Banagher, situated, as it is, on a ford of the Shannon, was a place of considerable strategic importance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was then the chief town of Delvin Eathra, or McCoghlan’s country – a territory which corresponded roughly with the barony of Garrycastle. The parish of Lusmagh, now a part of Garrycastle, did not form part of McCoghlan’s country. Protected as it was by forests and bogs on one side, and by the Shannon on the other, Delvin Eathra enjoyed comparative peace and prosperity up to the time of Henry VIII.
But in the year 1547 its position became in the highest degree precarious. Leading families of the McCoghlan’s quarrelled. Rival claimants for the chieftainship kept the territory in continual discord. These internal dissensions excited the cupidity of the neighbouring chiefs, who were glad of the opportunity of humbling the pride of the McCoghlans. The English, too, always ready to profit by the senseless quarrels of the Irish chiefs, were prepared to intervene, with or without pretext, in favour of one claimant or another.
In 1548 Melaghlin, McCoghlan’s neighbour, invited an English adventurer named Fahy (or White) to assist him against McCoghlan. Fahy gladly accepted the offer, and with an English force entered Melaghlin’s territory, but, in the words of the Four Masters, “Melaghlin brought a rod by which he was himself beaten”. For Fahy turned on Melaghlin, plundering his country and expelled him across the Shannon. He then turned his army against McCoghlan, plundered Delvin Eathra, expelled Cormac McCoghlan across the Shannon and installed one of his rivals, Art McCoghlan, as chief. The exiled Cormac received some assistance from the O’Kellys of Uibh Maine, and soon returned, but he was defeated by Fahy at Cloghan-na-gcaorach on the Blackwater. Elated by his successes over Melaghlin and McCoghlan, Fahy now picked a quarrel with O’Carroll of Eile, and demanded assistance from McCoghlan. McCoghlan refused. He joined O’Carroll instead, and their combined forces expelled Fahy and his English adventurers. Instigated by Fahy, the English returned the same year and plundered and burned the whole of Delvin Eathra from Bealach-an-Fhotair to Tocar-Cinn-Mona, including Banagher and Lusmagh. They remained one night encamped at Baile-na-Cloiche (Stonestown) and returned home next day “with prey and booty without battle or conflict”.
Three Castles Demolished
That McCoghlan should be thus forced to stand idly by while his territory was being ravaged by the invader shows to what a state of impotence the once proud “McCoghlan of the Fair Castles” had been reduced. In a last effort to stem the tide of invasion, he demolished three of his castles – Garrycastle, Moystown and Cloghan-na-gCeapach, lest they should fall into the hands of the English. Harassed by internal dissensions, surrounded by hostile neighbours, and under constant pressure from the English, the old warrior gave up the struggle and sought the protection of the English. In 1551 he repaired to Athlone, received a pardon and a patent for his estate, and Delvin Eathra was put under rent to the King. Thus passed out the lordship of McCoghlan. Six years later Delvin Eathra was incorporated in the newly formed King’s County, and henceforth McCoghlan’s territory became part and parcel of the King’s dominion in Ireland.
But the patronage of the English was insufficient to ensure the peaceable enjoyment of his estates to McCoghlan. In 1553, family quarrels blazed anew. Cormac Caoch McCoghlan plundered and burned large tracts of Delvin Eathra. In this he was assisted by O’Molloy of Fercall. In 1554, Cormac died and afterwards McCoghlan enjoyed comparative peace, at least from those of his own lineage.
But the English were doubtful of McCoghlan’s sincerity, for, in 1557, the Lord Justice compelled him to give hostage for his good behaviour. Among these hostages was McCoghlan’s son. In 1585 Sir John McCoghlan attended Perrott’s Parliament in Dublin. This Sir John McCoghlan died in 1590, and was succeeded by his son known to the English as Sir John McCoghlan, but to the Irish as Sean Og.
It is difficult to assess the character of this Sean Og. His father had been consistently on the side of the English, and it is certain that the English made vigorous efforts to retain the support and friendship of the son. Miler Magrath, writing to Secretary Cecil in 1599 asks him “to show good countenance with fair speeches to Sir John McCoghlan, they being hither to very good subjects.”
