Over the past few months I have been finalizing a book on the memorials in Saint Rynagh’s Graveyard in Banagher. For some time now the recording of the transcriptions has been complete but the decision to add a description of each memorial has absorbed more time than intended. It has however been a most rewarding task because now when I visit other graveyards I look at memorials with a more trained eye and with greater awareness of the skills and talents of the stonecutters. This has fostered a greater appreciation of the decorative carvings and lettering styles which are abundant throughout County Offaly. It has also prompted greater recognition of unusual features such as ligatures, mirrored letters, ampersands and other hallmarks of a vernacular style. Above all it has stimulated a resolve to publicize those monuments which are unique whether it be for the occupational or funerary symbols portrayed on them or that they are fine examples of a particular stonecutter. Tombstones which have a dedication of literary merit or those which carry symbols of the Passion of Our Lord will also be a focus of attention.
Everywhere in the world today, the role and validity of public art, particularly statues of historical figures, is under scrutiny. At the same time it is the policy of our new Government to place an increased emphasis on urban quality-which presumes the installation of even more public art. This could be a recipe for conflict but much can be learnt from an examination of the history and experience of the provision of sculpture in County Offaly, and its errors and successes.
The Three Tests
I suggest that three criteria, all of which are of course totally subjective, apply to any reconsideration of the role of public art. The first is the continuing historical acceptability of the person or event which is commemorated. In Offaly, it is beyond doubt that the Manchester Martyrs Memorial in Birr or the War of Independence Memorial at the Courthouse in Tullamore would pass that test. The second is the intrinsic artistic quality of the work and ‘Saints and Scholars’ by Maurice Harron on the Tullamore bypass is generally agreed to be both striking and imaginative. Finally, there is the work’s contribution to a planned urban ensemble and in this respect both the Downshire Memorial in Edenderry and the Barnes-McCormack Memorial in Banagher which close vistas or reflect their settings, would qualify. It gets a lot trickier however when a work satisfies some of the criteria but not all.
For example, in our capital city the statue of Daniel O’Connell, the ‘Liberator’, marks the entrance to the fine boulevard which bears his name and having been designed and executed by the greatest Irish sculptor of his day John Henry Foley, it clearly fulfils all three criteria of artistic worth, civic design contribution and an historically enhanced reputation.
However, further along the same street the statue of Horatio Nelson failed the public acceptability test and along with its beautiful and blameless Doric pillar, was blown up in 1967.
Interestingly, Birr provides a precisely similar scenario. The image of the third Earl of Rosse in John’s Mall is also a fine example of Foley’s skill, and the reputation of ‘The Astronomer Earl’ has grown over the years. The statue, by virtue of its scale and location, is an integral part of a well-designed public space. Thus all three criteria are fulfilled.
In nearby Emmet Square stands the finest urban ensemble in Offaly and the only extant example in Ireland of the use of a central column as a focus for a public plaza. Whatever about the artistic merit of his statue which stood atop its elegant Doric pillar, the brutal reputation of the Duke of Cumberland was anathema to many and the discovery of a crack gave a valid excuse for its removal by Birr Town Council in 1915. Had Dublin Corporation adopted the same approach, the column upon which Nelson stood and which contributed to the scale and architectural character of O’Connell Street, might still be with us but as in Birr, we would probably still be debating a suitable replacement to cap it.
The issue of whether existing public art is still relevant and making a contribution to its locality can sometimes be contentious, but the location and nature of new public art is always pure dynamite, as the persistent vandalism of the Luke Kelly statues in Dublin (whether for aesthetic reasons or not) demonstrates.
Ideally public art requires public consensus and the smaller communities of Offaly who have got together to commission and install works of high artistic quality to celebrate their own local heroes or legends have shown the way in this regard and their approach deserves study and emulation.
