The Killarney of the north

By Joe McManus

When I was in Primary School all the pupils in third and fourth class learned some geography by rhyming out loud the chief towns of each county. When it came to Co. Cavan we said “Cavan, Cootehill and Belturbet” and as we progressed to fifth and sixth classes we added “Kingscourt and Bailieborough”. Were the same system of learning in vogue today (and I doubt it is) I am quite certain that the name ‘Virginia’ would be included.

Often referred to as ‘The Killarney of the North’, Virginia is a picturesque town situated by the shores of the beautiful Lough Ramor on the main Cavan/Dublin Road between Cavan town and Kells, Co. Meath. In my youthful cycling days I figured that the distance between Cavan Town and Virginia was fifteen statute miles. According to an ‘Irish Touring Guide’ published by Appletree Press in the 1980s Virginia is 19 miles (31k) south-west of Cavan.
As far as I can ascertain the town first came into existence in the early seventeenth century during the Plantation of Ulster. Some houses were built on lands confiscated from McPhelim O’Brien. These were built by English Army Officers who were instructed to name the town after Queen Elizabeth who was known as the ‘Virgin Queen’. In 1641 a Colonel Philip O’Reilly led a Rising and reclaimed most of the lands from the Planters. The new families included Taylours, Sankeys and Kelletts. Some of the Taylours became baronets and one became Marquis of Headfort. The Taylours were regarded as good landlords, built more houses and shooting lodges. They gave good employment and were credited with many more improvements in the area.

For the foregoing paragraph on the historical origins of the town I am indebted to Mr. Tony Router for an article which he had published in the Anglo Celt Bi-Centenary Supplement of 1996 and trust I will be forgiven for taking extracts from “the same”.

In the past I heard the Irish name for Virginia as ‘Acadh Lir’ and I was under the impression that it had something to do wit the old story of ‘The Children of Lir’ due to the number of swans on Lough Ramor. However, I now see that Virginia is called ‘Acadh An Iuir’ which would indicate that it was the place of the yew tree. A recent publication by the Lurgananure School Reunion Committee edited by Aine Bn. Ui Sheasnain gives ‘Lurgananure’ as ‘The Hill of the Yew Tree’. According to historians the population of Virginia at the time of the 1846 census was approximately 1,000. Today it would probably be more than treble that.
The locals, day-trippers, holiday-makers and all visitors are well catered for. Almost all professions are represented - pubs, pharmacists, medical practitioners, physiotherapists, supermarkets, all types of retail shops, restaurants, theatre, four excellent hotels (The Park Hotel, Riverfront, Lakeside Manor and Manor Lodge), complimented by two churches, a garda station, a national school and a vocational school.

Several organisations and societies exist in the town including the Golfing Society which takes charge of a beautiful golf course, Agricultural Show Committee, Macra, Ramor Theatre Festival Committee, a group called ‘Active Virginians’ and Virginia Pike Angling Club.
‘Active Virginians’ promote blowing, card-making and playing, keep-fit classes. Macra has its own promotions and recently held the ‘Cavan Blue Jean Queen’ competitions. Ramor Theatre provides concerts, festivals or traditional music, artists’ competitions and piano workshops. Computer training takes place in the vocational school.

‘Whist’ is played in the nearby Billis Presbyterian Hall and the town has also a number of ‘Bridge’ enthusiasts. The lake is known throughout the world for its coarse fishing. It also provides all types of water sports, boating trips to and picnics on its islands. It is the scene of the famed annual regatta.

At the south side of the town there is an opening towards the lake with the Showgrounds alongside. This is the venue for the annual Agricultural Show which draws exhibits from all over Ireland and beyond and is usually the most successful such event of the year.
On the industrial front Virginia is a thriving town with many industries most notably ‘Virginia Milk Products.’

