The history of the National Bank in Carrick-on-Suir

The history of the National Bank in Carrick-on-Suir

The National Bank of Ireland was formed in 1835 in London by the noteworthy politician Daniel O’Connell and the Nationalist Party as the National Bank of Ireland. The first branch of this joint-stock bank opened in Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary on Wednesday 28 January 1835. The Bank’s first Governor was Daniel O’Connell, a fact which earned the Bank the nickname of “The Liberator’s Bank.” The building in which this branch operated from is still there today and now operates as Bank of Ireland. This five-bay three storey building was constructed c. 1820 and was formerly the residence of business man, William O’Donnell who owned a bacon factory on the Quays. Between 1867-73 the building was remodeled with the addition of a single-storey entrance bay and a large rear extension. The building was and continues to be the most dominant feature on the streetscape. Experts have noted: “The quality and variety of stuccowork of the façade highlights the importance of this bank building for the town. It is dominant on the streetscape, both in its function and style. The elaborately decorated entrance openings also give a sense of grandeur to the activity of entering the bank, and the discreet treatment of the window openings to the ground floor creates a distinction of use between it and the upper floors.” The brass plaque on the bank’s exterior marking its foundation date further reminds us of the historic provenance of this Georgian building. (NOTE: The above image of the National Bank of Ireland is believed to date from c. 1910.)

Ireland’s banking system in the early 19th century found itself in a deep financial crisis when a number of privately owned banks collapsed throughout the country. The south of the country, particularly the province of Munster was hit hard by the crisis.  The people of Carrick suffered considerably during the banking crisis with the closure of Sausses bank and Carshores bank which folded just 3 years after first opening its doors. While Clonmel experienced the closure of Rialls bank and Waterford city suffered the loss of Newport’s bank. By 1820 nearly 40% of Ireland’s privately owned banks had collapsed. Consequently, Ireland’s economy in this era was, in the words of one Irish historian an “amazing financial pantomime.” Unsurprisingly, at the time the people of Carrick held little faith in the stability of Ireland’s banking sector.  However, despite this local wariness the town was a prime location for O’Connell to begin his new banking venture. The majority of the townspeople were nationalists and had showed overwhelming support for O’Connell during his campaign to gain Catholic emancipation. It was believed that the broadly nationalist outlook of the National Bank would align with the politics of the townspeople.

Another factor that attracted O’Connell to the town was the town’s growing economy. Despite the rapid decline of its woollen industry which had flourished during the 17th and 18th century Carrick was all in all a prosperous town of over 11,000 inhabitants. The town took advantage of trade from Tipperary, Waterford and Kilkenny and as a result had grown into a well-established commercial town by the beginning of the 19th century. Providing employment to the town and people in surrounding areas were many bacon yards, saw mills, a distillery, and two breweries. Transporting the goods that these enterprises produced to Waterford and Clonmel were the 400 boatmen who made a living on the River Suir. While by road Bianconi’s coach cars provided a vital transport service for locals wishing to travel to and from Waterford and Clonmel.  In O’Connell’s opinion Carrick was one of the most prosperous town in Ireland and it held enough merit to be chosen to be the birthplace of the National Bank in Ireland.

Portrait of Daniel O’Connell as the Governor of the National Bank of Ireland, 1838.

From its onset, O’Connell was determined that his new banking venture would not be mired by the financial disasters and unprincipled practices of the private banks in the past. Six months before the opening of the National Bank branch in Carrick he laid out his vision: “The more banks in Ireland the better provided they be founded on sound banking principles, and not merely got up over speculative persons. I have no doubt that but the Irish National Bank will be successful.” O’Connell’s main objective for the National Bank was to provide capital for economic development in Ireland. The National Bank would end the monopoly that the Protestant-dominated Provincial Bank and Bank of Ireland had over banking by offering its services to all, with no discrimination on grounds of religion or politics. This banking venture then was in a way a natural extension of O’Connell’s political vision for an egalitarian Ireland. O’Connell wanted to make banking more accessible, in particular, to rural communities; small businesses, tenant farmers and the gentry.  As a landlord himself, O’Connell was particularly cognisant of the struggles of the farming tenant class and he was keen that his new banking venture would benefit those who eked out a meagre living on Irish soil.

