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.
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.
The Parker Brothers of Clara and John Martin of Tullamore. One of the Parker boys was killed as was John Martin on 8 October 1918.
There was very little published work relating to Offaly in World War I until recent times. The 1983 essay by Vivienne Clarke was a first and rare examination of the period in Offaly, until Tom Burnell’s Offaly War Dead in 2010, and 2014’s Edenderry in the Great War by Catherine Watson. And so nearly every essay published in Offaly and the Great War which was launched to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War represents new and original historical research and findings, a very exciting prospect in the world of history publishing.The seventeen contributors have submitted essays that cover every aspect of the war and from almost all corners of the county.
I was fortunate to be invited to visit Banagher during Heritage Week in August 2018. Unfortunately I missed the presentation by Messrs Keenaghan and Scully but am told that all went swimmingly or, as we say up here in BAC, it was a hoot. Anyway I have many relations in the Banagher district and some of my ancestors were distillers and engineers about that town and in Kilcormac. I always like to visit Houghs when in Banagher. It was beloved by my old friend Hugh Leonard. I have had a pint or two with ‘admiralty men’ in Pawky Flynn’s and in the Railway Bar.
Not so many years ago we had fine restaurants in Brosna Lodge, the Shannon Hotel (a disgrace now) and we had Valerie Landon’s pottery. I remember the great Waller firm and Ray O’Donovan up in the Midland Maltings. It’s a fine old town and deserves a right good clean up and boost to its business. If Mrs Quirke was alive now what would she say not to mention the late R.H. Moore who my father and grandfather told me was one of nature’s gentlemen. I wonder how is the Vocational School going now. The late Elsie Naugton even had the boys playing hockey. I read somewhere that La Sainte Union had the first flush toilet in Offaly for the new French order of nuns there. It was a great place for the young ladies of the midlands. The old Royal School was long closed in my time but a bit of it survived up to when I left the area. There was always a bit of quality about Banagher and it would be a shame to lose it. Anyway my piece this week is culled from the Birr bastion of unionism, the Chronicle. I know Trollope and Charlotte Bronte would have liked its sentiments but it would not sit so easy with the Sinn Féin men of more recent times.
From the Kings County Chronicle, 18 July 1918
Banagher, well known for its celebrated annual fair, held on the 15th, 16th and 17th of September, is in the Rynagh Parish, Garry Castle Barony, six miles north-west of Parsons town (Birr), 82, miles from Dublin, on the east bank of the Shannon, near the confluence of the Little Brosna, and just in the angle of three of the four provinces, being within Leinster, and divided by the Shannon from Connaught, while lower down the river, a little distance, is the juncture of the Brosna, on the other shore of which is Munster. It returned two MPs to the Irish Parliament from Charles 1 to 1800. It is mainly one long street stretching for nearly a mile from the top of the hill at the church to the bridge, near which is the old barrack and the railway terminus.
The Distillery What was one of the largest whiskey distilleries in Ireland was worked by a private company of a few gentlemen, the former and originating company having abandoned it as a failure. It was formerly a mill, but a limited liability company, about the year 1870, reconverted it. Owing to the capital being reduced by the building charges of about £70,000, the enterprise was closed after a few years, and so remained until, owing to the energetic efforts of the former manager, a new company was formed; and the enterprise was at once placed on a firm financial basis. In its first season, such was the fine quality, the distillery was obliged to continue working up to August. Unfortunately, however, this prosperous condition of things did not continue, and the place has since been almost idle, except for malting carried on by Messrs D. E. Williams, Ltd which firm, within the past few years, also started a cabinet factory in the premises. The distillery itself is a splendid pile, heavy sums, years ago, having been expended on buildings and plant.
Public Buildings The Roman Catholic Church is a fine structure, and a clock placed in the tower through the enterprise of a few. Mr. Patrick Hynes, an energetic inhabitant, taking the lead. Here is also an ancient endowed Royal School, but the Government having decided on discontinuing it, a Commission sat to consider, among other matters, the cause of its decline in the number of pupils. The school endowment is very ancient, dating back to the time of Elizabeth, and is on the foundation of the Royal Schools of Ireland. In its time the school sent forth into the world many eminent men, the late Sir William Wilde being one of its pupils.
The first agent of the Bank of Ireland was Mr. W. Scott, and through the energy of the Roman Catholics a fine convent was erected. Three miles off is the ancient historic town of Cloghan Castle. The town is inconveniently, though pleasantly, situated on a rather steep hill sloping to the Shannon. The ancient name was Beandcar, from the pointed eminence on which it is built. It was known as Fortfalk-land and Bannagh. St. Reynach, sister of St. Finian, who died in 563 founded a religious house here called Kill- Rignaighe, and gave her name to the parish. The site of the house is now a burial ground. Amongst its ruins there was a shaft of a stone cross erected in memory of Bishop O’Duffy, of Clonfert, who was killed by a fall from his horse in 1297. This cross was removed to Clonmacnoise, and it represents the Bishop on horseback bearing a crozier. Here the great Felin MacCoghlan was slain in 1539 by the sons of O’Madden after Mass on Sunday. The castle was rebuilt by Teige O’Carroll in spite of the opposition of the O’Maddens. But in 1584 they demolished it, lest it should come into possession of the English.
