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Feargus O'Connor (1794-1855)

Feargus Edward O'Connor was born on 18 July 1794 at Connorville, County Cork. He claimed royal descent from the ancient kings of Ireland. He studied law at Trinity College, Dublin and was called to the Irish Bar; he became a lawyer but then entered parliament as an O'Connellite repeal MP for County Cork between 1832 and 1835 but was expelled for failing to meet the property qualification for MPs. He emerged as leader of the Chartist movement in England in 1837 and was the owner of the Leeds-based newspaper, the Northern Star. He relied on the support of the handloom weavers and depressed factory workers for support. He continued to press Irish grievances and to seek Irish support. As a result of his humour, invective, and energy, O'Connor became the best known Chartist leader and the movement's most popular speaker.

Dangan CastleDangan Castle

O'Connor's methods and views alienated other Chartist leaders, particularly William Lovett, but in 1841, after spending a year in York prison for seditious libel, O'Connor acquired undisputed leadership of the Chartists. Failing to lead the movement to victory and vacillating in his attitude toward the middle class and toward the Charter, O'Connor began to lose power. He became MP for Nottingham in 1847 and presented the 1848 Chartist Petition to parliament after the meeting, which he organised, at Kennington Common. The failure of the Charter in 1848 marked the beginning of the end for O'Connor, whose egocentricity was already bordering on madness. He died in Dr Tuke's asylum on 30 August 1855, insane (after 1852) as the result of syphilis.

Taken from Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949).

O'Connor, Feargus 1794-1855, Chartist leader, son of Roger O'Connor of Connorville, co. Cork, and nephew of Arthur O'Connor, was born on 18 July 1794. Feargus, after attending Portarlington grammar school, entered Trinity College, Dublin, but took no degree, and was called to the Irish bar. He and several of his brothers lived on their father's Dangan Castle estate, and Feargus speaks of himself as having ‘been on the turf in a small way.’ In 1822 he published a pamphlet entitled A State of Ireland, an almost meaningless composition ornamented with six Latin quotations, five of which contain serious blunders.

He was probably a Whiteboy, and in after years described himself as having been wounded in a skirmish with the troops. In 1831 he took part in the reform agitation in co. Cork, and in 1832, after the passing of the Reform Bill, travelled through the country organising the registration of the new electorate. In the general election of 1832 he was returned as a repealer at the head of the poll for co. Cork, being described as ‘of Fort Robert.’ In the parliaments of 1833-4 he spoke frequently and almost exclusively on Irish questions.

From the beginning of his life in England he associated with the extreme English radicals. In March 1833 he spoke against the whig government at a meeting of the socialistic ‘National Union of the Working Classes'. He soon quarrelled with Daniel O'Connell the ‘Liberator’, but was nevertheless re-elected for co. Cork in 1835. In June 1835 he was unseated owing to his want of the necessary property qualification. According to the reports of evidence before the committee, he seems at that time to have owned property worth about £300 a year. Thereupon he announced his intention of raising an Irish brigade for the queens of Spain, but offered himself instead as a candidate for the seat at Oldham vacated by Cobbett's death. He received only thirty votes, but they enabled the Tory candidate to beat Cobbett's son by thirteen. After the election he drove from Oldham to Manchester in a carriage-and-four, with a flag representing Roderick O'Connor, monarch of Ireland, from whom he claimed descent.

Henceforward O'Connor spent a large part of his time in travelling through the northern and midland districts, addressing huge meetings, denouncing the new poor law and the factory system, and advocating the ‘five cardinal points of radicalism,’ which afterwards were expanded into the ‘six points of the Charter.’ He founded the central committee of radical unions in 1836, and the London Democratic Association in 1837. On 18 November 1837 he established the Northern Star, a weekly radical paper, published at Leeds, price 4¾d., which achieved a great and immediate success. In 1838 the various radical movements were consolidated. The members adopted the ‘People's Charter’ of the Working Men's Association, and took the name of ‘Chartists.’

O'Connor was from the first the ‘constant travelling dominant leader of the movement’, and his paper was practically the official organ of Chartism. The number and length of the speeches which he delivered during the next ten years and his power of attracting huge audiences were alike extraordinary. He was tall and handsome, though somewhat unintelligent in appearance, and a rambling and egotistical but most effective orator. Gammage speaks of his ‘aristocratic bearing,’ and says ‘the sight of his person was calculated to inspire the masses with a solemn awe.’ He was attacked from the first by Lovett and the other leaders of the Working Men's Association, but retorted that they as skilled mechanics were not real working men, and appealed to the ‘unshaved chins, blistered hands, and fustian jackets’. At the Chartist convention which assembled in London on 4 February 1839, and which, after a visit to Birmingham, dissolved on 14 September 1839, he was from the beginning the chief figure. In the split which developed itself between the ‘moral force’ and the ‘physical force’ Chartists, O'Connor, owing to the violence of his language, was generally identified with the ‘physical force’ party, and justified this view by announcing in 1838 that, after Michaelmas day 1839, all political action for securing the charter should come to an end. But he always called himself a ‘moral force’ man, and seems to have been distrusted by the inner circle of the insurrectionary Chartists. O'Connor knew of the preparations for the Newport rising on 4 November 1839, but was absent in Ireland until a few days before the rising actually took place. For this he was afterwards accused of cowardice by some of his opponents.

