James Valentine the first person to fly a plane in Cavan.

High flyer Valentine first to fly plane over Cavan

This week's Times Past column by Jonathan Smyth looks at James Valentine who was the first person to fly a plane in Cavan. He later died in Ukraine in 1917.

When new and exciting things become commonplace, excitement is lost, and this may be said of aviation, which began in earnest with the first official flight by an Englishman, John Moore-Brabazon, on May 2, 1909. From then, we have evolved to a world of unmanned flights by drones from our back garden, and like the old days, it is all in the name of fun.

In the 1900s, new-fangled aviators took to the skies, giving communities across the islands of Ireland and Britain a novel form of entertainment, the likes they had never dreamt before. In his fascinating book, ‘Pioneers, Showmen and the RFC’, author Guy Warner does a superb job, telling the story of the early highflyers who toured these isles. A chapter that caught my eye was the one on the first plane flight in Cavan. What a novelty it was for our ancestors who in wide-eyed wonder were lucky enough to see the event. That must have been a heck of a wow factor for a hardworking people who had little leisure time.

Early aviators, both men and women, pioneered the pathway, firstly as entertainment and then as a genuine commercial enterprise, flying passengers to all parts of the world. Airline travel born of humble beginnings is now a billion-euro industry, taken for granted to a large extent by the masses whose transport is through the skies.

Farnham’s car

The pilot given the honour of making a first flight in Co Cavan was James Valentine, an experienced performer who had just put on a display at the Powerscourt estate, in Wicklow, at the invitation of Viscount and Viscountess Powerscourt in 1912. His monoplane had been ‘towed ‘to Wicklow by a ‘Ford 20hp’, belonging to the Cavan landlord, Lord Farnham. Following Valentine’s flying acrobatics above Powerscourt, he travelled to Paris, then returned to Ireland, appearing first in Mullingar. Afterwards, he towed the plane, with its wings removed to Cavan. The site for Valentine’s Cavan’s flight extravaganza was above the Deer Park, on Lord Farnham’s ample estate.

Cavan flight

The exhibition was billed under James Valentine, giving his ‘varied exhibitions’ in the Deer Park, by kind permission of his lordship, on October 10, at 3.30pm, at an admission charge of a shilling per person. The Anglo-Celt reported that ‘on Thursday, Mr James Valentine the celebrated aviator’ and one of the most successful and intrepid of his kind, thrilled his audience with a daring show. A large crowd of between 2,000 and 3,000 descended at Farnham’s, and after they were let in, the people assembled behind a barrier. They had come from everywhere, places like Oldcastle, Bailieborough, Enniskillen, Clones, Cootehill, Virginia, Belturbet, Killeshandra, Ballyjamesduff and Granard. Valentine, the Celt pointed out, showed none of the usual swank associated with ‘our American cousins’ and the people liked him the better for it.

But there was a hint of caution amongst organisers, because of a tragedy, some weeks earlier in Belfast when things had gone awry, and an aviator named Henry Jacob Delaval Astley was killed. Thankfully, things went to plan for Valentine whose skill at Cavan was ‘carried out’ in an easy confident manner, sailing through the air like an artist layering colour on a masterpiece, he was thoroughly at home in the monoplane’s ‘confined seat’. Sets of amazed eyes followed Valentine’s flight around the Deerpark. Many of the women spoke of how handsome Mr Valentine looked, as they chatted among themselves.


Valentine boarded the plane, which was stationed by the railings separating himself and the spectators. He started the engine, followed by a sharp twirl of the plane’s propeller, by his French mechanic. The force of the propeller seemed to tear the grass from its very roots when the plane lurched forward towards the starting point. Valentine taxied the plane some 70 yards before gracefully rising into the air, and performing ‘birdlike’ manoeuvres, before gliding back to earth as though ‘alighting’ on ‘eggs in a basket’.

After a brief interval, Valentine jumped back in the seat and took-off to new heights, darting through the heavens, somewhere at 900 to 1000 feet. He unexpectedly met a flock of hapless crows who were incorporated into the act, circling them, over and under, creating waves of excitement on the ground, as the crowd swelled to and fro’ to the plane’s every move. The second act having concluded, Valentine descended to give the plane’s engine a rest, landing softly to rapturous adulation and applause.

For the third and final take-off, his intention would be to perform a daring fly past of Farnham House and to land in the grounds at the front of the building. However, Valentine was caught short, running low on petrol, he made an early decision to land. It was much sooner than he had wished to.

The shops in Cavan town added to the sense of festivity, by entering the ‘holiday spirit’ and closing their premises on the afternoon of the display. The fun had in the grounds at Farnham’s ‘humble abode’ must have been the talk of the country for weeks. Over-all, the show was a rip-roaring success.


During World War One, James Valentine joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1914, and fought in France, and later Russia, where he was attached to the ‘British Flying Detachment’. He helped lead the retreat to present day Khmelnylskyi, Ukraine and suffering from what was suspected exhaustion, Valentine took leave in Kiev. He was in fact very ill and died on August 17, 1917. At twenty-nine years of age, the first person to fly a plane above Cavan, was dead. His widow, Louisa, spent much of the war, in Paris, nursing at an army hospital.


John McGovern’s Memoir: The McGoverns of Drumlane