Killeigh commemorates its famous local greyhound ‘Mick the Miller’ with a beautiful bronze piece by Elizabeth O’Kane. Cadamstown remembers local boxer Dick McRedmond in a lovely stone bust by Dermot Scully. In Ballycumber the wonderful little ‘Pilgrim’ trudges wearily to Clonmacnoise along the Erry Way in a delightful work by local artists Gerry Dooley and Lorie Quinn.
It is acknowledged by everyone that in Offaly both semi-State and local authorities have been to the forefront in providing good public art. The ambitious installations provided by Bord na Mona in the Lough Boora Discovery Park make it one of the best sculpture parks in Europe and it is the calling card of Offaly Tourism. Through its operation of the Percent for Art scheme, Offaly County Council has provided many imaginative and successful works in every part of the county, most recently Holger Lonze’s ‘Cruinne’ in Geashill and the ‘Marker Stone’ on top of Croghan Hill by Ciaran Byrne.
The elephant in the room however, is that almost all of these are in rural, village or remote locations and therefore their theme and siting is relatively uncontentious. A proposal to install a major piece of sculpture in the centre of any of the principal towns of the county on the other hand would immediately raise the questions of where, who, why, by whom and at what cost and inevitably cause a row. Nonetheless, busy central public spaces, both existing and planned, should now be the first choice locations for new artwork and these issues must be faced and a reasonable public consensus sought.
The county capital, Tullamore town centre has only three significant sculptural works, the two long established War Memorials and the 1999 ‘Pot Stills’ in Market Square by Eileen McDonagh. The recent Street Enhancement Scheme which might have provided the opportunity for the installation of a significant new work, instead inexplicably and without giving public notice, required the removal of the Memorial to the Dead of the Great War from O’Connor Square, despite its designation as a Protected Structure. Following an outcry and Ministerial intervention, it was saved but its generous planted setting vanished and it now stands looking a little lost and unhappily compromised by car parking. A more considered and consultative approach to our urban heritage is urgently required
A Phoenix arises?
The installation of a fine new piece of sculpture to adorn the historic centre of Tullamore is long overdue and the imminence of a new town plan presents the opportunity for its delivery. Hopefully, unlike its predecessor, the new plan will include a coherent vision for the preservation and enhancement of the town’s architectural heritage.
It might also follow the lead of other local authorities and outline the role that urban art would play in making the centre more attractive and even suggest where new sculpture or installations might be placed. The Offaly County Council Public Art Working Group could then initiate a debate as to appropriate subjects. One relatively uncontentious idea that has been around for years and which would certainly stimulate the imagination of a talented artist, would be that of the Phoenix- the symbol of the town.
This is now the time to start the debate on how Tullamore can celebrate its history, remember those who made a contribution to it and furnish its historic centre with new and exciting public art.
It must be conceded that the unassertive landscapes of County Offaly have never been a great source of inspiration to painters, most of whom just made a quick stop at historic Clonmacnoise before dashing on to record the West of Ireland.
Yet, others took the trouble to look more closely (or were paid to do so) and found inspiration in its lush farmland, bogs and woods, slow rivers, rolling hills and ancient ruins. Happily, their numbers have grown in the recent past.
The Cotton Map
The first, and in my opinion the finest, artistic image of Offaly is the Cotton Map of 1565. Prepared to assist the Elizabethan Plantation, this is an imaginative creation more akin to Harry Potter’s ‘Marauder Map’ or Robert Louis Stevenson’s chart of Treasure Island than a realistic cartographic exercise. One wonders if its unknown compilers ever visited Offaly or were relying on travellers’ tales.
In August 1939 the Irish travel writer Richard Hayward set out on a road trip to explore the Shannon just two weeks before the Second World War broke out. His evocative account of that trip, Where the River Shannon Flows, became a bestseller. The book, still sought after by lovers of the river, captures an Ireland of small shops and barefoot street urchins that has long since disappeared.
