Mac Conmara, Donnchadh ‘Rua’ (c.1715–1810), poet, is believed to have been born in Cratloe, Co. Clare, but his early life is obscure and nothing is known of his family. According to tradition, he studied for the priesthood at the Irish college in Rome for five years, was expelled, and avoided his native county after his return to Ireland because of the stigma that would have attached to him as a ‘failed priest’. This account is supported by Mac Conmara's excellent knowledge of Latin and the fact that he arrived in Co. Waterford about 1740, where he first worked as an assistant at an existing school in the parish of Seskinan to the north of Dungarvan. He then established a school in the parish of Clonpriest, near Youghal, Co. Cork, but moved within a short time to the Kilmacthomas area in Co. Waterford.
Mac Conmara's most substantial work, a narrative poem of almost 300 lines entitled ‘Eachtra ghiolla an amaráin’ (translated by Standish Hayes O'Grady (qv) as ‘A slave of adversity’ and by Arland Ussher (qv) as ‘The adventures of a luckless fellow’), is a humorous account of an unsuccessful attempt to emigrate to America that may be partly biographical and, from internal evidence, appears to have been written in 1745. In the poem, the narrator's ship is driven back towards Ireland by a storm before being attacked by a French frigate. The work concludes with the author swearing never again to leave dry land as his battered vessel limps into Passage East. None the less, Mac Conmara did succeed in crossing the Atlantic, probably during the period from 1745 to 1756 for which no biographical information is available, and his macaronic song beginning ‘As I was walking one evening fair’ is set in St John's, Newfoundland – an island to which large numbers of fishermen from Co. Waterford migrated annually. The humour of this song depends on the contrast between the sentiments expressed in alternating lines of English and Irish: while the former praise the English, Newfoundland, and King George, the latter wish for England's defeat in war, compare Newfoundland unfavourably with Ireland, and pray for a Stuart restoration. The song known as ‘Bánchnoic Éireann Óighe’ (translated as ‘The fair hills of holy Ireland’ by James Clarence Mangan (qv)), which eloquently expresses an Irish emigrant's longing for home, may also have been composed while Mac Conmara was in Newfoundland. It is his best-known and most enduring work.
Mac Conmara married, probably after his return from Newfoundland, and one somewhat dubious account states that his wife was named Máire Ní Ógáin. He had at least two children, a son and a daughter. Manuscripts in his hand indicate that he was living in Kilmacthomas in 1756 and was teaching nearby in 1759. The school would appear to have been unsuccessful and in 1764 he was obliged to address an appeal for assistance in verse to James Duckett, the principal landlord in the district. Possibly as a result of this or a similar appeal, he obtained a position as clerk in the parish church of Rossmire, near Kilmacthomas, a position that he could not have secured without first conforming to the established church. The poem beginning ‘Ní fheicfear mo dhromsa ag cur allais go ramhar’ (‘My back won't be seen sweating profusely’) indicates that his conversion was a cynical ploy to obtain easy work, but the poet's name does not appear on the convert rolls and it seems likely that his employment and conversion were both of short duration. Mac Conmara was subsequently employed as a private tutor to the sons of James Power of Ballyvalloona, in the parish of Kilmacthomas, for about ten years, after which he retired to the house of his son, Donnchadh Óg Mac Conmara, a weaver who lived at Newtown, near Kilmacthomas, where he spent his remaining years. He composed little in his later years, but an aithrí (act of repentance in verse) was written towards the end of his life. His last datable composition is an elegy in Latin that was composed on the death of a fellow poet, Tadhg Gaelach Ó Súilleabháin (qv), in 1795. Mac Conmara died on 6 October 1810 and was buried in Newtown churchyard.