It would appear that Ballybay (meaning, “The Mouth of, or Approach to, the Ford of the Birch Trees) may have developed due to its location at the ford over the Dromore River at Corrybrannan where the outflow from the adjoining Lough Major narrows and makes its way down stream, through a clump of Birch Trees, to the lake lands of Derrynaloobinagh, Annaneese and Derryvally. It flows westwards, forming the Dromore River which connects to the Erne at Butlersbridge, Co.Cavan. Historically this ford may have been the nearest and most convenient crossing point on the Dromore River for all types of traffic.
The road from Carrickmacross to Monaghan and the road from Clones to Castleblayney intersect at this point. The town developed into a connecting junction or rest point for travellers. Of necessity, this meant that these travellers required food, drink and rest. Very often, their horses, mules and donkeys, their carriages and carts or wagons would require much needed maintenance. This promoted the establishment of the wayside inn or hostelry. Tradesmen such as blacksmiths, saddlers and carpenters were the occupations of its first inhabitants. Very soon, this area, known as Ballybea and later to be spelled ‘Ballybay’, was to become the natural centre for markets, fairs, public meetings, conventions, parades and processions for all types of organisation and societies.
The economic state of the locality changed utterly with the introduction of the linen trade. After the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, a family named Breakey settled in Balladian and Lisgillen. They were compensated for their services to William of Orange by a grant of lands in those areas. They were French Huguenots who were expelled from Southern France where they had been engaged in the linen industry. It was they who introduced flax culture to Co. Monaghan.
The area around Ballybay had many physical attractions for the foundation of a thriving linen business. The soil was well suited for the cultivation of flax, the climate favoured weaving and bleaching, bog and woodland provided abundant supplies of fuel and every townland had gravel pits and quarries, providing material for building the mills. But, over and above all these resources, there was an abundant supply of free waterpower to drive the mills. On the little stream, which flowed from the lakes at Carrickatee and Creeve, there sprang up fourteen linen processing mills.
Hugh Jackson built the first Market House in the Square c1775, which he used as a purchasing depot. It was a two-storey timber structure. It was used as a schoolhouse and was available to local organisations for meetings, free of charge, and was Ballybay’s first Town Hall.
In the 1820's the Leslie family took up permanent residence on the Ballybay Estate and erected a house large enough to accommodate the extended family and built it to a design consistent with their status as local landlords and members of the ascendancy. The demesne was developed with 30 acres of woodland, part of which was overlooking Lough Major. The main mansion consisted of a large entrance hall with marble pillars and a grand staircase, drawing rooms, library and billiard room, twenty one bedrooms, servants' quarters and ancillary accommodation such as kitchens, pantries, larders, bathrooms, etc. The family did not restrict the enjoyment of the Demesne to a select few.
Emily Leslie French died in 1884 and her son, Robert Charles succeeded to the estate. He died suddenly in London in 1904. He was succeeded by his only surviving son, Henry Edward John Leslie (1890-1966). The eldest son, Theodore Norman had been killed in action in the Boer War. Henry was a member of the British diplomatic corps, stationed in Rome and later in the United States. He was involved in the difficult and lengthy negotiations with tenants for the revision of rents and later with the Land Commission on the sale of the land. After the death of his parents and when his duties permitted, he had always spent his vacations at Ballybay House and he had indicated that he intended to reside here after his retirement. He never married and so was the last of the Leslies at Ballybay House.
In June 1921, the Castle was destroyed by fire. It was believed that a contingent of Crown Forces was likely to be billeted there. There was also the suspicion that the burning was a warning to intending purchasers or maybe as part of the retaliatory campaign ordered by the I.R.A. in reprisal for the burning of creameries and other public utilities by the British.
The Leslie family issued long leases to enterprising folk for private and commercial building. The family built the present Market House in 1848 to help promote local trade and business and gave every assistance to any enterprise likely to be of benefit to the inhabitants.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, the various religious congregations built new churches and schools. In 1850, the population of the town was approximately 1500. At that time it did not have its own water supply, town drainage, disposal services, street lighting or proper footpaths. This changed with the construction of the railway line from Dundalk to Enniskillen via Ballybay and Clones in 1854. The conveyance of livestock, timber, coal, merchandise and passengers promoted trade and industry.
The institution of the Ballybay Town Commissioners held its first meeting in 1871 with the membership consisting of bank representatives, business people and others who had an interest in progressing the town’s commercial and economic well-being. In a short time, plans were formulated to provide a town water supply, street lighting and waste disposal. A town rate was struck to partially finance the running of the authority. Thomas McSherry was elected as Town Commissioner.
Favourable economic conditions at the time benefited the farming community and Ballybay’s hinterland prospered to such a degree that the Town Commissioners set up a special committee to establish and regulate markets and fairs in the town. Market and fair days were calendared for such items as, flax, grass seed, corn, live and dead pork, cattle, horses and farm produce.
As Ireland thrived in a relatively buoyant economy throughout the 1990’s, Ballybay failed to attract new inward investment. Despite low interest rates and the opportunities available under Tax Renewal Schemes, the town failed to prosper. The increasing demand for one-off housing in the environs of the town, helped to accelerate the decline in the urban population.
Ballybay’s main street is attractive, with continuous building frontages, and a pleasant mix of building heights, materials and colours which define the character of the town. The town offers considerable potential regeneration by developing imaginative projects which are sensitive to the character of the town.
Despite its lack of growth, Ballybay still maintains a strong community network with a large number of community groups. Ballybay Development Association (BDA) is one of the most active groups and was responsible for the development of Ballybay Wetlands Centre which is located at Derryvalley, Ballybay.
Information courtesy of The County Heritage Plan.