Eighty years on, inspired by his work, Paul Clements retraces Hayward’s journey along the river, following – if not strictly in his footsteps – then within the spirit of his trip. From the Shannon Pot in Cavan, 344 kilometres south to the Shannon estuary, his meandering odyssey takes him by car, on foot, and by bike and boat, discovering how the riverscape has changed but is still powerful in symbolism. Paul Clements will be giving an illustrated lecture on Monday 17 Feb. at 8.00 p.m. at the Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore ‘The spirit of the Shannon: a journey along the River Shannon in Richard Hayward’s footsteps’ Admission is €5 and includes tea and biscuits. So why not come along to hear and see this wonderfully illustrated talk.
The Williams company of Tullamore (1884–1996) was in the malting business from 1892. Other Tullamore firms included Egan, Tarleton and B. Daly, the Tullamore distillery. In this article Michael Power tells his story. This piece was first published in Jip-cat, pig’s head, petticoats and combinations: our lives, our times in Tullamore and surrounding districts; editor Feargal Kenny. Tullamore: Tullamore Active Retirement Association, 2002 (available from Offaly History Centre).
As a seasonal worker in the Maltings, you started in September when the harvest came in and wound up in May when the malting was over. I became a permanent worker [at Williams/B Daly/Tullamore Distillery [in 1932 and remained there for fifty years. The work was hard, labouring work, carrying sacks, working in the malthouse, screening malt and barley and carrying sacks of grain.
Arthur & Charlotte: A Victorian Romance Remembered is the title for a dramatic evening to be presented by Offaly History in Hugh Lynch’s Pub, Tullamore on Thursday 5th December at 8 p.m. The event will chronicle the story of Arthur Bell Nicholls of Banagher and his romance with and marriage to the famous Victorian novelist, Charlotte Brontë of Haworth in Yorkshire. Using contemporary source material the presentation will narrate this intriguing love story in written word and song. Readings will recall Arthur’s early years when he lived in Cuba House with his uncle the Reverend Alan Bell, Master of the Royal School of Banagher, his subsequent ordination and appointment as curate to the Reverend Patrick Brontë in Haworth.
Extracts from Charlotte’s letters will describe her marriage to Arthur and her honeymoon in Ireland. The production will close with an account of Arthur’s life following Charlotte’s death in 1855 and his return from Haworth to Banagher in 1861, up to his death in 1906.The event will be performed by the Martello Tower Players from Banagher, All proceeds from the evening will go towards the new Offaly Archives recently completed in the Axis Business Park, Clara Road Tullamore. Tickets are €12 each and can be obtained from Offaly History Centre. Telephone: 05793 21421 or email: email@example.com and James Scully, Banagher
The fifth That Beats Banagher Festival held this summer was a great success. As in previous years the festival included an imaginative heritage event. This year participants were brought on a walkabout in the old graveyard on the ancient monastic site of Saint Rynagh. The event was entitled An Encounter with Banagher’s Faithful Departed which hinted at the scenes which were to unfold.
Banagher’s Cuba Court (now demolished) is said to date from the 1730s and may have been constructed by one George Frazer, a former Governor of Cuba and perhaps to a design of Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. The house was unroofed in 1946 because, like so many Irish houses, it was ruined by the policy on rates at the time. If the abolition of rates in 1977 was disastrous for the National Debt and local government at least, it may have contributed to the saving of many Irish houses.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century Cuba was the home of Denis Bowes Daly. Bowes Daly was a prominent member of the local ascendancy. Prior to his death in 1821 he had leased Cuba Court to the Army Medical Board as of 1804 on a 61-year lease. The building was but little used as a hospital and the Medical Board was quite happy to give it up to the Commissioners of Education for the purpose of the Royal School. In 1819 the school had some forty pupils. The then headmaster, Thomas Morris, was succeeded by Revd Alan Bell in 1822. Bell purchased the headmastership from Morris for £1,000.
