The O’Connor Family of Caherowen, Athenry – Summer 1998

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Caherowen House, Athenry 

Anyone visiting the graveyard beside the Church of the Assumption, Athenry, cannot fail to notice the grave of the O’Connor family. The appearance of the grave itself, with its marble cross and ornamental surround, indicates that those buried in it belonged to a prominent family. According to the inscription on the cross, two generations of the family are buried there, most of whom died young, a common occurrence in well-off families as well as among the poor in the last century in particular. The only family member whose name is missing is the heir, Gerald.

Who were the O’Connor family? Where did they originate and what became of them? These questions I will try to answer. The information which follows was given to me by my mother, Sinéad Deirg (nee Mason), who heard it from her guardian, Mary O’Connor, the last member of the family to be interred in the family grave.

Although one of the chief families of Athenry, the O’Connor family were not native to the area. They were a branch of the Ui Chonchuir Chiarrai (O’Connors of Kerry) Sept. When exactly this branch of the family began to move northwards is not known. Some of them settled in Shanagolden, Co. Limerick.

Some time after Catholic Emancipation, John O’Connor came to Athenry. He appears to have been a successful tenant farmer. He married Bridget Corrigan of Kilmacow, Co. Kilkenny. She saw the house, ‘Caherowen’, being built about I840. The choice of the name ‘Caherowen’ may indicate that the O’Connors wished to preserve what they believed to be the Irish name of the site they had selected for the new house. (I am indebted to Art Maolfabhail, formerly Place Names Officer, Ordnance Survey of Ireland, for kindly supplying the authentic Irish name, Cathair Ruaidhin).

The O’Connor family belonged to the new Catholic middle class which emerged following Catholic Emancipation. They no longer had to send their children abroad to be educated. The O’Connor boys were educated in Blackrock College. George was awarded a silver medal for proficiency in the classics. He continued his studies in Queen’s College, Galway, and later in Oxford. Mary was educated in the Loreto Convent, Dalkey, Co. Dublin.

A series of calamities overtook the O’Connor family in the l870s. The death of their second son, John in 1873 was followed by that of Margaret, their second daughter, in 1874. A problem arose concerning Gerald O’Connor, the heir. He fell in love and proposed to marry a young woman from Belfast, who had come to work as manageress in the new railway hotel, built in Athenry, following the construction of the railway from Dublin to Galway. To this hotel the young men of the area used to congregate in the evenings. His family opposed the match. Class distinctions were very rigid in those days; a person marrying ‘beneath him’ usually paid a high price socially for so doing. John O’Connor added a codicil to his will, disinheriting Gerald, but died without having signed it. All the property went to Gerald, who married the young woman in Belfast in 1879. They returned to Athenry, settling in the Town House. They ended by selling all and emigrating to Argentina.

Death again intervened. Mary’s fiancé died of consumption. George, the classical scholar, was drowned in Oxford, and James also died. Only Mary and her mother remained. They moved to Dublin, where they had some connections. The story from now on concerns Mary. Having no resources, she had to go to work. She became a nurse in St. Vincent’s Hospital. While there she came to know Jane Mason from Co. Down, who had come to St. Vincent’s as night matron from Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital. About I896, they opened a private hospital in 126, Lower Lesson Street, said to have been the first such establishment under lay management.

The surgeon was the famous McArdle of St. Vincent’s, and the physician was Dr Michael Francis Cox. They both doubtless invested in the hospital, as it is unlikely that the two women would have had sufficient money to set it up on their own. Their patients included wealthy farmers, solicitors, members of the Irish Party at Westminster, etc.

When she came to Dublin, Mary little thought that a world of opportunity was open to her.

This was the time of the Irish cultural and literary renaissance and other exciting developments. It was, however, the Gaelic League, established in 1893, which was to influence Mary’s life. The League was the first association in Ireland to admit women to membership on the same terms as men. Nationalist and Unionist, Catholic and Protestant worked together in pursuit of a common aim: the preservation of Irish as a spoken tongue in Ireland.

With Jane Mason, Mary joined Craobh na gCúig gCúigí, jokingly referred to as the ‘Branch of the Five Protestants’. It had been founded by Nellie O’Brien, and attracted many Protestants, but also Catholics, and was regarded as a model branch. Among the people that Mary met was Sinéad de Valera, who was to become a close friend.

Connradh na Gaeilge cúrsa leigheacht Craobh na gCúig gCúigí [Five Provinces Branch]:

Some years before the First World War, Jane Mason’s niece, also called Jane, came to live in Dublin with her aunt. As Irish names were then in vogue, the young girl’s name was changed to Sinéad, the form by which she was known thereafter.

