O’Connors : Kings of Connacht
After Rory’s death another great O’Connor King was to appear. This time not as a King of Ireland but a powerful King of Connacht.
Cathal Crovedearg (Charles of the Wine Red Hand), the half brother of Rory and another son of Turlough Mor, was inaugurated on the stone at Clonalis in 1201. In a reign which was to last twenty three years he did much to stabilise the kingdom of Connacht after the turbulent period of Rory’s Kingship.
During Cathal’s reign he suppressed his Irish rivals as well as manipulating and often outwitting the Normans. The confidence he exhibited and the strength of his reign is evidenced by the large amount of development he undertook. In all he founded twelve Abbeys, some of which can still be seen today, including Ballintubber Abbey which he established 1216. This abbey is still in use today and Mass has been celebrated for nearly 800 years. Its architecture is interesting as it illustrates the transition from Irish Romanesque to Gothic.
It has been said that the O’Conors seemed to be “more concerned with the salvation of their souls than the grandeur of their residences”. Perhaps Cathal Crovedearg did more than any other king to foster this image.
Of the castles associated with the Family at this period the most significant is Roscommon Castle. Built by the Norman Knight, Robert d’Ufford between 1269 and 1276, d’Ufford attempted to construct the castle in the kingdom of the then King, Hugh O’Conor. On two occasions his castle was knocked down but in 1276 the castle was fully constructed only to be captured by Hugh shortly thereafter. It remained an O’Conor stronghold for over 200 years until the time of Queen Elizabeth I, when one of her generals, Sir Henry Sidney captured the Castle from Duirmuid O’Conor Don in 1569.
The celebrated Abbey of Roscommon is also to be found in Roscommon Town. It was founded by Phelim O’Conor who reigned from 1233 to 1265. The Abbey was built for the Dominican friars and dedicated to the Virgin Mary in 1257. The magnificent tomb of Phelim O’Conor is located in the Abbey, where it is guarded to this day by gallowglasses in chain-mail, carved in base relief on the side of the tomb.
Another O’Conor castle of this period is Ballintubber Castle. Although it is uncertain who is responsible for its construction, either the Norman, de Burgos or Hugh O’Conor, what is certain is that it soon became an O’Conor stronghold. This huge keepless castle, which is located in the village of Ballintubber some 6 miles from Clonalis, is first referred to in the annals of Loch Ce in 1311. It is a moated castle with curtain walls nearly 1000ft long ranging up to 22ft in height. Within the protection of the walls was a bawn or badan (a central area) of 1.5 acres. It is thought that the bawn at one stage contained several rows of houses. This castle remained the principal seat of the O’Conor Don until well into 17th century. It was constructed by Hugh O’Conor and it would be the earliest remaining example of an early Irish built stone castle. This is significant because the Irish of this period did not build their fortifications in stone but in timber. Ballintubber was lost to the O’Conors in the 17th century during the Cromwellian period. It was however reacquired by Charles Owen O’Conor, Don in the 19th century.
If the 13th century saw the O’Connors relatively strong and confident within their own Kingdom, the 14th century witnessed a slow decline in their power and influence. This happened for two reasons; firstly the pressure exerted by the Norman warlords on the O’Connor territories and secondly internal strife within the clan.
The decline continued for four hundred years and culminated during the 18th century with one of the descendants living in a bahaun or peasants mud cottage in Kilmactraney, Co Sligo – totally landless and destitute like the majority of his countrymen.