Like many other areas of Ireland, the English Crown Plantations of the 16th and 17th centuries would come to define the demographics and political battles of County Cavan for generations. County Cavan originally was regarded as part of the Province of Connacht until a de-facto transfer to Ulster in 1584, and it was the Plantation of Ulster specifically, beginning in 1610, that would establish its future character. That enterprise with the influx of Protestant English and Scottish pioneers was directly responsible for the creation of several important Cavan settlements including Ballieborough, Killeshandra and Cootehill; and the decades that followed brought further Protestant settlers from beyond Ireland stimulated by the English Civil War and surrounding conflicts.
Disputes between these newcomers and the native Catholic population would raise their head on a regular basis during the 18th and 19th centuries. Sometimes with foundation purely in economic issues, sometimes political, all tended to become quasi-religious in nature. If religion was not a bone of contention initially in a dispute, it soon came to become a factor. After the Armagh disturbances that brought into existence the Orange Order in 1795, by 1798 there were already 32 Orange Lodges established in Cavan, shortly increasing to 37. At this time the County was second in Ireland in its Orange presence only to Armagh with 78 lodges and Tyrone with 64 lodges (Monaghan had 18), a fact that helps to indicate the level of inter community schism within its boundaries.
Despite some serious reservations within the Counties Protestant population, the Act of Union in 1801 soon garnered their almost unanimous support. Strong economic ties with an economically thriving Belfast and other center’s within north east Ireland, added to the sense of ethnic and religious difference from their neighbour’s, and placed them firmly within the Unionist camp. The most important manifestation for this sense of difference became manifest in the Orange Order which soon became a very important social and political structure in the County. Indeed Cavan was still electing a Unionist MP right up until 1874, when it was the first of the three borders Counties to lose Unionist representation in Parliament in 1874. On that occasion soon to be leader of Ulster Unionism Edward Saunderson lost his west Cavan seat. The same year famous Orange man and Unionist William Johnston M.P. of Ballykilbeg visited Belturbet to open a new Orange Hall, with it reported that a crowd of between 7,000 and 8,000 in attendance.
The staunch nature of Orangeism in Cavan is perhaps best illustrated in 1880, within the Irish Land War episode that famously delivered a new word into the English language. The organized ostracism following evictions from the Earl of Erne’s farm land in Mayo, eventually saw a tactic emerge that took the name of his land agent Major Charles Cunningham Boycott. The situation in which the Earl had offered rent reduction to his tenants but it was refused became a cause celeb for Unionists across the British Isles, with many wishing to volunteer their services to harvest the crops. Eventually a relatively low key solution was reached, with a party of 57 Cavan and Monaghan Orangemen travelled west to fulfil the work required. The 25 Cavan Orange men were later awarded medals for their role in the affair.
The emergence of the first Home Rule Crisis in 1886 saw a demonstration of the same staunch Orange and Unionist positions in the County. Within a detailed muster roll of an ‘Orange Army’ released primarily to the English media, the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Division was said to include Cavan men with their base in Belturbet. The Muster roll appears to have been solely a paper exercise, however it was to be prophetic of events in the decades to come. During the 2nd Home Rule Crisis in 1893, the Ulster Defence Union was formed as a more physical lobby against the bill. Across Ulster delegates were appointed in each parliamentary constituency in a ratio according to its unionist electorate. Within the bodies 600 man assembly, where 10 representatives from the East Cavan constituency, and 11 from West Cavan. The same year saw the birth of the Unionist Club movement, with R.I.C. intelligence alleging 11 Cavan Clubs with a membership of 2,500.
By 1911, despite composing 19% of the population, the geographical distribution of Cavan Unionists meant that they had no County council representation. This was in contrast to a small but not totally insignificant 8 Unionist councilors out of a total of 49 in Monaghan and Donegal. This lack of political representation undoubtedly helped to garner support for the Ulster Covenant campaign of September 1912, making it a phenomenal local success with arguably the highest percentage uptake of the Protestant population of any Ulster County. Over 4,600 men signed the Covenant, with similar numbers signing the female declaration. Almost all of those eligible to sign in what was a total Protestant population of 17,000.
