A colourful history

Every one of County Cavan’s 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 town’s 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 was born.
Cavan town was unique; no other urban centre grew up in the county, though one probably existed at Granard.

Plantation towns
The territories held by Eoghan O Raghallaigh’s 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 Cavan’s 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 Lion.

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.

Urban conditions
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 debauchery.

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 like notaries.

Cavan’s 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 Ireland’s 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 Cavan’s 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.

Cavan’s 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 Cavan’s 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 and Virginia.

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 Famine
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 Cavan’s 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 of Belturbet.

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 Cavan’s 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.

Cavan’s 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 church’s 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 Cavan’s 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 opened.

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 Cavan’s 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 Cavan’s 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 there.
Yet County Cavan could not fail to be influenced by factors influencing the country as a whole. One was Ireland’s 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. Cavan’s 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 countryside.

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 d’etre. 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.