Clonalis House, county Roscommon
By Hilarius D.G
IT’S NOT THE SORT OF ROCK you’d ordinarily look at twice. A misshapen chunk of limestone, weighing maybe 300 pounds, sit s near the front door of Clonalis House, a 45-room Victorian Italianate villa built in 1878 on a 700-acre wooded estate in northwest Ireland.
But step back a thousand years and this was one of the most important rocks in Ireland. It’s the Inauguration Stone, upon which some 30 O’Conor kings were crowned. As kings of Connaught, they ruled over a realm that ran from the Irish mindlands to the Atlantic cast. The last “high king” of Ireland was an O’Conor, and should the kingdom of Ireland ever be resurrected, the O’Conor don – the present head of the family – is considered the presumptive claimant to the throne. Pyers O’Conor Nash, the owner of Clonalis, is not the O’Conor don. But his uncle was. This same uncle, a Jesuit priest, bequeathed him Clonalis in 1981.
Pyer eventually left his job as a high-flying Dublin financier to take on full-time management of Clonalis with his wife, Marguerite, and their three children. A grand piano and gilded mirrors in the drawing room provide a taste of the Hibernian opulence echoed in the four guest bedrooms upstairs.
I’m a sucker for ancestral portraits, and I could barely walk a foot along Clonalis’s marble-pillared hall without stopping to consider Phelim O’Conor, who perished horribly in battle 700 years ago, or Hugo O’Conor, founder of Tucson, Arizona. “They keep me company when I’m alone,” Marguerite confides, as we sit in the library warming ourselves by an ingenious tripartite fireplace, with compartments each for logs and peat.
The O’Conors also maintain a small museum in the house. I expected rather full land deeds and a few fossilized horse shoes. I didn’t expect King Charles I’s death warrant, albeit a facsimile, complete with the signature “O. Cromwell.” Nor did I anticipate the harp of the celebrated 18th-century blind bard Turlough O’Carolan or a copy of the Old Testament from 1550.
A chapel is tucked into the back of the hall, with the original 18th-century altar where the O’Conors secretly worshipped at a time when practicing Catholicism was a criminal offense.
My guest room turns out to be as spacious as a squash court, with a four-poster at its center fit for royalty. A crystal decanter full of sherry waits upon a walnut desk. The bedroom windows look over the parklands where a solitary Limousin bull roams. In the morning, the glow of the rising sun rebounds off his tan hide and makes me think of a vanished age in which the O’Conors ruled the kingdom of Connaught.