The aftermath of the Covenant saw the introduction of a new tactic from Ulster Unionism. In a bid to unite those bodies already drilling, instill discipline and create a central control, and indeed craft a formidable PR tool; the Unionist leadership inaugurated the Ulster Volunteer Force in late 1912. The goal of the Force was to create a mass movement, an ‘Orange Army’ circa 1886, but this time not just a paper exercise. Across Ulster County Committees were appointed to oversee recruitment, organisation and equipping of the body. The most prominent names within the Cavan Committee were two men who would come to symbolise the anti-Home Rule movement in the County, and indeed its future role within the Great War. Arthur Kenlis Maxwell, more widely known as Lord Farnham, and Colonel Oliver Stewart Wood Nugent.
Farnham was considered to be a hardliner within Irish Unionism during the early 20th century. At a meeting of the Cavan, Kilmore and Ballyhaise Unionists Clubs and the West Cavan Women’s Unionist Association in Cavan Protestant Hall on 23rd February 1913, he labeled Home Rule a nefarious conspiracy. According to Farnham ‘Ulster MUST bar its way’. Within the Nationalist community he became very much a hated figure, indeed even before Covenant Day 1912, the Farnham statue in Cavan was severely damaged by tar, reportedly to the extent that it would take the extraordinary sum of £400 to repair. In June 1913 the Farnham name was being mentioned in the pages of newspapers internationally when a lorry bound for the Farnham estate was impounded in Dublin. Marked as furniture, the van had travelled from the firm of John Ferguson and CO of London. It contained 500 rifles. The Ferguson firm was widely implicated in the importation of arms to Unionists throughout 1912 and 1913. The attempted importation of arms to Cavan would appear to have stimulated an immediate Nationalist reaction and growing militancy, with at the June monthly meeting County Cavan District Councillor Michael Reilly calling on Nationalists to start drilling.
In contrast to the position of Farnham as a ‘hawk’ within Unionism, Regimental Commander Oliver Nugent was a much more reserved figure. Whilst never disowning his involvement in the Volunteers in later years, he was acknowledged as being retrospectively uncomfortable with it, and wrote in retirement that he had always disagreed with the tactic of a physical force movement opposing Home Rule. This belief is most notable in his attempts to brand the Cavan U.V.F. as the ‘Cavan Volunteer Force’ in the early days of the Force, and model it more as a public order slash policing body. A comprehensive document detailing Nugent’s efforts survives entitled the ‘C.V.F. Scheme’. Within its pages he outlines at length the nature of how he believes the body should be organised and why. It opens by acknowledging that the C.V.F. is a part of the U.V.F., but clarified the position by stating ‘Before we commit ourselves to any particular form of organisation, it is desirable to consider to what extent, if any, the particular circumstances of the County of Cavan many render advisable a modification of the conditions of service, which, though applicable to other parts of Ulster many be unsuited to this County’.
In describing what would suit the County, its position was outlined in detail. ‘The County is surrounded on the East, South and West; and partly to the North by Nationalist Counties. Except to the North, there are no organised Unionists similar to the Ulster Volunteer Force.’ Quoting this isolation it was remarked that ‘it is clear that as far as this county is concerned there will be no men available for other work after the requirements of home defence have been provided for’. The document is careful not to criticise the U.V.F. in the rest of the Province, or indeed disown it, instead selling the concept of a civil defence force in Cavan as helping any future Provincial Government in its own particular way, namely reducing the possibility of sectarian confrontation. The county must stand on its own, and should not ask for or seek any assistance from outside its boundaries unless a last resort. The organisation had NOTHING in common with a military organisation.
The explanations of the reasoning behind the scheme were followed up with very detailed plans of organisation and structure. How it should be distributed, and how it should be commanded right down to the roles and responsibilities of different officers. Military titles and terms were not to be used where avoidable. Instructions for the preparation of local defence plans were outlined, with such headings as House Defence, Alarm Posts, Communications and Signals, Food and Clothing; and Committees to prepare schemes. Despite the nature of the document showing restraint and logical forethought; it is notable that the use of arms was not ruled out and that when turning out for duty ‘every man should be armed’. The manuscript very clearly demonstrates the planning and military acumen of Nugent, acumen that would later be demonstrated in the Great War. There was however undoubtedly schism within the County regarding the scheme, with Farnham in particular opposing the C.V.F. scheme, and going as far as writing to U.V.F. H.Q. to express that disapproval.