Alan Bell was at the time master of a classical school in Downpatrick and was the son of a County Antrim farmer. He graduated from T.C.D. in 1814. One of his assistant teachers in the late 1830s was Arthur Nicholls, a nephew and a past pupil of Banagher school. Alan Bell died in 1839 and was succeeded by Revd James Hamilton. After a succession of school masters James Adamson Bell, son of Revd Alan Bell, was appointed in 1848 – at the age of 21. The later agreed, at an inquiry at Tullamore in 1855, that he had not the experience at the time to run the establishment. He graduated from T.C.D. with a B. A. in 1847 and in 1852 became a clergyman. The school improved under his management and had 36 pupils in 1852.
Arthur Bell Nicholls
Arthur Bell Nicholls was born of Scottish parents in County Antrim in 1818. He was orphaned early and subsequently brought up by his headmaster uncle in Banagher. He graduated from T.C.D. in 1844 and became curate of Haworth in 1845. It was at Haworth in the West Riding of Yorkshire that he met Charlotte Bronte, daughter of Patrick Bronte, a clergyman at Haworth. Charlotte was born in 1816 and at 31 published an extremely successful novel, Jane Eyre. Her sister, Emily, had earlier published Wuthering Heights. Bell was two years younger than Charlotte and was said to be very serious, almost grave, reserved religious young man of strong convictions – highly conscientious in the performance of his parish duties and narrow in his ideas. Phyllis Bently in her book The Brontes and their World described the marriage proposal and acceptance as follows:
‘For some time Charlotte had been uneasily aware of constraint and awkwardness in Nicholl’s behaviour in her presence, and when one evening in December 1852, just after the disappointing reception of Villette by George Smith, Nicholls on leaving Mr. Bronte’s study tapped on the parlour door, she guessed in a flash what was coming. But she had not realized how strong his feelings for her were. Pale, shaking from head to foot, speaking with difficulty in a low but vehement tone, Nicholls made her understand what this declaration meant to him. She asked if he had spoken to Mr. Bronte; he said, he dared not. She half led, half pushed him from the room, promising him an answer on the morrow, then went immediately to her father with news of the proposal. Mr. Bronte was furious. Charlotte’s own accounts of this courtship and eventual engagement, given in her letters to Ellen Nussey as it went along, could not be bettered in the finest novel in the world. Mr. Bronte’s jealous fury, expressing itself as snobbish resentment – a curate with £100 a year marry his famous daughter! Mr. Nicholl’s stubborn passion, which almost unseated his reason – he would not eat or drink; stayed shut up in his lodgings at the Browns’ (though he still took poor old Flossy out for walks); broke down in the Communion Service, while the village women sobbed around; was rude to a visiting Bishop; resigned his Haworth curacy and agreed to remain till Mr. Bronte found another curate; volunteered as a missionary to Australia but finally took a curacy at Kirk Smeaton, in the West Riding itself. Charlotte, exasperated by Nicholl’s lack of the qualities she desired in a husband, infuriated by her father’s ignoble objections to the match, conscious of the absence of alternatives. The villagers, torn between opposing parties – some say they would like to shoot Mr. Nicholls, but they gave him a gold watch as a parting present. What a tragic drama – or a roaring comedy, depending on its result. Love, coupled with Charlotte’s loneliness and Mr. Bronte’s dissatisfaction with his new curate, Mr. De Renzi, triumphed.
The only-known surviving portrait of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte was painted by their brother Branwell in 1834 and then bought by the National Portrait Gallery in 1914 after it was rediscovered in Banagher. The painting is creased because it was discovered folded up on top of a cupboard in 1914 by the second wife of Charlotte’s husband.
