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Ireland Gazeteer

County Cavan in 1836

CAVAN, an inland county of the province of Ulster in Ireland; bounded on the N. and N.E. by Fermanagh and Monaghan; on the S.E. and S. by Meath, an angle of Westmeath, and Longford; and on the W. by Leitrim. Length, N. to S., 22 Irish or 28 English miles; breadth, from S.E. to N.W., 40 Irish or 51 English miles; area 600 square English miles, or 384,181 statute acres. Gross population in 1821, 195,076; in 1832, 228,040.

Cavan is the southernmost county of Ulster. Stretching across the narrowest portion of Ireland, it extends on the E. to within 18 English miles of the Irish Sea at Dundalk; and on the W. to within 20 miles of the Atlantic at Sligo Bay. The county is in form an irregular oval.

It rises into mountains of considerable height at its N.W. extremity, but more than two-thirds of its surface, although high and very irregular, present no elevations of any consequence. Slieve Russell, the highest point of the N.W. chain, forms, with the remainder of the Ballynageeragh Mountains, the southern boundary of the basin of Loch Erne, the chief feeders of which lake flow from this county.

From Loch Gawnagh on the S., where Cavan joins the county of Longford, the river Erne flows northward, through Lough Oughter and Belturbet to the borders of Fermanagh, where, after nearly bisecting the county of Cavan, it enters Upper Loch Erne at the same point with the Woodford, a considerable stream which also crosses the county a little farther N. from a small lake on the borders of Leitrim.

The Erne between Loch Oughter and Upper Loch Erne receives the waters of the Annalee, which, rising from two lakes on the borders of Monaghan, runs nearly W. through the flat country between Cootehill at its source and Butler's Bridge near its confluence.

Lough Sheelin and Loch Ramor, or Virginia Water, are also two considerable lakes in this county; the first discharges its waters through Westmeath by the Inny, a feeder of the Shannon, the second through Meath by the Blackwater, a tributary of the Boyne.

The chief lines of road are in the direction of the greatest length and breadth of the county, from Navan in Meath on the S.E., to Belturbet and Florence Court on the borders of Fermanagh on the N.W., and from Killeshandra on the S.W. to Cootehill on the N.E.; the point of intersection is at Cavan, the assize town, situated very nearly in the centre of the county.

The cross-roads are generally ill-planned and in bad repair. There is no navigation in this county except between Belturbet and Loch Erne, but the Ulster Canal now in progress will open a communication between Belturbet and Loch Neagh.

The climate of Cavan is rather rainy and boisterous; in the mountainous district it is particularly severe; yet it is far from unwholesome in any part, the people being rather remarkable for health and longevity.

The general formation of the district is schistose. A patch of granite about seven miles square occurs in the eastern part of the county, and assists in explaining the broken character of the hills in that district, the presumption being that the granite extends, at no great distance under the grauwacke, from this point to the neighbouring granite district of Mourne, and to this is owing the contortion of the incumbent strata. These indurated schists occupy by much the greater portion of the county. Limestone is found towards the S., where Cavan borders on the central limestone plain of Ireland, but the quantity is very small.

The whole county is rich in minerals. At Swanlinbar and Quilca, among the Ballynageeragh Mountains, are mines of coal and iron; lead and silver ore have been discovered near Ballyconnell in the same district; lead and copper occur near Cootehill; coarse manganese and ochres are found in different parts of the county in abundance.

A strong vein of blind coal occurs at Shercock on the E. of the county, and at Ballyjamesduff, a village between Virginia and Cavan, indications of a vein of very good quality have been discovered.

Excellent marl, fuller's earth, potter's clay, and brick-clay are abundant throughout the county.

There are numerous mineral springs, particularly at Swanlinbar and Kingscourt. The latter place is situated on the eastern border of the county. The spring feeds a remarkable lake on the summit of an adjacent hill.

The lake is about half a square rood in area, has no outlet, preserves a constant level, and never freezes. The water for about six feet from the surface is pure and clear, but lower down becomes gradually more and more muddy, until at a depth of about thirty feet it approaches to the consistence of tar.

In this mud the healing virtue of the spring is supposed to reside, and it has been found particularly efficacious applied as poultices in scorbutic complaints. The depth has never been ascertained, but the pool is considered by the vulgar to be unfathomable.

On the plain below is a chalybeate spring, which is also resorted to by invalids, but has no connexion with the pool above. The name of this pool in Irish is Lough-an-leighagh.

The soil of Cavan is described as being naturally cold, spongy, and inclined to rushes, but with proper draining and manuring it can be rendered highly productive.