After O’Neill’s brilliant victory over the English at Beal-an-Atha-Buidhe he sent a number of officers, including Anthony O’Moore and Captain Tyrrell, to rouse the southern chiefs and to bring them into alliance with O’Neill and O’Donnell. They succeeded in bringing Sean Og into the alliance and the Four Masters say that “though these chiefs had been for some time acting on behalf of the sovereign, they were better pleased to receive peace from these leaders who were traversing every country.”
O’Neill’s March To South
In January, 1600, O’Neill marched to the south of Ireland to strengthen his friendship with his declared allies and to bring over, by force if necessary, those who opposed him. Sean Og, who had in the previous year apparently ranged himself on the side of the O’Neills, now changed his mind. Savage, in a letter from Athlone on 3rd February, 1600, to Secretary Cecil in London, says: “McCoghlan was here with me not four days ago and swore upon a book not to join with him” (i.e. with O’Neill.)
Yet the English were not quite sure of the action Sean Og intended to take, for another English official, passage to Ormond will, no doubt, writing to Cecil, says: “Tyrone in his do all he can to subdue O’Carroll and McCoghlan, if they can stand out against him, a matter which I greatly doubt, considering they are cunning borderers and do know how to handle the time for their own safety” (Jan. 31st. 1600). That official made an accurate forecast, for McCoghlan did not stand out against O’Neill. But fear, not patriotism, was the motive for his compliance. O’Neill wrote a personal letter to McCoghlan which, shows up the character of Sean Og in a clear light and gives a vivid picture of the forceful character of the great Northern chief. Here is the letter: ‘We commend us to you. We have received your letter whereby we understand you intend none other but use fair words, and by delays win time. For our part, of the matter, who taketh not part with us and defend the right, we take that man to be against us. Wherefore deal for yourself, and for us the worst you may, and we accordingly use you to the utmost of our power.” (Feb. 6th 1600). That threat cowed Sean Og for the time being at least.
On November, 26, 1600, Savage wrote to Cecil: “In July, Sir John Coghlan (notice the disappearance of the Mac) joined Sir Arthur Savage to burn the property of the McGeoghegans and the Foxes. By this burning and the other spoils there made upon them these two septs have been forced into the woods.”
Yet, on Donnell’s march to Kinsale in the November of the following year, Sean Og met him with cots at Ath-Croch on the Shannon and ferried over him.
After Battle of Kinsale
After the battle of Kinsale Sean Og adopted his usual policy of duplicity. To his eternal discredit, he joined the English and attacked O’Sullivan Bere at Aughrim, but O’Sullivan gave him such a hot reception that he speedily retreated to Banagher.
Sean Og was a weak and spineless leader. Self-interest was the paramount motive which dictated his actions. He had rendered valuable services to the invaders. At their behest he had attacked his own countrymen – when there was not an O’Neill or an O’Donnell to oppose him. For these services he, no doubt, expected to be duly requited. Instead he received the contempt which such subservience merited.
The determination of the English to plant Delvin Eathra was well known to Sean Og, but the plucking of this loyal bird, must be as painless an operation as it was possible to make it. He was invited to England, and as may be expected, he there tamely submitted to plantation. While Sean Og was in England, the King directed that he should be allowed to retain possession of Banagher. In 1618 Oliver St. John asks for directions concerning the measurements of the McCoghlan country, and on January 20th, 1621, King James I authorised St. John to make grants in his name of lands of Delvin McCoghlan were invited to Dublin but refused to submit to plantation.
But the plantation of Delvin McCoghlan was carried out in defiance of Sean Og. Furthermore, despite the promise of the King, the town of Banagher was taken from him – the Lord Deputy sarcastically remarking that Sir John may well spare it, being but the remains of an old English fort where he has no dwelling at all
Orders were issued (1621) from England to take away a third of his lands owing to his obstinacy and refusal to submit. Sean Og was now a disillusioned man. In 1623 he was imprisoned for taking forcible possession of a castle in his own country, assigned to an undertaken.
