Brigadier Eric Dorman O'Gowan was injured as a young soldier in the Great War.

The Great War: County Cavan in 1914

This is the first of five columns by Jonathan Smyth looking back at Cavan and the Great War which happened 110 years ago...

Prior to the conflict, Ireland was on the cusp of achieving Home Rule, but opinion was sharply divided with Irish Unionists expressing dread over the bill's impending assent.

One year earlier, in 1913, a British intelligence report pointed to political tensions in Ulster, which they termed ‘heightened’ at the start of the year, and disturbances occurred at first in Belfast, where opposition to the Home Rule was gathering pace, and yet, the files stored in the Chief Secretary's office only record a riot in Derry as the most serious happening in Ulster that year. That said, there was ‘little to no’ disorder at all found by the intelligence operatives in the province, which was comprised of the nine counties of ‘Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry (Derry), Monaghan and Tyrone’, then under a single jurisdiction.

The only known unrest in Cavan and Monaghan came in the guise of Unionist opposition to Home Rule being signed into law and intelligence gathering showed the Ulster Volunteer Force had drilled regularly and, in some instances, functioning rifles were given to members for ‘instructional purposes.’ The report stated that ‘considerable progress’ was achieved through constant drilling.

In November 1913, the Irish (Nationalist) Volunteers were founded as a counter force to the UVF, but they are not mentioned in the report.

In 1914, the Chief Secretary's secret records, marked confidential, show the region to be ‘remarkably free from party disturbances or disorder’ apart from, ‘to a very slight extent’ in Cavan where an event in January of that year involved Lord Farnham almost meeting his Waterloo but for good fortune, when barbed wire was placed across a roadway on his return from a UVF drill.

A month later, the report noted that disgruntlement arose elsewhere when Dr O’Rourke, a Nationalist, was evicted by a Unionist Landlord at Ballyconnell. When England went to war against the German aggressor Kaiser Wilhelm II there was be an unexpected unity amongst the men who trained in the UVF and Irish volunteers who fought under the various battalions sent out to Belgium and France.

On August 15, 1914, the front page of The Anglo-Celt produced the headline, ‘Volunteers Unite … unique spectacle at Virginia.’ Redmond's rallying speech calling on the Irish Volunteers to fight on the frontline had struck an immediate chord with the UVF in the Virginia district and on Thursday of the same week, they were said to have thrown off any little reserve they might have felt in the matter and joined in with the national volunteers in a torchlight procession in which 500 marched, headed by the local AOH band. Cheers were given for Redmond, the King, and to finish the evening off, the band gave a jolly rendition of ‘A Nation Once Again'.

Food glorious food

When war came in August 1914 it was soon realised that it was not just only soldiers they needed for the army, but the soldiers also needed to be fed, as well as the army horses, and then ordinary Irish citizens would need to be able to eat locally sourced comestibles, and with supply chains around Europe disrupted, farmers around Ireland were required to do their duty and increase the number of crops grown.

In Cavan farmers were told they would need to increase the total area under catch-crops by up to five-fold to cope with the demand; all counties in Ireland were requested to increase agricultural production, especially of wheat, for example, Co Carlow was requested to grow at least four times more wheat than the previous year.

First injuries

Not before long the Celt began reporting on local people who were injured or killed during the early battles, which in the beginning added an exotic, but unpleasant flavour to the usual roundup of news consulted by Cavan readers. One of the first reports of a wounded soldier from Cavan was that of second lieutenant Eric Dorman Smith, son of Edward P. Smith JP, Bellamont Forest, Cootehill, who served with the Northumberland Fusiliers and received a wound on the left arm by shrapnel at Troisville, North France, where they had been fighting for ‘four continuous days'.

The newspaper announced that Eric, at nineteen years of age, was doing well, and the same account also mentioned his brother Victor, who served as a midshipman on HMS King Edward VII and gave his age as seventeen and a half years of age.

This newspaper proposed to pay for any letters from the front obtained for publication and it didn't take too long for them to arrive, with the first of them being published on Saturday, August 29, 1914. One Cavan soldier wrote of his newfangled interest in French cuisine and wrote: ‘Out here in France snails are consumed but I can't say that I take to them.' His letter on how the snails were gathered by the peasants for food and fattened by them during the winter was quite innocent in comparison to some of the later letters published in the pages of this paper.

In 1913 and 1914, there may not have been an awful lot happening in Cavan, according to the intelligence gatherers who informed the Chief Secretary’s office and yet the outbreak of war in Europe called upon many of those who drilled on opposing sides, with both the UVF, and the Irish Volunteers, uniting and together serving in the various battalions for the purpose of defeating a common foe. Ireland had been on the cusp of civil war before the German hostilities had kicked in, and yet those two opposing sides of the Irish Home Rule debate happily became fellow comrades during the Great War. In September 1914, the Home Rule Bill was officially signed into law, but its fulfilment was, by agreement, postponed for the duration of the war.


Michael Donohoe: The teacher from Cappagh, Killeshandra