The SS Belturbet arriving at Belturbet carried 174 passengers. Courtesy of Cavan Library Service Photographic Collection.

John Vesey Grey Porter: ‘Fidgety, maggoty, yet blunt and fearless’

This week's Times Past column by Jonathan Smyth looks at John Vesey Grey Porter with an additional piece on the building of Cavan Court House in 1825...

Fermanagh-man John Vesey Grey Porter came to prominence in the late nineteenth century with his entrepreneurial spirit and his eccentricities. The former High Sheriff of Fermanagh was an author of pamphlets, a newspaper owner, and the grandson of a Church of Ireland Bishop of Clogher called Dr Porter from England who came to Ireland in the company of Lord Camden, the Lord Lieutenant.

Added to his achievements, John V.G. Porter was a builder of bridges, an operator of steamships, including the SS Knockninny and SS Belturbet, and pushed for the drainage and improvement of navigation on Upper Lough Erne.

As a landowner, he was an improving landlord who encouraged the betterment of living conditions for his tenantry. Porter was the only son of Rev John Grey Porter, rector of Donaghmoyne, Co Monaghan and Margaret Lindsay of Hollymount, Co Mayo, a granddaughter of the first earl of Lucan. The family home inherited by Porter was on their Belleisle estate, Lisbellow, Co Fermanagh.

J.G.V. Porter came to the notice of Daniel O’Connell, ‘the Liberator’, after publishing a pamphlet, ‘Ireland: some political Irish questions calmly discussed’, published in 1843. An entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography by Desmond McCabe and Sylvie Kleinman points out that Porter himself was everything but a ‘calm’ individual and they quoted the Impartial Reporter’s assessment of him in 1868, which described him as ‘onward, forward … fidgety, maggoty, yet blunt and fearless’.

Porter’s dalliance with the newly-established Dundalk and Enniskillen Railway company was short-lived even though he was a shareholder since 1854. The company had received parliamentary backing to extend its lines and build new branches, including a line to Lisbellow on his Belleisle estate. The same railway would eventually include a terminus at Cootehill and a line that ran between Cavan, Belturbet and Clones and led on to Enniskillen.

Ructions arose when Lord Erne, the third earl of Erne, chairman and largest shareholder of the D & E Railway, had the section of track to Lisbellow abandoned from the railway’s plans in favour of an alternative line that came to Earl’s own town of Lisnaskee. Porter exploded in anger at the Earl of Erne for having the audacity to abandon Lisbellow from having its very own railway connection and did what he best and wrote a pamphlet. Porter’s pamphlet had the lengthy title of: ‘Lord Erne’s mistakes as Chairman of the Dundalk and Enniskillen company, and the consequences to its shareholders, to the County of Fermanagh, and to the Province of Ulster’.

A libel trial took place between Lord Erne, the plaintive, and Porter, as defendant. In an article I wrote on ‘The establishment of Cootehil Branch Railway’ for the Breifne Journal, I referred to the pamphlet in which one of Porter’s gems was a suggestion that Charles Dickens ought to ‘buy a share’ in the company and, by attending its half yearly meetings, would have enough material to produce his next novel. Porter lost and was required to pay Erne £300 in damages.

Sailing to Belturbet

But it seems both Porter and Lord Erne were able to set their personal differences aside when a new business venture came along, and they quickly got back on track with the help of other investors when they began a new company in 1862 called the ‘Lough Erne Steamboat Company’. Their steamer the SS Devenish sailed between Enniskillen and Belleek. However, the well-used railway line gave them a good run for their money and, in 1867, being unable to compete with the iron road they went into liquidation.

Porter saw an opportunity when the company was liquidated and started his own ‘passenger and freight’ service with an ‘iron-hulled screw steamer’ named the SS Knockninny making its daily journey between Enniskillen and Belturbet. The SS Knockninny was eventually taken out of service and replaced by the SS Belturbet with its famous fold-down funnels being a great asset when passing under the eye of a bridge. Porter’s interest in waterways led to his call for drainage works to make Upper Lough Erne more navigable and therefore improved the route for his steamers. He also opened a hotel at Knockninny to accommodate the ‘gentlemen anglers’ who arrived each season.

On the Library website ‘’ it is stated that, following the death of Mr Porter in 1903, the SS Belturbet retired from service and, in 1914, at the start the Great War, its steel hull was melted down for the war effort. The steering wheel did remain with the Porter family and, in 2004, was presented to Belturbet Railway Station Museum on permanent loan where it can now be seen. For more of Belturbet’s history see ‘Belturbet: A Chequered History’ by Local Historian George Morrissey.


On March 1, 1825, the Cavan Herald reported on the splendid new Court House, which was nearing completion in Cavan Town, and it was hoped that the ‘approaching assizes’ could be held in its chambers. The Cavan Herald’s reporter noted that it was ‘unquestionably a very ornamental, useful, and elegant edifice; - as a public building it adds considerably to the appearance of our town, and as an useful one, embracing offices for the various public departments, united under the same roof, its utility is unquestionable’.

The building in the paper’s opinion was one of the most completed and ‘judiciously arranged edifices of its kind in the country’ and ‘less superior’ court houses were erected in other counties at the same expense, but the Cavan Court House was lucky to have been built by the eminent and respectable ‘House of Williams and Cockburn’ of Bolton Street, its workmanship demonstrating ‘the highest credit to these gentlemen’.

They had put every effort into completing their contract to the highest standard possible. However, it was pointed out that the sterling work of ‘Williams and Cockburn’ was achieved at a cost of £80,00 while the ‘unsightly, ill-contrived and commodious’ Court House of Armagh, which was a lot smaller, had cost a whopping £17,000.

Williams and Cockburn were praised for their respectability having undertook to do a job in which they had ‘a character to uphold’ and with a conscientious attitude carried out their duty ‘divested of any selfish or self-interested motive’. The Court House building stands as a testament to the generous craftmanship of the builders who completed it in 1825.


James L. Farley: Author and Turkish affairs expert