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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of Feargus Edward O’Connor, Irish Chartist Leader

Zoomify http://137.73.123.18/ncse/liv/zoomify/ns_por13 x=1200 y=1734 maxzoom=3Feargus Edward O’Connor, Irish Chartist leader and advocate of the Land Plan, which seeks to provide smallholdings for the labouring classes, dies in Notting Hill, West London, England on August 30, 1855. He succeeds in making Chartism the first specifically working class national movement in Great Britain. A highly charismatic figure, he is admired for his energy and oratory, but was criticised for alleged egotism.

O’Connor is born on July 18, 1796 in Connorville house, near Castletown-Kinneigh in west County Cork, into a prominent Irish Protestant family. He is originally christened Edward Bowen O’Connor, but his father, the Irish nationalist politician Roger O’Connor, chooses to call him Feargus. He is educated mainly at Portarlington Grammar School and has some elementary schooling in England.

O’Connor, who claims royal descent from the ancient kings of Ireland, practices law but exchanges law for politics when he is elected to the British House of Commons as Member of Parliament for County Cork, as a Repeal candidate rather than a Whig. Unseated in 1835, he turns to radical agitation in England, although he continues to press Irish grievances and to seek Irish support. As a result of his humour, invective, and energy, he becomes the best known Chartist leader and the movement’s most popular speaker. His journal, The Northern Star, founded in 1837, gains a wide circulation.

O’Connor’s methods and views alienate other Chartist leaders, particularly William Lovett, but in 1841, after spending a year in prison for seditious libel, he acquires undisputed leadership of the Chartists. Failing to lead the movement to victory and vacillating in his attitude toward the middle class and toward the People’s Charter, a six-point bill drafted and published in May 1838, he begins to lose power, although he is remarkably elected to Parliament for Nottingham in 1847, defeating Thomas Benjamin Hobhouse.

The failure of the People’s Charter in 1848 marks the beginning of the end for O’Connor, whose egocentricity is already bordering on madness. In the spring of 1852 he visits the United States, where his behaviour leaves no doubt that he is not a well man. It is possible that he is in the early stages of general paralysis of the insane, brought on by syphilis.

In the House of Commons in 1852 O’Connor strikes three fellow MPs, one of them Sir Benjamin Hall, a vocal critic of the Land Plan. Arrested by the Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms, he is sent by his sister to Dr. Thomas Harrington Tuke‘s private Manor House Asylum in Chiswick, where he remains until 1854, when he is removed to his sister’s house. He dies on August 30, 1855 at 18 Albert Terrace, Notting Hill Gate. He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery on September 10. No fewer than 40,000 people witness the funeral procession. Most Chartists prefer to remember his strengths rather than his shortcomings.

(Pictured: Stipple engraving portrait of the Chartist leader Feargus Edward O’Connor by an unknown artist, mid 19th century, published in the Northern Star in December 1837)


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Birth of Chartist Leader Feargus O’Connor

feargus-edward-o-connorFeargus Edward O’Connor, advocate of the Land Plan and prominent Chartist leader who succeeds in making Chartism the first specifically working class national movement in Great Britain, is born near Castletown-Kinneigh, County Cork on July 18, 1796.

O’Connor is born into a prominent Irish Protestant family who claims to be the descendants of the 12th-century king Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair. He is educated mainly at Portarlington Grammar School and has some elementary schooling in England.

O’Connor practices law but exchanges law for politics when he enters the British Parliament in 1832 as a member for County Cork. Unseated in 1835, he turns to radical agitation in England, although he continues to press Irish grievances and to seek Irish support. As a result of his humour, invective, and energy, he becomes the best known Chartist leader and the movement’s most popular speaker. His journal, the Northern Star (founded in 1837), gains a wide circulation.

