Growing up in South Leitrim I had often heard of the brilliant but tragic Francis McGann. McGann was a native of Eslin and a noted scholar who died at the early age of 29. McGann was simply known to his peers as “the Bright Boy” and his early demise was sadly lamented for generations of people who saw in his passing the loss of one who had the potential to be a great leader of the people.
Francis McGann was born in 1786 in Drumlara, a townland in the parish of Mohill and on the northwestern shore of Lough McHugh. His father’s name was Peter McGann and his mother was a Mulvey from Aughacashel.
Francis was born into a country where the penal laws restricted the life and prospects of most Catholics. He initially attended a local Hedge School run by a Hugh McDonald where his genius soon became apparent. Soon he was enrolled in a highly regarded private school run by an Owen Reynolds at Glebe St., Mohill. The building where Reynolds school was located still stands and is now converted into two private residences. The Reynolds School was highly regarded in the teaching of Mathematics and McGann excelled in this discipline.
McGann later moved on to a classical school in Drumsna run by a Parson Kane where he became proficient in Greek and Latin. By this stage McGann’s own reputation as a gifted scholar was widely known. In order to further his education in Mathematics, McGann travelled to Ballingarry, Co. Limerick, where he was enrolled in a school conducted by a Mr. James Baggot, himself a famous Mathematician of the day. In 1805 Baggott was advertising that he had acquired a supply of “curious mathematical and astronomical instruments,” in which he hopes his pupils will find “both pleasure and profit in the prosecution of their studies.”
Baggott was also noted for the fact that he was a friend and correspondent of Pierre Simon Marquis Laplace, the great French scientist and tutor to Napoleon. It is recorded that when Laplace was once in conversation with a Colonel O’Dell, a Limerick MP, he enquired if O’Dell knew of “the great Irish mathematician. The Great O’Baggott”.
The Baggott School was an environment where the young McGann from Leitrim thrived but it wasn’t only Mathematics he was now learning. Baggott was also a member of the United Irishmen and his house in Ballingarry was where Lord Edward Fitzgerald stayed when he toured the country stoking up rebellion in 1798. Baggott is also said to have devised a plan for the capture of the city of Limerick. The plan was however discovered and the plotters all arrested. It is not known if McGann was amongst those interrogated but it is clear that Baggott had a huge influence on him and helped formulate in McGann’s mind the revolutionary ideals which were to become more apparent later in his life.
The Government in Dublin Castle were kept fully informed by a spy who signed himself “J.D.” of all Baggott’s movements, and a General Payne wrote advised Dublin Castle: “That rascal Baggott can neither be frightened nor bribed, and when Mr. O’Del returns I think we had better take him up.” The Government were right to be worried about Baggott and his school, particularly in light of his known correspondence with well figures in Parisian Society. Baggott died at Charleville on 31st August 1805 at the age of thirty five. He was widely mourned as can be noted from the following contemporary verse penned in his honour.
O Science, mourn! thy favourite is no more,
Alas! he’s numbered with the silent dead;
Hibernia’s genius will his loss deplore
Whom he to fame’s exalted temple led.
By nature blessed with an exploring thought,
His brows were decked from the Newtonian tow’r
The deep arcana of fair Science sought,
And gleaned her fields of ev’ry golden flow’r
It can be surmised that the end of Baggott also signalled the end of Francis McGann’s education. Returning to Drumlara, McGann began working as a mapper / surveyor and a pioneer in the art of preparing accurate large-scale maps which were developed later by the Ordnance Survey. His attention to detail was widely known and it was said locally that he would even take care to “rub the breath off the chain” he used for surveying so that it would not distort his measurements.
He drew a map of the district of Bunnybeg, Attymanus and Annaghhasna on a dried and pressed sheepskin for the landed Lawder family. He also mapped the townland of Killamaun and the length of the Eslin river. It is said that he was offered a position with the East India Company as chief surveyor but he declined. The Leitrim that McGann returned to was the subject of considerable military activity in the decade following the failed insurrection of 1798. Although the United Irishmen were broken McGann became leader of a secret society known as “the Rock” “White Rock” or “Rockites”. It is little surprise that McGann was prominent and he may even have helped found such a militant agrarian society. The area where he had lived whilst in Baggott’s school was also a major centre of “Rockite” activity. A John Hickey of Doneraile, was suspected by the English authorities of the time of being ‘Captain Rock’. The Rockites tended to use United Irishman rhetoric and regularly mentioned that “assistance was to be given from France” to any Irish insurgents. One of the main Rockite aims was the placing “Catholics upon a level with Protestants”.
In late 1815 there were major civil disturbances in the Keshcarrigan and Gorvagh areas. In the aftermath several houses and farms were burned to the ground. A local landlord by the name of Minor Peyton had also retaliated by cutting the road into the townland of Laheen Peyton thus preventing the Catholic Tenants from getting to Mass. McGann organised a large meeting to be held at Keshcarrigan Fair on December 20th, 1815. His speech to the massive crowd there is recorded in oral tradition. He told the assembled crowd that he was there;
“to meet the intelligence, the genius and the mind of Kiltubrid and to denounce Minor Peyton, a tyrannical brute and a disgrace to humanity, who not being content with burning Drumcollop, he now tears up the pathway which lead to the ‘House of God’. But the Sun of his glory is set and today he is like the remnant of a melancholy wreck having nothing but tradition to point to his former grandeur and greatness”
When returning from the mass meeting at Keshcarrigan Fair, McGann in the company of two men called Billy the Joiner and James Ward took shelter in a Sheebeen near Kilnagross. It had begun snowing quite heavily. The country had been enduring a severe cold snap and snow had lain on the ground for over six weeks. The people it was said had to boil snow to get a drink for their cattle. After a few hours McGann left the Sheebeen “for want of drink and fire” . It is believed he intended to visit the home of a young McKeon lady nearby with whom he was on friendly terms. Sadly McGann never reached his destination. The following day his body was found frozen to death in a snow drift, only short distance from McKeon’s house. Sadly ‘The Bright Boy” was no more and a few days later he was buried in Mohill. According to local tradition the place where McGann died was marked for many years by an evergreen tree which had become known as ‘The Monument’.
McGann’s passing was a huge blow to the people in the area. His intellectual ability was noted from an early age. In many ways his life mirrored that of his mentor Baggott.
When McGann returned from Limerick he had matured and was clearly someone unafraid to take on the establishment both privately and publicly. Such men were in short supply in places like rural Leitrim.
The ballad, “The Fate of Francis McGann,” was penned by John Cox, the poet of Clooncarne in the parish of Bornacoola and in its folksy way it records the life and tragic death of this brilliant young man.
“He was versed in the language of all foreign parts,
And master of several bright liberal arts,
The art of surveying he had a command,
Mathematics and logic he did understand.
He could measure the air, the sea or the land,
John Cox gives his praises to Francis McGann.”