Tour of the House
The Entrance Hall
The original O’Connell house in Derrynane was built in 1702. Donal Mór, Daniel O’Connell’s grandfather, further enlarged it into a three-storey farmhouse in the mid-eighteenth century. It would have been one of the most substantial homes in the area when Daniel O’Connell inherited the Derrynane estate following the death of his uncle, Maurice “Hunting Cap” O’Connell, in 1825.
The old house did not meet the needs of O’Connell’s family and his own status as a successful lawyer and rising political figure. In the late 1820s O’Connell added the south and east wings which housed a new drawing room, library, private study and dining room. He also changed the entrance front of the house to face out onto the stunning view of Derrynane Bay. In this new arrangement the old house became the north wing and contained bedrooms, kitchens and other household offices. This wing was demolished in the mid 20th century.
“Kate [O’Connell’s daughter] told me she gave you in her letter a full description of this house. Between us both, love, you must be quite well acquainted with the improvements that have been made in it during the last nine months. It is indeed truly a most comfortable and convenient house.”
Letter from Mary O’Connell to Daniel O’Connell, 15 August, 1827
O’Connell visited Derrynane to escape the pressures of political life, but he still spent several hours every day working in this study. Despite Derrynane’s isolated location, he received letters, newspapers and other publications in the post and remained up-to-date on the latest political developments. From this room he was able to co-ordinate his campaigns on issues such as Catholic Emancipation, the abolition of slavery, and the repeal of the Act of Union. The name of Derrynane became known around the world as a result.
Until he became a full-time politician, O’Connell was a successful and hard-working barrister. He also oversaw the running of his estates in Kerry and local people often came to him for help and advice, particularly in times of famine and distress. O’Connell attempted to improve his estate and develop the town of Cahirciveen, but the majority of people in the area continued to live in great poverty.
“Then came three or four hours of close confinement to his study, while he wrote, or dictated to secretary or clerk, answers to letters public or private, frameworks of bills on different subjects, and Addresses to the Repealers.”
From Recollections and Experiences During a Parliamentary Career From 1833 to 1848 by John O’Connell Esq. MP (1849)
The Dining Room
As head of an ancient Irish family, O’Connell took the Gaelic tradition of hospitality very seriously. All were welcome at Derrynane, regardless of their political or religious beliefs. He would sometimes even invite his political opponents to visit him here. His worldwide fame attracted distinguished visitors from around the world. One guest recalled eating dinner with thirty-three other guests who came from Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Germany and the United States.
O’Connell was a generous and considerate host. He was very proud of the beauty of this area and took pleasure in showing it to visitors. Guests were brought hunting hares in the mountains and yachting around the bay. They were encouraged to explore the stunning scenery and visit ancient sites such as Staigue Fort and the monastic ruins at Kilcrohane, Scariff Island and the Skelligs. In the evening guests would gather again around the dining room table for food, conversation and entertainment.
“… I saw with wonder a company of fifteen to twenty people sitting at a long table, at wine and dessert. A tall, handsome man of kindly appearance came towards me, excused himself that he had not expected me at so late an hour… This was the great O’Connell.”
Letter from Prince Pückler-Muskau to his wife, 29 September, 1828
This chapel was built by Daniel O’Connell in thanksgiving for his release from Richmond Prison in 1844. Its simple design may have been based on the nearby ruins of Ahamore Abbey. There had been an earlier chapel in the original O’Connell house in Derrynane. In 1838 Pope Gregory XVI granted an indulgence to anyone who prayed there and O’Connell was granted the special privilege of having a portable altar.
After years of religious doubt, O’Connell became a fully practicing Catholic again around 1816, largely through his wife’s influence. The building of this church is a sign of how important his faith became to him. It also reflects the increasing visibility of Catholic churches in Ireland after Catholic Emancipation. Although O’Connell was a champion of the Catholic Church, his support for the freedom of religious belief and the separation of Church and State meant that he was sometimes at odds with the conservative views of the papacy at the time.
“At nine every morning, the bell at Derrynane rings for Mass. From all parts of the house troop members of the family; visitors, and servants, to chapel; and for one hour the whole place is still as a tomb. At ten breakfast is served, and then commence the ordinary affairs or amusements of the day. Such is O’Connell at Derrynane!”
From Visit to O’Connell at Derrynane in the Autumn of 1843 by William Howitt (1846)
The Coach House
The Coach House in the eastern courtyard was built in 1992 to display the chariot on which O’Connell made his triumphal progress through Dublin after his release from prison in 1844. It was originally upholstered in rich purple silk and blue woollen fabric and was further enhanced by gilded mouldings. On the upper platform there were two armchairs, elaborately carved and upholstered in harmony with the chariot proper. The chariot was restored to its pristine condition through the co-operation of the National Museum and the Office of Public Works.
The Drawing Room
O’Connell was a devoted and affectionate father and grandfather. He and his wife Mary had twelve children together, seven of whom survived childhood. Visitors to Derrynane spoke of the warm, jovial atmosphere in the house when the O’Connells were in residence. The Drawing Room also served as a ballroom and a venue for musical performances. O’Connell had no ear for music but he liked Moore’s Melodies and employed a resident piper. The family sometimes converted the Dining Room into a theatre and put on plays for their guests.
O’Connell loved being among his own people in Derrynane. He hunted, entertained, watched sporting matches, and enjoyed the magnificent scenery. However during the winter months Mary O’Connell found Derrynane isolated and lonely. She preferred to be in Dublin at that time of year so that her unmarried daughters would have the opportunity to take part in the social season and meet eligible young men.
“A few morning after my arrival at Darrynane, a dark rainy day, we had a small ‘monster meeting’ in the drawing-room, the majority being noisy children, and among the most playful and merriest was our host himself.”
From Excursions in Ireland during 1844 and 1850 with a visit to the late Daniel O’Connell M.P. by Catherine M. O’Connell (1852)
The O’Connells were an educated and well-read family, steeped in Gaelic and European culture. Daniel O’Connell’s grandmother, Máire Ní Dhuibh, was a famous poet, and his aunt, Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill, composed one of the most important poems in the Irish language – Caoineadh Áirt Uí Laoghaire (‘The Lament for Art O’Leary’). The O’Connells’ extended network of relatives serving in the armies of France and Austria meant that they also kept up to date with cultural developments in continental Europe.
O’Connell favoured books on history, politics, philosophy, and economics as well as the popular novels of Charles Dickens and Walter Scott. He had studied Latin and Greek and spoke Irish and French fluently. He supported education for women and his daughter Ellen FitzSimon was a scholar and poet. Some of her books are now housed in the Library at Derrynane, and include works by Mme de Sévigné, Ariosto, Schiller, Moliére, and Cervantes.
“The tables are covered with the latest publications, and numerous good prints and caricatures. Near this room is the library, full of well-chosen books.”
From Rambles in the South of Ireland During the Year 1838 by Lady Chatterton (1839)