The National Bank was founded on the shareholder’s principle – where half of the bank’s capital was raised by local shareholders and the other half was provided by the National Bank’s head branch in London. The capital of the Carrick branch consisted of five thousand shares of £5 each. In its first year of operation the bank issued its own bank notes. However, the first few days of the notes’ circulation caused a lot of confusion in the town! Namely, the word “sterling” or the £ sign did not appear on the notes leading to some confusion as to whether a payment in sterling or Irish currency was intended. Also, the bank notes did not specify which bank it was to be made payable. Despite these errors in the first two days of the bank’s opening banknotes to the amount of £12,000 were issued. The bank note’s overtly patriotic design which featured the figure of Hibernia leaning on an Irish harp, attended by an Irish wolfhound with “Erin go bragh” written underneath may explain its popularity. According to local newspaper reports at the time within its first few days of opening numerous local people had already visited the Carrick branch and upon confirming that this bank was O’Connell’s bank: “each of these small money-changers pulled out a pound note or two, either of the Bank of Ireland or the Provincial Bank, exclaiming like men who imagined that they were serving their country: “Here, take these Orange notes, and give us for them the real genuine stamp of O’Connell himself.”  There was a proposal in later years to print a bust of Daniel O’Connell on the bank notes but it was never implemented – if only the banking officials had been aware of the immense popularity of the Liberator in the small town of Carrick!

National Bank banknote, c.1835-1845

From its onset the Carrick branch committed itself to employing local people, particularly for the higher-ranking positions in the branch. The branch’s first Director was Thomas B. Wilson, J.P. who resided in New Street. Thirty years later, another local man, Henry B. Slattery took up the mantle. Henry was born in Carrickbeg on the site where the present friary church now stands. Evidence suggests that in its early days the Directors and Chairmen of the National Bank were chosen because of their high social status and class; respectable Catholics, businessmen and gentlemen farmers, rather than their proficiency in or knowledge of banking or business. As a result, a skilled assistant had to be employed to provide much needed guidance and assistance. An act of lawlessness which occurred at the Carrick branch further highlighted the mix of personalities and characters that managed the branch in its early days. In 1839, Mr Power and Mr Cantwell, who were Directors of the Carrick branch along with another employee were found guilty of assaulting the National Bank’s superintendent John Reynolds when he came to inspect the books. When Reynolds refused to leave the bank the three men threw the superintendent out on the street without a hat and tore his clothes! For this misconduct Cantwell and Power were dismissed from the bank and fined heavily.

It must be assumed that unprofessional behaviour amongst management was the exception rather than the rule as the Liberator’s bank immediately flourished in its first few years of operation. The Carrick branch quickly commanded the full confidence of the local people, particularly the farming community through its provision of loans and savings accounts. By the end of 1835 the National bank had opened 11 branches and 18 sub-branches in Ireland and by the following year had a paid up capital of £374,140, of which £133,125 was subscribed locally in Ireland. In 1845 the Irish Banking Act ended the Bank of Ireland’s monopoly in Dublin, allowing for the National Bank to set up a chief office in the capital. In 1856 the bank changed its name to National Bank Ltd. In 1854 the bank opened its first branch in England and by 1888 it had grown to be the 8th largest bank in Britain.

Unfortunately, while the bank was flourishing its patron was floundering financially. Daniel O’Connell was known to be spendthrift and careless when it came to money.  In 1841 O’Connell scored a huge political success by becoming the first Catholic lord mayor of Dublin since 1688. However, his term as mayor had a draining effect on his personal finances. In 1842 he had to come before the Board of the National Bank, of which he was still governor, and explain for his considerable debt to the bank of just over £30,000. In a letter to a friend O’Connell confessed: ‘Want is literally killing me. I have grown ten years older from my incessant pecuniary anxiety.” Even smaller debts were beyond O’Connell’s meagre financial means at that time. In July 1842 he was unable to pay of bill of £426 to his friend, the Kilkenny brewer, Edmond Smithwick, who ended up paying off a number of O’Connell’s numerous other debts. Upon O’Connell’s death in 1847 it was reported that his debt to the bank had grown to £70,000 however upon further investigation a public announcement was made that the sum owed did not exceed £4,000 and that this was covered by Policies of Insurance for £7500 and other securities.  

Bank of Ireland, Carrick-on-Suir today.

In the early decades of the 20th century the National Bank managed to weather the storm caused by the political instability in Ireland and the economic depression that followed in the 1920s and 1930s. During the 1950s and 1960s the National Bank’s experienced a resurgence with the growth of the Irish economy. However, by the mid-1960s, over thirty years since Irish independence it was untenable for such a major Irish bank to have its head office in London. Transferring the head office of the National Bank to Dublin was never a possibility as it would have resulted in the loss of the bank’s London Clearing bank status. As a result, the National Bank was taken over by the Bank of Ireland in 1965 and rebranded temporarily as National Bank of Ireland, before being fully incorporated into Bank of Ireland in 1966. The chapter had now closed on the National Bank and the role it played in the commerce of the country and our town. However, the importance of this banking institution and the contribution that its founder made towards liberating an entire class of society both politically and financially will never be forgotten by the people of this town.