Times Past: Cavan Royal School: Some aspects of its long history
In his latest edition of Times Past, historian Jonathan Smyth looks at the history of the Royal School in Cavan Town...
In post-plantation Ulster, the important question of education came to the fore. The man referred to as the architect of the plantation, was Sir Arthur Chichester and it was he who wrote to Lord Salisbury, informing him that King James had set aside land during a visit to the Protestant Bishop of Derry for the purpose of building schools at Clogher, Derry and Raphoe.
The Bishop was one of six commissioners who obtained the job of dividing and planting the land which had been confiscated from the earls after they fled in 1607. The counties which were put forward for plantation included Tyrone, Coleraine (later named Derry), Donegal, Fermanagh and Cavan.
In January 1614, all lands used for schools were to be transferred to the bishops in each diocese. Chichester’s document reads: - ‘We greet you well, as upon the division of our late escheated lands in Ulster. We did , out of our princely care and gracious inclination, assign certain proportions of those our lands within several counties for the endowment of several free schools and maintenance of schoolmasters, for the increase of learning and good manners in these parts where the same are so much wanting.’ The ancient past, as the wise point out, is now a foreign country where life happened differently.
During his tour of inspection through Ulster in 1606, Sir Arthur Chichester made comments about Cavan to Lord Salisbury: ‘In this county there is a poor town bearing the name of (the) Cavan, seated betwixt many small hills, but the barony in which it stands is named Loughtee, and the best in the county being one of the four designated to Sir John Orealy (O’Reilly), and the fittest to be reserved in His Majesty’s sole disposition for bringing it to a civil county.’ They decided to take possession St Mary’s Abbey, belonging to the Franciscan Order in Cavan town, and to reinstate it as a state church and for the added purpose of having a free school built in its grounds. Building material was needed to build a school and they considered demolishing O’Reilly’s Castle on Tullacmongan hill and to use the stones to build an extension to the proposed school at the Abbey. A document relating to the project, stated that one hundred acres of land belonging to the castle were ‘to be added to the school land’ and that the ‘stone of the castle’ was to ‘be carried to the Abbey for to build the school withal’.
The planned demolition of the castle for the purpose of building the school does not appear to have been actually carried out. No documents survive to confirm that a demolition took place. The first appointed headmaster of Cavan Royal School was John Robinson.
The school received its royal charter from Charles 1 in 1627 and as part of the king’s generosity the school was given lands at Drumcrave, Tullacmongan, Tirquin and Billis. The school went through a rough patch during Cromwell’s time. Anything with a royal prefix was not looked upon favourably by the tyrant Oliver Cromwell. The next headmaster was John Newcommen, who was appointed after the restoration of the crown. From 1808, headmaster John Moore, had the school re-located from Billis to Fort Henry, in the vicinity of Cootehill.
By 1813, the Board of Education insisted that the school should return to Cavan town. Lands were bought at Lurganboy, Cavan and other fields were sold at Billis to raise funds. The plans for the new Royal School were drawn up by the Armagh-born architect, Francis Johnston, who also designed Nelson’s Pillar, late of O’Connell Street, Dublin.
Thomas Sheridan, the erstwhile friend and fellow wit to Dean Swift was without doubt, the Royal’s most famous headmaster. Sheridan, was an eccentric who publicly shared his dislike of the Cavan air which did untold things to his asthma. To counteract its effects, Sheridan drank a daily half-pint of whiskey combined with garlic and other herbs. Long after Sheridan’s tenure, another celebrated Mullagh man, the writer Henry Brooke, attended the school. Brooke’s daughter Charlotte became a writer and is remembered for her important work, Reliques of Irish Poetry.
Patrick Lindsay TD
A teacher at the Royal named Patrick James Lindsay, later became a Fine Gael TD for Mayo North from 1954 to 1961; Minister for the Gaeltacht from 1956 to 1957 and Vice-Chairman of the Seanad from 1961 to 1965. In the late 1930s, Lindsay contemplated taking a job in Khartoum after a period of ‘restless’ unemployment. However, a phone call from the headmaster of Cavan Royal offering him a job as a classics teacher was to change that. On his arrival in Cavan, Lindsay met Freddy Hall, a maths teacher who assisted him with his luggage at the bus station. That evening the headmaster and his wife cordially invited Patrick to dinner. They discussed many topics. Did he horse ride? or had he ever rode with the Galway Blazers? - his hosts enquired. Lindsay felt as though he were being x-rayed on social matters. He told them that he had ridden horses before, even though his experience was limited to sitting on a donkey. When told that the Royal had a horse riding school he felt slightly unnerved, recalling how the headmaster’s son presented him with a horse named Dapple. Patrick managed to get on the horse and stay on it. He came to enjoy going out for an early morning gallop.
During his dinner with the headmaster, the topic of church arose. There are three services on a Sunday announced the headmaster, ‘Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist, all at 11.30am’. Oh, but’ I am Catholic, announced Patrick, ‘what time is the last mass?’ Lindsay remembered, how ‘the blood drained from their faces’, after all this was the 1930s. The headmaster had assumed that with a name like Lindsay, he was Protestant. However, Patrick spent two very happy years at Cavan Royal where the teachers were always respectful. Of his experience at Cavan Royal, he wrote: ‘The Royal was a co-educational establishment and I must say I still regard it as a privilege to have had the experience’.
For more on the history of Cavan Royal School, I recommend two articles, the first in Breifne (2007), ‘Cavan Royal School’, by David McCready; and the second is ‘Cavan Royal School’, in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland (1970), by Michael Quane.