O'Conor, Charles (1710-1791) (DNB00)

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O'CONOR, CHARLES (1710–1791), Irish antiquary, eldest son of Denis O'Conor, was born on 1 Jan. 1710 at Kilmactranny, co. Sligo. His mother was Mary, daughter of Tiernan O'Rourke, a colonel in the French service who was killed at the battle of Luzara in 1702. The confiscation of his paternal estate had reduced his father to such poverty that he had to plough with his own hands, and used to say in Irish to his sons, ‘Boys, you must not be impudent to the poor; I am the son of a gentleman, but ye are the children of a ploughman.’ The trustees of forfeited estates in 1703 restored part of his estate to Denis O'Conor, but he did not regain possession of this till 1720. Charles was taught to read and write Irish by a Franciscan of the convent of Crieveliagh, co. Sligo, who knew no English, and who began to teach him Latin on 30 Sept. 1718, and continued his education till 1724. His father moved to the restored family seat of Belanagare, co. Roscommon, and his brother-in-law, Bishop O'Rourke of Killala, formerly chaplain to Prince Eugène, thenceforward directed his education, instructed him in English and Latin literature, and urged him to cultivate Irish. He translated as an exercise the Miserere into Irish. The bishop was delighted with the version, and read it aloud. Torlogh O'Carolan [q. v.] the harper, a frequent guest at Belanagare, wept on hearing it, and, taking his harp, at once began to compose and sing his lay, ‘Donnchadh MacCathail oig,’ in which the fall of the Milesian families is lamented, and the goodness of O'Conor of Belanagare celebrated. Charles preserved throughout life the harp upon which O'Carolan sang, and himself became a skilful harper. Cathaoir MacCabe [q. v.], the poet, and Major MacDermot, the ‘broken soldier’ of Goldsmith's ‘Traveller,’ were other friends of his youth, and the Rev. Thomas Contarine, Goldsmith's relative, was his first literary correspondent. After some further education from a priest named Dynan, he went to Dublin in 1727, and resided with another priest, Walter Skelton, who ingeniously demonstrated the refraction of rays of light by the aid of a partly filled punchbowl, and led him to take an interest in natural philosophy.

