A week ago, this site explored the old house at Clonalis, County Roscommon and explained why in the last quarter of the 19th century it was abandoned for another residence elsewhere on the property. The branch of the ancient O’Conor family who still live here moved to Clonalis exactly 200 years ago, in 1820; prior to that they had been living elsewhere in the county. As mentioned, by the early 1700s the great O’Conors had been brought low, a consequence of their support over previous decades for the Roman Catholic and Jacobite causes, and the harsh penalties duly imposed on them. The head of this branch, Denis O’Conor, was known as ‘The Heir to Nothing’ as all his ancestral lands had been taken from him; supposedly he advised his own children never to be impudent to the poor because, ‘I was the son of a gentleman but you are the sons of a ploughman.’ In 1720, aided by his uncle, Counsellor Terence McDonagh he won a case in the Dublin courts that restored him a portion – 500 acres – of his patrimony. According to family tradition, he was so poor that he had to walk to the capital barefoot. On this parcel of land at Ballinagare, he built a new house for himself; until then, he had been living in a mud hut in County Sligo. This house became a home for Denis O’Conor’s extended family, including his mother-in-law, Countess Isabella O’Rorke who had been a Maid of Honour at the court of the exiled James II in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and his maternal uncle, Thadeus O’Rorke, former Chaplain to Prince Eugene of Savoy but by then the fugitive Catholic Bishop of Killala. The house also became a centre for anyone who espoused the old Gaelic culture, not least the period’s most famous bard and harpist Turlough Carolan who composed airs in honour of Denis O’Conor, his wife Maire, and their son Charles. A harp used by Carolan is still kept at Clonalis, along with the chalice of Bishop Thadeus O’Rorke his pectoral cross, liturgical vestments and an Episcopal ring presented to him by Prince Eugene.
Charles O’Conor was born in 1710, ten years before his father Denis won the court case and was able to move the family to Ballinagare. Having already been educated by a Franciscan friar through the medium of Irish and Latin, in adolescence he was taught by his uncle, Thadeus O’Rorke, before spending time in Dublin where he was taught mathematics, science and French by another Catholic clergyman. In 1731, he married Catherine O’Fagan who brought sufficient fortune with her to allow the couple establish their own household and here he devoted his time to the study of Ireland’s ancient history and culture, paying particular attention to all available original sources, aided by his fluency in both Irish and Latin. He also read all the leading contemporary writers in English and French. Throughout his life he collected, and annotated, Irish manuscripts and in 1753 published the work for which he remains best-remembered, Dissertations on the Antient History of Ireland which, thanks to its rigorous scholarship brought him widespread acclaim, not least from Samuel Johnson who after reading the book wrote to its author, ‘I have long wished that the Irish literature were cultivated. Ireland is known by tradition to have been once the seat of piety and learning; and surely it would be very acceptable to all those who are curious either in the original of nations, or the affinities of languages, to be further informed of the revolution of a people so ancient, and once so illustrious.’
Like his forebears, he remained a devout Roman Catholic, which at the time had its drawbacks. Conscious of the disadvantages suffered at the time by fellow-members of the same faith, along with historian John Curry, in 1757 he was one of the founders of the Catholic Committee, an organization campaigning for the repeal of the Penal Laws. He experienced the hazards of this legislation in 1777 when one of his younger brothers, Hugh O’Conor, conformed to the Established Church and filed a bill in chancery ‘for obtaining possession of the lands of Belanagare as its first protestant discoverer.’ Long litigation followed, ending only after the threat was seen off by the payment of a large financial settlement.
Following the death of his father Denis in 1749, Charles O’Conor moved to the house at Ballinagare and lived there until 1760 when he handed over the property to his eldest son (another Denis). Then he, moved to a smaller residence which he built and called the Hermitage. The latter still stands, albeit in somewhat precarious condition, but the former has fallen into ruin; this likely occurred after 1820 when Charles O’Conor’s grandson, Owen, moved to Clonalis. What remains are the façade and portions of the walls behind; these are believed to incorporate masonry taken from a late-medieval tower house constructed by an earlier generation of O’Conors. Faced in cut limestone, the entrance front is relatively modest, of three bays and one storey over raised basement, with a single storey extension to one side; a pediment incorporating a single arched window rises above the entablature. Dating from the 1720s, the house was intentionally given this diminutive appearance so as not to draw too much attention to its owners but it must have extended in both depth and possibly width to the rear since the number of occupants – members of the O’Conor family and their servants – is known to have been substantial. The entire interior has gone, as has the back wall, making it impossible to judge how the building looked when still occupied. The same is not true of Charles O’Conor’s second residence, the Hermitage which, as mentioned, still stands This modest house, just one room deep, is of two storeys and three bays, with an extension to the rear accommodating the staircase return. An adjacent yard would have held stables and coach house as well as rooms for the servants. Inside, it is still possible to see some of the decoration in both dining and drawing rooms, and entrance hall but the stairs are now too precarious to risk ascent to the first floor. The house was occupied until at least the middle of the last century, but a bungalow was subsequently constructed immediately in front, since when the older building has been used as a storage space, the ground floor windows enlarged to allow vehicular access. Its future must be considered precarious. Charles O’Conor was one of Ireland’s foremost scholars in the 18th century, and through his writings did much to preserve and disseminate evidence of this country’s ancient, and then-imperiled, culture. Almost thirty years ago, Seamus Deane described O’Conor as ‘one of the disregarded but very important figures of Irish history.’ The neglect of the buildings associated with him demonstrates little has changed in the interim.