famous Cavan women
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 persons 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
An area in which Cavans 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 fathers 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 Dublins
Smock Alley theatre, the mood of the patrons turned ugly,
and it was only Frances help that saved the life of
the theatres 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 Cavans
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 worlds
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 Cootehills
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
Agnes OFarrelly 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 towns 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 Eshkols
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 Cavans 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
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 Cavans 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