In 1915, Jane Mason, senior, died, leaving Sinéad in the guardianship of her partner. Mary, by now in her late fifties, felt unable to run the hospital on her own. She decided to close it. She and her ward, who was devoted to her, moved to Brendan Road, Donnybrook. The builder of the road and the houses on it was Batt O’Connor, a Kerryman, who had worked in the U.S.

Following the 1916 Rising, many of the participants were imprisoned in England. When they were released, they began to reorganise the movement for Irish freedom, inspired by the sacrifice of the leaders of the Rising. Elections were held, and in due course the first freely elected Irish parliament, Dáil Eireann, was set up in 1919. De Valera was elected President of Sinn Féin.

Sinéad in the meantime, had finished school, and not wanting to be a burden to her guardian, she completed a secretarial course. She did some work for De Valera prior to his departure for the United States to seek help for the Irish cause. In April, l9l9, she was appointed to the staff of Dáil Eireann, becoming personal secretary to the Minister for Finance, Michael Collins, a post which she held until his death in August, 1922.

So it was that Mary O’Connor saw Sinéad depart each morning, not always for the same location, as the Minister’s work was carried on at different addresses in the city. Mary herself appreciated much better than Sinéad the dangers involved in such work. She could not be sure that the day would not come when Sinéad would fail to return home. Indeed, she herself might be arrested. Men on the run would be sent to her house, now and again, for food and shelter. Collins himself sometimes spent the night there. Batt O’Connor had constructed a secret room in the house in which a wanted man could hide, should there be a raid. When Collins came for the night, he and Mary often sat talking long after Sinéad had gone to bed. Mary was certainly a confidante, a person whom the young man could trust.

In August, 1920, Mary O’Connor accompanied Mr’s de Valera to Washington to visit her husband. Collins’s services provided the necessary papers to allow them to travel. They returned safely, undetected by the authorities. The Black and Tan war was at its height by this time. It was not until July, 1921 that a truce was arranged.

Negotiations then began, culminating in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the 6th December. The resulting split led to the Civil War, which claimed the lives, not only of Collins, but also of Harry Boland, Rory O’Connor and others well known to Mary and Sinéad. They were devastated. Fortunately for them, help was at hand. A friend of theirs, Miss Anita Mac Mahon, who was spending the winter in Italy, on the island of Capri, invited them to join her. This they did, spending several months in this beautiful and peaceful location, far from the strife in Ireland.

This happy state of affairs came to an end when Mary suffered a heart attack, which may have been the result of the strain suffered during the war. The local doctor advised that she should return home. It was doubtless with regret that they bade farewell to the beautiful island which had not only offered them a refuge from the violence at home, but also recovery from the psychological damage inflicted as a result of the ‘split’.

Once back in Dublin, a new life awaited Mary and Sinéad. They had for many years spent their holidays in Achill, staying with a local woman in Keel. Mary now decided to have a little house of her own there. It was designed by Joseph Holloway, architect of the Abbey Theatre. Built beside the Coast Guard Station, it is still standing at the time of writing.

When it became obvious that Sinéad was soon to marry, Mary decided to give up the house in Donnybrook and retire to Achill. Her experience of the island and its people had been acquired over many years. She liked the islanders, and paid them the compliment of living the last years of her life amongst them. Secure in the knowledge that Sinéad was happily married, Mary succumbed to a second heart attack, dying on 7th March, 1930.

Gerald O’Connor had one son, who became a Passionist priest. He visited Ireland during the Eucharistic Congress in 1932, using the opportunity to try to make contact with his father’s family. Unfortunately, Mary, the remaining member of the O’Connor family, had died two years before.

It is no exaggeration to say that Mary O’Connor was a woman of whom the people of Athenry can well be proud. While her early life was marked by much sorrow, her strong faith enabled her to survive and make the transition from a life of comparative comfort and security to one of activity, risk and service to her country.

I which to thank the Rev. Tony King, P.P., Athenry, for kindly offering to have this memoir published in the parish newsletter. Thanks are also due to Mrs Monica Kennedy, The Library, Athenry, and to Máire Ni Íeí for their help.

[The author (address with Father King) would be glad to hear from anyone in Athenry who would have information about the O’Connor family].

Editor’s note: Letter from Íosold Ní Dheirg to the Director of the National Library of Ireland regarding the donation of Sinéad Ní Dheirg papers to the Library and listing the papers, with the stipulation that they are not to be released in her mother’s lifetime.

Caheroyan House and Farm once the home of the O’Connor family  is now an award-winning family run country house, located in Athenry, offering bed & breakfast and includes Self Catering Cottages!

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Written by Íosold Ó Deirg

Published here 06 Mar 2023 and originally published Summer 1998

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