Now that the undertakers and planters swarmed over McCoghlan’s country, it was necessary to adopt means for their protection in the midst of a hostile population. The dispossessed owners were naturally a menace to the new masters of the country. Falkland, the Lord Deputy, ordered a fort to be built at Banagher “for the better support of that plantation and the security of the neighbourhood.” This fort was afterwards called Fort Falkland. The direction for the building was entrusted to Sir Arthur Blundell, a planter and captain of the garrison. The work was completed by the winter of 1624. Blundell declared that he spent £178 19s. 3½d. of his own money on the fortifications and applied to Falkland for repayment which he received after considerable delay.
Charter of Incorporation.
Having planted Delvin McCoghlan and fortified Banagher, or Fort Falkland, as the English now called it, the next step was to make it a secure English stronghold. On the 28th September, 1628, Banagher received a charter of incorporation, and it was henceforth to be called the Borough and town of Banagher, consisting of a sovereign, twelve burgesses and free commons. The names of the first governing body are stated in the charter. The first corporation consisted of Sir Arthur Blundell, sovereign; Sir Matthew DeRenzi, Robert Culvert, William Peisley, Lieutenant Thomas Prescott, Lieutenant Thomas Smith, Thomas Hill, Terence Coghlan, John Pitt, Robert Cotterell, Thomas Larke, Matthew Bentley and Robert Gilbert, burgesses; and Thos. Scott and John Salt as free commons. All, save one, were planters. The name of one survives in the Salt battery. This corporation was given wide powers –
- To elect two members to Parliament;
- to hold a market every Monday;
- To hold two fairs, one on the Feast of St. Philip and Jacob, the other on the Feast of St. Simon and Jude, each to continue for two days;
- To make and sell aqua vitae, buy and sell wine, ale, beer and all kinds of victuals and keep taverns and ale houses. They were also empowered to elect a recorder and Town Clerk, Sergeant-at-Mace and inferior officers;
- They received 200 acres of arable land and 85 acres of wood and moor in the townland of Boulanarig, Ballynecurry and Derry, in the Barony of Eglish, for the purpose of maintaining a free school in Banagher;
- An area of 222 acres was allotted to the corporation in the townlands of Leacarrow, Reynahan, Coolreagh and Ballingowen for the purpose of supporting a “preaching minister,” who was to reside in the town.
There can be no doubt that the establishment of the corporation had a considerable influence in shaping the destinies of Banagher for centuries, nor have these influences completely disappeared. It is by virtue of that charter that tolls are still collected at the markets and at the September fair. The corporation establishment the fairs which later became some of the largest in Ireland. In virtue of its powers, the corporation established distilleries, which gave much employment in Banagher for two centuries. Add to this the stimulus given to the growing of barley for which the lands round Banagher are still noted. The Royal Free School, then established, existed up to the closing years of the last century.
Sean Og was now completely in the power of the invader. In 1632 the English write of him: “Sir John Coghlan, a discontented man, whose estates were in part taken for the plantation of the King’s County, should be watched.” Disappointed in his ambition, condemned by his fellow countrymen, and under a cloud of suspicion, he sank, unregretted, to his grave.
The newly formed corporation set to work to advance the interests of the planters for whose protection it had been established. In 1634 it elected Sir Edward Bagshawe and Richard Bagshawe as members of Parliament. Their names reveal their nationality. But its career was soon cut short. When the rebellion of 1641 broke out many of the planters fled and the corporation ceased to function. For the next twenty years there is no record of its activities. In 1643 the little garrison of Banagher surrendered to Preston and Delvin Eartha got another brief respite from the invader. De Renzi fled to England and joined the Parliamentary forces against Charles I. Banagher, situated, as it is, on a ford of the Shannon, was a place of considerable strategic importance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was then the chief town of Delvin Eathra, or McCoghlan’s country – a territory which corresponded roughly with the barony of Garrycastle. The parish of Lusmagh, now a part of Garrycastle, did not form part of McCoghlan’s country. Protected as it was by forests and bogs on one side, and by the Shannon on the other, Delvin Eathra enjoyed comparative peace and prosperity up to the time of Henry VIII.
