The O Connors are outstanding in Irish history, highlighting
its triumphs and its tragedies. O Connor - in Irish O
Conchobhair or O Conchuir - comes from a personal name
meaning champion. O'Connor, O'Conner or O'Conor, is perhaps
the most illustrious of all Irish surnames, though this view
would, no doubt, be disputed by the O'Neills, the O'Briens,
the O'Donnells and one or two other great and famous septs.
It is borne by six distinct septs located in different parts
of the country of whom four survive in considerable numbers.
The most well known sept of the name was the Royal O Conors
of Connacht which eventually separated into three distinct
septs: O Conor Roe, O Conor Sligo and O Conor Don. The first
two have faded out. The family headed by O Conor Don remains
a uniquely Gaelic family, the most eminent of all the O
Connors. The Connacht O Conors derive their name from
Conchobhar (died 971), King of Connacht. Conchobhar was of a
long line of Connacht kings when kings needed to be
champions to maintain their supremacy. Two high kings, who
were monarchs of all Ireland, descend from him. Conchobhar
had to submit to the mighty Brian Boru, King of Munster, who
assumed the chief sovereignty and gave Ireland a unity she
has not since known. Later the O Conors contended with
neighbouring chieftains, particularly the powerful O'Rourkes.
Their direct descendant, as certified by the Genealogical
Office, Dublin Castle, is the present O'Conor Don and it is
interesting to note that this important and aristocratic
family consistently maintained its position notwithstanding
the fact that they remained inflexibly Catholic. Evidence of
this is abundant in all the sixteenth, seventeenth and
eighteenth century manuscripts.
In 1119, Turlough Mor O'Conor was High King of Ireland. He
was not so much a warrior as a statesman. He tried to
centralise his government, he built stone bridges and
castles and had a fleet of boats on the Shannon and on the
Atlantic. He maintained a mint to coin silver money. He also
plundered every part of the country, as was the custom. His
three marriages endowed him with twenty children. His son,
Roderic, succeeded to the high kingship. His reign coincided
with the invasion by the Anglo-Normans which led to the
Treaty of Windsor in 1175, when Roderic (or Rory) pledged
himself to recognise Henry II of England as his overlord.
Kings of England now became Lords of Ireland, which meant
that Rory held his kingdom of Connacht only as a vassal of
English royalty. Like a number of the O Connor kings, after
a life of much strife he retired to monastic seclusion in
the Augustinian Abbey of Cong. In 1198 he died, the last of
the Irish kings, and was buried in Clonmacnoise in County
Offaly, the most celebrated of Ireland's holy places. He
lies near the high altar where his father, Turlough Mor, was
buried in 1156. Thus ended the royal Gaelic leadership.
When Roderic abdicated, he was succeeded by his brother,
Cathal Crobhdhearg (meaning of the red hand). Cathal had
close contact with two kings of England, King John and King
Henry III. The family archives contain letters written by
him in Latin. The annals record that he died in 1224, having
become a monk in one of the monasteries he had founded.
Historians cannot agree as to the exact monastery, Knockmoy
in Galway, or Ballintubber, which Cathal had founded in
The three main branches of the O Conors of Connacht: O Conor
Roe, O Conor Sligo and O Conor Don descend from Turlough.
Clonalis is the family seat, near Castlerea in County
Roscommon. In the seventeenth century, when the penal laws
drove the majority of the Gaelic families abroad, the O
Conors remained with their people and were not persuaded to
revoke their Roman Catholicism. They also accumulated a
treasure house of family archives, dating back to the sixth
century. Clonalis was built early in the eighteenth century
and it contains many portraits and relics of this great
family. Despite the inability of the government to ease the
financial burden, the O Conor family is striving to preserve
Clonalis. It is the only house open to the public that is
wholly of the old Irish, as distinct from most other
families who arrived in the wake of the Anglo-Norman
invasion. Not a trace remains of Belenagare, their ancient
seat, from which the O Conors moved to Clonalis.
Charles Owen O Conor Don (1838 - 1905) was educated at
Downside in England, and was Member of Parliament for
Roscommon until he was defeated by the Parnellites. He sat
on many royal commissions and, in 1881, was president of the
Royal Irish Academy. He wrote a family history, The O Conors
Arthur O Connor (1765 - 1852) was of the Conner family of
Manch House, Ballineen, County Cork. Arthur's elder brother,
Roger O Connor (1763 - 1834), was a barrister and was also a
member of the United Irishmen, which led to him serving a
term of imprisonment in Fort George, Scotland. His home,
Dangan Castle, burned down following a suspiciously heavy
insurance cover. He eloped with a married woman. He was
tried for robbing the Galway mail train and claimed that he
"had but wanted to obtain from it some letters incriminating
a friend". He was outrageously eccentric and took to writing
imaginary annals and foolish books.
The O Connor name has been remarkably prominent in painting
and sculpture. James Arthur O Connor (1792 - 1841) was born
in Dublin and was at first an engraver, like his father.
Finding this insufficiently creative, he transferred to
landscape painting, and went to London where his pictures
were exhibited at the Royal Academy. They were recognised as
possessing extraordinary merit, but he died a poor man. He
had worked for some time in Mayo, at Westport House, seat of
the Marquess of Sligo of the Browne family. Many fine O
Connor paintings can be seen there. Today an Arthur O Connor
painting commands a high price.
As was customary with the Irish, the O Connors served in the
military, administrative, medical and diplomatic services of
Charles O Conor (1804 - 84), who was born in New York City,
war senior counsel for Jefferson Davis in his indictment for
Among the many O Connor ecclesiastics were two brothers of
the O Connor Kerry sept, Michael (1819 - 72) and James O
Connor (1823 - 90), who were both bishops in the USA.
The O Connors are leaders in Ireland's golfing community. In
July 1985, at the Royal St George course in Sandwich,
Christy O Connor Jr. shot a first round of 64, the record
set in 1934 by the great Henry Cotton.
In dealing with the landed proprietors of Connacht, among
the most distinguished members of the O'Conor Don stock four
O'Conors of Belnagare are outstanding in the field of
culture: Charles O'Conor (1710-1791), antiquary and
collector of Irish manuscripts; his two grandsons, Rev.
Charles O'Conor, D.D., P.P. (1764- 1828), librarian at Stowe
and author, inter alia, of Rerum Hibernicarum Seriptores
Veteres, and Mathew O'Conor (1773-1844), author of History
of the Irish Catholics etc; and Charles Owen O'Conor,
O'Conor Don (1838-1906), President of the Royal Irish
Academy and of the Society for Preserving the Irish Language
and author of The O'Conors of Connacht.
In the military sphere Cabrach O'Conor (1584-1655) and Hugh
O'Conor (d. 1669), respectively son and grandson of O'Conor
Don, took a prominent part in the 1641-1652 wars. Three of
this sept were outstanding in the Irish Brigade. More
recently, one of the Roe branch, General Sir Luke O'Connor
(1832-1915), who had enlisted as a private soldier in the
British army, won the V.C. and a commission for his
remarkable bravery at the battle o