Some famous Cavan women

Fame is a relative concept. It is applied by the adulation of the spectator of events, and as many a Hollywood idol can testify, it is as permanent as a natural suntan. By Ciaran Parker and Anna Sexton.

There is not always a correlation between the fame-bestowing plaudits of the crowd and a person’s inner worth or moral character. If we may briefly paraphrase Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar: the evil that men (and women) do lives after them; the good is often interred with their bones.

One of the hardiest working definitions of what makes (or should make) a person famous is that they often do ordinary things in an extraordinary way. By this definition, successive generations of Cavan women ought to be famous, as they struggled against poverty to retain a tenuous foothold on the swaying rigging of life, and maintain at the same time their dignity.

There is no dearth of famous Cavan women, and this article can only touch on the lives and contributions of a mere handful While the choice of those featured is selective, the fact that all of them performed honest and courageous deeds, and that none were the architects of evil, is noteworthy and would shine through any other selection that might be made.

An area in which Cavan’s women have excelled is in the field of literature and writing. Our first famous Cavan woman almost silently saved the Irish language from extinction, and laid the foundations for its more recent revival. Charlotte Brooke was the daughter of Henry Brooke of Rantavan, near Mullagh (though the family subsequently moved to nearby Corfad). Henry was a lover of words, and passed on his passion to his daughter.

Like her father, Charlotte was a gifted linguist and could freely converse with the Irish-speaking peasantry. She was particularly interested in the Irish epics and sagas she heard about, and set herself the task of collecting and translating them. This resulted in The Reliques of Irish Poetry, published in 1789, which is still seen as a milestone of the history of Irish.

Charlotte left Mullagh after her father’s death in 1783, and she lived in relative obscurity for the rest of her life, though she wrote The School for Christians - a work of cathechetics for children, and a play Belisarius, which she sent to an apparently absent-minded theatre producer in London. He claimed to have lost it, but when he found it again - after Charlotte died - he could not remember the name of its author or its original title: facts which did not prevent him in those pre-copyright days from producing it under different names. Charlotte died in March 1793 in County Longford; she was probably in her mid ‘40s.

Frances Chamberlaine was born in Dublin in 1724. She fancied herself as something of a littératrice, even though her misogynistic father had denied her even the most basic of educations. During a visit to a play in Dublin’s Smock Alley theatre, the mood of the patrons turned ugly, and it was only Frances’ help that saved the life of the theatre’s manager, Thomas Sheridan of Quilca near Virginia. He repaid the debt by marrying her and making her life as miserable as any suffered by the spouse of a bankrupt. However, before this both had overseen Cavan’s finest artistic salon at the “Painted Parlour” of Quilca House. She was the mother of the better known playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
Mary Ann Madden was born near Cootehill in 1820. While still in her early ‘20s she emigrated to North America. In 1846 she married DJ Sadlier, a prominent American publisher. She might have seemed destined to pursue a comfortable yet indolent married life, but her love of story-telling precipitated her to become a writer of historical novels set in Ireland.

Volumes such as The Confederate Irish Chieftains and The Hermit of the Rock of Cashel found a ready market, especially amongst those who had exchanged Irish penury for some greater material comfort on the other side of the Atlantic. However, reading tastes are as immutable as the weather and often change as quickly, so her many books are now viewed as far too sentimental and are of only scholarly interest today.

Other Cavan women have responded to the call to help their fellow human beings, sometimes far beyond the bounds of their native county. Susan Carthy was born in Bawnboy in 1854. At the age of eleven she emigrated with the rest of her family to the American Midwest.

She became a nun, taking the name Sister Praxades and over the next six decades gained a reputation as an efficient administrator and pastoral worker, leading to her elevation to the superiorship of the order of Our Lady of the Little Flower at the Foot of the Cross. She died far from her native west Cavan in St Louis in 1933.

There have been numerous others who have been like pearls radiating the light of hope and goodness in the world’s oyster-shell, such as the young woman from Cootehill who became a teacher and missionary in east Africa in the 1920s. Before her departure, the congregation of Cootehill’s Presbyterian church bought her a bicycle, a most appropriate and useful gift for someone whose work would involve much movement over long distances.

Cavan women have been alive, as those from anywhere else, to the existence of the fortresses of male exclusivity, and two in particular helped to undermine the walls of two particular bastions.
Agnes O’Farrelly was born near Mullagh in 1874 and went to Dublin to continue her studies at the University College there. She had a deep devotion to the Irish language, and was far wider known to friends and students as Una Ní Fhearchaillaigh. She wrote widely, penning a novel and poetry. She was also instrumental in the ambitious attempt to resuscitate the Irish language in west Cavan through the establishment of an Irish language college at Glangevlin. She was also very sensitive to the discrimination that she, and other educated women, still suffered in the stifling male-dominated world of the early twentieth century, and she stood twice (though unsuccessfully) for election to Dáil Eireann.

In 1934 she was appointed the successor of Douglas Hyde (first president of Ireland) as professor of Irish Poetry in the National University in Dublin. The significance of her appointment can perhaps be gauged by the fact that, even today, in much broader-minded times, women still only make up a minority of those holding professorships in Irish universities. Stories circulated widely about the idiosyncrasies of her pronunciation of Irish as professor (perhaps the legacy of her Mullagh upbringing), yet Una Ní Fhearchaillaigh might be seen as continuing the weaving of the thread first spun by Charlotte Brooke.

Our last example of a famous Cavan woman was equally formidable, though her fame probably did not travel far beyond either the county or its county town. Mary Brady was elected a member of Cavan town’s Urban District Council in 1920, one of the first women to be elected, and was re-elected at every subsequent election (often at the head of the poll) down to her retirement in 1955. The world of politics both at national and local level for the first three quarters of the twentieth century was a “Men Only” club.

This was probably one of the reasons why Mary Brady attracted the soubriquet of “Mary the Man” Brady, though we should remember the Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol’s description of his eventual successor Golda Meir as being “the only man” in his cabinet. Mary Brady was a woman of firm principles, a slave neither to party nor patron. She worked for much of her life as secretary to a fellow council member, though one of whose political beliefs were of a vastly different hue. She was also an Irish language enthusiast, signing her name on official documents as “Cathaoirleach”.

She was chairperson of Cavan’s UDC for an unbroken period of twenty years (1935-55) - longer than anyone else to have held the position, before or since. Her term as chairman embraced the years of the second world war, and maybe one of the reasons why Cavan escaped involvement in the global conflagration was perhaps the shared realisation by Messrs Hitler, Stalin and Churchill that, before they could conquer Cavan, they would have to deal with Mary the Man!

It has never been our intention to produce here a definite survey of either famous or notable Cavan women. No doubt readers will know of many others, both alive and dead, who deserve inclusion in Cavan’s female Pantheon, but perhaps such deification would be wrong, for what the experiences of all these Cavan women have shown is how much can be done by, and in turn learned from the example of, ordinary people doing things in extraordinary way.

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 2003