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Scholar and Gentleman

Fergus O’Ferrall

Charles O’Conor of Ballinagare, 1710-91: Life and Works, Luke Gibbons and Kieran O’Conor (eds), Four Courts Press, 296 pp, €49.50, ISBN: 978-1846821110

Charles O’Conor of Ballinagare is a seminal, but until now a somewhat neglected figure. His key role in founding the modern study of Ireland’s language, culture and history has been appreciated only by a relatively small band of scholars.

Each essay in this long-awaited book –which originated in a conference held in May 2006 ‑ brings new perpectives and insights in appreciating O’Conor’s multi-faceted career. Charles O’Conor, in all his endeavours, had, as Luke Gibbons and Kieran O’Conor point out, “to negotiate public life under the double exclusions of the Penal Laws and colonial rule”. Yet he came to play a central role “in realigning the politics of lineage and descent with the emergent civic order of representative politics and parliamentary democracy – even if the question of representation for Catholics went against the grain of Protestant rule in Ireland”. Luke Gibbons, in his essay on O’Conor and “the print culture and the counter-public culture” notes that “Charles O’Conor’s disappearance from Irish history, particularly those versions that culminate in the triumph of the nation, has much to do with the perception that he went over to the other side, or at best, in Joep Leerssen’s words, ‘had a foot in both camps’.” However it is precisely the fact that he was a vital bridge between the Gaelic world, the Enlightenment and the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy that gives him his seminal role.

O’Conor was the most authoritative voice of native, Gaelic-rooted Ireland and one of the most important cultural mediators between native and ascendancy Ireland. The crucially important interface between native Ireland and the Protestant elite was the field of learning and literature. In addition O’Conor sought to utilise the tenets of liberal Protestantism – and indeed to write in the voice of a liberal Protestant ‑ to advance the early struggle for Roman Catholic civil, political and economic rights and freedoms. In this he appealed to the Enlightenment patriotism of some in Protestant circles who supported aspects of the Catholic struggle. O’Conor, in hindsight, may well be judged the key seminal figure in the emergence of nineteenth century Irish Catholic historical and political consciousness: others built upon his foundations in the more confrontational era dominated by Daniel O’Connell.

Who then was Charles O’Conor of Ballinagare and how did he exercise such an important role? He was born in January 1710 in Kilmacranny, Co Sligo, where his family was living in straitened circumstances having lost its lands following the defeat of the Jacobites in the 1690s. His father, Denis O’Conor, came of a cadet branch of the O’Conor family whose head is the O’Conor Don – the former kings of Connacht and high kings of Ireland. His mother was Mary O’Rourke, daughter of Col Tiernan O’Rourke of the O’Rourke family of Bréifne. The O’Rourkes too had lost all in the Williamite victory.

Therefore we may situate Charles O’Conor in a network of defeated, and in many cases exiled, Jacobite Catholic families: his father-in-law, for example, Col O’Rourke, died at the battle of Luzzara in 1702 while in the French service. He had a number of relatives serving the French or Jacobite cause and his uncle, Dr Thaddeus O’Rourke, bishop of Killala, a Franciscan with a continental education, lived with the O’Conors and played a key role in educating the young Charles.

In the early 1720s, after many years of legal wrangling, the O’Conors recovered a part of their lands. This involved a legal agreement with their Protestant neighbours, the Frenches. Yet even as late as 1777 there was an expensive and stressful threat when an impoverished brother converted to Protestantism and, under the Penal Laws, sought, thereby under the Penal Laws, the estate. It is important to recollect that Catholics could not assert or defend their ownership rights in property or indeed maintain civil, cultural or religious institutions of any kind for most of the life of O’Conor of Ballingare. In practice the O’Conors recovered about eight hundred acres and a gracious house was built at Ballinagare in 1727 partly from the masonry taken from a late medieval O’Conor tower house. Previously, in the 1680s, the O’Conor estate had been over 3,700 acres. Jeremy Williams and Kieran O’Conor have a fascinating chapter in this book analysing the physical remains of the house which yields valuable insights into the minds and lives of the O’Conors at the height of the Penal Laws. Ballinagare Castle – more accurately house ‑ was built in a modern style but it was designed to look smaller than it was when viewed from the front as the family presumably did not want to overly advertise its position as a Catholic, Irish-speaking landlord in a Protestant state.

