered in that knitted cosy and the smell of hot milky tea and rashers ‘Dad! Mam! you will never guess what Santa brought’ says I. ‘A train set no less! Well!— doesn’t that bate Banagher!’ says my father.
Isn’t Santa the smart fellow!’
This ad has been playing every Christmas since 1994 and its repetition of the phrase has helped to keep the expression in current use. The ad tells the heart-warming story of a man remembering Christmas time in his youth. It is regarded as one of the greats on Irish radio due to its superb writing by Catherine Donnelly and perfect delivery by the late Peter Caffrey. In the 1970-80s Mick Feeney wrote a weekly
column in the Evening Herald under the banner heading That Beats Banagher which also gave the phrase additional currency.
Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), hailed in his time as The Liberator, was the acknowledged political leader of Ireland’s Roman Catholic majority in the first half of the 19th century. His mobilisation of Catholic Ireland through to the poorest class of tenant farmer helped secure Catholic emancipation in 1829. O’Connell used the phrase regularly, while speaking in public and in parliament. He was very much associated with the expression and other speakers as well as newspaper reports introduced their use of the expression with ‘as O’Connell would say’ or similar. O’Connell addressed a crowd of 15,000 at a meeting in Banagher in October 1842.
THIS PHRASE AROSE AS A RESULT OF THE ‘CORRUPTION’ OF THE BOROUGH OF BANAGHER IN THE LATE 18TH CENTURY
The first appearance of the phrase in print that has been found to date, is in the Dublin Evening Post in September 1821. A digital search of the British Newspapers Archives reveals that the ‘That Bangs Banagher …’ version was the one most commonly used. The table above shows that between the years 1800 to 1849 ‘Bangs Banagher’ appeared 218 times, ‘Beats Banagher’ 104 times, and ‘Bates Banagher’ 35 times and so on. The fact that the saying does not appear in print earlier than 1820 is very significant and is strongly indicative that its origins are likely to be in the decades before that.
ORIGINS AND EXPLANATION
‘Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’, originally published in 1870 by the Reverend E. Cobham Brewer gives an explanation as follows:
‘That Beats Banagher’
Wonderfully inconsistent and absurd—exceedingly ridiculous. Banagher is a town in Ireland, on the Shannon, in King’s County. It formerly sent two members to Parliament, and was, of course a famous pocket borough.
When a member spoke of a family borough where every voter was a man employed by the lord, it was not unusual to reply… ‘Well, that Beats Banagher !’
Fodor’s Essential Ireland 2020
‘This small Shannon-side town is best known in Ireland because of this common phrase, which dates from the 19th century when the town was the very worst example of a “rotten borough” -a corrupt area controlled by the local landed gentry’
CORRUPTION IN THE IRISH PARLIAMENT
The Westmeath Gazette, on 6 December 1906, announcing the death of Arthur Bell Nicholls, the husband of Charlotte Brontë, associates the phrase with corruption relating to the borough of Banagher, adding that the expression was used in a positive manner and that it would have intrigued English readers.
The Irish Parliament was situated in a magnificent building on College Green in Dublin. Catholics were not allowed to be members of Parliament or indeed entitled to vote and consequently 80% of the population were not represented. Nor indeed was the parliament really representative of the Protestant electorate. Members were almost exclusively from the very wealthy, land owning classes.
The House of Commons was composed of 300 members 200 of which were returned for small boroughs such as Banagher. Only a fraction of these members, sometimes as low as a quarter, were returned by election. . So, who selected those who would govern the country. Most boroughs were under the complete control of patrons whose family had gradually assumed ‘ownership’. Consequently, powerful individuals ‘owned’ or controlled large numbers of seats in the assembly.
A survey of the parliament in 1775 showed that John Ponsonby had influence over twenty-two seats, Lord Shannon commanded eighteen and the Duke of Leinster a mere eleven. The system worked as follows: ‘A member provided with a seat voted on all important questions in accordance with his patron’s wishes; he formed one of the great man’s followers, and the influence of the borough owners was increased by relationship among themselves, and by their power of extorting from the Government places and favours for those who did them good service.
BANAGHER AN HISTORIC BOROUGH
Banagher was incorporated in 1629 by charter of Charles I. As a result, the Corporation of Banagher was empowered to return two members to the Irish House of Commons. The burgess-men and freemen of the borough elected these members. Philipstown (Daingean) was the only other borough town in Offaly (The King’s County). Among the eminent members to represent Banagher were Richard Malone of Ballinahown and the eminent orator John Philpot Curran.
PONSONBY’S OWN BOROUGH OF NEWTOWNARDS
The Ponsonby family were among the most powerful political dynasties in 18th century Ireland. In 1705, although he was from Kilkenny, Brabazon Ponsonby through marriage took control of and consequently was considered to ‘own’ the Borough of Newtownards in County Down. This he achieved even though he had no property whatsoever in that locality. A dispute over the borough went on for years between the Stewarts, who owned vast tracts of land about the town, and the Ponsonbys. This disagreement resulted in the famous act of parliament known as the ‘Newtown Act’. The upshot of this was that despite not being ‘owners of the soil’ of Newtownards the Ponsonby family controlled the patronage of the borough and gentlemen of their choice were the MPs for Newtownards up to 1790.
BANAGHER BECOMES THE POCKET BOROUGH OF PETER HOLMES
A letter in The Freemans Journal May 1772 regarding the corruption of the Irish Parliament included Banagher amongst a list of boroughs that ‘were notorious in the present age for being sent to Market’. From 1761 to 1788 Peter Holmes was MP for Banagher. He was a very wealthy landowner from Peterfield, County Tipperary and was well connected through marriage both to the Ponsonby family and to other leading aristocratic families. A keen observer of the Irish parliament in 1773 wrote that Peter Holmes ‘owned‘ the Borough of Banagher, further declaring ‘this is entirely his own Borough’. It would appear he held no property in the Banagher area. While he occupied one of the borough’s seats the other was free to be sold to the highest bidder regardless of his place of residence. Gradually Holmes had taken ownership of the borough and it was now at his disposal.