The Markets Sir John Mac Coghlan, in 1612, obtained a grant to hold a market here on Thursday, but it was afterwards changed to a Monday and is now held on Friday. It was constituted a corporate town by charter of Charles 1 is 1628, the corporation being styled. “The Sovereign, Burgeases and Free Commons of the Borough and Town of Bannacher alias, Banagher.” “The Sovereign” was appointed a justice of the peace, coroner, and a clerk of the market, and had an extended jurisdiction. These offices, as well as to send two members to parliament, lapsed at the Union
Banagher Besieged Banagher gave considerable trouble to the Birr garrison, and often sent out marauding parties who foraged for themselves pretty freely in the surrounding district. However, when Birr Castle surrendered to General Preston, the natives evacuated Banagher. Dr Warren describes what happened then in his words: “There being no opposition made to Preston, he sat down before Fort Falkland (Banagher), a place of strength enough to have held out against him longer then he could have stayed in that season of the year, and for want of provisions. But though those within were numerous, yet many of them were not serviceable, and they were much encouraged by a long and vain expectation of succour from the monastery which had entirely neglected them. It would have been impossible, indeed, that they should have done, had it not been for the relief, which was sent, then, from time to time, by Lord Clanricarde but as he was himself, then surrounded with too many difficulties to afford them a prospect of succour, and as Preston had granted an honourable capitulation to the garrison in Birr, the besieged were inclined to surrender to him, for fear of falling into worse hands. Therefore, the next day after he came up to Fort falkland, before any battery was raised. Lord Castleward, the Governor, capitulated and was to be conveyed safe, with all his people to the fort of Galway.” It seems this garrison was finally delivered at the castle of Athlone.
Sarsfield at Banagher “All the island called Enisbreary, alias Island MacCoghlan, in the barony of Garrycastle, and also the two ruinous castles of Banagher and Belanaley,” with “liberty of fishing in the Shannon, in the aforesaid barony” were about 1671 granted to John Blysse. A right to establish a ferry was also given, the annual rent for the lands being 10s and for the ferry 5s. As appears by Sarsfield’s operations that he repeatedly crossed a bridge here, the old bridge at Banagher must have been built before then, and the ferry discontinued. From Harris we learn that when Sarsfield attacked Birr in 1690, the English generals – Douglas, Kirk and Lanier – advanced, reliving Birr, and driving Sarsfield across the Shannon to Banagher. The attempt by the English to destroy the bridges was too dangerous, as the Irish were strongly posted on the Connaught side, besides defending the bridge with a castle and other works. The present bridge is on the site of the ancient one.”
The Armstrong Family At Mount Cartaret is the seat of a very old and universally respected family, the Armstrongs, of Scottish extraction. They have resided about Banagher for over two centuries. A mural tablet, dated 1680, records “Here lies the body of Gerald Armstrong.” On another is “Armstrong, four brothers, 1700.” Their first ancestor in Ireland was Thomas Armstrong, who came over in 1657. The present representative is Major T.P. St. G. Armstrong, J.P., and a constant resident with his family.
A Masonic Lodge, No. 306, was by warrant, dated 1758, from the Earl of Drogheda, G.M. of Ireland, founded in Banagher.
[I read somewhere that Trollope was a member of this lodge and had great high jinks when the new bridge was opened. A big bill for the bottles but at least they paid for themselves.]
Next time I get the OK to contribute to Offaly History I may do something on Raleen near Mount Bolus where I believe the last of the chiefs of my clan was located. But then I might recall Kieran Molloy of Clonmacnoise. Do any of you remember them when they looked the monastic site. Some of them were teachers there. I think Clonmacnoise has 150,000 visitors a year now at near €10 each and that cannot be bad. Good to see my old friends in Lukers getting a few visitors from it, not to mention Birr Castle.
One hundred blogs is a reason to celebrate this September day in 2018. Yes 100 articles, 150,000 words, at least 400 pics – and the 100 stories have received 64,000 views and climbing every week. In 2018 alone we have received over 32,000 views. The list of all that has been published can be viewed on Offalyhistoryblog. We have lots more lined up. We welcome contributors, so if you have a history story you want to share contact us. The other big story is happening on Monday night with the launch of Offaly History 10.
So it’s Heritage Week and Saturday 25 August 2018 was given over to a tour of the West Offaly castles in the company of Kieran Keenaghan and James Scully. It was a full day starting at the lovely Crank House, Banagher at 10. a.m. This house is a tourist facility and a community endeavour from a community co-operative society. Banagher needs all the support it can get in the form of incentives and tax relief schemes to bring the older houses, including the Shannon Hotel, back into use. Continue reading
Arthur Bell Nicholls first came to Banagher in 1825 when he and his brother Alan were adopted by their uncle, the Rev. Alan Clerke Bell, master of Banagher Royal School and his wife, Harriette. Following a successful education there he entered Trinity College Dublin and graduated in 1844. The following year he was ordained and entered the curacy at Haworth in Yorkshire where Patrick Brontë was perpetual curate. He remained there for sixteen years. During this time he became a dedicated and trustworthy friend of the Brontë family and would have witnessed at close quarters the joyful and heartbreaking events that befell them. Within the first three years of his curacy the Brontë sisters had their poems and first novels published. Jane Eyre by Charlotte, Wuthering Heights by Emily and Agnes Grey by Anne were all highly acclaimed. Tragically between September 1848 and May 1849 Branwell, Patrick’s only son, and both Emily and Anne died leaving Charlotte as the last surviving of the six Brontë siblings. Continue reading