It’s not the sort of rock you’d ordinarily look at twice. A misshapen chunk of limestone, weighing maybe 300lb, sitting near the front door of Clonalis, silent but for a lonesome snail arduously trekking down one of its mossy grooves.
But step back a thousand years and this was one of the most important rocks in Ireland. It’s the Inauguration Stone upon which nearly thirty O’Conor kings were crowned. As Kings of Connaught, they ruled over a vast realm that ran from the Irish midlands to the Atlantic coast. 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. Indeed, it was this same uncle, a Jesuit priest, who bequeathed him Clonalis in 1981.
The O’Conor’s have always had a strong sense of duty. That’s why Pyers ditched his job as a high-flying London financier and came home to take on the two-storey Italianate villa with his wife Marguerite and their two small children.
On the night my wife Ally and I made our debut waltz into the marble-pillared hall of Clonalis, we were the only guests. You’d forgive us for thinking otherwise. Eyeballs, everywhere, watching. I counted at least 120. Mostly oil, sometimes water-colour. Fortunately I’m a sucker for ancestral portraits.
‘They keep me company when I’m alone’, concurred Marguerite, while we sat in the library, warming our wintry hides by an ingenious tripartite marble fireplace.
There’s certainly no shortage of company in the dining room where a dozen ancestors gaze out from the red walls, some stern, others kindly. I try not to talk too much history as we dine but, while avoiding eye contact with the portraits, my pupils alight on some curious marks on the wall with a note beside it. My wife knows I won’t concentrate until we’ve read the note. It explains that the marks were left by an exploding cannon shell fired at the house during a Civil War shoot out in 1922.
What’s a guy like me to do? I yield to history. And I am rewarded accordingly. The O’Conor’s have a museum in the house. I expected rather dull land deeds and a few fossilized horseshoes. I didn’t expect King Charles I’s death warrant, albeit a facsimile, complete with the signature of ‘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.
The O’Conor family remained defiantly Catholic throughout that long stretch of Irish history when all the power was in Protestant hands. The most striking legacy of that grim age is a chapel, tucked into the back of the hall, with the original 18th century altar at which the O’Conor’s secretly worshipped when practicing Catholicism was a criminal offence.
It takes me a while to get to bed. Portraits keep arresting me. I offer my condolences to Phelim O’Conor, who perished horribly in battle seven hundred years ago, and I have a particularly good tête-à-tête with Hugo O’Conor, founder of Tuscon, Arizona.
Our bedroom is as big as a squash court. It beholds the parklands where a solitary Limousin bull grazes. In the morning, the orange glow of the rising sun rebounds off his tan hide and makes me think of the ancient legends and a vanished age in which the O’Conor’s ruled the kingdom of Connaught.
A shorter version of this article appeared in National Geographic Magazine in April 2014.