Nevertheless, as O’Conor and Williams illustrate, the house itself

with its mix of old and new, provides a metaphor for Charles O’Conor’s life and, indeed, the lives of all the O’Conors of Ballinagare, in that they were deeply rooted by blood and ancestry in the landscape and aristocratic culture of north Roscommon since early medieval times and yet were closely connected with contemporary Enlightenment values and in close contact with relatives and friends serving with the Irish Brigade on the Continent. Paris, St. Germain-en-Laye and Vienna may have been distant in physical terms but they were never very far from Ballinagare.

This pleasant house and estate provided the economic basis for Charles O’Conor’s education and later for his scholarly life and advocacy of the Catholic cause. As Catholic schools were proscribed by law he attended local hedge schools and received a classical education there and at home. From his early youth he kept diaries in Irish which offer perhaps the best documented example of hedge-school education that we have. Diarmaid Ó Catháin’s excellent chapter in this book refers to the influence of Bishop O’Rourke as he helped the young Charles in his study of Latin, English, Irish and the psalms. Books that belonged to the bishop are still to be found in the library of Clonalis House, Castlerea, Co Roscommon, where so much of Charles O’Conor’s literary heritage may be found. Remarkably, we learn that Charles O’Conor’s library has not been fully catalogued ‑ surely a priority task for eighteenth century scholarship. O’Conor benefited from the learning of representatives of the hereditary learned families, such as the O’Duignans, thereby absorbing knowledge from the last of generations of gifted scribes and historians. He was well-equipped therefore to deal with the Irish manuscript tradition. The famous Turlogh O’Carolan (1670-1738) was a frequent visitor, as he was to Gaelic families such as the O’Ferralls of Mornine in Longford. Clonalis House still preserves a harp said to have belonged to O’Carolan.

O’Conor was sent to Dublin about 1727 to continue his education. He was taught mathematics, science and French by Fr Walter Skelton (1664-1737). He associated with a very vigorous circle around Tadgh Ó Neachtain (c1671-c1751) and his father Seán (d1729) from Drum, Co Roscommon. In Dublin the young student expanded his range of contacts, copied and exchanged Irish manuscripts, and benefited from the literary milieu; his contacts included Dr John Fergus, the Irish scholar and bibliophile, and Aodh Buí Mac Cruitín (Hugh MacCurtin), author and poet. His student days laid the basis for O’Conor’s later career, which oscillated between Dublin and Roscommon.

In 1731 Charles married Catherine, daughter of John Fagan, a merchant of Boyle, a marriage which brought some capital into the O’Conor family. Charles and Catherine had two sons (Denis and Charles) and a daughter (Bridget). His wife died prematurely in 1741. Charles and his family lived at an out-farm at Ballynaba until the death of Charles’s father in 1750, when he inherited the estate. In 1760, however, he  handed it over to his eldest son, Denis, and built a smaller Georgian house, which he called his Hermitage (illustrated in the book). He lived at the Hermitage until his death in 1791, the arrangement enabling him to focus on his scholarly pursuits and advocacy of civil rights for Catholics.

O’Conor became a voracious reader, constantly seeking out and acquiring books and manuscripts. Diarmuid Ó Catháin states that virtually every important Irish manuscript in Ireland passed through his hands and he acquired a unique collection of at least fifty-nine manuscripts. He attached primary importance to saving Gaelic manuscripts from destruction as the vital records of the old Gaelic order and was interested primarily in what might be termed the “elite” legacy of the manuscript tradition rather than oral or more popular lore. As interest in Irish scholarship grew he became the person to consult and had a wide correspondence, as is evident in Letters of Charles O’Conor of Belanagare: A Catholic Voice in Eighteenth-Century Ireland.