The marriage took place at Haworth on 29 June, 1854, just 165 years ago. The honeymoon was in Ireland and if Bell was a poor unknown curate in England – in Banagher he was a member of a respectable family. In a letter quoted by Mrs. Gaskell in her book The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Charlotte wrote:
“My dear husband, too, appears in a new light in his own country. More than once I have had deep pleasure in hearing his praises on all sides. Some of the old servants and followers of the family tell me I am a most fortunate person; for that I have got one of the best gentlemen in the country . . . . I trust I feel thankful to God for having enabled me to make what seems a right choice; and I pray to be enabled to repay as I ought the affectionate devotion of a truthful, honourable man. “
She noted of the school in Cuba House where she stayed while in Banagher: “It is very large and looks externally like a gentleman’s country seat – within most of the rooms are lofty and spacious, and some – the drawing room, dining room &c handsomely and commodiously furnished. The passages look desolate and bare – our bedroom, a great room of the ground floor, would have looked gloomy when we were shown into it but for the turf fire that was burning in the wide old chimney. “Mrs. Bentley felt in her biography that it was difficult to judge whether Charlotte was happy in her marriage. “We’ve been so happy,’ she murmured to her husband, and she spoke warmly of his care and affectionate company when she was ill. But to Ellen she wrote: ‘It is a solemn and strange and perilous thing for a woman to become a wife.’ At least she was no longer lonely, but alway occupied, always needed; she had a parish and two men to care for – ‘my time is not my own now’ – and knew the reality of sex.
In January 1855 Charlotte discovered she was pregnant. It was accompanied by severe illness and she died on 31 March 1855 probably killed by the same illness – consumption – that had killed her two sisters and her brother. The marriage was of short duration – no more than nine months. As to Mr. Nicholls he “remained faithfully with Mr. Bronte in Haworth for the six long years which remained of the old man’s life. He was a somewhat stern guardian of the bedridden invalid that Mr. Bronte rapidly became, and allowed himself a strong dislike to references to his wife’s fame, refusing, for example to baptize infants with the names of any of the Bronte family. Mr. Bronte, learning this, once baptized an infant in his bedroom from a water jug – a sufficient indication of the terms on which the two men stood. When Mr. Bronte died in 1861 Mr. Nicholls returned to Banagher, taking with him his wife’s portrait, her wedding dress (of which a copy has been made), some of Charlotte’s letters and other mementoes, including Mr. Bronte’s dog Plato and Martha Brown. He made a happy second marriage with his cousin, but did not forget Charlotte. Forty years later, when the critic Clement Shorter prepared to write Charlotte Bronte and Her Circle, he found at Banagher among other cherished relics two diary notes of Emily and Anne, in a tin box, and some of the minute childhood writings wrapped in newspaper at the bottom of a drawer.
The following report of the pictures he brought from Haworth appeared in 1914 in a local newspaper:
Banagher and Valuable Pictures
The Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery have purchased and placed in Room XXXVII a group and a single portrait of considerable personal value. The group represents the portraits of Charlotte Bronte and her two sisters Emily and “dear”, gentle Anne”; the single image is believed to be a long lost portrait of Emily, both pictures from the brush of the brother, Branwell, who was born a year later than Charlotte. The importance of the discovery is indicated also by the reference of the London daily papers. The Morning Post, from which the above extract is taken, says further:- “There seems to have been another group of the three sisters by Branwell. Mr. A. B. Nicholls took the picture with him to Ireland, and not caring much for the portraits of his wife, Charlotte, and Ann he cut them out of the canvas and destroyed them. He retained the portrait of Emily, however, and gave it Martha Brown, the Brontes servant, on one of her visits to Ireland. Martha took it back with her to Haworth, and from that date the fragment disappeared until recently rediscovered in the possession of the widow of Mr. Nicholls, and from her acquired for the National Portrait Gallery.