O’Connor’s methods and views alienate other Chartist leaders, particularly William Lovett, but in 1841, after spending a year in prison for seditious libel, he acquires undisputed leadership of the Chartists. Failing to lead the movement to victory and vacillating in his attitude toward the middle class and toward the People’s Charter, a six-point bill drafted and published in May 1838, he begins to lose power, although he is elected to Parliament for Nottingham in 1847. The failure of the People’s Charter in 1848 marks the beginning of the end for O’Connor, whose egocentricity is already bordering on madness.

The circulation of the Northern Star falls steadily and it loses money. O’Connor’s health is failing, and reports of his mental breakdown regularly appear in the newspapers. In the spring of 1852 he visits the United States, where his behaviour leaves no doubt that he is not a well man.

In 1852 in the House of Commons O’Connor strikes three fellow MPs, one of them Sir Benjamin Hall, a vocal critic of the Land Plan. Arrested by the Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms, he is sent by his sister to Dr. Thomas Harrington Tuke‘s private Manor House Asylum in Chiswick, where he remains until 1854, when he is moved to his sister’s house. He dies on August 30, 1855 at 18 Albert Terrace, Notting Hill Gate and is buried on September 10 in Kensal Green Cemetery. No fewer than 40,000 people witness the funeral procession. Most Chartists preferred to remember O’Connor’s strengths rather than his shortcomings.


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Publication of the First Issue of the “Northern Star”

northern-starThe first issue of the Northern Star, the newspaper of the Society of United Irishmen, is published in Belfast on January 4, 1792. It is published from 1792 until its suppression by the British army in May 1797.

The publication of an Irish newspaper that reflects and disseminates liberal views is an early goal of Irish republicans in the late 18th century. By the founding of the Society of United Irishmen in October 1791, the project is well underway and the first edition of the Northern Star appears in Belfast in January 1792. Like the United Irishmen, the first financial backers of the Northern Star are Presbyterian and one of the United Irish leadership, Samuel Neilson, is made editor.

Political content dominates the Northern Star but its publication of local news, as opposed to the focus on British and international affairs of other Irish newspapers of the time, brings it wide popularity. Leading members of the United Irishmen are regular contributors and mixed direct political analyses with cutting political satire. William Orr is among those who contributed to its content and his letters lead to his eventual arrest and execution under the Insurrection Act of 1797. The newspaper also enjoys an excellent voluntary distribution network as its penetration follows rapidly wherever the United Irishmen set up new branches. It was estimated that for each copy of the Northern Star sold there are at least five readers, as the reading aloud of articles from the paper is a regular feature of United Irish meetings.

The newspaper is initially protected from the authorities due to the support of well-connected liberals but following the outbreak of war between Great Britain and Revolutionary France in 1793 and the subsequent banning of the United Irishmen as a seditious body it begins to draw increasing attention. The massive popularity of the newspaper protects it from serious harassment until January 1797 when the establishment goes into a state of panic following the French invasion scare at Bantry Bay. The paper is alleged to be behind the Dublin-based Union Star, a militant, low-circulation newssheet, often posted in public places, which specializes in naming informers, “notorious Orangemen,” and other enemies of the United Irishmen, being regarded by Dublin Castle as a republican hitlist.

The extensive distribution network and potency of the Northern Star in spreading United Irish opinion alarms the authorities and possession of a copy comes to be regarded as an admission of seditious intent. The end finally comes with the uncovering of supposed United Irish infiltration of the Monaghan militia in Belfast, which results in the execution of four soldiers. General Gerard Lake, 1st Viscount Lake, already engaged in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign, is quick to put much of the blame on the Northern Star and requests permission to suppress the paper.

As it turns out, official suppression is not necessary as on May 19, 1797, three days after the execution of their ex-comrades, a mob of Monaghan militiamen anxious to prove their loyalty attack the offices of the Northern Star and destroy not only the printing presses but the building itself. The attack results in the demise of the Northern Star to the undoubted satisfaction of the authorities as no action is taken against those involved in the destruction. The Chartist movement later pays tribute to the Northern Star by using the same name for their newspaper that is founded in 1837 by Feargus O’Connor.