O’Conor’s life was devoted to two major concerns – his scholarly interests and his discreet political activity aimed at achieving civil rights for Catholics. He spent part of every year in Dublin when he was not at Ballinagare or the Hermitage and kept up a remarkable range of personal contacts in Catholic and Protestant circles. He became a close friend of Archbishop John Carpenter (1729-86) of Dublin, with whom he shared many intellectual interests. His introduction of Carpenter, by then archbishop of Dublin, to leading Protestant establishment antiquarians in 1773 was described by him as a “revolution in our moral and civil affairs”, illustrating the enormous gulf that required to be bridged between Catholics and Protestants in the fields of learning and scholarship.

Among the riches in this study are a number of essays on O’Conor’s vital role as the pre-eminent Irish language scholar of the eighteenth century. Mícheál Mac Craith recounts how O’Conor controversially tackled James Macpherson’s famous Ossian publications: as MacCraith observes, Macpherson was, to say the least, “a creative adaptor”; O’Conor in a new edition (which is almost better seen as a new work) of his Dissertations in 1766 (first published in 1753) refuted Macpherson on historical, topographical and chronological grounds. Today perhaps it is hard to fathom the enormous popular impact of Macpherson’s work but O’Conor was best qualified to counteract negative portrayals of the Irish people by invoking a golden age of Gaelic civilisation prior to colonisation.

Nollaig Ó Muraíle emphasises the importance of O’Conor’s crucial work on Irish language manuscripts in the absence of any significant impact of the printing press on the Irish language until well into the nineteenth century and the age of John O’Donovan. He provides a valuable account of O’Conor and his company of scribes (and of O’Conor’s own scribal activity), poets and particular collectors of manuscripts such as Dr John Fergus. Lesa Ní Mhunghaile further enriches our appreciation of O’Conor’s momentous contribution to Irish language scholarship, outlining the networks he employed from the 1720s until his death in 1791. Maura O’Gara-O’Riordan explicates in detail O’Conor’s complex involvement with a manuscript copy of the Annals of the Four Masters which he acquired in 1734 and which is now in the Royal Irish Academy.

Charles O’Conor was realistic about the Stuarts’ failure after the defeat of the Boyne and he saw that the only practical way forward for Catholics lay in achieving constitutional change through reasoned argument and professions of loyalty to the Hanoverian monarchs. The long saga of the struggle for Catholic Emancipation began in 1756 when, together with Dr John Curry of Dublin and Thomas Wyse of Waterford, O’Conor founded the Catholic Association – the first organised attempt to obtain legal acknowledgement of Catholic civil and property rights. It took over seventy years for emancipation to be achieved, when Daniel O’Connell, helped by another Thomas Wyse, and indeed supported by Charles O’Conor’s grandson Owen O’Conor, gave birth to Irish democracy in the 1820s, a struggle I have described in Catholic Emancipation: Daniel O’Connell and the Birth of Irish Democracy 1820-1830. O’Conor was a key progenitor of our constitutional democratic tradition, and of the liberal Catholic tradition, which O’Connell supremely represents. Like O’Connell, he was determined to situate Ireland within the European Enlightenment. As Gibbons and O’Conor note, Charles O’Conor wished to place the Irish past within the domain of philosophical history and the Irish present into “a tolerant and culturally diverse republic of letters”. He had, for example, the first English translation of Montesquieu’s 1751 De l’esprit des loix (The Spirit of Laws) at his disposal; he annotated his copy in Irish. In the 1750s he wrote a number of notable pamphlets, such as The Case of the Roman Catholics (1755), highlighting the grievous disabilities under which his co-religionists suffered.

