Should you reach the point I did not long ago when you conclude that it would probably be more useful to carve your professional profile into Mount Rushmore than to post, or try to update it on Linked In, I hope you receive a message that is a happy surprise. For me, it was reconnection with a 26th Generation member of what is arguably Europe’s oldest family,
The name on the e-mail was Tish O’Conor-Nash. Now you need to know that the hyphenated name conjures up a story that, as the cliché says, “You couldn’t make up.” It’s a shorthand summary of a Kingship that started when the dark-haired brother bested his fair-haired sibling (sometime after the family began to be recorded around 76 AD) to become reigning High King of Connacht, one of ancient Ireland’s four provinces. That made him The O’Conor Don (anglicized version of the Irish word Duibh meaning dark.) and a force to be reckoned with.
Fast forward to the 20th Century and the line is about to end with the Jesuit priest who sees in his Sister Gertrude’s son Pyers a boy after his own heart, willing to take up (at no small cost to himself and his family) the weight of history and the noblesse oblige that is in his blood.
So, although the title could only pass through the male line, commitment had greater power than gender to keep the O’Conor dream alive. Perhaps it was a vision of that outcome that led his gentle Uncle Charles to predict to his sister’s son, “You will farm here one day.”
And so he was doing (metaphorically at least) when I met Pyers and Marguerite at the family home Clonalis in the 1980s. He had made the commitment to use the combination of a merchant banker’s skills, the O’Conor noblesse oblige and the gift of a wife who magically combined the talents of curator, executive chef, Mother and interior designer (to name just a few.)
What Tish’s email told me is good news for any traveler to Ireland. Because of what she and her family are doing, you have a very good chance to sleep, to dine, to imbibe history and set off to discover their “realm,” as I once did. As a guest at Clonalis, you will find 21st Century warmth and hospitality wrapped in centuries of intriguing history brought to life by a singular family.
When Tish (Laetitia) arrived in the late 20th century she was the first child to have been born at Clonalis in 117 years. Today, she describes her role in these words, “As a new generation of O’Conors prepares to take up the reins (or should that be “reigns” in the context of the family’s history?) the 26th generation descended from Ireland’s last High King seem to hear the echoes of my parents and those of centuries past reminding us of the French expression, Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose.
That expression seems apt as her father transitions from merchant banker to Squire, and he and Marguerite’s youngest child takes time from her successful life of Dublin designer to keep the dream alive and thriving. Readers of history see the continuity with Donach, the Grey-Haired seen now in the Clonalis House portrait gallery. He walked from Clonalis to Dublin make the case to Parliament for restoring the O’Conor lands seized under spurious penal laws.Pyers, as a 20th Century barrister used his insight to work through Byzantine tax laws that saddled his young family with five sets of taxes that burdened them and their dream for Clonalis.
This is what Tish told me of the 21st Century Clonalis:
At the top of a long avenue, nestled in a crescent of cypress and redwood trees stands a grand Victorian residence, Clonalis House, regarded by many as one of Ireland’s most important historic properties. The O’Conor family are direct descendants of the last High Kings of Ireland who were also the traditional kings of Connacht. It is said that their 700-acre demesne at Clonalis situated in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon is the last remnant of the ancient Kingdom that stretched from the River Shannon to the Atlantic Ocean.
Clonalis House was built in 1878 by Charles Owen O’Conor Don. The ‘Don’ title which dates back to 1385 refers to the blood chieftain of the O’ Connor Clan. This imposing building has 45 rooms and was built in Victorian Italianate style. Clonalis has been sensitively restored over the last decade, welcoming guests and tourists from around the world, telling a unique and interesting story with a collection of family portraits hanging proudly throughout the house. This collection of portraits includes Hugo O’Conor the founder of Tucson, Arizona and the romantic portrait of Phelim O’Conor who sadly died in battle over 700 years ago.
Among the 45 rooms in Clonalis is the Library, lined with ancient tomes, some of which date to the 16th century. This is a wonderful room to spend time sitting by the peat fire and absorbing the history. The atmospheric Dining Room with its portraits spanning over seven generations of O’Conors and former Members of Parliament give visitors a sense of living history. The elegant Drawing Room and the peaceful Chapel all contribute to the ambience and rich traditions that makes Clonalis such a welcoming home.
The O’Conor family maintain a small museum within Clonalis and amongst these papers can be found an original facsimile of King Charles I death warrant complete with the signature of Oliver Cromwell as well as the harp of Turlough Carolan, a much celebrated 18th Century blind bard. And of course Clonalis is also the home of the Coronation Stone – some mistake it as a large chunk of limestone or indeed a contemporary work of art but this rock was once Ireland’s most important stone. It’s the Inauguration Stone, upon which some 30 O’Conor kings were crowned, As O’Conor kings go, they ruled over a realm that stretches from the River Shannon to the Atlantic coast, which is now represented by the province of Connacht.
Clonalis House is part of the Hidden Ireland group and during the summer months the family open their doors and welcome guests to come and stay – all rooms complete with spectacular views, four/half poster beds and equally big bathrooms. Pyers and Marguerite O’Conor Nash have lived here with their children, Barbara, Richard and Letitia since 1981.
Clonalis is very well situated for exploring the rich history in County Roscommon including the famine museum at Strokestown Park House, King House in Boyle and the beautiful Lough Key Forest Park for walks. It is also within an hour’s driver of Westport, Sligo’s “Yeats Country” and Athlone.
If your name is O’Conor, Clonalis is a must. The history of our ancient Gaelic family is recalled throughout in portraits, archives and artefacts. You can also plan a tour of O’Conor sites, all within a few miles of Clonalis House, including Ballintubber Castle, Roscommon Castle, Roscommon Abbey and Rathcroghan. A little further afield you can explore Ballintubber and Clonmacnoise.
Clonalis House is a member of Hidden Ireland www.hiddenireland.com a distinctive collection of Irish Country Houses where visitors stay as guests. The privately owned properties are…. dare I say…. “elegant, authentic and original”: oases of gracious living where “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”
Photos courtesy of Clonalis House.
Annette Cunningham’s Street Seens appears each Sunday.