Belturbet native and author, Brendan Scott pictured this week at the bridge over the River Erne in the Town, with the spires of the churches dominating the skyline in the background.

A subject close to home

Historian Brendan Scott has chosen his hometown as the subject for his latest book.

‘Belturbet 1610–1714 – The Origins of an Ulster Plantation Town’ offers a fascinating insight into this defining period for the town on the banks of the River Erne.

Brendan observes that the town of Belturbet is a classic plantation style layout with a big long wide street and a prominent Church of Ireland church generally sited at the top of the town. Cootehill, Virginia and Bailieborough follow the same blueprint. Then there is the Diamond which is the focal point of the town with a Market House, which is nowadays is the venue for the Townhall Civic Centre.

“The Market House was designed to be very central and facilitate English Administration in the town,” explained Brendan, who has a PhD in early modern Irish history.

A key figure in the story of Belturbet is Stephen Butler. From Bedfordshire Butler was already a wealthy man before his arrival on these shores. When Belturbet was officially established as a plantation town on July 18, 1610 and received its charter in 1613, Butler was its first Chief Officer. He was based in the townland of Clonosey, a point noted with interest by this reporter, as it’s where I was born and reside to this day.

Brendan Scott notes that Butler was in Belturbet for the long haul. Many of the English who arrived during the plantation found Ireland was not to their liking and swiftly returned to England. They sold off their estates cheaply and Butler snapped them up.

His wife was Mary Butler and came from a well to do family in England. However their life wasn’t without incident. A former maid accused her of once running a brothel in Dublin and also alleged that she tried to have Butler killed, because he would not give her access to his money.

Stephen Butler had a castle in the townland of Clonosey and was based there when the building of Belturbet got underway in 1618. Some 384 acres were set aside for the town’s expansion. The houses were built with cage work and were all inhabited by British tenants, many of them tradesman and each with a house and garden plot. Fairs and markets were given the go ahead in 1618.

The town continued to develop up to the 1640s when rebellion engulfed large swathes of the country. Cavan soon fell to the insurgents led by Philip McHugh O’Reilly, with Belturbet, a town without defensive walls easy pickings for the Irish.

A massacre of almost 40 British settlers took place in the town in January, 1642. Irish forces burned much of the town in Easter 1643, fearing that they would be invaded by an English Army.

Some settlers were hanged at the Diamond while others were drowned in the river including children and older people.

“You find that when the English take back the town in the 1650s, and according to the Corporation records, a huge amount of rebuilding was undertaken.”

Twenty years after the British were massacred at the river they exacted revenge. Many Catholics were forced to leave the town on pain of a fine of £1 each.

There was more turbulence in the decades to follow, most notably when Ireland became bloodstained as war waged between King James II and William of Orange. Belturbet was the scene of a battle in June, 1689 and was occupied firstly by the Jacobite and then the Williamite armies. A massacre of about 500 Jacobite soldiers took place just outside the town in July of that year at the Bloody Pass and this still lives on in folk memory.

Following this the town and its Corporation managed to find its way back to relative normality, before becoming engulfed in a Presbyterian controversy.

Brendan’s work in writing the book was aided by surprisingly extensive historic documents, For example the corporation records from 1657 survive and are housed in the library in Cavan.

“The level of detail in those records is extraordinary and includes things like the name of horses that participated in races and who the owners were at the time. You really get a sense of a town that is making the rules for the people who are going to live there and how far out you can build,” enthuses Brendan.

“Rules and regulations kick in straight away, because of rows. That is what I always say from studying history: people don’t change, people in essence are the same now as they were 500 years ago. It was all about putting their stamp of authority on the town.”

Of course there was a settlement in Belturbet long before the plantation and Butler’s arrival, as reflected by the Motte and Bailey along the river which dates from the 12th century. There was also an O’Reilly castle on the river bank on the town side. Nevertheless, the plantation saw great expansion of the town.

“Later when the English arrived, they deemed it to be a great spot to locate on the river – it is a good fording point, you can fish and build boats. They decided to settle there and build the town. Belturbet was twice the size of Cavan Town and akin to a small English Market town at the time,” he said.

The list of occupations in the town in 1641 is impressive and includes bakers, eight shopkeepers, three cobblers, clothiers, merchants, gunsmith, carpenters, tanners and inn keepers, shoemakers, butchers, coopers, weavers, felt maker and a tobacco merchant and a turner.

Brendan Scott is greatly appreciative of the support he has received for the book. ‘Belturbet 1610–1714 – The Origins of an Ulster Plantation Town’ is on sale in Gala and Centra in Belturbet and also in Cavan Genealogy on the first floor of the Johnston Library.

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