In the district watered by the Erne and its feeders the crops are luxuriant, and the face of the country rich and pleasing. In the mountainous country nothing can be poorer; plough-husbandry is totally unknown, and the crops, which consist .of potatoes and a poor sort of black oats, are put in with a narrow-bladed spade called n sloy.

In this part of the county there are few roads, and the slide car is still in general use.

In both districts the dry stone fence is almost universal, quick and thorn hedges being only found in the farms of the wealthy or in the demesnes of the great resident proprietors. Such demesnes are however numerous, and some of them, particularly those of Lord Farnham near Kelleshandra, and of Mr. Coote at Bellamont Forest, near Cootehill, are of great extent and of remarkable beauty.

The farms in general are very small; this has arisen chiefly from the combination of agricultural and manufacturing pursuits, in which the peasantry have long been engaged, each small farmer having until lately been more or less employed in linen-weaving.

In 1802 the bleach greens of this county were large enough to bleach 91,000 webs of linen at a time, which, if in full employment, would employ a capital of £45,500. This trade has declined here for some time back, but its revival in Antrim and Down is likely to render it again the staple trade of all Ulster.

The ground in the lowlands is chiefly under tillage, but there is little wheat grown: potatoes, oats, and flax are the principal crops raised. Grain is almost universally sown in ridges, in consequence of the wetness of the soil.

The corn-mills are small, and for the most part attached to the several estates, as manor mills, at which the tenants are obliged by their leases to grind.

The breed of cattle is poor; but great exertions have been made of late by spirited resident proprietors to introduce an improved stock, as well as to better the system of farming by the example of green crops and stall feeding.

Grazing is not pursued to any extent; and the wool worn in frieze by the peasantry is chiefly brought in a manufactured state out of Connaug'ht.

On the whole, Cavan is an improving county, and from the peaceful and industrious character of the people is likely to continue so.

Cavan is divided into eight baronies, viz., Tullaghaw comprising the mountainous district on the N.W.; Tullaghonoho on the S.W., containing Killeshandra, a neat town with a good linen market (population, 1,139), Clonmoghan and Castleraghan on the S., the latter with the small towns of Ballyjamesduff (pop 863) and Virginia (pop. 930) ; Clonchee on the E., with the towns of Balieborough (pop. 1,085) and Kingscourt (pop. 1,616); Tullaghgarvey on the N.E. with the thriving town of Cootehill (pop. 2,239); Upper Loughtee on the N., with Belturbet (pop. 2,026); and Lower Loughtee in the centre, with Cavan, the county town, a neat but small place, with a good gaol, court-house, and barracks, and a pop. of 2,931.

Cavan town is a decayed corporation, which formerly returned two members to the Irish parliament, for the loss of which franchise, Theophilus Clements and Thomas Nesbitt, Esqs., received £15,000 compensation at the Union.

Belturbet was also a corporate town, but is similarly decayed.

Cavan county contains 33 parishes, of which 29 are situated in the diocese of Kilmore, 3 in that of Ardagh, and 1 in that of Meath.

The population of the county in 1831 was 113,174 males and 114,759 females; total, 227,933, forming 40,328 families, of which 31,091 were chiefly employed in agriculture, 4,462 in trade, manufactures, and handicraft, and 4,785 not included in either denomination; the number of inhabited houses was 38,917; of uninhabited houses, 1,044; and of houses building, 488.

The general proportion of religious denominations, as ascertained from the diocese of Kilmore, with which Cavan is nearly co-extensive, is about five Roman Catholics to one Protestant.

Cavan was anciently called Breifne (Brenny), by which name it is distinguished in the history of the Conquest, as being part of the territory of O'Rourke, the seduction of whose wife by Dermot Macmurrogh was the proximate cause of Strongbow's invasion.

It continued in the possession of the O'Reillys, a clan tributary to O'Rourke, down to the reign of Elizabeth, when the county was first made shire-ground by commissioners appointed by the lords justices (the Lord Chancellor Cusack and Sir Henry Wallop) about 1590.

On this occasion the boundaries of the baronies were fixed, and the whole county was divided among the native possessors, five baronies being allotted to different members of the O'Reilly family alone, with a reservation of 220 beeves as a chief rent to the crown.

All the O'Reillys however having forfeited by rebellion, except Mulmurry, who was killed on the queen’s part at the battle of the Blackwater, and his daughter having failed in establishing her claim in consequence of certain informalities in the proceedings of the above commission, the whole of Cavan reverted de jure to the crown, although in fact held for some years after by the natives.

