Clonony Castle, built c.1500 on a limestone outcrop in the ancient district of Cluain Uaine, dominates the surrounding landscape. (Photo by Rob Riddell Irl)
This was one of several strongholds constructed locally by the MacCoughlan clan, lords of the tuath or territory of Delvin in western Offaly until the C17th.
Having been ceded to the Crown, the castle was granted by King Henry VIII to his second wife Anne Boleyn’s father Thomas Boleyn, newly created Earl of Ormond. Just a few yards from the main entrance lies a large limestone slab, the tombstone of the beheaded Queen’s cousins Elizabeth and Mary Bullyn.
In the 1620s the castle was granted to Mathew de Renzi who was born in Cologne, moved to Antwerp, London, and thence Ireland. His relationship with the MacCoughlans was curious. Initially he spoke of being ostracised by them (understandably since they had lost their lands to him) but relations improved to the extent that de Renzi learned the Gaelic language. His tombstone in Athlone credits him with writing a dictionary in the Irish tongue.
In the 1830s the castle belonged to Edmond Molony, an enthusiastic barrister-at-law who kept two flagstaffs on the battlements for commemorating his professional triumphs. His wife died in January 1839 and was interred in St. George’s Chapel in London. The epitaph on her monument erected by her husband is extremely long, and includes the immortal lines: “She was hot, passionate and tender / A highly accomplished lady / And a superb drawer in water colours“.
Moystown is the location of Tissaran, an early Christian monastery founded by the rather obscure Saint Saran. A C6th headstone from the adjoining cemetery is to be found in the old church at Belmont. Many victims of the Great Famine were interred in Tissaran. The burial ground beside the early C19th Church of Ireland edifice contains the graves of several descendants of Henry L’Estrange, who acquired the land in 1633. One, an C18th MP for Banagher known as “Handsome Harry”, built the original bridge at what is now Shannonbridge. Another bridge (1804) on the Grand Canal is named for the family, who were local landlords until 1855, when they emigrated to America. Their former residence, Moystown House, is now a total ruin.
Shannon Harbour (Co. Offaly / West)
Shannon Harbour (Caladh na Sionainne) (pop. 30) is a pleasant village on the Grand Canal near its River Shannon terminus next to the mouth of the River Brosna. (Photo – www.iwai.ie)
The local townland was formerly known as Clononeybeg (Cluain Uaine Bheag), clearly linked to the MacCoughlan clan’s Clononey Castle.
Shannon Harbour was purpose-built in 1830. Once a busy port with a population of over 1000, it fell into disuse with the canal and was for many years a sleepy village; the old canalside Grand Hotel has been a roofless ruin since the 1930s.
The Harbour has received a new lease of life from the growth of pleasure traffic on the Shannon Waterway System, including the canal,and is now a hub for rivercraft and watersports enthusiasts, especially coarse anglers, providing winter berths for about 100 boats. The village has two friendly traditional pubs.
The Callows on both sides of this stretch of the River Shannon comprise flood meadows that provide a habitat for rare plants, nesting sites for native wildfowl, and winter roost for migrating visitors. Bullock Island is almost the last Irish mainland haven for the once ubiquitous Corncrake.
Banagher (Co. Offaly / West)
Banagher (Beannchar – “the place of the pointed rocks”) (pop 1600) is an attractive town with interesting Georgian and Victorian architecture and several good pubs and eateries.
Banagher’s importance derives from its strategic position on the River Shannon, here spanned by a 7-arch bridge, erected in 1843 under the supervision of Thomas Rhodes, brother of the colourful empire-builder Cecil Rhodes (whose Famous Last Words were “So little done, so much to do“, often misquoted as “So much to do, so little time to do it“), and widened in 1971. The first bridge was built in 1049. The remains of a 1685 structure known as Sarsfield’s Bridge are still visible.
Saint Rynagh founded a nunnery here in the C6th. The location was long an important river crossing point, fordable by warriors, merchants and pilgrims alike.