In order to ascertain particulars the editor of the King’s Co. Chronicle communicated with the Revd. J. J. Sherrard, B. D. , Banagher, wrote to the Chronicle on 7th March –
“The Rev. A. B. Nicholls, left an orphan at six, was practically adopted by Rev. A. Bell, Headmaster of Cuba School, which Mr. N. who was a relative, attended as a boy. He returned to Banagher after the death of Rev. P. Bronte, to whom he was curate in Yorkshire, and married Miss Bell, daughter of Rev. A. Bell. The pictures, two in number – one of the three sisters and one of Emily, were found wrapped in brown paper in a wardrobe a few weeks ago in the Hill House, Banagher, by Mrs. Nicholls, who sent them to Mr. Smith, of Smith and Elder, Publishers of Charlotte Bronte’s books, and were sold through him to the National Gallery. The enclosed cutting (from the Morning Post) is wrong in stating the picture given to Martha Brown was among these. It was not and is believed to be lost.
Subsequent to the publication of the above there appeared in the Morning Post a letter from James J. Sherrard of Banagher a letter dated March 8, 1914. ” Sir, I have received a copy of the “Morning Post” containing an article animadverting on some information I had recently forwarded to the King’s County Chronicle with reference to the above. I may state that your account of the discovery, &c. , of the pictures – though not quite correct- was nearer the truth than any of the accounts I read in other newspapers. The facts are as follows: The pictures sent by Mrs. Nicholls to the National Gallery have been at The Hill House, Banagher, ever since they were brought there by the late Rev. A. B. Nicholls. The single one of Emily – cut out of a large portrait containing three sisters – was preserved by Mr. Nicholls. The rest of picture, with the portraits of his wife Charlotte and Anne, was handed to Martha Brown – who lived at The Hill House for upwards of eight years – not for preservation, but to be destroyed, and it is believed it was destroyed by her. I need not go into all the reasons for this action on the part of Mr. Nicholls. You see, therefore, that I was correct in saying that the picture of Emily forwarded to the National Gallery was never in Martha Brown’s possession, though I was mistaken in implying that Mr. Nicholls had ever given any portrait to Martha Brown. I have the above facts on the best living authority. Yours &c. “ James J. Sherrard.
Banagher before the First World War
Charlotte Bronte and the Bell Family
Charlotte died in 1855 and her husband at Banagher in 1906. He had married his cousin and spent the last 45 years of his life there. Their writings place the three Bronte sisters on the highest eminence. Today their novels are read with the same avidity as marked their first publication, and promise to be perpetual. Charlotte’s, Jane Eyre, a romantic love story, met the public eye in 1847, and immediately had an immense circulation, which greatly relieved the straightened circumstances of the family, besides winning lasting fame for its author. Her two other principal works of fiction are known by the names Shirley and Villette, the former a tragedy appearing two years after the first, and at which time her brother and two sisters were dead. In both stories nearly all the people appear as living pictures of relatives and neighbours, and both secured a circulation surpassing expectation. Emily’s undying fame is due to her novel, Wuthering Heights, which saw the light in 1847, but she was not destined to reap the reward of her success as she expired in the course of another brief year, aged 30. The sister Anne’s novel, Agnes Grey, afforded another evidence of the almost evenly divided genius of the three immortal sisters.
Cuba School, Banagher, was one of the Royal educational institutions in Ireland, and ceased as such about 40 years ago, its last master under the endowment having been Mr. Joyce, who afterwards became a medical doctor. The school turned out not a few who rose to distinction in after life, one of these having been the late Sir William, father of Oscar Wilde.
Hill House, where Nicholls spent so many years, was sold to Major Bell in 1919. He died in 1944 and his wife inherited the property. Florence Bell died in 1959. It is now once again open to visitors who can enjoy its restored appearance and sense the history of a place connected in a curious way with the Bronte family.
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’.
Offaly had a small but significant part in the early years of military aviation. In September 1913 Offaly was an important base for some of the earliest uses of aircraft in the annual British Army manoeuvres; some of the Royal Flying Corps’ earliest crashes took place in Offaly during those operations. Approximately 85 men who served in the Allied flying services were born or from Offaly, but their impact was far greater than would be expected. Ferbane hosted an operational wartime base at ‘RAF Athlone’, and there was a landing ground at Birr during the 1918-1920 mobilisation period.