In the event a compromise scenario appears to have evolved that took on elements of the proposed ‘C.V.F.’ and an approach more conventional in terms of the entire U.V.F. According to R.I.C. inspector County reports, Cavan was among the first Counties to embrace the organisation. In January 1913 it was acknowledged while it was the Orange and Unionist Clubs drilling, that enrolment was underway in the Force. In February the inspector stated that practically every Unionist had signed membership forms, and in March drilling with weapons was taking place within the grounds of Lord Farnham’s estate. A detailed report in July gave the strength of the local U.V.F. as being circa 2,500, with approximately 1000 regarded as ‘effectives’. Ex-Soldiers and Police to the number of 20 were acting as drill instructors, and it was believed 230 rifles were in its position.
Based on the surviving official documents that each County was required to submit to headquarters in Belfast, R.I.C. estimations of membership during the entire Crisis at all stages appear to over-estimate the strength of the local Force. The Cavan monthly return form of April 1913 detailed a County Force of 1,635 men divided on the basis of the East and West Cavan Parliamentary constituencies. By 21st December 1913 that number had increased to 1,920, later peaking at 2,065, with a three battalion strong County Cavan Regiment of the Volunteers now established under Regimental Commander Oliver Nugent. The first Battalion was under the command of Lord Farnham (later replaced by F.L. Clement Scott upon the outbreak of the Great War).
The Battalion covered the districts of Cavan, Arva, Killeshandra, Ballyjamesduff and Cootehill, with membership of 968. The second Battalion was under Captain Sommerset Sanderson of Castle Saunderson, who also took on the role of Regimental Commander during war time. The second was the Belturbet and Ballyconnell districts. The third Battalion was under Boer War veteran Captain Mervyn Pratt Cabra Castle, later replaced by T.J. Chambers of the Laurels Ballieborough. Its numbers were composed of Volunteers from the greater Ballieborough area. A mark of the commitment of the Regiment is that from an early stage it is noted as having a four member full time administrative staff. County secretary was William Mathews of Church Street Cavan. The County designation letter, that appearing on the rear of the U.V.F. lapel badges, was D.
Unlike Monaghan that had a Unionist newspaper during the period in the form of the Northern Standard, Cavan had no Unionist media outlet since the Cavan Weekly News folded circa 1907. The lack of local unionist media leaves a gap in reportage locally, however from the pages of the Nationalist Anglo Celt and other outlets, combined with R.I.C. reports, it is possible to build up a picture of U.V.F. activity, and Unionist attitudes and actions in Cavan during 1913 and 1914. The first major demonstration of Cavan Volunteer strength came in August 1913, when they joined their comrades of the Monaghan Regiment in Newbliss. There they were reviewed by Sir Edward Carson. Whilst the Irish Nationalist papers acknowledged that around 2,000 Volunteers were present from both Counties, it also pointed out that many of the Volunteers ‘were so aged as to find it difficult to mark time’. Captain James Craig, Carson’s deputy and arguably the strategist behind the Ulster Unionist anti-Home Rule Campaign, visited Ballymachugh in October. There he told the assembled throngs that ‘Although they were on a borderland, they were as much a part of Ulster as if they were in County Down, County Antrim or County Londonderry.’
Another major review came in December when U.V.F. Commander Sir George Richardson visited Castle Saunderson to review the local Volunteers under the command of Captain Sommerset Saunderson. The same month Lord Farnham reviewed several units at Castlehamilton that included Volunteers from Portlongfield and Killygar U.V.F. County Leitrim. Again the Nationalist media was disparaging stating that ‘No one looking at the squad would be equal to saying anything’. As an aside, it is also reported that Farnham attended at least one review of the U.V.F. within County Leitrim itself. In January 1914 at Killygar the Leitrim Inspector wrote that four branches were inspected at Killegar House; although it was referred to in the media as a review of the ‘Orange Volunteer Force’ as opposed to the U.V.F.