It was not till 1610, when six other counties in Ulster were forfeited by the attainder of O’Donnell and O'Neill, that this escheat of Cavan was insisted on; and it is more than probable that, but for the design of a general plantation of Ulster, the objections to the former applotment of the county would never have been urged.

When proclamation was made that the natives should remove out of the precincts allotted to the British undertakers, a lawyer of the pale retained by them made an attempt to traverse the proceeding, 'for,’ says Sir John Davies, 'the inhabitants of this country do border upon the English pale, where they have many acquaintances and alliances; by means whereof they have learned to talk of a freehold, and of estates of inheritance, which the poor natives of Fermanagh and Tyrconnell could not speak of, although these men had no other nor better estate than they; that is, only a scambling and transitory possession, at the pleasure of the chief of every sept.'

Accordingly the Irish advocate attempted to show that, although O'Reilly by his rebellion might have forfeited his chiefary and head-rents, yet his tenants who had not been in rebellion ought not on that account to he dispossessed of their holdings; arguing that these tenants at large had an inheritable interest in the land which no act of their chief could forfeit, and desiring leave for them to transfer the dues and duties, forfeited by O'Reilly, to the crown, of which they sought to be tenants in his stead.

To this the king's attorney-general (Sir John Davies) replied, by showing, that as O'Reilly had the power of levying exactions at pleasure on the country, no man subject to such arbitrary taxation could be considered a freeholder; and that, even though O Reilly's exactions might have left a beneficial interest in the land to such a man, yet no member of a community in which the practice of gavelkind prevailed could be held to have an inheritable estate therein; and that therefore as O'Reilly was the only inheritor and freeholder of the country his attainder necessarily left the whole county to be holden immediately of the crown, the inhabitants being disposable of solely at the king's pleasure.

Further, he argued, that the king was not only entitled in law to seize the whole country, but that he was bound in conscience and justified in honour in so doing; first, for the advancement of his subjects in religion and civilization, and for the improvement of the soil, which neither Christian policy nor conscience could suffer longer to lie waste and unproductive; and, secondly, by the examples of many famous kings and nations who had planted similar colonies 'in imitation of the skilful husbandman who doth remove his fruit trees, not with a purpose to extirpate and destroy them, but that they may bring better and sweeter fruit after the transplantation.’

With these arguments the natives were forced to be contented, and after stipulating for their new possessions on as liberal terms as they could obtain, vacated their former possessions to the extent of 52,324 English acres, of which about 38,000 acres were distributed among colonists of various denominations.

The introduction of a civilized and industrious population had soon the best effects in reclaiming the country, which up to this time had been waste and barbarous. Castles were built on all the chief undertakers' portions; the foundations of towns were laid at Virginia, Belturbet, and Ballyconnell, and of numerous considerable villages throughout all the low part of the county.

The principal settlers were Hamiltons, Aughmuties, and Balies, from Scotland; Lamberts, Parsons, Ridgeways, and Butlers, from England and the pale; and of the reinstated Irish the chief were O'Reillys.

There is very little interest connected with the subsequent history of Cavan. The forfeitures consequent on the wars, commencing in 1641 and ending in 1690, extended only to 3,830 acres, principally the estate of the baron of Slane, and worth no more than £558, 16 shillings per annum, in which respect property in this county has undergone less change of hands than in any other county of Ireland.

In point of antiquities this county is barren; there are the remains of numerous raths, tumuli, castles, and religious houses, but none of them of any extent or historical interest. On the hill of Quilca near Swanlinbar, in N.W. of the county, was formerly the place of inauguration for Macguire lord of Fermanagh, and the spot is still regarded with superstitious veneration by the peasantry of this rude district.

The number of schools in Cavan in 1824 was 346; educating 17,897 young persons, of whom 4,948 were Protestants, and 12,866 were Roman Catholics. In 1821 the number of scholars was only 8,806; so that the amount of education has been more than doubled here within the short space of three years.

The value of the landed produce of the county has been calculated at £1,204,000 per annum; the rental to proprietors at £101,890 per annum; the average rent of land to proprietors at 6 shillings per acre per annum, and to occupiers at 30 shillings per annum.

Savings' banks have not yet made any great progress here, nor has a local press been found successful.

The county returns two members to the imperial parliament, and has a constituency of 2,392 voters. Lords Farnham, Headfort, and Lanesborough, and the families of Maxwell and Coote, are the principal proprietors.

The county expenses are levied by grand-jury assessment. The state of the poor, although much less wretched than in many other counties, and notwithstanding numerous private charities, is still such as to make a provision for the destitute very desirable.