John Wrynn shows O’Conor rescuing the Irish past from antiquarianism and seeking to place it rather in the domain of philosophical (or developmental) history as he saw that this was central to the inclusion of Ireland in “the moral histories of human progress hitherto confined to Judeo-Christian antiquity and the glories of classical Greece and Rome”. He thus combated a long line of colonial detractors from Giraldus Cambrensis in the twelfth century to Spenser, Davies, Ware and Temple in the early modern period, and to near contemporaries such as Sir Richard Cox – these had sought to deprive the Irish past of any claims to civilisation in order to justify conquest and domination. He also took David Hume to task for his anti-Irish prejudices in his historical work in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1763. Ian McBride in his impressive history of eighteenth century Ireland, Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The Isle of Slaves, wryly notes the effects:

The discreet lobbying of O’Conor and Curry, aided by Edmund Burke in London, eventually persuaded Hume to moderate his tone in the 1770 edition of his works, with the rather anticlimactic result that ‘barbarous savages’ was changed to ‘enraged rebels’ and ‘insulting butchers’ softened to ‘insulting foes’.

O’Conor’s struggle to root the concept of liberty – the key lodestar of the Whig political tradition ‑ in Gaelic Ireland and ancient Irish laws was indeed an uphill task, not only among the pervasively ignorant but even more so among the so-called “enlightened” of his times. In his Dissertations on the antient history of Ireland (1753) he had maintained that the ancient Irish constitution “was founded originally on democratic principles … the government which prevailed in Ireland, was a mixed monarchy, wherein the kings were elected out of a certain royal family for their virtue and achievements”. His pamphlets and work on Irish history were key tools in what today we would call “consciousness-raising” in both Catholic and Protestant circles. O’Conor’s pamphleteering activities brought him in contact with the famous Dublin printer George Faulkner, who was sympathetic to Catholic claims. It seems that it was through Faulkner and his circle that from the 1760s O’Conor became friendly with Protestant scholars who were growing more interested in Irish culture and antiquities. Two important figures in this context were Dr Thomas Leland (1722-85) and Francis Stoughton Sullivan (1719-66) of Trinity College Dublin. Through Leland, O’Conor obtained access to the library of Trinity College and to the Irish manuscripts Leland was acquiring for it. This networking took shape in a number of antiquarian societies which eventually coalesced in the Royal Irish Academy, of which, in 1785, O’Conor was a founding member. The authoritative work on this period is Golden Ages and Barbarous Nations: Antiquarian Debate and Cultural Politics in Ireland c.1750-1800 by Clare O’Halloran, which has a valuable chapter on the role played by O’Conor in the creation of a community of scholars which argues that the political context for such scholarly endeavours “was characterised by a recent and abrasive policy of land confiscation and settlement and by the still on-going process of Anglicisation, whereby the indigenous language, Irish, was being steadily replaced by English as the medium of social and economic progress”. Genealogies were feared by Protestants as they might establish who the original owners of their lands had been, further undermining any sense of their own legitimacy as landlords. One can only imagine how they might have perceived Charles O’Conor, a descendant of the royal O’Conors of Connacht – the last family to hold the high kingship of Ireland.

Indeed there was in O’Conor’s work a submerged subversive and anti-colonial mentaltity. O’Halloran notes that the late Oliver MacDonagh observed that “history [is] but a dialogue between present apprehensions and knowledge of what has gone before” and she concludes that the 1780s and 1790s “was perhaps the most difficult period in which to attempt the formation of a community of antiquaries in Ireland”. It is all the more remarkable that O’Conor made a “bridge” which in the long term facilitated the ending of the apartheid.

In an insightful chapter, Luke Gibbons draws attention to one of the most original aspects of O’Conor’s work ‑ “his concern to square the ‘backward look’ of antiquarianism and romantic nostalgia – the staples of emergent cultural nationalism ‑ with the distinctively modern discourses of agrarian improvement and economic progress”. Ireland’s economic underdevelopment was due to colonial neglect and mismanagement and did not arise because the Irish were a primitive or indolent race. For O’Conor Catholic thinking could embrace Enlightenment schemes of land reclamation, drainage, inland waterways, mining and so forth as well as drawing upon Irish pedigrees of territory, law, language and political legitimacy. O’Conor, notes Gibbons, “was thoroughly committed to modernization but he differed from his ascendancy counterparts in envisaging it as benefiting the country as a whole, Protestant and Catholic, Anglo-Irish and native Irish”.