He married in 1731 Catherine, daughter of John O'Fagan, who had sufficient fortune to enable them to settle on a farm in Roscommon, till, on his father's death in 1749, he went to live at Belanagare. Such was the rigour of the laws against priests that, in the year after his marriage, he was obliged to attend mass in a sort of cave, thence called Pol an aiffrin. His devotion to his religion, his musical and Irish literary attainments, made him popular with the peasantry, and he used to delight them with stories of the adventures of the survivors of the battle of Aughrim. He began to write a book on Irish history called ‘Ogygian Tales,’ which was lent to Henry Brooke (1703?–1783) [q. v.], who seems to have thought of publishing it as part of a contemplated Irish history of his own; but the author recovered it, and it was the basis of his ‘Dissertations on the Ancient History of Ireland,’ which was published in 1753, and in an enlarged edition, with added remarks on Macpherson's ‘Ossian,’ in 1766. It shows considerable reading in Irish literature, and is based upon the ‘Ogygia’ of Roderic O'Flaherty [q. v.]; but its style is not interesting, nor does it exhibit much critical judgment. In 1753 he also published anonymously a preface to the ‘Earl of Castlehaven's Memoirs.’ The British Museum copy, which has his own book-plate on the back of the title, has the inscription ‘by Charles O'Conor of Belanagare’ over the preface in his own hand (see Henry Bradshaw's copy of Ware's ‘Ireland’ in the Cambridge University Library). He also wrote a biographical preface to the ‘History of the Civil Wars of Ireland,’ by Dr. J. Curry, who was his intimate friend. His preface and terminal essay to ‘The Ogygia Vindicated’ of Roderic O'Flaherty are perhaps his best works, and contain interesting statements about O'Flaherty and Duald MacFirbis [q. v.] He published in Vallancey's ‘Collectanea’ between 1770 and 1786 three letters ‘On the History of Ireland during the Times of Heathenism.’ All these were published in Dublin. In 1773 he wrote ‘A Statistical Account of the Parish of Kilronan,’ which was printed in Edinburgh in 1798. The parish is in co. Roscommon, and is famous as containing the grave of O'Carolan; but the account only deals with its agricultural condition, and almost the only facts of general interest related are that only two families had ever emigrated thence to America, and that the favourite occupation of the inhabitants was distilling whisky. He collected an Irish library, and in 1756 had already nine ancient vellum folios, six quarto manuscripts on vellum, and twelve folio manuscripts on paper, besides two large quarto volumes of Irish extracts in his own hand. He borrowed and read the manuscript annals of Tighernach and of Inisfallen. He was one of the founders of the Roman catholic committee formed in 1757 to work for the abolition of the political disabilities of Roman catholics, and published many letters and pamphlets on the subject. In 1749 there appeared his ‘Two public Letters in reply to Brooke's Farmer’ and ‘A Counter Appeal,’ in reply to Sir Richard Cox, both signed ‘Rusticus.’ His ‘Seasonable Thoughts relating to our Civil and Ecclesiastical Constitution,’ published in 1753, was so moderate in tone that some readers thought it the work of a large-minded protestant; and ‘The Case of the Roman Catholics,’ which appeared in 1755, was even commended by Primate Hugh Boulter [q. v.] (Memoirs of O'Conor, p. 238). In 1756 he published ‘The Principles of the Roman Catholics’; in 1771 ‘Observations on the Popery Laws,’ and in 1774 ‘A Preface to a Speech by R. Jephson.’ He was a great letter-writer, and corresponded with his brother Daniel, an officer in the French service, with Dr. J. Curry the historian, with Charles Vallancey [q. v.], with Bryan O'Conor Kerry the historian (Anthologica Hibernica, 1790, p. 124), and with other learned men of his time. Dr. Johnson (Boswell, Life, edit. 1811, i. 291) wrote to him, on 9 April 1757, a kindly and discerning letter, after reading his ‘Dissertations’ of 1753, encouraging him to ‘continue to cultivate this kind of learning;’ and again wrote on 19 May 1777 (ib. iii. 310) to urge him ‘to give a history of the Irish nation from its conversion to Christianity to the invasion from England.’ His wife died in 1750, leaving him two sons and two daughters; and when his eldest son married in 1760, he gave him the house of Belanagare, and went to live in a cottage in the demesne where he kept his books, and continued his studies till his death on 1 July 1791. His means had been much reduced by a form of extortion not rare in Ireland in the middle of the eighteenth century. His youngest brother became a protestant, and filed a bill in chancery ‘for obtaining possession of the lands of Belanagare as its first protestant discoverer.’ The law would have dispossessed him, and he had, after long litigation, to compromise the action by a large money payment. His portrait, at the age of 79, forms the frontispiece of his biography by his grandson, Charles O'Conor (1760–1828) [q. v.], and shows him to have had fine features and a gracious and dignified expression. The defects of his education alone prevented him from being a great Irish scholar, and it must be remembered that he lived at a period when the difficulties of study in mediæval Irish literature were very great. That he speaks with enthusiasm of the vain and shallow writings of Vallancey is a sign, not of his own ignorance, but of his warm satisfaction in the study of the then despised history and literature of Ireland by a person whose general learning he believed to be profound, and whose external position seemed to give his remarks the authority of an impartial judge awarding commendation where praise was almost unknown and contempt usual. O'Conor's devotion to his subject deserves more praise than his additions to knowledge.

[O'Conor's Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the late Charles O'Conor of Belanagare, Esq. 1796; O'Conor Don's O'Conors of Connaught, Dublin, 1891; Gent. Mag. Aug. 1791; Works.]

N. M.