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O'Conor, Charles, of Balenagare

O'Conor, Charles, of Balenagare

Historian, pamphleteer, and cofounder of the Catholic Committee, Charles O'Conor's (1710–1791) lifelong commitment to the Irish language, Irish history, and the Catholic religion derived from his belief that, in the absence of an independent nation, this was the means to sustain Irish culture and identity. Imbued with this conviction by the Gaelic-speaking priests who were responsible for his early education, and by the members of the famous Ó Neachtain circle with whom he came into contact while attending Father Walter Skelton's academy in Dublin in 1727 to 1728, he commenced a lifelong practice of copying manuscripts. Following his return to Belanagare, Co. Roscommon, where he spent most of his life, O'Conor devoted his energies largely to scholarship.

He entered the realm of public controversy in 1749 with the first of a sequence of pamphlets promoting greater toleration of Irish Catholics, notably his Seasonable Thoughts Relating to Our Civil and Ecclesiastical Constitution (1751, 1754), which proffered an oath of allegiance that Catholics might take. His historical works included Dissertations on the History of Ireland (1753, 1766), which argued that preconquest Ireland was a land of industry, piety, and learning. He encouraged other writers, such as Ferdinando Warner, Thomas Leland, and especially John Curry, who, together with O'Conor and Thomas Wyse, founded the Catholic Committee in 1756 in order to elicit the repeal of the penal laws. O'Conor's literary efforts, and his belief in the efficacy of affirming that Catholics no longer posed a threat to the security of the Protestant succession, assisted the committee in gaining the repeal of most of the penal laws appertaining to land and religion during the 1770s and early 1780s. O'Conor was elected to the Select Committee for Antiquities of the Dublin Society and to membership of the Royal Irish Academy. His scholarship and the moderation with which he pursued the cause of Catholic rights brought him a measure of respect from all ranks of Irish society.

SEE ALSO Catholic Committee from 1756 to 1809; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1714 to 1778—Interest Politics; Penal Laws


Coogan, Catherine, and Robert E. Ward. The Letters of Charles O'Conor of Belanagare. 2 vols. 1980.

Leighton, Cador D. A. Catholicism in a Protestant Kingdom: A Study of the Irish Ancien Régime. 1994.

Love, Walter D. "Charles O'Conor of Belanagare and Thomas Leland's 'Philosophical' History of Ireland." Irish Historical Studies 13 (1962): 1–25.

James Kelly

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