Friday, 27 July 2018

The Man who Bought Ballyshannon

     William Conolly the man who bought Ballyshannon, 300 years ago this year, was
 born in the vicinity of the town clock in a building long demolished

Three hundred years ago this year the town of Ballyshannon and surrounding areas was bought by William Conolly for £52,000. William Conolly a native of Ballyshannon was born in 1662 and went on to become the richest man in Ireland, in the early 18th century, with widespread estates throughout the country. He also built the largest and grandest Palladian country mansion in the country called Castletown House in Celbridge, County Kildare which still stands today and is open to the public. From 1715-1729 William Conolly was the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons in Dublin.

 What is known about the background of this national figure who was born in Ballyshannon?
We know that his parents Patrick and Jane Conolly owned an inn, which was in the general vicinity of the present town clock. The streetscape is much altered since the Connolly’s had their inn and, indeed, the current building which contains the town clock was built at a much later date in 1878. The location of their inn was very favourable for trade as it was adjacent to the ford and later the bridge on the river, and was also close to the military barracks. William had a brother Patrick and two sisters Jane and Elizabeth.  His sister Elizabeth married Capt. Thomas Dickson of Ballyshannon and Leitrim. How William Conolly came to become a lawyer is the stuff of legend: “It happened that there came to Ballyshannon two gentlemen who were sent to secure the return of members to the Irish Parliament. They lodged at Connolly’s inn, and perceiving that William was an unusually smart, and intelligent boy, they induced him to follow them up to Dublin, where they promised to have him educated and started in life. Having availed himself of their generous offer, the young man in due time became an attorney”.

William Conolly did practice as a lawyer, but also acted as agent to a number of landlords, including Captain James Hamilton from 1692-1700, and these contacts led him to purchase many estates throughout the country. In 1694 William Connolly married Katherine Conyngham, daughter of Sir Albert Conyngham, who was a sister of Henry Conyngham of Mountcharles. She brought with her a marriage settlement of £2,300 an immense sum at the time. His marriage now allied him to some of the most powerful families in the countryside including the Montgomerys, Knoxes, Leslies and Hamiltons. His first permanent home was at Rodanstown near Kilcock which contained an estate of over 1,400 acres. As a result of the Jacobite-Williamite War, Conolly purchased forfeited estates in Donegal, Derry and Kildare. In 1692 he succeeded in getting elected to Parliament for the Borough of Donegal and soon learned how to use political advantage. With the appointment of Thomas Lord Wharton as Lord Lieutenant in 1709, Conolly, by a bribe of £3,000, secured for himself the post of Commissioner of the Revenue and was now in a position to advance himself politically and financially. His finest political achievement was when he was elected Speaker of the Irish House of Commons despite objections by some in his party, to his humble background as the son of an innkeeper. He was also one of three Lord Justices appointed whenever the Lord Lieutenant was absent from Ireland.
Ballyshannon's William Conolly the richest man in Ireland in his day

 Conolly Bought his Hometown of Ballyshannon in 1718
The purchase of the town of Ballyshannon, including all of the Folliott’s estate, by William Conolly in 1718, was surely a case of the local boy making good and returning in triumph to the place of his birth. The Folliotts were a military family who had been granted Ballyshannon and surrounding areas, by the English Crown, at the time of the Ulster Plantation.  The Gaelic chieftains the O’Donnells, their historians the Ó Cléirighs and their poets the Mac a Bhairds, who had been in possession of the lands for centuries, were dispossessed following the Battle of Kinsale. The Speaker Conolly later purchased the Folliott estate in 1718 for £52,000. The estate had an annual income from rentals of £2,000. This sale also included the fisheries of the river Erne, the yearly income from which was £450.
Speaker Conolly had earlier bought Castletown House and its estate in Celbridge Co. Kildare in 1709 for £15,000. Conolly’s reputation as a wealthy man was recorded by Jonathan Swift, who was protesting against the introduction of a new copper coinage by William Wood. There had been no consultation about this new currency and William Conolly was the Speaker of the Irish Parliament. Woods Half-Pence as it was called would prove very bulky as the following reference by Swift to Connolly’s wealth indicates: “They say Squire Conolly has Sixteen Thousand Pounds a Year; now if he sends for his Rent to Town, as it is likely he does, he must have Two Hundred and Fifty Horses to bring up his Half-Years Rent, and two or three great Cellars in his House for Stowage”.

William Conolly’s health deteriorated in the summer of 1728. He had been leading an extremely busy life with his business interests, his role as Speaker in the Irish House of Commons and two major building projects including the new parliament building and his own mansion at Castletown. He resigned as Speaker in October 1729 and died on the 31st October 1729 at his house in Capel Street in Dublin. His funeral cortege along the Quays in Dublin to his final resting place in Celbridge Co. Kildare was full of pomp and ceremony.
What became of the Ballyshannon Estate?
The Speaker had no family and to his wife Katherine he left his mansion house in Dublin, his mansion house and manor of Castletown, all his manor lands and tenements in Counties Kildare, Meath, Westmeath and Roscommon and his estate in North and South Wales. After the death of his wife they were to pass to his nephew William, to whom he bequeathed directly, his estates in Donegal, Dublin, Fermanagh, Wexford and Waterford. The Conolly Folly or Obelisk was built to the designs of Richard Castle and stands 140 feet high and is visible from Castletown House which is two miles distant. It is a monument to the Speaker Conolly and was erected by his wife. Its construction created employment during the severe winter of 1739. Wardtown Castle was also built in 1739 at the period of the Great Frost of 1739-1740, by the Folliotts, who by that stage had sold much of their Ballyshannon property to William Conolly in 1718.  