Sufferings of McCoghlans
As an instance of the sufferings of the McCoghlans during the plantations, the following is a painful example: - Daniel Coghlan, a servant in the household of the Duke of York (afterwards James II) complained to the King in 1645 that Matthew De Renzi, under pretence of plantation, ejected his father and himself from all their lands, instead of taking the one-fourth allowed by the plantation. During the period 1641-1648 several of the McCoghlans fought on the side of the Confederate Catholic Armies.
Banagher remained in the hands of the Irish until 1650, when it was taken by the Cromwellian General, Ireton. By 1652 the Cromwellian conquest was completed and the transplantation of the Catholic land holders to Connacht began in 1654. If the stones of the ford of Banagher were given speech, what a tale they could tell of the miserable crowds of wailing women and children driven from their homes where they and scores of generations of their ancestors had resided. The lands from which they expelled were divided among the adventurers and the soldiers of Cromwell’s army. An adventurer named Gregory Clements received 2,000 acres in the neighbourhood of Banagher. Clements was a London merchant who adventured £1,300 towards the sea forces of the Parliament. Along with the lands of Banagher he received 3,000 acres in other parts of Garrycastle. Yet his greed for land was not satisfied, for a few years later he complains that he had not received sufficient compensation and prays for the old and waste corporation of Banagher situated near lands in his possession. In 1660 Charles II was restored to the Throne of England. Gregory Clements was arrested, taken to England and executed as a regicide. That finished his anxiety for living space.
Terence Coghlan had fled to Flanders, and his son, Captain Francis Coghlan, served in that country under Charles II. On the restoration of his master, Capt. Coghlan prayed for the restoration of his estates lately in the hands of Gregory Clements. The King wrote to the Lords Justices ordering “that the lands of Kincorr, Fierbane, Lisdearge, Kilcommen and the rest of the lands lately in the hands of Gregory Clements should be restored to John Coghlan.” But there were several other adventurers in Garrycastle who were not disturbed.
After the restoration, the family of Armstrong settled in Banagher. This family throughout the whole of the world next century, occupy a conspicuous and honourable part in the history of Banagher. An Armstrong was several times sovereign, and these Royalists were very popular. In 1685, owing principally to the exertions of a Mr. Armstrong, the first bridge across the Shannon was constructed.
James II revised the Charter of the Corporation of Banagher, so that two-thirds of its members should be Catholics. This corporation returned two Catholic members – Terence Coghlan, Esq., and Terence Coghlan, gent, to the Patriot Parliament of 1689.
James II was expelled from England in 1688. The great majority of the Irish sympathised with James and took up arms to restore him. James landed in Ireland in 1689. During the Jacobite wars the Irish held the fort of Banagher. Sarsfield with his 500 brave horsemen passed over the Bridge of Banagher on his way back to Limerick after his famous exploit at Ballyneety. On 11th August, 1690 the Irish garrison of Banagher sent a detachment of about 1,000 horse under Col. Geoghegan, against the garrison of Birr. They met a party, under Parsons, at the Rapemills. After a sharp engagement the Williamites retreated and took shelter in Birr Castle. On 19th September, the Williamite General, Douglas, led an expedition from Birr with the object of destroying the bridge at Banagher, but the operation was too hazardous, as the fortifications were too strong and the place well defended.
The Irish garrison remained in Banagher without further molestation until the Battle of Aughrim, after which Banagher was evacuated. The English re-occupied the town, where they remained until the middle of the nineteenth century, when Banagher ceased to be a garrison town.
The fairs established by the first corporation continued to gain in size and importance during the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth century. In 1826 the enormous number of 43,000 sheep was offered for sale at the September fair – three-fourths of that number being sold. The great fair, which was formerly held in a swamp beside the Shannon, was removed to its present site in 1832 – the field being given free by the Hon. S. Ponsonby.