Crown troops navigated upstream to seize the position in the mid-C16th, establishing a stronghold at Fort Frankford to hold it against the MacCoghlan clan, who remained dominant in the area for more than half a century after the 1556 shiring of King’s County.
The town was incorporated by Royal Charter of King Charles I in 1628, and the Fort was renamed in honour of Henry Cary, Viscount Falkland, Lord Deputy of Ireland 1622-29.
Banagher was taken by Kilkenny Confederacy troops in1642, shortly after the outbreak of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, but captured by Cromwellian forces under Henry Ireton in 1650; the next ten years saw many settlers in the area.
In the Williamite War the Banagher garrison declared for King James II, keeping the bridge open for the Jacobite army led by Patrick Sarsfield.
Banagher’s economy took off in the late C18th; the advent of the Grand Canal was a great boon for local industry and agriculture, raising the population to 3000 by 1846, but this fell by over 50% after the Great Famine, and the 1884 extension of the Great Southern & Western Railway to the town from Clara was of only limited help.
Both banks of the River Shannon at Banagher were fortified, but the structures that still stand are all on the Connacht side. Cromwell’s Castle, dating from 1652, was modified in 1817. Fort Eliza, aka the Salt Battery, was constructed in 1812, around the same time as the Martello Tower. Both were designed to repel French invaders navigating upriver.
The town had a permanent garrison until 1883. The barracks erected in 1800, incorporating the perimeter wall of the former Fort Falkland, was used by the local constabulary for some years; although long empty, it was burned in 1922.
Crank House, one of two carefully conserved bowfronted Georgian buildings, is the town’s Tourist Information Point; look out for publications by local historian Val Todd.
Saint Rynagh’s monastic settlement is marked by a ruined medieval church, in use by the Anglican community until 1829. Excavations in the churchyard in 1850 unearthed the Cross of Banagher, dating from c.800 AD, now in the NMI.
St Rynagh’s church (RC) was built in 1829 on land donated by the Armstrong family, local landlords who firmly supported Catholic Emancipation. The belfry and spire were added in 1878. The church contains an interesting polychrome wooden mandorla Madonna & Child carving by Imogen Stuart (1974).
St Paul’s church (CoI), a handsome edifice overlooking the town, was erected in 1829.
Anthony Trollope was stationed in Banagher as a Post Office surveyor; it was here that he commenced his first published book, The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1847). Apart from his literary fame, he is credited with the introduction of the pillar box throughout the UK.
Oscar Wilde’s father, Sir William Wilde, attended the Royal School at Cuba Court, a magnificent edifice built c.1730 with money from Cuban sugar plantations, described by Maurice Craig as “perhaps the most splendidly masculine house in the whole country“; the building was demolished in the 1980s.
The Rev Arthur Bell Nicholls, husband of Charlotte Bronte, is known to literary history as the Rector of Banagher. His father was the headmaster of Cuba Court school. The couple visited his parents here on their honeymoon. He returned after her premature death in 1855, and lived locally until his own demise in 1906; he is buried in the grounds of St Paul’s church.
Charlotte’s Way is the name now given to Hill House (1753), formerly the Rev Nicholl’s residence, currently run as an elegant B&B.
The Brosna Lodge Hotel, run by the Horan family, is a pleasant 2-star establishment with a friendly bar and restaurant.
River tourism is catered for by a spacious modern marina. Access to it from Waller’s Quay under an old swivel section of the bridge involves use of the Duke’s Rail, commemorating a transitory 1897 visit by the Duke of York (later King George V).
The Banagher Concrete Group made the blocks and internal rings for the Channel Tunnel between England and France.
Banagher’s Horse Fair is a historically famous event, still held every September. Presumably originating from the dealing that goes on, there is a ritualistic exchange or saying “That beats Banagher, Banagher beats the devil.” What it actually means nobody seems to know.