Cliff House between Ballyshannon and Belleek the summer house of the Conolly
family. It was demolished to make way for Cliff Power Station 
Cliff House-Home of  First   Ballyshannon  Winner of the Victoria Cross
In 1831 Colonel Thomas Conolly commenced work on building “Cliff House” overlooking the Erne.  By August 1832 he had moved into his new house. The Conolly’s had resided at Cliff  prior to the building of Cliff House in 1831-1832, and John Augustus Conolly was born at Cliff, on the 30th May 1829. He joined the 49th Princess of Wales’s Hertfordshire Regiment and fought in the Crimean War, where on the 26th October, 1854,  the day after the charge of the  Light Brigade, he  won the Victoria Cross. Lieutenant John Augustus Conolly, was commanding a company engaged in piquet duty that morning. During a surprise attack by the Russians,outside Sebastopol during the ‘great sortie’, on October 26, 1854:Lieutenant Conolly was in command of his company on outlying picket.The Russians hurled themselves on the Second Division. They were met, in the first instance, by the 49th, resolutely led by Conolly, in frequent short, sharp charges, he himself engaging several of them in hand-to-hand fight,one after another, till at length, from loss of blood, he fell insensible, and had to be borne off the field. His gallant behaviour, no less than that of his men, elicited a General Order, in which all were deservedly praised. Soon afterwards he was promoted Captain into the Coldstream Guards as part reward for his bravery and devotion”.

Conolly’s courage was observed by Lord Raglan and resulted in the award of the Victoria Cross in 1857. After his military service, Conolly served in the Dublin Metropolitan Police.He died at the  Magistrate’s House, Curragh, County Kildare, on the 23rd  December 1888 and is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold’s Cross, Dublin. 

Major Moore later resided at “Cliff House” and  was involved in the ownership of the Erne Fisheries. He unsuccessfully contested the 1918 General Elections as a Unionist candidate in the East Donegal constituency

On the Knather side of the river Erne near Ballyshannon ,  Robert Johnston was born at “Laputa House” and he also won the Victoria Cross for his involvement in the Boer War in South Africa in 1899. 
So Ballyshannon has two winners of the Victoria Cross.

Cliff House Summer Home Demolished
Prior to the Speaker’s death, his nephew William was elected M.P. for Ballyshannon and continued in this position until his death in 1754. The Conolly’s resided for the summer months at Cliff House, their country house near Ballyshannon. They gave the site of the infantry barracks in Ballyshannon, free of rent, as a corn market in 1841/42. This is now the Market Yard in the town. The Conolly Estate at Ballyshannon was sold in the 1860s. In subsequent periods the estates were handed on to Thomas Conolly, Colonel Edward Pakenham who assumed the name Conolly, his son Tom, his son Major Thomas, Major Edward and finally Lord Carew who inherited in 1956.

 Cliff House was demolished during the Erne Hydro-Electric Scheme in the late 1940s. In 1967 the Hon. Desmond Guinness purchased Castletown and opened the house to the public. In 1979 the house was given to the Castletown Foundation, a charitable foundation, which was established to own and maintain the house. Castletown House is open to the public. 

A  Local History Book suitable for those at Home and Away

"Ballyshannon. Genealogy and History" reveals newly researched history and genealogy of the town, extending as far as the Rossnowlagh, Cashelard, Corlea, Clyhore, Higginstown and Finner areas. Includes the parishes of Kilbarron and Magh Ene. 
  • The genealogy material provides detailed guidelines for anyone tracing their roots in the area or anywhere in County Donegal or Ireland. The book contains 500 pages and is richly illustrated with stunning colour, aerial photography, original illustrations and rare photographs of the area not seen before.
  • It  includes much new material on the independence struggle which is being remembered throughout Ireland. It also contains the full story of  The Green Lady which  was  performed in Ballyshannon  to great acclaim. Available in A Novel Idea, and Local Hands in Ballyshannon and 4 Masters Bookshop Donegal Town. Also available from Anthony Begley for          postalenquiries email


  1. My ancestors were from Ballyshannon and I enjoy reading all the historic tales about County Donegal. Thank you, Anthony for sharing this interesting and illustrious life and accomplishments of a lad from Ballyshannon. Our family will visit Donegal next year and we look forward to hopefully meeting you!

  2. My ancestors were from Rossnowlagh and Ballyshannon JENNINGS,FALLIS,HAMILTION,MONTGOMERY,S. I cannot wait to read this..thank you. Bridget...