The County U.V.F. held a camp of instruction for its officers in March 1914 at Farnham. The programme for the seven day camp from the 8th to the 14th of the month, was laid out in considerable detail. For example the schedule for the 12th included Battalion Drill by instructors from 7 to 8am; from 9.30 to 12.30 there were lectures in Principles of outposts, Battalion in extended order, aiming drill and miniature rifle practice; and from 2 to 5pm outposts as by night by companies, squad drill and rifle practice by districts. Given the level of detail surviving from the camp, whilst some might question its efficiency, few could doubt its motivation. In all 121 men attended, made up of company commanders, second in command, squad leaders and section leaders; with three instructors taking the various lectures and activities, and two cooks catering the camp. A Manchester correspondent who had visited the Cavan Regiment the same month noted in his report that ‘in places not homogeneously Protestant, the Volunteers are better organised and better prepared for resistance than they are in Belfast’. Of the Cavan men he reflected that what he witnessed would not have been discreditable to an ‘average territorial battalion’.
Despite his reserved nature and attempts to reduce tension, Oliver Nugent still found himself under attack in the local press in March for being part of the Volunteer organisation. His underlying attitude still came across in his obviously reserved and reasoned approach and answers to criticism however. In an interview in the Manchester Guardian of April 1914, Nugent stated that ‘I am an Irishman, and Home Rule or no Home Rule, there are a lot of us who will have to live in Ireland among our Catholic neighbours.’ Nugent attempts to maintain a level of calm within the County were difficult on occasion. In March Ballyjamesduff Protestant Church was set on fire, and possibly confrontation was only avoided when the culprit was quickly arrested. Remarkably James Brody was identified by footprints at the scene being matched to his shoes. Incidents did not always come from the one side. In May a Sunday Church Parade took place at Belturbet with 400 Volunteers present from Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim and Fermanagh. Whilst the Anglo Celt kept up its record of being disparaging toward the fitness of the men, County loyalty remarkably came to play in one report were they identified the Belturbet corps as seeming the ‘best set up’. Following the service, on their return that evening shots were fired at one Edward King of Riverside.
A more genial relationship, and perhaps more down to the power of alcohol than anything else, was described in June, when the Celt reported that both Ulster and Irish Volunteers had joined together, albeit temporarily. The cause uniting the men being a cock fight at Killeshandra.
The County RI.C. Inspector’s reports for June and July did not leave room for a positive attitude in the future of the Cavan. In June the Ulster Volunteer Force were described as numbering 3,461 (a figure never remotely reached within the official documents), being armed with modern carbines and believed to have 2 maxim guns. The very quickly growing Irish Volunteers were said to be poorly armed but having the vastly superior 5,529 men. By July the Irish Volunteers had increased by almost a further 1,000 men. That month the inspector stated that the ‘outlook is dangerous’.
Like elsewhere across Ireland, the outbreak of War had an immediate effect on the situation. Despite the marching and drilling continuing, men from Belturbet Company were recorded as marching fully armed in early August, tensions eased considerably. The inspector now noted that feeling between both branches of the volunteers was much better, and there was no support for the Germans. For many the focus changed to the events on the ‘front’. Within the ranks of the U.V.F. many within the command immediately took their place within the armed forces. Oliver Nugent took command of the 36th Ulster Division with distinction, with Lord Farnham and Captain Pratt among others who served. Like County Monaghan, many within the lower ranks of the U.V.F. were more reluctant to enlist. A combination of fear for land and family when they were away, and what they might come back to, or not come back to, being important influencing factors. Many did answer the call however. Some within the ranks of the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, the new army unit set up for the Ulster Volunteers of Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan; whilst others would serve alongside their Catholic neighbours and Irish Volunteer members in a range of units. In all County Cavan would lose approximately 1,000 men during the Great War. There was no distinction between the Cavan Protestant and the Catholic in death.