As I have mentioned a number of games and pastimes relative to Virginia, I must now turn to the world of gaeldom. The first Cavan Senior Football Championship in 1888 was contested by Virginia Sarsfields and neighbouring Maghera McFinns, with victory going to Maghera. Over the years since then Virginia won a number of senior, junior and minor championships. The present club which caters for all grades of football in the parish (Lurgan and Virginia) is known as ‘Ramor United’. Formerly there were ‘Virginia Sarsfields’ and ‘Virginia Blues’. When those of my generation think of Virginia’s connection with gaelic football our minds go back to that great goal scored by the late Vincent McGovern in 1933, which ended Kerry’s hopes of five All-Irelands in a row. What memories a walk through the town today would evoke - seeing such names as Mick Higgins, Paul Fitzsimons, Hugh B. O’Donohoe, Ronan Carolan, Fintan Cahill, not forgetting Armagh’s Oisin McConville. Other names like Philip Kermath, Ray Cole, Derek McDonnell and several more spring to mind. Recent successes by the vocational school teams show that the spirit shown by its pupils in winning the McDonald Cup on six occasions between 1969 and 1975 is still evident in the scholars of today. Hurling, handball and camogie also had their adherents. A hurling club was formed in Virginia in 1917. In 1967 Virginia took part in an under 14 hurling competition. When Dr. Martin Comey became CC in Virginia, 1930, he organised camogie clubs in Ardlow, Maghera, Munterconnaught and Virginia itself, and these took part in competitions from 1932 onwards. Fr. Comey became President of the County Camogie Board and Gertie Elliott, Virginia, was secretary.

The present GAA pitch is on the Meath side of the town. It was here that Cavan players trained for their last Sam Maguire Cup win in 1952, while staying in the Park Hotel. It was here, also, that my first club, Lavey, won the county junior football championship in 1950 and the senior championship in 1951. My first visit to the Ramor pitch was about 1939 when I saw a senior league game between Bailieborough and Cornafean. I do not remember much about the game except that the late Patsy Lynch (wearing runners) was full-forward for Bailieborough. He made a great catch, turned and shot for goal, but his ‘county’ colleague, the late Willie Young dived across the goalmouth and made a spectacular save. The late Packie Masterson was playing for Cornafean and wearing the same type of footwear as Patsy Lynch. In the summer of 1940 my brother and I played there for Upper Lavey in a challenge game against Cross, which was followed by a great game between Killinkere seniors and a team from the army unit drafted into Virginia at the start of the emergency.
Lurgan was the first club of the legendary Jim Smith (Killinkere). One of the first football games I was brought to was a game between Virginia Blues and Lavey. Joe Biggars played at the Smiths’ land in Drumgora, Lavey, home place of Cardinal Brady’s mother. The match was abandoned due to an injury to a Virginia player. A shed door was taken off it’s hinges and used to convey the player to a waiting car. Apparently, that was the only stretcher available in those days!

The excellent Lurgananure publication, previously mentioned, contains a photograph of about forty teachers, from all parts of County Cavan, gathered in Virginia, 1924, for classes in the Irish language. These were held in Virginia old school.
Latest news from ‘Ramor United’ is that they are making arrangements for Feile na nOg 2008. In the early nineteenth century the first chapel in Virginia was a chapel of ease, built on the site of an old sand-pit, the parish church being in Lurgan. In 1845 Fr. Owen O’Reilly, the PP received a long-term lease of a site in Virginia from the previously mentioned Marquis of Headfort. The Church dedicated to Mary Immaculate and a parochial house were built on this site on the Dublin side of the town in 1846. This Church was used until 1989 when the new Mary Immaculate Church was built. The old Church is now the seat of ‘Ramor Theatre’. The present church is situated outside the town on the Bailieborough road and adjacent to the Primary School. It was dedicated by Bishop Francis McKiernan on 8th October, 1989, while Fr. Eugene Dowd was Parish Priest.

The ruins of a medieval church are to be seen at Lurgan in a place called ‘Cill Dubh’. There is a holy well at Gallanbrathar known as ‘Friars Well’. Tradition states the Black Friars were in charge of the Church and a hospital there. The Church was used by the Church of Ireland until 1818. The stones were then taken to build the Church of Ireland in Virginia.
In post-penal times the Church of Ireland Rector gave a site to his Catholic congregation in Virginia are in the capable hands of fellow Lavey-man Rev. Fr. Johnnie Cusack, well-known promoter of the Pioneer TAA and of religious pilgrimages.

I will conclude with lines penned by a visitor to Virginia over fifty years ago:

“Loved Lough Ramor of fadeless glamour,
Your islets seem to me,
Like galleons of old whose sails unfold,
When they put out to sea,
The charming town looks smiling down,
Bedecked in its virginal robe,
Sweet lady of the lake, your trappings make,
A garland on the terrestrial globe.”

Go ndeanai Dia trocaire ar anamnaca dilis na ndaoine thuas-luaite ata imighe uainn ar Shli na Firinne.