Jim's Irish Genealogy Pages

County Cavan

Cavan is a county in the north-center of the Republic of Ireland, part of the province of Ulster but not included in English-occupied Northern Ireland.

The name "Cavan," according to P.W. Joyce's Irish Place Names, means "a hollow place," although "in some parts of Ulster it is understood to mean a hard round hill." Either meaning is easy to apply to the county’s rolling, glacier-plowed terrain. In medieval times, Cavan formed part of the principality of Breifne, which was then considered to belong to the province of Connacht.

"Right through history, Breifne has been a region of retreat," Thomas J. Barron wrote in the journal of the Breifne Historical Society in 1958, noting that the area’s rugged topography made it a natural last stand for doomed causes. "Possibly Breifne remained one of the last strongholds of paganism in the country," Barron said. "It was certainly amongst the last of the Gaelic lordships to pass under English control."

The traditional chieftains of lower Breifne, which became Cavan, were the O Raghallaighs, or O’Reillys. One branch of this family gave its name to the barony of Clankee, the subdivision of Cavan that contains Shercock. This 13th Century story is told by Eugene Markey and John Clarke in Knockbride, a history of a neighboring parish to Shercock:

Our barony of Clankee was called after a chieftain of the O’Reilly clan. He was Niall O'Raghallaigh, whose chief stronghold was Muff Castle.... On one of his many expeditions against the English Pale, he was captured and taken prisoner to Dublin. After being badly beaten and tortured, he was given three choices, to have his legs cut off, being left unable to have descendants, or having his eyes gouged out. He is reported to have answered “a soldier cannot fight without his legs or his sons," and so his eyes were gouged out. He was afterwards known as "an caoch" ("the blind") and his descendants were known as the Clan Caoch, the territory they ruled over getting the name Clankee.

In 1584, the English conquerors of Ireland split Breifne into two counties, Cavan and Leitrim, and Cavan was incorporated into the province of Ulster. The power of the O'Reillys was broken in the 17th Century when they led a failed rebellion against English rule, and the people of Cavan were increasingly subjected to foreign rule.

The conquerors’ attitude toward the county was summed up by an English aristocrat, Lord Bellamont, who in a speech to the Irish Parliament in the early 1700s described a trip through Cavan that would have taken him near Shercock: "It is all acclivities and declivities without the intervention of a horizontal plain, its hills all rocks, its valleys all bogs, and its inhabitants are all savages."

A similar though slightly more sympathetic description of Cavan appears in Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, published in 1837:

The surface is very irregular, being every where varied with undulations of hill and dale, occasionally rocky, with scarcely a level spot intervening; numerous lakes of great extent and beauty adorn the interior.... To the northwest the prospect is bleak, dreary, and much exposed; but in other parts it is not only well sheltered and woody, but the scenery is highly picturesque and attractive.... In no part of Ireland are there demesnes of more magnificence and beauty.

A "demesne" is an estate; there was a great contrast between the situations of the few great landowners and those of the common folk, virtually none of whom owned the land they farmed. "The more substantial farmers have good family houses," Lewis noted; "but the dwellings of the peasantry are extremely poor, and their food consists almost entirely of oatmeal, milk, and potatoes."

At the time Lewis wrote, the Gaelic-speaking culture had not yet been forgotten in Cavan: "The English language is generally spoken...but the aged people all speak Irish," he wrote.

Next: Shercock.

This page was created by James Kearney Naureckas. Please email him with any corrections, suggestions or questions.