Thomas J. Barron: The life of a noted historian

by Jonathan A. Smyth

Thomas J. Barron, historian, was nominated as one of twelve contenders for the 1983, ‘Cavan Person of the Year’. Although he did not win first place, he did receive an award with this inscription, ‘In a time when society is changing faster than ever before, Tom Barron has dedicated himself to study, discovery, documentation and presentation of the ancient art, culture, and history of Cavan. Without Tom Barron much of the authentic history and culture would never have been documented and we today and our children tomorrow will know about our past in this region largely because of Tom Barron’.

Thomas James Barron was born on the 13th November 1903, the son of John James Barron and Margaret Barron nee White. The family resided at Cornaveagh in the Parish of Knockbride. Thomas also had two brothers and a sister. From an early age, he developed an interest in the historical and archaeological aspects of the locality. In the Barron’s home, there was an ancient stone-carved horse, possibly a Celtic idol, which Thomas and his siblings used as a toy. The stone horse was eventually passed to another family, much too the later regret of Thomas Barron. He once confessed that the stone horse was what created his initial interest in ancient history. From his teens, Thomas began to keep bees for producing honey; this was to become a life long interest.

In the early 1930’s, he was invited to take up the position of monitor, (trainee teacher), at Garvagh National School. Around 1935, he was promoted to the position of headmaster at Knockbride N.S. In the period of 1936 to 1939, he helped to construct an extensive file on the history of Knockbride Parish, which subsequently made up part of the folklore commission files. Mr. Barron placed the following collector’s note with the file: ‘ great pains were taken to obtain the most authoritive versions of the different subjects. In numerous instances I worked in collaboration with other collector’s, and our joint work is in every case indicated’. Subjects ranged from the ‘The Trouble of 1798’ to ‘The Treasure in Knockbride Lake’. Copies of the folklore files are held in the Johnston Central Library, Cavan.

During the 1930’s, his reputation as a historian began to develop. This was due to his involvement with the study of the famous tricephallic (three-faced) stone head, known as the Corleck head. The stone head was originally discovered in the nineteenth century at a quarry on Corleck hill, in Knockbride Parish. In the 1920’s, the young Thomas had interviewed many of the old inhabitants of Knockbride in order to record the story of the Corleck head. In 1937, the Pre-historic society of England recorded, that the stone head ‘ was kindly deposited on loan in the National Museum (Dublin) in 1937 by the owner Mr. H. Gibson Hall, of Drumeague, through the mediation of a correspondent of the Museum: Mr. Thomas J. Barron, the local schoolmaster’. Many years later, Mr. Barron commissioned a copy of the Corleck head, which he eventually donated to Cavan’s County Museum at Ballyjamesduff. He continued carrying out further excavations and searches in Knockbride before locating the two-faced Corraghy head and also a rams head in stone, thus completing what became known as the Drumeague pantheon. Mr. Barron’s early writing appeared in such eminent publications as the Royal Irish Academy journal.

In August 1944, he married Sarah Elizabeth Mahood, from Canningstown, Co. Cavan. His wife was a teacher at Latsey N.S. In the early 1950’s he became Principal of the Model N.S in Bailieboro.

In the years ahead, he continued to excavate the crannógs on Knockbride lake, while using the grid pattern established by the archaeologist Mr. Mortimer Wheeler. Both Thomas J. Barron and his neighbour, Mr Patrick McBreen, would row their boat out to the crannogs, where they unearthed many interesting artefacts including a cannon ball from the 1641 rebellion. The cannon ball remained on view in the school at Knockbride for many years. Among the objects retrieved, he found many quern stones and he later wrote a paper on quern stones which appeared in the Clogher record. At one time, Thomas Barron presented a quern stone and an antique spinning wheel to St. Aidan’s Comprehensive School in Cootehill, where he hoped these items would be of interest to students of history.

In 1956, ‘Cumann Seanchais Bhreifne’, Cavan’s Historical Society, was formed by persons including, Thomas J. Barron and Rev. Francis J. McKiernan, later Bishop of Kilmore. The Historical Society published their first journal in 1958, both Mr. Barron, Rev. McKiernan, Thomas Halton and Brian O’Mordha formed the journals first joint-editorship team. Mr. Barron would eventually serve as an Honorary President of ‘Cumann Seanchais Bhreifne’ in the 1990’s. Some of the papers he wrote for the Breifne Journal include, ‘The Pre-history of the Breifne region’, ‘Rev. Alexander McWhidd: a 17th Century minister’, and a study on the ‘Stair Nuadat Find Fenim and Sliabh nDhe…’. Thomas also believed that the Romans had come to Ireland, an analysis that has now been proven. Other than history, his interests included gardening and in both 1952 and 1954, he submitted specimens to the Herbarium at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin.

`In September 1971, an event was held in the Farnham Hotel in Cavan to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Bishop Beddell’s birth. Beddell was noted for having oversaw the translation of the Old Testament into Irish. For the celebrations, Mr.Barron set up a display of his fine collection of Irish Antiquarian books. Thomas was a fluent Irish speaker who regularly conversed in his native language.

Around the mid 1970’s, Mr. Barron retired from teaching. In retirement he continued to research and document history. His studies were often interrupted by travels to places such as Norway, Greece and the Holy Land. These holidays abroad, usually cruises, comprised of visits to the various archaeological locations and museums. Sarah, his wife, died in September, 1978 and from that time he went to live in Virginia. Respected as an authority on Cavan history, Thomas often was sought for his opinion by those in the world of the media. In 1977, he assisted the BBC in the production of a documentary featuring Celtic Idols. By the 1980’s, he became very interested in the folklore surrounding historical Brigid who has a long association with Knockbride. His writings continued to appear in a variety of publications, including Guth agus Tuairm, The Torch, Bailieborough Community Annual, Drumlin and The Heart Of Bhreifne.

Mr. Thomas J. Barron died in March, 1992. For those who knew him, he had a fine intellect, great analytical abilities and tireless interest in local history. His obituary said that he was a ‘Historian of National Repute’. However, to the people of Knockbride, he is affectionately remembered as Master Barron, their teacher and historian.