The O’Connells, an ancient family in south-west Kerry, were hereditary constables of Ballycarbery Castle, three kilometres west of Cahirciveen. In the 1650s, the castle was abandoned and following its destruction, Daniel McGeoffrey O’Connell settled near Waterville. His son, Captain John O’Connell, built a two-storey house at Derrynane.
John O’Connell’s son, Donal Mór, built up a thriving sea trade between Kerry and France. Some of this amounted to little more than smuggling. Donal Mór either extended the original house or replaced it with a three storey Georgian farmhouse, the first slated house in that part of Kerry.
Donal Mór and his wife, Maire, raised a large family at Derrynane. Their children included Muiris na gCaipin (‘Hunting-Cap’), Morgan (father of Daniel O’Connell), and Count Daniel O’Connell, who became a General in the French army. Muiris ‘Hunting-Cap’ inherited Derrynane in 1770 and continued Donal Mór’s trading business.
Daniel O’Connell, born 6th August 1775, was the eldest son of ten children of Morgan and Catherine O’Connell of Carhan House, Cahirciveen. Daniel and his younger brother, Maurice, were adopted by their uncle, ‘Hunting-Cap’, and Derrynane became Daniel’s home from his earliest boyhood. Daniel inherited Derrynane on his uncle’s death in 1825, adding the south wing and the crenellated library wing. Later, in gratitude for his release from prison in 1844, he added the chapel, modelled on the ruined monastery chapel on Abbey Island.
After O’Connell’s death, the house remained the O’Connell family home until, in 1948, the Derrynane Trust was founded, to preserve the house as a museum and memorial to Daniel O’Connell. In 1964, the house was transferred to the Commissioners of Public Works. Restoration work, completed in 1967, concentrated on those parts of the house built during Daniel O’Connell’s ownership. Much of the remainder was structurally unsound and was demolished.
The original furniture and memorabilia of O’Connell were presented to the State by the O’Connell family and the Derrynane Trust. Other items have been donated by private individuals and organisations. These include a bronze bust, donated by the Directors of the Royal Bank of Scotland who have also loaned O’Connell’s sword, a piano which O’Connell had given to the Presentation Nuns in Cahirciveen, and O’Connell’s death bed which had been in the possession of the Irish College in Rome since 1926.