O’Connor Family in 18th Century Ireland
If the Coronation Stone at Clonalis symbolised the alpha period of O’Conor history, the ancient gravestone, found in a wood in Ballanagare in 1917 and now at Clonalis represents point omega or the low point of that same history.
The inscription in Latin on the gravestone was translated by the great scholar and first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde.
“For his ancestors and Father and grand Father here buried,
who were to faith and virtue most addicted,
and to religion and fatherland most constant
but who for the defence of both were
reduced, despoiled, dispersed.
This monument was erected by Denis O’Conor of Ballenagare in 1735”.
The 18th century was a period of contrasts in Ireland. Although 80% of the population was Catholic with significant minorities of Presbyterians and Methodists, laws collectively known as the Penal Laws were introduced to economically suppress those not conforming to the Established Church.
Non Conformists had very restricted land and other property rights, no access to formal education, were forbidden to enter the professions and were prohibited from bearing arms.
For those who espoused the Established Faith, the Penal Law period proved a time of great prosperity for a number of reasons. By comparison with the troubled 17th century, which saw two long and bloody rebellions, the 18th century was a relatively peaceful period. With the gradual introduction of the potato, a food of higher calorific value, the population of Ireland doubled from 1.5 million in 1700 to 3.0 million during the course of the century and to an estimated 8m by 1840. As the result, land rents increased by a factor of at least ten, agricultural Rates by a factor of five but wages by a factor of only two. The farm diaries of Charles O’Conor of Ballenagare for 1737 show that daily labourers wages were 4d (about US$2 cents). A survey in Co Roscommon in 1831 recorded labour costs had risen to 8d (US$4 cents). The effect on landowners was significant. The two thousand owners of private estates enjoyed great prosperity in the 18th century. Landlords enjoyed political stability, their economic interests were protected in the absence of rebellion, their incomes rose substantially due to higher rents and agricultural prices from their landholdings.
In short for over 100 years conditions were right for landlords to indulge their cultural tastes. And indulge they did.
During the 18th and early 19th century it is estimated that 700 large country houses were constructed. Almost without exception the revenues which funded the construction of such properties, purchased their contents and financed their maintenance, were derived from agricultural rents. Of the three major estates in Co Roscommon owned by Lords Lorton, Hartland and Mountsandford, each on average owned over 24,000 acres producing an annual rental income based on calculations of not less than £1.2m (US$ 1.35m) each.
But the affect of the Penal Laws on the Catholic majority was that by the end of the 18th century, Catholics who numbered over 80% of the population of Ireland, held just 8 % of the land. Relatively few conversions to the established Church took place among landless Catholics despite many political and economic inducements. However some 4000 wealthier Catholics converted including some members of the old Gaelic aristocracy.
The O’Conors, like the majority of their countrymen, remained Catholic and clung to their Gaelic traditions. The Denis O’Conor referred to in the inscription on the gravestone is known as “The Heir to Nothing” for his ancestral lands had been confiscated . He lived in near destitution in that bahaun in Co Sligo where he hired himself out for a shilling a day. He is reputed to have said to his sons on one occasion ” never be impudent to the poor, boys. I was the son of a gentleman but you are the sons of ploughman”.
Denis was nephew and heir to Major Owen O’Conor, the last master of Ballintubber Castle who had taken up arms against Cromwell. Owen had mortgaged his lands to finance three troop of cavalry for the cause of James II and when that cause failed, was captured and imprisoned in Chester Castle, England where he died a prisoner in 1692.
Although living in poverty, Denis retained the dream of recovering his ancestral lands and in 1720, with the help of his Uncle, Counsellor Terence McDonagh he fought a law case in Dublin. Tradition has it that he was so impoverished he walked to Dublin barefoot. The result of his action was that he was restored to a small portion of his ancestral lands, approximately 500 acres of boggy land around the village of Ballanagare, Co Roscommon. There he built a small house, Ballanagare House, which soon became a rendezvous for the ill fated Catholic Gentry of Connacht. It was said that “his hospitable door was never shut against those in misfortune or distress”. To the House came the great bard Turlough Carolan, last of the great Irish Bards, Thadeus O’Rorke, former Chaplain to Prince Eugene of Savoy and now the fugitive Bishop of Killala. Others who resided in the house were Countess Isabella O’Rorke, Denis’ Mother-in-law, and Maid of Honour to James II in the King’s exiled Court in Saint Germaine en Laye.
Inspired by the atmosphere of this sanctuary the Bard, Turlough Carolan said one day “I think when I am among the O’Conors at Ballanagare the harp has the old sound in it “. “No” said McCabe, another Harpist of repute “but your harp has the old madness in it”. Carolan captured the spirit of these times by composing planxties or airs in honour of Denis O’Conor, his wife Maire O’Rorke and their son Charles O’Conor of Ballanagare. On his death Carolan’s Harp was left in the possession of the O’Conors and it is still at Clonalis.
Also at Clonalis is the chalice of Bishop Thadeus O’Rorke who was consecrated Bishop in secret, in Newgate Prison in Dublin at the height of the Penal Laws in 1706. His pectoral cross, liturgical vestments and his Episcopal ring, presented to him by Prince Eugene are also at Clonalis.