The Banim Brothers and Windgap Cottage

Paddy Neary

The writers Michael and John Banim were born in Kilkenny city, Michael was born on the 5th August 1796, while John was born on the 1st April 1798.

During their lifetimes the brothers collaborated in many published works (twenty-four in total), mainly about life in Kilkenny and its characters under the Collective title “Tales by the O Hara Family”. For Michael, writing was a part time occupation, but John became a full time author.

Both were educated at the English Academy in Kilkenny which appears to have been Rothe House and later at Kilkenny College. Michael trained for the law, John for drawing and Art.

John taught for some years, but fell in love with a seventeen year old pupil named Anne, her parents disapproved and took her out of the school. Her tragic death soon afterwards had a deep effect on John, he gave up teaching and moved to Dublin in 1820.

He wrote a play Damon and Pythias which was a great success and was staged in the Theatre Royal Dublin and in London’s Covent Garden.

John married Ellen Ruth in 1822 and planned with Michael to write books on Irish Life.

John was now in London writing for the stage and magazines with great success, he exchanged works with Michael for correction and criticism.

On the advice of his doctor John moved to Boulogne, France in 1829, but met with financial difficulties. The London Times led a campaign to help him financially, this campaign raised enough money in England and Ireland to ensure financial security. Further misfortune came his way, the bankruptcy of his publisher, a severe attack of cholera, the death of his son from diphtheria, followed by his mother’s death to whom he was devoted. John was in a state of dejection and misery which alarmed his brother Michael. He begged him to return to Kilkenny and John agreed in April 1835.

He wrote to Michael expressing his requirement, “what I must have is a little

garden, if possible I would wish my little house to have a sunny aspect, sun into all possible windows every day that the glorious material God shines. I am a shivering being and require and rejoice in his invigorating rays as does the sickly plant. If this little house could be within view of our Nore stream along the banks of which you and I so often bounded, but along which I will never bound again, it would enhance my pleasure.”

Michael set about finding the required sunny aspect in Kilkenny and his choice fell on Windgap Cottage.

John meanwhile set out from Paris with his wife and daughter on the 10th May 1835, but misfortune befell them, when Mrs Banim contracted typhus fever which delayed them for a month, finally reaching Dublin towards the end of July. Early in Sept 1835, John was received in Kilkenny with a warm welcome from his fellow citizens who presented him with an inscribed silver snuff box containing £85.00. (The snuff box was later presented to Kilkenny Corporation in whose possession it still remains.)

John was confined to a bath chair from which he directed the layout of the gardens and pathways. The cottage and gardens proved to be a happy choice with the views of the city, castle and the river Nore, from the summit of Windgap Hill. Neighbours helped out, taking him for walks, particularly to Altamount, his favourite spot. By 1836, the garden was completed, laid out and planted. The courtyard was extended. He was granted an annual pension from the Civil List of £150 and his daughter £40.

The garden was screened from onlookers by a high wall, but passengers on the mail coach could look down and see him, the driver pointing John out with his whip saying “he’ll never see the bushes an inch higher” a passenger replied, ”he’s booked for the whole way and no mistake”.

After this John had himself removed at the expected arrival time of the coach.

Windgap must have been a favourite spot with the brothers, for a vivid description of the view of the town and river appears in The Mayor of Windgap which was published in 1832. A second description of the same view from the riverbank The Lacken Walk appears in The Fetches, published in 1825.

A local carpenter constructed a shandaradan (a rickety contraption) drawn by a horse and greatly helped in his visits to the country side.

By this time, he was getting weaker and remarked “all I’m fit for is stringing loose and gawky verses together”, he finally collaborated with Michael in writing Fr. Connell in 1842. This was the year he wrote his final letter to the press thanking them for their complimentary remarks on Fr. Connell; this was in fact a biography of Fr. O’Donnell, Parish Priest of St. John’s, who forty/ fifty years earlier sent the pupils out into the highways with wooden bowls to gather stones and sand from which he managed to build a hut in defiance of the law to educate the children.

In 1809, a new school was built on the Dublin road, the Banim brothers appreciated their education and how they got it without much difficulty. So they were frequent visitors to the school, spending hours talking and encouraging the boys in their studies.

John was known affectionately as the Mayor of Windgap to which he did not take exception. His health was deteriorating rapidly, Michael attributed this to the great effort and work in writing Fr. Connell. John died on August 4th 1842 aged 44 years.

Michael, after serving as Postmaster and Mayor of Kilkenny, retired to Booterstown, Co. Dublin and died in 1874 aged 78.

Both are buried with their parents in the old St John’s graveyard.

Visitors to Windgap Cottage included Tom Moore, the Lord Lieut. Earl of Carlyle, Marquis of Normandy, and the Duke of Ormonde.

Windgap Cottage was part of the Pennefeather Estate; originally the building consisted of two double storied labourers cottage, built in the early 18th century. Windgap at this time was a well populated suburb with a self contained community who referred to Kilkenny as “the town below”.

After John’s death the family left the cottage, his daughter Mary was placed in a convent school in Waterford. She died of consumption two years later.

As a memorial of John, the cottage was named Banim Cottage along with the name Windgap. During the 1920’s the tenant found his letters going astray, owing to confusion with Windgap, Callan, so the name was changed to Lacken. This added further confusion as at the time there was on the same road Lacken Lodge, two Lacken Houses and Mount Lacken. Eventually the name was changed to Windgap Cottage as we know it today.

Banim Terrace on the Freshford Road was named in the Brothers memory.

A bust of John Banim presented in 1854 by the Duke of Ormonde and admirers can be viewed in the Tholsel.