Description, Farming, Land system (Life in Cavan)

This was the turbulent, oppressive environment of our Catholic Dowd ancestors, subjected to the penal laws and perhaps taking some part in the resistence. By the time of Peter Dowd's birth in about 1790, the family possessed little and was accustomed to its status as peasant and tenant on the land.

Peter Dowd lived in the southwest part of Cavan in the civil "parish" of Scrabby. Formally known as Scrabby Gowna, it is a small parish on the Longford/Cavan border. In the medieval period Gowna was part of the territory of the McKiernan's, a name that is still present in the parish today.

Gowna Village, County Cavan

There is some indication that Peter Dowd was living in the town of Gowna which faces the large lake or "lough" named Lough Gowna. The lake is reputed to have come from a fairy well. The name Gowna is derived from the Irish word for a calf (Gamhna). According to the legend, a woman visited the well and did not close the lid properly. A calf came out of the well and chased the woman. The calf was followed by a torrent of water from the well. A farmer stopped the calf by cutting off its legs and the waters spread no further. There are very few Irish lakes that didn't originate in a fairy well. In the 500s a monastery was established on Inchmore Island in Lough Gowna. The monastery was raided by the Vikings in 804. In 1384 Ualgary O'Rourke heir to the chieftainship of West Brefnie (modern Co. Leitrim) was drowned in Lough Gowna.
A visitor described county Cavan in the 1600s, as "consisting altogether of hills, very steep and high, valleys between them being most commonly loughs and bogs". Many of the lakes and bogs were later drained and are now dry land; but central Cavan remains a land of little hills and lakes. The western part of County Cavan is especially harsh with high elevation and poor land for farming. For that reason, much of the population lived in the more fertile central and eastern part of the county.

Peter Dowd was most probably an agricultural laborer as was his father, grandfather etc.. The countryside of Cavan is very irregular- occasionally rocky with few level spots. The soil is tough consisting of stiff brown clay. Farming was hard, tedious work. Peter would have used a wooden spade to cut through the tough earth as the iron plough wasn't introduced in Cavan until the 1830s. Their main crops were potatoes and oats.

Farming in this region was so unpleasant that it became the subject of one of Cavan's most popular folk songs of the 1800s, The Rocks of Brawn. The song is a cautionary tale for any young man, intending to seek his living as a farm labourer, even proposing military service in the British Army as an alternative. Bawn is a townland in Mullahoran parish, which lies just south of Scrabby parish. Farming conditions in Scrabby would have been the same as in Mullahoran. The name "Bawn" refers to a square shaped fort, constructed in the 1620's - a fortified farmstead of wealthy protestant settlers during the plantation of Ulster (1610).

The Rocks Of Brawn

Come all you loyal heros and listen on to me.
Don't hire with any farmer till you know what your work will be.
You'll rise up early in the morn from clear day light till dawn.
But you never will be able to plough the rocks of Bawn.

Rise up now gallant Sweeney and give your horses hay
Give them a good feed of oats before they start away
Don't feed them on soft turnip sprigs that grow on your green lawn
Or you never will be able to plough the rocks of Bawn

My curse upon you Sweeney you have me nearly broke
Your sitting by your fireside now your feet upon the hob
Your sitting by your fireside now from clear day light till dawn.
But you never will be able to plough the rocks of Bawn.

I wish the Queen of England would send for me in time
And place me in some regiment all in my youth and prime
I'd fight for Ireland's glory boys from clear day light till dawn
And I never will return again to plough the rocks of Bawn.

With no rights to own land for themselves, Irish Catholics could only lease land from the Protestant landowner. Rarely was land ever leased directly from the owner. It was typical in the 1800s for land, once it was leased, to be divided up even further and sublet to smaller land holders. These smaller lands would be divided further and leased yet again to poorer tenants known as smallholders. Some who could not afford even these lots were simply allowed to work small patches of land in exchange for their labor on the larger farms. Thus the Irish countryside was a patchwork of small farms with the occasional large holding.


Scrabby parish was part of the large estate held by the Hamilton family. The estate was first granted to Lord Hamilton as part of the Ulster Plantation in 1610 as a reward for his service in the Irish War. It had been retained by the family throughout the Cromwellian Land grants and up through the 1800s.[Further research to be done on the Hamilton family's running of the estate]

In 1833 a special enumeration was made of all land holders in Ireland, including the sub-leasors or tenant farmers discussed above. The list of land holders in Scrabby parish does not include the name of Peter Dowd or any other Dowd name. This indicates that the Dowds were part of the peasant class, working as laborers on a local farm rather than leasing their own property. [To search for Hamilton family estate records for specific references to the Dowd and Martin families]

Agricultural workers in County Cavan




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