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Cavan, County of Contrasts

killeshandra church

Old Killeshandra Church - courtesy

by Suzanne Barrett

Cavan is Ulster's southernmost county, a land of sharp contrasts. Its highest point is 2,188 foot Cuilcagh Mountain which projects northwestward between Leitrim and Fermanagh. This is only a part of a great diversification in terrain. Cavan, which covers an area of 477,360 statute acres, is also bounded by counties Longford, Westmeath, and Meath on the south, and Monaghan on the east and northeast. Small hills know as drumlins cover much of central Cavan, along with numerous small lakes. The western region is typical of the poorer west of Ireland, while in the east and southeast, the land is rich and fertile due mainly to the northern fringes of the great central plain of Ireland extending into the county.

In medieval times, Cavan was known as East Brefnie, or Brefnie O'Reilly after its ruling Gaelic family. A high degree of defense was achieved by using the natural landscape of sharp hills and loughs. This, and poorly drained soils contributed to the obstacle against invasion.

lough sheelinHistorically, Cavan was part of the western province of Connaught, but it officially became a part of Ulster in 1584 when Brefnie was shired and became the county of Cavan. In the south, the Lough Sheelin area was part of Leinster until the late 1300s. All of this has contributed to problems of describing the geographical location of Cavan. For tourism purposes, it is part of the northwest, but it is located in the northeastern health boards region,while the local paper describes it as being in the north midlands. Cavan is actually located in south Ulster.

Cavan is said to have 365 lakes--one for every day of the year. While not actually true, the exaggeration is only slight. Much of mid-Cavan is more water than land which, with poor drainage, results in large areas of bog, swamp, and lake.

Three river systems drain most of Cavan, the Shannon which rises in the Shannon Pot and drains into the Atlantic Ocean at Limerick; Lough Sheelin on the southern border and which also drains into the Shannon System; and in the southeast, the Boyne System which travels to the Irish Sea at Drogheda, Co. Louth.

Once polluted because of agricultural modernization, Cavan's water supply is now under control. In the last three years, large fish catches attest to the purity of the waters. The area is considered Ireland's premier angling county.

Franciscan AbbeyCavan was hard hit by the Great Famine in the mid-nineteenth century. In the winter of 1847, the local landlord in Mountnugent parish decided to evict over 200 people. The famous ballad "By Lough Sheelin Side" is based on this event witnessed by the local Catholic priest.

The state of the roads gives cause for comment. Cavan has been called the pothole capital of Ireland, and not without reason. Because of Cavan's natural barriers, most of the county's roads were constructed in the 1600s to 1700s, after the towns were created. Drumlin country required more roads per square mile than other landscapes since farms were created on hills and reclaimed valleys and roads had to go through each valley and over every hill. Building materials had to brought by horse and cart, in some cases more than fifty miles.

Partition in the 1920s meant that Cavan turned from Belfast to Dublin for support. It also meant that as an outpost dependent on a handout from Dublin, the county was left with limited ability to raise taxation locally. Since 1959, Cavan has entered the global market, but high tonnage lorries now travel roads that were built for the horse and cart society. In recent years, the council has been systematically repairing the roads, however, it will take a few more years before the backlog is under control.

Cavan Towns

Founded by the O'Reillys, Cavan (pop. 3332) is unusual in that it was Ireland's only medieval Gaelic town. In the 1400s it was a thriving market town, but was burned by the Meath Normans in 1429. It was burned again in 1468 by the English Lord Deputy Tiptoff, Earl of Worcester. A map of 1591 describes Cavan as "The Towne of Cavan." Tullymongen castle (shown on the map) is described as "Aurelies (O'Reillys) castell on the hill over the Cavan." The Franciscan Abbey is also shown. In 1600 it was captured by Lord Mountjoy. Williamite forces from Enniskillen attacked and burned the town in 1690.

King James granted a charter incorporating the town and establishing it as a municipal corporation in 1610. Among the rights of the charter was the right to hold a market. The charter lasted until 1890. A silver mace and seal was presented to the town in 1724. The mace is now on display in the County Museum at Ballyjamesduff.

Several fine buildings provide Cavan Town with amenities for locals and visitors alike. The Court House, built in 1825, stands on what used to be the Market Square. It was sold to the Urban Council in 1923. The courthouse was renovated in 1980 and provides a venue for art exhibits as well as offices for the Cavan County Council and the court.

The Church of Ireland, near the garda barracks, began construction in 1807, and the first services were held on Christmas Day 1815. Transepts were added in 1854.

The Catholic Cathedral of Kilmore is relatively new; it was dedicated upon completion in 1947. Much of the building took place during a time of hardship and isolation. The marble columns came from Northern Italy and arrived just before Mussolini declared war on Britain.

Of special interest to visitors is the Life Force Mill which combines the elements of heritage center, restoration, interpretive center and more. The mill is a part of Cavan's history and dates to the 1840s when there were ninety working corn mills in the county. It was built in 1846 when there were no other mills within two miles of it. Over the years it changed hands several times until it was abandoned in the 1960s.

A massive restoration project saved the mill, now in perfect working order, with a saved cutstone building located just outside. Scheduled for demolition in Drogheda, it was relocated to the mill property, reassembled, and now is a part of the enclave which also includes a tea room, a shop, and a conference room.

One of the many attractions of the mill is that visitors actually mix their own loaf of brown bread which bakes while the tour takes place. It's a much loved part of eact tour, for as visitors take a step back in time to see the workings of this fine old mill, the heavenly aroma of baking bread assails each nostril. At the end of the tour, each visitor takes a loaf of his or her brown bread along with them.

The mill is open to visitors from March to September.

To the west of Lough Oughter is the town of Killeshandra with a population of 469. Known as a place in song, this village is surrounded by small lakes. Four miles to the north, lived the ancestors of poet Edgar Allen Poe. The old church in Church Street is believed to be built on the site of the original church from which the town gets its name. In 1619 Killeshandra got its first Protestant minister. The old Catholic church of 'Cill na Sean Ratha', built in a semi-circular rath, was re-roofed and used as a Protestant church down to 1688.

Belturbet BridgeA market town on the eastern bank of the Erne, Belturbet (pop. 1223) is a fishing center for the River Erne, Upper Lough Erne and Lough Oughter. It owes its origin to the Lanesborough family whose patronage contributed to the prosperity of the town. Some well built houses are to be found in the town which is situated on the Cavan to Ballyconnell road. Just south of the town is an abbey founded by St. Colmcille, and nine miles away is the great house of Ballyhaise, now an agricultural college.

The Coote family came into possession of some of the confiscated O'Reilly lands including the estate called Bellamont Forest north of the town. They founded Cootehill, called after them, in the seventeenth century. Mrs. Sadlier (1820-1903), Irish-American authoress, was a native of the town.

Other Sights in County Cavan
The Office of Public Works lists a vast number of archaeological findings in County Cavan. Visitors will be interested in the various megalithic tombs, crannogs, ringforts, castles, holy wells, sweathouses, linear earthworks, and barrows in County Cavan. For more information, log on to the Cavan Tourism website.

Do you have a question about Ireland? The Ireland for Visitors Forum is available with many helpful members.

Until next time.

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All photos courtesy Cavannet

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