one of County Cavans towns and villages has a long
and often colourful history. Cavan town, which gave its
name to the county, is the oldest inland town in the northern
half of Ireland, predating similar urban settlements by
a good century and a half.
Cavan towns origins
In the Middle Ages all of what is now County Cavan was held
by native Irish rulers and families. They had no need for
towns or villages. Most trade was local, so there was no
need for markets or fairs, Political power was in the hands
of traditional ruling families and septs: it was exercised
directly on a face-to-face basis, so there was no need for
formal administrative structures.
Medieval Cavan though lay on the border of that part of
Ireland closest to Dublin which had remained under English
authority since the invasion of 1169. By the mid-fifteenth
century, this truncated zone of control suffered a chronic
shortage of raw materials like wood, hides, timber and fresh-water
fish vital both for survival and day-to-day commercial activity.
The contemporary ruler of eastern Breifne, Eoghan na
feasoige O Raghallaigh, recognised a business opportunity
and sponsored the growth of a market below his castle on
Tullac Mongan hill where tradesmen from Dublin and Drogheda
could buy products that were in short supply. This proved
so successful that some of the buyers and sellers settled
permanently near the site of the market, and so Cavan town
Cavan town was unique; no other urban centre grew up in
the county, though one probably existed at Granard.
The territories held by Eoghan O Raghallaighs descendants
were confiscated by the English crown in the early seventeenth
century. It was planned that the lands were to be planted
by settlers from England and Scotland. Newly-promoted towns
would play a big part in this project. They would be centres
of English power; they would also provide locations for
markets where settlers could buy what they needed and sell
the results of their industry. Urban areas, being novelties
to most native Irish (though not to Cavan people) would
act as beacons of civilised behaviour in the midst of barbarian
darkness. In addition to Cavan town itself, towns were established
at Belturbet, Killeshandra, Virginia, Bailieborough, Shercock,
Scrabby (Lough Gowna) and Farnham. In spite of the troubles
of the mid-seventeenth century most of these urban foundations
survived and later flourished, although some were little
more than villages. New foundations in the late seventeenth
century included Ballyconnell and Redhills.
The eighteenth century
a time of urban growth
The century leading to the Act of Union of 1800 was a golden
age for Cavans economy. Two factors influenced urban
development. The first of these was the creation of a system
of roads for use by coaches or foot-soldiers. These joined
existing market-places, and public money was forthcoming
to private developers and landlords if they wanted to build
roads to newly-established towns. These could bring in more
money to landlords through market tolls and increased prosperity.
So the 1750s and 1760s witnessed a flurry of patrimonial
foundations, usually attested by royal charters granting
market rights. Amongst the towns dating from this period
are Kilnaleck, Arvagh, Kingscourt and Mountnugent.
A network of roads called for the satisfaction of travellers
creature comforts. Cavan, along with many counties, has
towns and villages that grew up in the shadow of inns and
which share their name. One of the oldest is Crosskeys where
the Crossed Keys Inn stood in the early eighteenth century,
and in west Cavan there is Blacklion. This emerged from
the Black Lion Inn on the Sligo to Enniskillen coach road.
In the early nineteenth century it replaced the village
and market of Red Lion a little further west. This had grown
up in similar circumstances beside a tavern called The Red
The arrival of flax
The other factor which spurred urban development was the
growth of flax cultivation and the rise of the domestic
linen industry. Much of the land in north and east Cavan
was perfect for flax. The blue-flowered plants were then
processed into linen cloth using a labour-intensive process
carried out in the locality. The finished cloth might even
be bleached in the vicinity of its production. Then it was
sold to cloth buyers and middlemen from Belfast in towns
such as Cootehill and Kingscourt. Linen and flax provided
local farmers with badly-needed cash and employment. Flax
processing certainly required many hands, but in the late
eighteenth century human beings were not in short supply
in Cavan or anywhere else in Ireland.
But what were these towns like to live in or pass through?
