O’Connor Family : Penal Laws & Catholic Emancipation

Denis O’Conor died in 1750 and was succeeded by his son Charles, who is now regarded by scholars of the 18th century as perhaps the greatest Irish, as opposed to Anglo Irish, intellect of his time.

Portrait of Denis O'Conor - died 1750Charles was born in Kilmactraney in Co Sligo in 1710 and made an outstanding contribution to Irish culture and politics during the 18th century. The aims of his life were to improve the conditions of his co-religionists by peaceful means and to preserve what remained of the ancient culture and literature of Gaelic Ireland. He was a co-founder in 1755 of The Catholic Committee, which had as its principal objective, the Emancipation of Catholics in Ireland. As a diarist, politician, antiquarian and historian, he made an outstanding contribution notwithstanding the fact that as a Catholic he was denied any formal education. His correspondence with intellectuals of his day such as Dr Johnson, Count Vallency, Lord Taafe and Dr Leyland form the foundation of the 100,000 documents which now comprise the O’Conor archives at Clonalis. Charles had the satisfaction of seeing a relaxation of the Penal Laws but not before an attempt was made by his younger brother Hugh to deprive him of his small Estate at Ballanagare. Hugh converted to the established Church and issued a legal writ with a view to obtaining a preferential title to the O’Conor lands. This was possible under the Penal Laws of the time.

Writing of this event in 1756 Charles said “my poor father was finally caste on the shore on a broken plank (a reference to the poor lands re granted to his father Denis in 1720). I have succeeded to him. This is the plank which from it is now hoped I may be driven by a Penal Law. I struggle to keep my hold and if I am left nothing to inherit but the religion and misfortunes of a family long on the decline, the victim is prepared for the sacrifice resignedly indeed though not willingly.”

Portrait of Owen O'Conor, Don - died 1831At the turn of the 19th century Charles’ grandson Owen O’Conor became active in the struggle for civil and religious liberty and in 1793 he was delegate for Roscommon at the Catholic National Convention where he was a fervent supporter of Daniel O’Connell. In 1820 he succeeded to the title of O’Conor Don and inherited the Estate of Clonalis some 5 miles away from Ballanagare to which he moved.

When Catholic Emancipation came about in 1829 and Catholics were allowed to vote and take seats in Parliament, Owen O’Conor was elected first Catholic Member of Parliament for Roscommon but died just 2 years later. On his death he was succeeded by his son and grandson as members of Parliament for Co Roscommon over the next 60 years. Owen’s grandson was my great grandfather Charles Owen, who built the “new ” House at Clonalis when his young wife Georgina died in 1872.

Extracts from a talk given by Pyers O’Conor-Nash in the Casino Club, Chicago in September 2001.

History and Heritage of the O’Conor’s
Kings of Connacht and High Kings of Ireland


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