Clonalis, County Roscommon must be one of the best-known country houses in Ireland, thanks to its long links with the O’Conors, and specifically with the head of that family, known as the O’Conor Don. In the posthumously published The O’Conors of Connaught: An Historical Memoir (1891), the antiquarian John O’Donovan declared ‘No family in Ireland claims greater antiquity, and no family in Europe, royal or noble, can trace its descent through so many generations of legitimate ancestors.’ The line of their forebears can be followed back to pre-Christian Ireland, and from the 5th century onwards they frequently acted as King of Connacht. Such was the case with Conchobar mac Tadg who ruled during the third quarter of the 10th century and from whom the name O’Conor derives. His descendant Toirdhealbhach Mór Ua Conchobhair (anglicized as Turlough Mór O’Conor) became High King of Ireland around 1120, as did his son Ruaidrí mac Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Conor) who was the last man to hold this title before the Anglo-Norman invasion. Following his abdication, he retired to Cong Abbey, County Mayo and remained there until his death. Incidentally, his father Tairrdelbach was responsible for commissioning what is today known as the Cross of Cong, which was originally held in Tuam Cathedral. Members of the O’Conor family continued to act as Kings of Connacht until the late 15th century. Following the 16th century Reformation, the they remained Roman Catholic and, in due course, were loyal to the Stuart cause, with the result that by 1700 they had been stripped of almost all their former land holdings and left near-penniless. In the mid-17th century Daniel O’Conor Don and his wife Anne succeeded in retaining some 440 acres at Clonalis on the western side of the river Suck and their direct descendants remained there until 1820 when the last of them, Alexander O’Conor Don, died unmarried; it appears he spent much of his time at Clonalis living in a modest cottage since his brother, from whom he inherited the place, had left life-use of the house to his widow. Highly – and expensively – litigious, Alexander O’Conor’s various forays into the courts seem to have depleted what funds and lands were then held. Finally in 1820 a distant kinsman, Owen O’Conor was able to secure the estate and the title of O’Conor Don. It is from him that the present owners of Clonalis are descended.
We know little of what the original house at Clonalis looked like: a photograph (see below) shows the appearance of its façade. From this it is apparent the building’s central block was of two storeys over raised basement, and seven bays. There were three-bay wings on either side, each of one storey over basement. Thereafter much becomes a matter of conjecture, but looking inside what remains, the impression is that the first part of the house to be constructed was probably the front portion which stood just one room deep. Such gable-ended ‘long houses’ appear to have been common among old families who wanted to live in reasonable comfort but had limited financial means: the oldest part of Glin Castle, County Limerick is very similar. At some date, perhaps in the second half of the 18th century, an additional series of rooms was added behind the original block and this now backed onto the adjacent yard (which still stands). A central corridor runs like a spine down the centre of the building, separating old and new sections. The wings were added either then or later and presumably in part or whole acted as servants’ quarters. All this work may have been undertaken around the time that Dominick O’Conor Don (elder brother of the litigious Alexander) married Catherine Kelly, co-heiress with her sister to their father’s estate. The money she brought to the union could have paid for the additions to the house, and help to explain why, following her husband’s death, she was left use of it for the rest of her life (she died 19 years after him in 1814).
There were, it appears, always problems with the old building, not least its proximity to the river Suck, which meant that it suffered from damp, especially in winter months when this part of the land was prone to flooding. In 1847, following the death of his father Charles Owen O’Conor inherited the estate at the age of nine; he had been barely two when his mother died. His own health seems to have been delicate, and he spent a number of periods abroad until his marriage in 1868. Four years later, after having four sons, his wife Georgiana Perry died. This series of deaths appear to have been associated with the location of the old house, unhealthily close to the river, and this encouraged Charles Owen O’Conor to think of building an alternative residence on his land. In 1878, a year before his second marriage, he commissioned a design from English architect Frederick Pepys Cockerell and work soon began on a second house, located on a site on higher ground and some further distance away from the Suck. This high-Victorian Italianate building is notable for being one of the first concrete houses constructed in Ireland. Upon its completion, the O’Conors moved from their old home to the new, with the inevitable consequence that the former gradually slid into disuse and disrepair. Fortunately the present O’Conor house, with its many important archives and items telling the story not just of one family but of Ireland, is today wonderfully well-maintained and well-worth a visit.