They were usually chaotic places, unless a local landlord
had laid them out in lines of neat cottages. The centre
was usually the market place, maybe where the coach road
passed through. For the most part they were made up of mud-walled
thatched cabins with maybe a small handful of better
off inhabitants living in simple stone-built and slated
houses. There were a few shops and quite a few taverns,
as well as blacksmiths and harness-makers. They were dirty
and unhealthy, both lice-ridden and vice-ridden (if one
visitor to Cootehill is to be believed). Livestock, especially
pigs and hens, were kept in many houses and frequently wandered
the streets Fires were common, like the ones that nearly
destroyed Bawnboy in 1786 and Ballinagh in 1795. Fairs,
which took place at regular intervals throughout the year,
attracted traders and sellers from near and far. Some were
visited by very old professions, and in general fair days
witnessed scenes of mayhem, drunkenness and not a little
Larger towns like Cavan and Belturbet had jails, military
barracks, as well as more specialised tradesmen like apothecaries
and printers. They even had in the late eighteenth century
the seeds of an emerging small-town middle-class composed
of successful businessmen, local administrators and professionals
Cavans towns owed their existence to serving the local
countryside. There was no large-scale industry. One exception
was Swanlinbar, which grew up in the early eighteenth century
beside the nearby iron mines. (It did not owe its name to
three developers called Swann, Lynn and Barr). Once these
were exhausted it diversified into one of Irelands
premier spa resorts, offering hypochondriacs visions of
renewed health, until subsequently swept away by the allure
of the seaside in the early nineteenth century. But they
were not to be the only victims of the onward march of time.
By 1800 Ireland and Cavans population had started
to swell. This was reflected in its towns, many of which
were inflated by immigrants from rural areas, hoping against
hope to enjoy a marginally better standard of living than
pertained on their farms.
Cavans towns on the brink of the abyss
In the early nineteenth century many towns presented a paradox.
Their dirty, shop- and tavern-lined streets were often ringed
by shanty-towns, not unlike the barrios of contemporary
Latin America. And yet some landlords were determined to
beautify their towns as best they could.
The Lords Farnham had strong ties with Cavan town. Indeed
they owned half of it. In the second decade of the nineteenth
century the then Lord Farnham set about its boulevardisation.
A long. wide street (which still bears his name) was laid
out. It was partly lined on one side by tasteful buildings,
(some of which still survive), including a hotel for passing
travellers, and comfortable town houses. On the other side
of the street a park was planted with walkways and fountains
for the recreation of Cavans leisured classes. A handsome
parish church stood at the top of the street. Nearby. at
the end of Church Street were miserable hovels.
The Farnhams also provided for the commercial activity of
the town, rebuilding the market house, as well as providing
a dispensary and school.
The juxtaposition of gentility and dire penury was repeated
in many other towns in Cavan, such as Belturbet, Bailieborough
The misery of the famine did not fall on Cavan out of a
cloudless sky. The end of the Napoleonic wars on the Continent
meant a sharp decline in demand for agricultural goods,
and Cavan and Ireland entered a prolonged recession. In
1825 a mechanised linen mill was established in Belfast.
The work of producing linen threat, which had augmented
farming incomes, could now be done more quickly and more
cheaply by machines; the flax plants to feed them could
be acquired more economically from the Lagan valley. At
a stroke, the domestic linen industry was rendered prostrate.
In 1832 Cavan was visited by a serious outbreak of cholera.
The dispensary in Cavan town was enlarged. The mortality
was great in other urban areas, especially in Virginia.
The provision of relief for the poor in Ireland was based
on poor houses established in urban centres. In Cavan these
were in Cavan, Cootehill and Bailieborough. The parsimonious
spirit behind the system was totally unable to deal with
the destitution brought to urban areas by malnourished people
spilling out of the countryside into the towns, bringing
with them the spores of contagious diseases which found
a fertile culture for growth in the cramped and unhealthy
living conditions pertaining in most towns. Disease affected
those whose living conditions and health were already bad,
as well as those like doctors who came into direct contact
with it. For those with access to better food and clean
clothing and who lived in relatively well-heated stone houses
the risks of contagion were less. This does not mean the
impact on their sensibilities of the horrors was lessened.