THOMAS THE MAW (MAC)COGHLAN BUYS A SEAT FOR £2,100
The other MP for Banagher in 1773 was Thomas Coghlan Esq, the last chief of the MacCoghlans, the clan that once ruled the territory of Delvin Eathra, an area of over 100,000 acres in West Offaly. It surely ‘Bangs Banagher’ that a leading member of such a historic and noble clan was giving £2,100 to Tipperary man, Peter Holmes, for a seat in the Irish Parliament to represent Banagher. Before his death in 1794 MacCoghlan had purchased seats for the boroughs of Castlebar, Carlingford and Augher (County Tyrone). It is most unlikely he ever visited those places.
MacCoghlan was an eccentric character who dressed extravagantly and loved the company of ‘Great people.‘ It was known locally that he kept a mistress in Streamstown Castle, just outside Banagher. He was an ardent traveller and a frequent visitor to Paris (for social purposes!) as the report above points out.
The Maw, as he was known in later life, was a great supporter of the government and seems to have benefitted financially in return. He was allocated various posts such as Trustee to the Linen Board, Storekeeper to the Ordnance and may have held or controlled the post of Distributor of Stamps for King’s County. By 1790 his pension had increased to £850 per annum but even this extravagant sum was not sufficient for his eccentric and expensive romantic habits.
CALEDON HEARS THAT BANAGHER MIGHT BE FOR SALE
James Alexander (who was to become 1st Lord Caledon in 1790) was a most extraordinary man and if any one person is due credit for the saying ‘That beats Banagher’, it must be him. He went to Bengal in India as a twenty-two year old in 1752 and returned just over twenty years later having accumulated over £150,000, all of this while apparently working as a civil servant which was some achievement. Using this vast fortune he acquired several estates including 9,000 acres in County Tyrone which was later to become the Caledon estate. He built the magnificent Caledon House in 1779 to a design by the leading architect Thomas Cooley. The house is still owned by the Alexander family today.
Alexander sat in the Irish Parliament from 1775 until 1790 having purchased a seat for Londonderry city borough. A political commentator of the time was remarkably accurate in his observations about him: ‘His Indian expeditions have placed him in circumstances that may render him totally independent – a short time will manifest whether he is or not.’ Indeed, within a short time he would purchase a borough and thus elevate himself further in the realm of politics. Soon he would hear that the Borough of Banagher was on the market.
1787 BANAGHER SOLD!!!!!
Alexander’s wealth and lust for political status made him a likely client for saleable boroughs. Holmes, who may have been short of money, was known to be in the market. Both were members of the Irish Parliament during the 1780s where they had ample opportunity for socialising and negotiating. In 1787 a deal was done and the Borough of Banagher was sold for the sum of £10,500, roughly one million pounds in today’s terms. Perhaps there was a sweetener to close the deal.After nearly thirty years as the member for Banagher, Peter Holmes was gone and Banagher now belonged to James Alexander from Tyrone. It is unlikely that the new owner ever visited the town or knew of its whereabouts!!!
In this creative reimagining of the moment in 1787 when the Borough of Banagher was sold by Peter Holmes, James Alexander, the Tyrone magnate, cash-in-hand , clinches the deal for £10,500. On the left Thomas Coghlan whose family had been the ancient Gaelic overlords of West Offaly and had represented the borough in the seventeenth century, looks on in dismay. On the right the young Ponsonby brothers who were to take control of the constituency by means of a dishonourable swop in the following year, wonder if there is an opportunity in the deal for them.
1788 BANAGHER SWOPPED!!!
Incredible as it may seem today that the entire franchise of a town could be bought and sold among individuals, this level of decadence was surpassed in the following year. In 1788 George Ponsonby was MP for the borough of Inistioge, County Kilkenny but also owned the borough of Newtownards way up in County Down. James Alexander was MP for the borough of Londonderry City but then also owned the borough of Banagher far down in the King’s County. These were hardworking gentlemen and travel in so far as they would have bothered was hardship and inconvenient. So common sense came to the fore. A swop was suggested and agreed!! It was no big deal…
A contemporary account colourfully describes this nefarious business as follows:
‘Mr Alexander’s residence and principal property being in the County of Tyrone, the attention to the management of a Corporation at such a distance from him, (as Banagher was), he deemed rather inconvenient and Mr Ponsonby being in precisely the same situation with regard to his Borough of Newtownards, in the County of Down, these two proprietors of the manufacturers of Members of Parliament made a mutual transfer of their respective stocks. In consequence of which Mr Ponsonby is now lord paramount of the Borough of Banagher and his word will nominate its future representatives.
AND SO THE PONSONBYS OWN BANAGHER !!
That firstly selling the ‘seat’, then selling the borough, and finally swopping the borough was considered so notorious and outrageous that it gave birth to the exclamation:
‘WELL – THAT BEATS BANAGHER!… AND BANAGHER BEATS THE DEVIL!!!’
The phrase continues to be is used widely today. It has made the name of Banagher famous worldwide. The exclamation will usually bring a smile and often laughter. It is always associated with the uplifting of and raising cheerful spirits.
SO GO FORTH NOW AND USE THE PHRASE AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY!!
Thanks to our new contributor Kieran Keenaghan for this article. If you have a story to tell email us at email@example.com.