In the seventeenth century, Banagher was the centre of a flourishing woollen trade. But in 1699 the impost placed on the export of woollen goods to England practically killed the woollen trade. At the outbreak of the American war, an embargo placed on the export of foodstuffs to the American Colonies struck another blow at the trade at Banagher. In 1780 the English Parliament withdrew all these restrictions. Banagher now began to improve rapidly. Its population, which was in 1780, about 1,800, rose in 1841 to 2,827, and in 1846 was about 3,000, the highest point which it ever reached. Three causes contributed to the rapid increase in population and trade:
- the opening of the Grand Canal giving easy access to Dublin;
- the granting of free trade and
- the high prices obtained for commodities during the Napoleonic wars.
In 1840 its trade was in a flourishing condition. It had a distillery, a brewery, a malt house, a flour mill, two tanyards and various smaller industries.
After the Famine
After the Famine the trade of Banagher rapidly declined. The abolition of the corn laws in England adversely affected the great corn trade of the town, while the smaller industries were unable to compete against the highly organised industries of Britain.
The closing years of the 18th century form a memorable epoch in Irish history. America had been lost to the English. The sturdy spirit of independence shown by the Irish Parliament in 1782 engendered a fear in the minds of English politicians that Ireland may be the next to demand separation. The spread of French revolutionary principles in Ireland increased that fear, and the English Minister, Pitt, determined on the extinction of the Irish Parliament at all costs. In Ireland he found an able and obedient tool in Lord Castlereagh. But the opponents of the Union were able and distinguished men; Grattan, Flood, Parsons, Hussey, De Burgh – could not be prevailed on to sell the independence of their country, and it is pleasant to recall that the representatives of Banagher were amongst that noble and incorruptible band.
At the General Election of 1790 the representatives elected for the Borough of Banagher were Edward Hoare and John Metge. Hoare, a Corkman, was a sterling patriot and though “very old and stone blind attended all the debates (on the motion for a Union) and sat up all nights of the debates.” Metge was a bosom friend of Grattan and was Grattan’s second in the great patriot’s duel with Corry. Through all these fateful years Metge never wavered in his adhesion to the anti-Unionists, though he could name his price if he changed sides.
At the General Election of 1797, Metge was again returned for Banagher, but his colleague this time was John B. Ponsonby. Ponsonby was a member of the famous family whom no bribe could seduce, and no bullying frighten; a family whose determined opposition to the Union was a feature of those fateful times.
The Borough of Banagher was extinguished by the Act of Union in 1800 and the Hon. W. Ponsonby received £15,000 compensation for his loss of the patronage of the borough.
But the Post-Union history of Banagher is no less pleasant. The friendly relations existing between the Protestant and Catholic inhabitants previous to the Union continued with the happiest results. The wealthiest and most influential Protestant inhabitant in the early years of the nineteenth century was Major Armstrong of Garrycastle. He was the mouthpiece of the enlightened tolerance of the Protestants of Banagher and was a staunch supporter of religious freedom for the Catholics. At a meeting in 1826 of the Catholics of Banagher, in the newly built Catholic Church, resolutions were passed (1) petitioning for a repeal of the Penal Laws, and (2) thanking the Protestants of Banagher for their large contributions to the expenses of building the Catholic Church and for their advocacy of the Catholic claims. Major Armstrong was present at this meeting. But Major Armstrong was more than a mere passive sympathiser with the Catholic claims. He was a militant advocate of religious tolerance. A meeting of magistrates of the King’s County was held in Birr in 1827 to protest against the granting of further concessions to Catholics. Ponsonby came down from Dublin, Armstrong came from Banagher, to combat the intolerants. He (Armstrong) made a long and temperate speech protesting against the petition and advocating the claims of the Catholics. His advocacy was, of course, unavailing, and the petition was carried, Armstrong and Ponsonby dissenting. The Catholics of Banagher will long cherish the memories of the tolerant Protestants of those days, and the names of Armstrong, Ponsonby, Daly and Drought will be long remembered and honoured among the people whom they succeeded in those troubled days.