Every town had its horror stories: the half-dead bodies
dumped along Cavans Mudwall Row; the corpse of a young
girl partly devoured by a dog found in Arva, or the temporary
fever hospital burned down by the fear-demented citizens
Towns after the Famine.
The population of the county declined by over 28% through
mortality and emigration. This was mirrored in the population
of some of Cavans towns: Cavan dropped by nearly a
fifth while Cootehill declined by 13%. Such statistics mask
the almost annihilation of the pre-Famine suburban barrios.
Villages with lesser populations sometimes disappeared altogether.
Cavans Vanished Villages
In the early 19th century the Annalee river between Ballyhaise
and Cootehill was lined by a string of small villages, including
Ballinacargy, with mills and flax processing facilities,
as well as blacksmiths, yet no trace of them survive now.
Kilgolagh, a once prosperous village in south Cavan, was
reduced to the location of a horse fair. The Reverend Randall
McCollum in his 1856 book The Highlands of Cavan, writes
poignantly of the deserted villages to be found in east
Cavan. The village of Tober in west Cavan had a far more
dramatic end. It had grown up along the original road leading
southwards into Leitrim from the Sligo-to-Enniskillen coach-road.
It also had a holy well (hence its name) which was the focus
of numerous local patterns and rituals, especially on Marian
feast days. But these were often attended by more than mere
religious exuberance, and in the 1830s the local parish
priest withdrew the churchs support for the holy well.
This coincided with the construction of a new road slightly
to the east. This, and the havoc and misery wreaked by the
Famine, led to the near abandonment of Tober. Then, in July
1861 the rains came, causing a serious mudslide which covered
what remained of the village.
The coming of the railways
In the last half of the nineteenth century technological
improvements began to make their appearance in Cavans
towns. Cavan town was provided with gas lighting in 1851
for example. The most significant development was undoubtedly
the arrival of railways joining most Cavan towns to a national,
though somewhat haphazard network.
Most towns kept their markets and fairs. The bigger ones
also offered specialist tradesmen like tailors and the specialised
services of people like photographers. They could be lively
places during periods of political agitation where national
figures addressed large and attentive crowds, The excitement
offered by towns increased in the 1920s when cinemas were
Between 1850 and 1950 it can be said that urban growth was
non-existent and the towns were stagnating. There was some
very modest, incremental growth in population, often accompanied
by small-scale housing developments, but Cavans towns
remained fatally dependant on their rural hinterlands. They
had very little industry. For most the journey from countryside
to town was but the first leg of a long journey into exile.
The advent of the border between north and south seriously
truncated the hinterlands not only of those towns that lay
close to the frontier.
In the late 40s and early 50s there appeared
to be hope of some economic renewal. The population of Cavan
town grew from 3,555 to 4,227 between 1951 and 1956, but
in the succeeding years it seemed that these were but pallid
false promises of better times. In the late 50s all
of Cavans railway lines were closed and, while they
had seldom run efficiently, they did provide a sense of
being connected to an outside world. In the 1970s and 1980s
when Cavan along with other border counties was touched
by the troubles in Northern Ireland, and it
was surprising if anything, least of all towns, would flourish
Yet County Cavan could not fail to be influenced by factors
influencing the country as a whole. One was Irelands
entry into the Common Market in 1973. This was accompanied
by a decline in the number of people who gained a living
from the land. Cavans towns started to attract industries
that were subsidiaries of multi-nationals, and which were
not dependant on the processing of commodities from the
rural hinterland. Some of these factories closed down, to
be replaced by others. Yet even in periods of high unemployment
there was no going back to the farm. A growing service sector
naturally enhanced bigger towns. The gap between rural and
urban was effectively filled in, with many of those working
within urban areas commuting to houses which lay in the
Rural versus urban
For the preceding centuries the divide between rural and
urban in Cavan favoured the former. Towns and villages grew
up, but they were largely dependant on the countryside,,
not just for their food and provisions, but often for their
raison detre. They appeared as islets of wooden and
stone-built structures within the countryside. Even the
most cursory glance at contemporary reality in County Cavan,
and the unceasing spread of the tentacles of development
into previously untouched territory, would suggest that
in the struggle between rural and urban, the initiative
now rests most definitely with the latter.