On 17 March 1840 O'Connor was tried at York for seditious libels published in the Northern Star in July 1839. He was found guilty, and sentenced on 11 May 1840 to eighteen months' imprisonment in York Castle. He was exceptionally well treated in prison, and succeeded in smuggling many letters to the Northern Star. He declared that he had written a novel called The Devil on Three Sticks in prison, which he ‘would fearlessly place in competition with the works of any living author'. Nothing more seems to have been heard of this work. From the moment of his release in September 1841, O'Connor was engaged in a series of bitter quarrels with almost every important man in the Chartist movement, but with the rank and file he retained his popularity; and the Northern Star contained weekly lists of the infant ‘patriots’ who had been named after the ‘Lion of Freedom.’ In December 1842 he helped to break up the complete suffrage conference called at Birmingham by Joseph Sturge with the hope of uniting the Chartists and the middle-class radicals.

On 1 March 1843 he was tried at Lancaster, with fifty-eight others, for seditious conspiracy in connection with the ‘Plug Riots’ of August 1842. He was convicted; but a technical objection was taken to the indictment, and he was never called up for judgment. From the foundation of the anti-corn-law league O'Connor furiously opposed it, though on varying and often inconsistent grounds. On 5 August 1844 he and McGrath held a public debate with Bright and Cobden, in which the Chartists, by the admission of their followers, were badly defeated. In prison he had written a series of Letters to Irish Landlords, in which he had advocated a large scheme of peasant proprietors. From that time forward he continually recurred to the subject, and in September 1843 induced the Chartist convention at Birmingham to adopt his ideas. He was joined by Ernest Jones in the summer of 1846, and on 24 October 1846 formally inaugurated the ‘Chartist Co-operative Land Company,’ afterwards altered to the ‘National Land Company.’ His scheme was to buy agricultural estates, divide them into small holdings, and let the holdings to the subscribers by ballot. The company was never registered, but £112,000 was received in subscriptions, and five estates were bought in 1846 and 1847. The most extravagant hopes of an idyllic country life were held out to the factory hands and others who subscribed. In 1847 a magazine called The Labourer was started by O'Connor and Jones with the same object, of which vol. ii. contains as frontispiece a portrait of O'Connor. Jones afterwards declared that from the moment that O'Connor undertook the land scheme, he could talk of nothing else. At the general election of 1847 O'Connor was elected for Nottingham by 1257 votes against 893 given to Sir John Cam Hobhouse. On 7 December 1847 he moved for a committee on the union with Ireland, and was defeated by 255 to 23.

From 1842 to 1847 the Chartist movement had been one of comparatively small importance; but the news of the Paris revolution of February 1848 produced something like the excitement of 1839 in England, and O'Connor again became a prominent figure. He presided at the great Kennington Common meeting on 10 April 1848, and strongly urged the people not to attempt the proposed procession to the House of Commons, which had been forbidden by the authorities. O'Connor's advice was followed in a most peaceable fashion, and the disturbances which the government regarded as a possible outcome of the meeting were averted. The same evening O'Connor presented the Chartist petition, declaring that it contained 5,706,000 signatures. The signatures were counted by a staff of clerks, and the total was 1,975,496. But many of them were obviously fictitious. After the fiasco of 10 April 1848 the Chartist movement soon disappeared.

A committee of the House of Commons examined the affairs of the National Land Company on 6 June 1848. It was found that the scheme was practically bankrupt, and that no proper accounts had been kept, though O'Connor had apparently lost rather than gained by it. In 1850 O'Connor sent bailiffs with fifty-two writs to the estate at Snigg's End, Gloucestershire. The colonists, however, declared themselves ‘prepared to manure the land with blood before it was taken from them,’ and no levy was made.

It was already becoming obvious, in 1848, that O'Connor's mind was giving way, and after the events of 10 April his history is that of gradually increasing lunacy. His intemperance during these years was probably only a symptom of his disease. In the spring of 1852 he paid a sudden visit to the United States, and on his return grossly insulted Beckett Denison, member for the West Riding. Eastern division, in the House of Commons (9 June 1852). He was committed to the custody of the sergeant-at-arms. Next day he was examined by two medical men, and pronounced insane. He was placed in Dr. Tuke's asylum at Chiswick, and remained there till 1854, when, against the wishes of the physicians and of his nephew, he was removed to his sister's house, No. 18 Notting Hill. Here, on 30 August 1855, he died. He was publicly buried at Kensal Green on 10 September 1855, and fifty thousand persons are said to have been present at his funeral.

There can be little doubt that O'Connor's mind was more or less affected from the beginning, and that he inherited tendencies to insanity. He was insanely jealous and egotistical, and no one succeeded in working with him for long. In all his multitudinous speeches and writings it is impossible to detect a single consistent political idea. The absolute failure of Chartism may indeed be traced very largely to his position in the movement.

Post script

I am grateful to Brian Abbot for passing on this information. See Dr Laurence M. Geary's article, "From Connorville, County Cork, to Connorville, Van Diemen's Land. The Irish family background  and colonial career of Roderic O'Connor (1786-1787?-1860)", (2007).

Feargus O'Connor's uncle, William O'Connor, was an officer in the militia. Both William and another of Feargus's uncles, Robert, were loyalists. Feargus's father Roger and the other brother Arthur, were both members of the United Irishmen.

William fabricated evidence against his brother Roger and tried to have him hanged. Interestingly, one of Feargus's brothers, 'Frank' gave up all his property in Ireland and went to fight in the Spanish American wars. He became a general in the Bolivian army fighting for independence from Spain. He settled in Bolivia and died there. Another of Feargus's brothers, Roderic went to Van Diemen's Land, became a wealthy landowner there, served as magistrate and as a member of the Legislative Council. Feargus O'Connor's nephew, Arthur, tried to assassinate Queen Victoria.

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