Olga Tsapina explores, in a brilliant chapter, how for a variety of reasons the Catholic Enlightenment – a complex international phenomenon that spanned the Continent and the British Isles ‑ has long been overlooked in Ireland, while Hilary Larkin, examining O’Conor and the philosophes, observes that this is a reason why he “has never entered into the mainstream Irish historical canon”. It is heartening, however, that Ian McBride’s excellent work on the eighteenth century, referred to above, strongly emphasises the Irish Enlightenment and, in particular, O’Conor’s central role. The Enlightenment, however, has not yet been incorporated into the necessary revision of more popular traditionalist nationalist history in Ireland. Until the work of the late Oliver MacDonagh and other scholars, this neglect of the Irish participation in “enlightened” thought also affected Daniel O’Connell’s reputation as the major carrier of enlightenment values which gave rise to his liberal Catholicism and his focus on universal liberty. Now that the Irish people are rapidly moving away from a narrow, sectarian nationalism both O’Conor and O’Connell have much to teach us about alternative ways of conceiving our nation and providing for the diverse anthropology of those who live on the island. Larkin provides a most insightful account of O’Conor’s reading of Montesquieu, his critiquing of Voltaire and his hostility to Hume. She concludes that O’Conor “remains definitely and self-consciously an Enlightenment figure ‑ hailing the present age in Europe as one of civil liberty and emancipation from prejudices, and looking to a future that would break the deadlock of a sectarian past. He optimistically welcomed the ‘free spirit of inquiry’ that would enable politicians and historians to challenge the status quo and solve society’s problems in a rational way.” It is important to note the depth of anti-Catholicism in much Enlightenment thought, particularly in France – repression of the Irish majority did not become a chic cause célĕbre of the day as Larkin observes. She recounts how Daniel O’Conor, brother of Charles, met Claude Adrien Helvétius, the French philosophe, in 1763:

Conversation soon turned to the Penal Laws and Helvétius showed himself far from sympathetic to the Catholic cause, unreasonably asking why they did not solve the matter by becoming Protestants. O’Conor patiently replied that they were attached to their religion and besides could not be admitted into the Protestant polity without swearing away the main articles of their faith. Helvétius scoffingly asked: ‘where the Devil would be the great harm in that, surely you are not so idle as to have any regard to these fooleries? Is your brother a Protestant?’ On Daniel replying in the negative, Helvétius asked was Charles bigoted as to his religion. ‘Sir, he is too enlightened to be a bigot’ the Irishman returned simply. This apparently had no effect on the philosopher who advised the O’Conors to all become Protestant and thus protect themselves against the worst of the laws.

From Charles O’Conor’s letters and works ‑ as well as from his life ‑ we obtain a vivid picture, in the late Alan Harrison’s words, “of a learned, humane, tolerant, urbane Irishman who employed his talents in what he perceived to be the best interests of his country. His was a patriotism that has been obscured by subsequent events of Irish history and by the establishment of a confrontational rather than a conciliatory approach to Ireland’s problems.” O’Conor was indeed, as Ó Catháin has observed, an astute, complex, subtle, resourceful and deep man. Much remains to be done in relation to Charles O’Conor’s life and career: his role in the struggle for Catholic civil rights, for example, requires a full and detailed examination. His diaries and his library need scholarly attention, especially as the comprehensive Old Irish family archive at Clonalis House is so unique. In the longer term we need a full scale literary and political biography. In the meantime, Gibbons and O’Conor’s collection of essays is a book to feast upon and one which deserves wide attention.


Dr Fergus O’Ferrall’s essay “The Civic Public Square” appears in the Dublin Review of Books, Issue 62, December 2014. He is author of a number of books including Daniel O’Connell, (Dublin, 1981 and 1998) and Catholic Emancipation Daniel O’Connell and the Birth of Irish Democracy 1820-1830 (Dublin, 1985). He has co-edited and contributed a number of chapters to Longford History and Society (Geography Publications, Dublin, 2010) and co-edited the Historic Towns Atlas on Longford published by the Royal Irish Academy in 2010. He has also edited a recent collection of essays entitled Towards A Flourishing Society (TASC, Dublin, 2012).



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