O’Conor Family History : ‘A Tale of Two Stones’

Have you ever had one of those “pivotal” days in your life? A day that shapes the future and puts the past in context; a day towards which, in some mysterious way, previous events seem to have led up to; and a day which events thereafter lead back to.

That day for me was a day in early April in 1980. A day of sunshine and showers and a day on which I drove my elderly parents from Dublin to Castlerea, Co Roscommon, a small town in the West of Ireland. The occasion was to attend the funeral of my mother’s sister, my Aunt Josephine, who just had died and was to be buried in the family plot in the graveyard of the town.

After the funeral, which was attended by many relatives and friends, we adjourned to my Mother’s family home for a little tea and sustenance in the best Irish tradition, before we would all again scatter to the four winds. As I stood in the large front hall of the house, I glanced across the room to see my Mother’s only brother standing alone in the corner.

Rev Charles O'Conor SJ , Don - died 1981(Rev Charles O’Conor SJ , Don – died 1981)

In his late 70’s my Uncle Charles’ once sharp and substantial intellect had been dulled by age. As a teenager he had taught me to drive a car on the avenue of the Family property and versed me in the etiquette and skills of shooting in its woods; but for several years now he had not addressed me by name. Thinking that he might possibly recognise me as a vaguely familiar face I went over to speak to him. After a brief conversation he looked at me and said “one day you’ll farm here”. I recoiled in surprise, not only because he appeared to recognise me but also because of the significance of what he had said.

My Uncle was not just a Priest but the holder of one of Ireland’s most ancient and distinguished titles, that of “O’Conor Don”. The House in which we were speaking was his ancestral home; Clonalis House, unique among the Great Houses of Ireland as perhaps only one of two celebrating a Gaelic tradition spanning many centuries. The land on which my Uncle had prophesied I would farm had belonged to the O’Conor’s for over 1500 years through perhaps 66 generations of the Family.

Of his 19 nephews and nieces I was the youngest at 28 years of age.

My Uncle had taken strict vows of poverty as a Jesuit priest which had once resulted in him refusing to accept a small transistor radio as a family present. These vows also, needless to say, precluded him from having any financial interest in Clonalis, his ancestral home.

Following the recent death of my Aunt Josephine, my frail and elderly Mother, Gertrude Nash (nee O’Conor) inherited Clonalis House and Estate. Her age and poor health meant that she was unable to take an active role in maintaining the property. Neither could Clonalis be abandoned by the Family despite the fact that the Estate was almost bankrupt.

Within a few months I resigned my position in the financial services sector in Dublin and with my wife Marguerite, two small children and with a small bank loan we moved from our suburban home in Dublin to Clonalis. From a small manageable surburban garden to Clonalis with its substantial and largely derelict garden and un-stocked and neglected farm. Sadly within a week of our arrival at Clonalis, in November 1981, my Uncle Charles had died.

In the upheaval which followed we barely realised the significance and importance of the task we had undertaken. It was not long however before the unique historical importance of Clonalis became clear to us, for the origins of this Victorian/Italianate mansion don’t lie in the 19th century when it was built but many centuries before.

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