Home of the Connaught Kings

 

Some of the Irish nation's most celebrated ancestors once live here, and in this century, the Republic's first president.  Rathcroghan, graveyard of the ancient kings, is dotted with burial mounds and megalithic tombs that testify to the region's early occupation.  Here also lived the later High Kings of Ireland and two of the country's most powerful old families - the O'Conors and the MacDermotts.

Ballintober Castle/Baile an Tobair

From the early 1300s, when the castle was built, until the 1600s this massive fort was the headquarters of the mighty O'Conors of Connaught.  From here the family fought off attackers and maintained their grip on the surrounding countryside.

In 1652 Charles O'Conor lost the castle and all his possessions to Oliver Cromwell's forces, but they were restored to the O'Conors in 1677.  After the battle of the Boyne (1690), at which the O'Conors had backed the loser, James II, the castle was again confiscated.  It began to fall into ruin around 1700.

Today the substantial remains of Ballintober Castle dominate the village of the same name.  The polygonal twin-towered gate-house, corner towers and much of the wall still stand.  The 22ft high walls, almost 1000ft in length, were surrounded by a moat, and within the protection of the walls was an area of 1 1/2 acres which is thought to have once contained several rows of houses, or cabins, although there are no remnants of these.  Ballintober is an important structure because it is thought to be the earliest example of an Irish stone castle.  Traditionally the Irish built in timber.

Castlerea/An Caisleán Riabhach

This small market town was the birthplace of the last High King of Ireland, Felim O'Conor, in the 12th century, and of Ireland's first president, Douglas Hyde (1860-1949).  Oscar Wilde's father, Sir William Wilde (1815-76) was also born here.

Just to the west of Castlerea off the Castlebar road, behind a green veil of sycamore, ash and chestnut trees close to the bank of the River Suck, stands Clonalis House. This is the ancestral seat of the fabled O'Conors, a clan that included 11 High Kings of Ireland and 24 Kings of Connaught.

The present mansion of 45 rooms was built relatively recently, in 1878, replacing the 'old' Clonalis House, which was built in 1700. The 'new' house contains a priceless collection of archival material that documents Irish history and the history of the O'Conor clan as far back as the 5th century BC.

The joke goes that the senior surviving branch of the Conor clan spells the name with one 'n' rather than two because they never could make n's meet - a tale possibly borne out by the fact that Denis O'Conor was so impoverished that he walked barefoot to Dublin in 1720 in order to fight a law case to recover a small portion (800 acres of poor land) of his ancestral lands.

The family's place in history is first brought to the attention of visitors even before they pass through the Italianate entrance to the house. To the left of the door is the Coronation Stone of the Kings of Connaught, a squat lump of rock that dates from druidic times and was originally at Rathcroghan. The newly chosen king would place his foot on the stone during the ceremony.

Tours of the house begin in the handsome entrance hall with its Ionic columns of pink Mallow marble. Visitors are led through rooms furnished with antiques ranging in style from Louis Quinze to Georgian Regency and Victorian. Specially interesting are an exhibition of lace garments, Georgian, Regency and Victorian silver, a 17th-century chalice designed for easy concealment during the anti-Catholic penal times, and the harp of Turlough O'Carolan, the blind harpist who was a frequent visitor to Clonalis House.

Douglas Hyde Interpretative Centre

The burial place of Douglas Hyde, first President of Ireland and founder of the Gaelic League, is at Tibohine on the road to Ballaghaderreen, 5 miles west of Frenchpark. The former Protestant parish church where his father was rector now houses the centre, which contains photographs and mementos chronicling the life of the late president. Dr Hyde is buried in the church's cemetery.

Frenchpark/Du'n Gar

This unpretentious village is named after the now demolished redbrick house designed by architect Richard Cassel in 1729. It was the home of Major General George Arthur French, first commissioner of the Canadian North-West Mounted Police, the 'Mounties'. In the grounds of the former house is a five-chambered underground refuge, or souterrain, and to the east are the remains of the 1385 Cloonshaville Dominican friary'.

Ratheroghan/Cruachan

Sadly, one of Ireland's - and Europe's - most important archaeological sites has not been fully excavated, preserved or signposted. This traditional coronation and burial place of the Kings of Ireland and Connaught covers several square miles and includes some 53 ancient sites, among them ring-barrows and ring-forts. Some of them are prehistoric and some of early historic dates. They are all pagan locations that were abandoned with the arrival of Christianity.

But since access is difficult - the land is still privately owned - and there is no visitor or interpretative centre, those seeking glimpses into Ireland's past will have to arrange their expeditions carefully and make sure they obtain permission from the farmers before crossing private land. A brochure with a map of the ruins is available from the County Heritage Centre in Strokestown.

One of the most accessible sites is the earthwork known as Rathcroghan. This is named after Cruachú who was the handmaid of Etáin, mother of the legendary Queen Maeve. The small, steep-sided hill has been formed into a ring-barrow and was reputed to be Queen Maeve's residence. It is 3 miles to the west of Tulsk, just before the crossroads to Castlerea.

About 12Oyds north of the hill is a large stone, now on its side, formerly a 9ft standing stone. It is known as Maeve's Lump, but its purpose is unclear. Some believe it has magical associations.

Relig Na Ri, the burial ground of the kings, and Rath Na dTarbh, 'fort of the bulk', are nearby and deserve a visit.  The Morrigan, a war and fertility goddess associated with Rathcroghan, is reputed to appear on occasion as a large, black crow.

Tulsk/Tuilsce

'The hillock of the thorn tree' was the site of many battles between the O'Conor chieftains and the English. O'Conor Roe built here one of the strongest castles in Connaught, in 1406, and the foundations of its circular tower can still be seen. Across the road, in the cemetery, are the remains of the Dominican abbey founded in 1433 by Felim O'Conor. They include a double-arched doorway.

Other Places to See

Ballaghaderreen: Small market town with Gothic Revival St Nathy's Cathedral.
The Four Altars: Built during penal times, when Mass was said outdoors.
Loughglinn: 7m NW of Castlerea, 18th-century mansion.
Owneynagat: Also known as the Cave of the Cat; off Elphin-Castlerea road.  Cave with ogham stones used for lintels.  Said to be entrance to the cave of Cruachú, the otherworld of Irish myth.

Events

Dr Douglas Hyde Conference Weekend, Ballaghaderreen, July
International Rose Festival, Castlerea, Aug.
O'Conor (Royal) Clan Rally, Castlerea, July

Sport

Angling: Coarse fishing: Loughs Errit and Glinn, and River Suck.  Game Fishing: Loughs Errit, Glinn and O'Flynn, and River Suck.
Golf: Ballaghaderreen Golf Club, 9-hole course.

See also:

Ireland's First President (Douglas Hyde)
Click here to view an area map.

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This page was last updated on 05/18/01.