O'Connor, Feargus

views updated May 18 2018


O'CONNOR, FEARGUS (1796–1855), Irish leader of the Chartist movement.

Feargus Edward O'Connor was born in Cork, son of Roger O'Connor, a prominent Anglo-Irish politician and pretender to the ancient throne of Ireland, and Wilhelmina Bowen. Both his father and uncle, Arthur O'Connor, were leaders of the United Irishman in the 1790s, and their views shaped his later political career. O'Connor went to school in England and Ireland before attending Trinity College, Dublin, and Gray's Inn, London, to train as a barrister. O'Connor combined the life of a gentleman farmer with a successful law practice that earned him widespread support among the poor in Cork, but he was soon drawn into politics.

In 1822, O'Connor published a scathing attack on the government of Ireland and there is evidence that he was involved in the clandestine activities of the revolutionary Whiteboys in Cork. O'Connor participated in the agitation for the Reform Bill, and in 1832 he was elected for County Cork to the reformed parliament in Westminster. He stood on a platform of repeal of the union of Ireland and England with the support of the leading Irish reformer, Daniel O'Connell (1775–1847). O'Connor's election was unexpected, a testimony to his prodigious skills as an orator and campaigner.

In Westminster, O'Connor's eagerness to press the case for repeal on the imperial Parliament led to friction with O'Connell, who sought to extract concessions from the Whig government. Despite the withdrawal of O'Connell's support, O'Connor was reelected in 1835. Within months, his parliamentary career was cut short because he lacked sufficient wealth to meet the property qualification required to be a member of Parliament (MP) at that time.

During his time in London, O'Connor had become increasingly involved in British politics; after losing his seat, he began to establish a career as a leader of British radicalism. Over the next few years, O'Connor traveled extensively (particularly in the north of England), addressing countless meeting on the evils of the Whig government's changes to the system of poor relief and lending his support to the emerging campaign for a radical reform of the political system. The program that he advocated was not new and would form the basis of the Peoples Charter (hence the name "Chartist movement") that was published in 1838. It included the demand for universal manhood suffrage, annual elections to Parliament, the secret ballot, electoral districts of equal size, payment of MPs, and the abolition of the property qualification that had denied him his seat in Parliament.

At the end of 1837, O'Connor established the newspaper, the Northern Star, which became the quasi-official journal of Chartism and enjoyed massive national sales and influence. He participated in the Chartists' National Convention that convened in February 1839 to present a national petition to Parliament calling for the implementation of the Charter. Although O'Connor urged delegates to adopt strong measures to force the government into submission, there is no evidence that he was involved in planning the insurrection that occurred in November 1839. In May 1840, however, he was imprisoned for eighteen months for publishing seditious speeches.

From his cell in York, O'Connor continued to the lead the movement that was reorganizing for a protracted campaign. He was released in 1841 dressed in a suit of working-class fustian cloth, a symbolic gesture that further endeared him to the laboring poor who made up the rank and file of the movement. O'Connor was again prosecuted in March 1843 and, although he was found guilty, a legal technicality meant that he was never sentenced.

After 1840, O'Connor quarreled with many Chartist leaders who sought to link the campaign for political reform to other objectives such as temperance and education, or to ally the Chartists to organizations headed by middle-class reformers. In this struggle, O'Connor retained the support of the vast majority of rank-and-file Chartists. By the end of 1843 he had changed tack, promoting the establishment of Chartist land communities. Established in 1845, the Chartist Cooperative Land Company attracted many urban workers with the prospect of life as small, independent land owners. In 1848, the Company collapsed in the face of legal obstacles and many small subscribers lost their investment. O'Connor suffered a heavy financial loss also, but this did not prevent him from continuing to hold the seat of Nottingham in the House of Commons that he had won in 1847.

His reelection to Parliament coincided with the last high point of Chartism. During 1848, as revolution spread through Europe, O'Connor promoted another national petition demanding the Charter. The campaign ended in controversy when a parliamentary committee found that it contained many bogus signatures. After 1848, O'Connor devoted his attention to forging an alliance between those he called the working Saxons and Celts. Failing health affected his final years. O'Connor was admitted to an asylum in 1852 and died there in 1855. An estimated fifty thousand people joined his funeral procession in London, a measure of the popularity of the man who personified the hopes and aspirations of a generation of working people.

See alsoChartism; Great Britain; Labor Movements; Socialism.


Epstein, James. The Lion of Freedom: Feargus O'Connor and the Chartist Movement, 1832–1842. London, 1982.

——. "Feargus Edward O'Connor." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 41, edited by H. G. C. Matthew and Brian Harrison, 461–464. Oxford, U.K., 2004.

Pickering, Paul A. "The Chartist Rites of Passage: Commemorating Feargus O'Connor." In Contested Sites: Commemoration, Memorial and Popular Politics in Nineteenth-Century Britain, edited by Paul A. Pickering and Alex Tyrrell, 101–126. Aldershot, U.K., 2004.

Read, Donald, and Eric Glasgow. Feargus O'Connor: Irishman and Chartist. London, 1961.

Paul A. Pickering

O'Connor, Feargus

views updated May 21 2018

O'Connor, Feargus (1794–1855). Chartist. An Irish barrister, O'Connor was MP (and follower of Daniel O'Connell) for Cork in 1832 and for Nottingham (as a chartist) in 1847. He was the greatest of the chartist leaders, the champion, as he said, of the ‘unshorn chins, blistered hands, and fustian jackets’; and for ten years he was at the head of the movement. His influence came from his charismatic, flamboyant style of oratory, and his ownership of the chief chartist newspaper, the Northern Star. He was imprisoned in 1840 for seditious libel. Contemporaries like Lovett and some historians later attributed the failure of chartism to O'Connor's demagoguery and his promotion of the National Land Company (1845–51), designed to settle working people on agricultural smallholdings. O'Connor's appearance at the last great chartist demonstration on Kennington Common on 10 April 1848 marked the end of the mass platform as a pattern of popular radicalism.

John F. C. Harrison