Cavan history in bite sizes
WEBISODE Series starts this Thursday with shooting of Tom Sheridan
Cavan wasn’t exactly the centre of revolutionary Ireland, but that’s not to say that incidents of major significance to the community didn’t occur sporadically.
“It certainly wasn’t active as somewhere as Cork,” agrees Dr Brendan Scott of the era that laid the foundations of the Republic. “The things that happened were more tit for tat, which still had tragic outcomes. People still died but not in the one-off numbers that you saw elsewhere.”
That piecemeal dimension to Cavan’s history of a century ago lends itself to tackling events in easily digestible bite sizes. Hence the Belturbet native is about to launch a series of talks to mark the Centenary of Decades, with the first premièring this week.
He notes that in the major incidents, such as the burning of the Customs House, the personal stories “sometimes can get lost”.
A personal story he will focus on in the first instalment is the botched hold-up of RIC officers by IRA volunteers – brothers Packie and Tom Sheridan - from Ballinagh.
“The idea was, they would hold these fellas up, get the weapons, get the uniforms and then take the RIC barracks. The IRA always insisted, and the family always insisted, that they did not fire – they were trying to take the stuff as peacefully as possible, if you can do so. But the RIC fired first and caught them unaware.”
He continues: “The two brothers who were shot had to be spirited up to Dublin and admitted to hospitals under pseudonyms because they were wanted men. When they found out who had been shot, the British forces, who were unnamed – they didn’t identify themselves – went to the family house that night and threatened the family and tried to burn down the house with the family in it. There were all these terrible reprisals going on.”
Tom died from his wounds, aged 23. A third brother, Michael later became a long-standing Fianna Fáil TD. “They really gave a lot to the State,” Brendan observes of the Sheridans.
A memorial stands not far from Ballinagh on the Crossdoney road, marking where the confrontation unfolded.
Brendan advises caution when considering those involved in the revolutionary period from the privileged perspective of a peaceful, modern Republic. “A hundred years on, 26 counties have their independence and it’s because of the actions of people like that. We can agree or disagree about the ways they went about these things. That’s what the Decade of Centenaries is all about: that we look at things that are maybe a bit uncomfortable from a 21st Century viewpoint.
“Sometimes it’s easy to forget how people lived, and the feeling of repression a lot of people had. It’s easy for us in the 21st century to say you should or shouldn’t do that – if we were in their shoes, who knows what we would do? Sometimes it can be dangerous to try to judge people a hundred years on.”
Another personal story, which Brendan will focus on is the murder of a retired Church of Ireland minister, Dean John Finlay, during an IRA raid on his Bawnboy house.
“It was seen as terribly unpopular at the time,” observes Brendan. “He was very well got as a nice old harmless man.”
The 80 year old’s wife, sister in law and servants were taken away by the volunteers to a neighbouring house. When they returned, Dean Finlay was lying shot dead and the house ablaze.
“This was a civilian sitting at home minding his business of an evening, who wasn’t involved in anything. It’s very hard to justify that one, and I don’t think anyone really would try to justify that,” he said.
“They [the IRA] said it was an accident, it wasn’t supposed to happen. Then there were rumours the house was going to be taken over by the Black and Tans... it was seen as a target in some way.”
Recalling the republican rumours prompts Brendan to stress a point: “There can sometimes be local folklore or local legends about things. I’m not really going down that road because you can’t really verify that stuff. I’m using hard published evidence that is there and can be seen, evaluated and weighed up, rather than: ‘This lad told me in the pub one night.’ There’s just no way of evaluating that kind of evidence.”
The series won’t concentrate solely on violent incidents, webisodes will also be devoted to the role of women in the period, “which has always been under appreciated” and the role of the GAA in Cavan at this time. One fascinating topic Brendan will discuss is not widely known about; the Gaeltacht in Glangevlin, which opened its doors on July 12, 1921.
“It was supposed to start on the eleventh but they signed the Truce [of the War of Independence] on the eleventh and so I assume they had a party that day and started it on the twelfth. This was a very successful Irish college and ran for four or five years in Glangevlin. It got people from England, and people from all over coming to it.”
He explains it was the area in Cavan with the highest number of native Irish speakers in the early 20th century. The dialect, which was spoken, appears to have been a mix of South Donegal and Connaught.
“To me that’s a really positive story of what was going on in Ireland – a re-emergence of interest in the Irish language, and people re-engaging with the Irish language. Those first sessions especially, which coincided with the signing of the truce – people felt really optimistic, this was great – we can get a long. Some of the organisers of that college had family killed in the war of Independence, so there was a great sense of relief.”
Brendan regrets that the online format hinders a live Q&A, but he welcomes any questions via email, and he’ll happily respond. Keeping himself busy, he will also release a series of podcasts in the coming weeks starting with a discussion with Dr Jonathan Cherry of DCU on the topic of Farnhams’ opposition to partition - “they were horrified by partition”.
“Download them onto your phone, go for a walk and you have the pleasure of listening to me for half an hour,” he says with a self deprecating laugh. “God help you.”
Brendan hopes webisodes and podcasts can shed light on this fascinating part of Cavan’s history.
“How many people drive out the Crossdoney Road and see that monument and don’t know what it’s about? How many people know whose names are on the monument in front of the courthouse in Cavan, and their stories?”
Watch the first of the Cavan Co Council’s 1921 Centenary webisodes - covering Tom Sheridan’s death - on Thursday, June 3, 7pm: www.cavancoco.ie/centenaries