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James Smith's origins aren't known, but he descended from a family that was granted a coat of arms and, as a male descendant not in primogeniture, was entitled to and did use the crest portion of the arms. Burke's General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales includes this family, but the information is disputed. Philip O'Gowan, supposedly a son of Capt. James O'Gowan who died in the Battle of the Boyne, was banished and moved to Cadiz, Spain. He changed his name to Smith and acquired a statement by William Hawkins, Ulster King at Arms, that the family was descended from Hugh O'Gowan of Ballygowan, County Down. Being a supporter of Hugh O'Neill, he forfeited his land in Down and was then granted land near Cootehill, County Cavan, by Queen Elizabeth I. This has been countered with the claim that there were O'Gowans associated with the O'Reilly family of Brieffny (now County Cavan) long before this and that the Hawkins document was a deliberate fabrication to enhance the Smiths in Spain. Evidence of the O'Gowan presence in Brieffny shows that they apparently had land around Killinkere, northeast of the town of Virginia, and that they adopted the name Smith. Although various Smiths are mentioned in this evidence, there is no way to directly connect James Smith to any of them, nor is there any mention of who was the original grantee of these arms.
     James is said to have been "an honest merchant's son...who raised himself and his family into place and power, by strict adherence to the line of duty which he found marked out for him in that book which fits man for the duties of life present, as well as for the enjoyments of the life to come."1 This is the only mention found of any family before James. George R. K. Smith, one of James' grandsons, reminisced about his life in Ireland and describes his visits to James Smith's cloth store in Cavan. He was "the leading draper in the town," according to a newspaper article.2 James was very sympathetic to the Methodist movement in its early days and provided a place for worship in Cavan on Bridge Street. By 1816 there was a popular movement among the Methodists to counter the tradition that the sacraments could only be administered by ordained Church of Ireland clergy. It was accompanied by a sort of mystical revivalism that didn't suit the established and monied members of the group. James sided with the more conservative faction, but in the process lost control of the Bridge Street building in a legal action. The conservative faction became known as the Primitive Methodists.
     James again stepped in and provided space for the Primitive Methodists to meet. According to the article mentioned above and George Smith's reminiscences, that space was in James' carriage house behind their home and store on Main Street.


These family photos maybe be of James Smith's house and back buildings in Cavan. If so, the Primitive Methodists of Cavan may have met for a time in the second story of the building in the right photo.

George remembered the room on the second floor, and was told that his uncle Franklin Smith and a friend would, on a rainy Sunday, sneak over and mix up the galoshes that had been left in pairs by the door. The leading voices of early Methodism - John Wesley, Adam Averell and Adam Clarke - are said by George to have visited the Smiths in Cavan during their circuits. They are known to have preached there, and in May 1812 Averell himself said "I had a dreary ride, under heavy rain, from Granard to Cavan; but through the affectionate attention of brother and sister Smith, soon forgot the toil and hardship of my journey. Addressed in the evening a large and attentive congregation, upon whom a gracious influence appeared to rest; but from some cause which I could not ascertain, religion does not prosper in ths town."3 Although anything about Wesley would have been oral history given to George, he was born early enough to have first-hand knowledge of Averell and Clarke. He says that Averell visited his family's house in Kells, probably when he was preaching there in space arranged by his father John Bennett Smith. The Primitive Methodists may have met in the carriage house until a church for them was built in 1828. Lord Farnham, another member of the Church of Ireland sympathetic to the Methodists, donated the land and "a handsome structure was erected under the superintendence and, to a great extent, the liberality, of Smith and Fitzgerald, leading members of the society in the town."4 The chapel was on Wesley Street, so named by Lady Farnham. A newspaper article says that Smith and Fitzgerald (James' son-in-law) "secured a lease for ever of a plot in Wesley Street," which was "opened" by Averell early in 1828. Although James Smith's expenses were technically debts due to him, he burned the documents before his death. Despite the keen interest, this apparently wasn't a conversion to Methodism in the Smith family. George says they remained members of the Church of Ireland. That is certainly true of at least most of their children.
     George Smith remembered his grandfather as "a large stout man of some 200 lbs. weight. Father told me of his having been stopped once by a highwayman, who took hold of the horse's bridle and grandfather reached forward and caught him by the coat collar, set spurs to the horse and dragged him along until his arm tired, then let him drop like a log...father said the man must have been choked to death, but grandfather never stopped in the dark to see...Grandfather Smith was 5 ft. 10 perhaps." When doing business in Dublin, "grandfather was once met and approached by an immodest woman; he lectured her for her good and he parted from her at Mr. Farral's warehouse. He and father used to buy their hosiery there and their broadcloth at Cochran & Humphreys, 17 Merchants Quay."

15-17 Merchants Quay, Dublin, in 2014

Deed records show that James bought the townlands of Ballinacargy (Bellanacargy, etc.), Cavan, on 24 February 1832. This included a house called Fort Lodge and the ruins of "Castle Reilly," really a primitive fort, next to it. In Lewis' Topographical Dictionary this is mentioned as his residence twice, once under the entry for Cavan and again in the list of subcribers. George Smith doesn't mention visiting this house.The property was known by various other names, including Fort William and Stephens Fort. The property had been in the Stephens family and the Reillys before them for centuries. The "Lodge" has since been torn down and replaced.

Fort Lodge, Ballinacargy, Co. Cavan. Note the potato field behind the house. It may have been abandoned since the blight. Traces of old potato fields can still be seen in more remote parts of the island.


Ordinance Survey maps (left: 1829-1841 right: 1897-1913) showing Fort Lodge. The right image is contemporaneous to the photograph. The pointer shows the direction the photo was taken.

James is said to have married five times. His first wife and mother of four children was Mary Bennett. Her father John is said to have lived to 104 years old and was in the habit of talking long walks to the day he died. George Smith's reminiscences incude a story he had been told about James and his last wife. A salesman in the cloth store was interested in an officer's widow, and asked James to approach the lady on his behalf with his intentions. She was insulted by this - the suit of a salesman didn't interest her, but James, a widower among the mercantile elite, did. She directed his attention to bonds she had in a drawer, and he, impressed by her dowry, was interested as well. They married and had three more children.
     James died of typhus and is buried in the churchyard of the parish church at Castlerahan, which by then had been abandoned. This is near Killinkere, where much earlier O'Gowans/Smiths are said to have settled. James must have had a close family connection to Castlerahan, maybe being born there, but there aren't enough records to confirm this and no other Smith gravestones can be found there.

Ruins of the parish church of Castlerahan. Top photo taken in the late 1800s during a Smith family visit. Lower photo taken 2014. The Smiths are buried under the table monument in the foreground.

children of James Smith and Mary Bennett:

John Bennett Smith, b. 16 June 1785
Isabella, m. Robert Fitzgerald, lived in Cavan
Franklin or Francis, m. Jane?, moved to Louiville, KY
Ann, m. Robert Parke, lived at Longfield Lodge, Killegar, Leitrim

children of James Smith and Mary Stuart

William, b. abt 1802, lived in Enniskillen, Fermanagh, and Drumheel, Cavan
Stuart, b. abt 1806, minister at Ballintemple, Cavan
Robert, b. abt 1808, lived in Lisburn, Antrim

1. R. McCullam, Sketches of the Highlands of Cavan, and of Shirley Castle, in Farney, taken during the Irish famine (Belfast:1856), 229
3. Alexander Stewart, Memoir of the life and labours of the Rev. Adam Averell, etc. (Dublin:1848), 345
4. Ibid, 390.

all text and photographs © 1998-2020 by Doug Sinclair unless where otherwise noted