O’Connor is educated in St. Mary’s College, Dublin, and then in Clongowes Wood College, County Kildare, a public school run by the Jesuit order. It is also attended by the man who later condemns O’Connor to death, his close friend Kevin O’Higgins. He studies experimental physics, logic, and metaphysics. He also attends the College of Science, Merrion Street. He takes a BA (1906) and receives a B.Eng (1911). In 1910, he takes his Bachelor of Engineering and Bachelor of Arts degrees at University College Dublin (UCD), then known as the National University. Prominent in the university’s Literary and Historical Society, he advocates militant constitutional nationalism as one of the many society members active in the Young Ireland branch of the United Irish League.
O’Connor goes to work as a railway engineer, then he moves to Canada where he is an engineer in the Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian Northern Railway, being responsible for the construction of 1,500 miles (2,400 km) of railroad. He returns to Ireland in 1915 at Joseph Plunkett‘s request and works for Dublin Corporation as a civil engineer. He joins the Catholic nationalist organisation the Ancient Order of Hibernians and serves in the Easter Rising in 1916 in the GPO as an intelligence officer. He is wounded by a sniper during reconnaissance at the Royal College of Surgeons.
During the subsequent Irish War of Independence (1919-21) O’Connor is Director of Engineering of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a military organisation descended from the Irish Volunteers. The specialist skills of engineering and signaling are essential to the development of the 5th Battalion, Dublin Brigade. Its men are forbidden frontline duty as their contribution is regarded as vital, their number too small. But units only expand on an incremental local basis, disappointing General Richard Mulcahy.
O’Connor is also involved in the Republican breakout from Strangeways Prison in Manchester, England, on October 25, 1919. Michael Collins takes a particular interest in the escape, and actually visits Austin Stack in the prison under a false name to finalise the arrangements. IRA men hold up traffic while a ladder is propped up against the outside of a prison wall. In all six prisoners escape, among them Piaras Beaslaí.
O’Connor refuses to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which establishes the Irish Free State. It is ratified by a narrow vote in Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament. He and many like him feel that the Treaty copper-fastens the partition of the six counties of Northern Ireland and undermines the Irish Republic declared in 1916.
On January 10, a meeting is held at O’Connor’s home in Monkstown, Dublin. In attendance are all senior anti-Treaty IRA officers except Liam Mellows. O’Connor is appointed to chair this grouping, known as the Republican Military Council. It is agreed that an IRA convention should be called without delay; failing this, a separate GHQ will be formed. At a further meeting in O’Connor’s office on March 20, a temporary IRA GHQ staff is elected under Liam Lynch as chief of staff. O’Connor remains in charge of engineering.
On March 26, 1922, the anti-Treaty officers of the IRA hold a convention in Dublin, in which they reject the Treaty and repudiate the authority of the Dáil. However, they are prepared to discuss a way forward. The convention meets again on April 9. It creates a new army constitution and places the army under a newly elected executive of 16 men, including O’Connor, that are to choose an army council and headquarters staff. Asked by a journalist if this development means the anti-Treatyites ware proposing a “military dictatorship” in Ireland, O’Connor replies, “You can take it that way if you want.”
On April 14, 1922, O’Connor is one of a number of IRA leaders in a 200-strong force that occupies the Four Courts building in the centre of Dublin in defiance of the Provisional Government. They intend to provoke the British troops, who are still in the country, into attacking them, which they believe will restart the war with Britain and re-unite the IRA against their common enemy. They also occupy other smaller buildings regarded as being associated with the former British administration, such as the Ballast Office and the Freemasons‘ Hall in Molesworth Street, but the Four Courts remains the focus of interest. On June 15, O’Connor sends out men to collect the rifles that belong to the mutineers of the Civic Guards.
Michael Collins tries desperately to persuade the IRA men to leave the Four Courts. At the Third IRA Convention on June 18, the Executive is split over whether the Irish Government should demand that all British troops leave within 72 hours. A motion to this effect, opposed by Lynch, is narrowly defeated, whereupon O’Connor and others leave the meeting to set up a separate GHQ. The IRA effectively splits into two factions opposed to the government.
On June 22, 1922, Sir Henry Wilson is assassinated in London by two IRA men, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, each a former British soldier. Some now argue that this was done on the orders of Michael Collins, who had been a close friend of Dunne’s in the London Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Prime Minister David Lloyd George writes an angry letter to Collins, which includes the line “…still less can Mr. Rory O’Connor be permitted to remain his followers and his arsenal in open rebellion in the heart of Dublin… organizing and sending out from this centre enterprises of murder not only in the area of your Government…”
On June 28, 1922, after the Four Courts garrison has kidnapped J. J. “Ginger” O’Connell, a general in the National Army, Collins gives orders for the shelling of the Four Courts with borrowed artillery lent by Winston Churchill. The shelling leads to the Four Courts catching fire, damaging parts of the building in addition to destroying numerous government documents. O’Connor is one of 130 men that surrender on June 30, some of whom are arrested and imprisoned in Mountjoy Prison. This incident marks the official start of the Irish Civil War, as fighting breaks out openly around the country between pro- and anti-Treaty factions.
On December 8, 1922, along with three other republicans, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joe McKelvey, captured with the fall of the Four Courts, O’Connor is executed by firing squad in reprisal for the anti-Treaty IRA’s killing of Free State Teachta Dála (TD) Sean Hales. The execution order is signed by Kevin O’Higgins. O’Connor had been best man at O’Higgins’s wedding on October 27, 1921. Their deaths remain a symbol of the bitterness and division of the Irish Civil War. O’Connor, one of 77 republicans executed by the Provisional Government, is seen as a martyr by the Republican movement in Ireland.
On O’Connor’s execution, the equestrienne Joan de Sales La Terriere, a close friend of his, names her son in his honour. “Rory O’Connor Place” in Arklow is named in his honour. There is also a pub in Crumlin, Dublin, named after him and a housing estate near Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin, called “Rory O’Connor Park.” A Sinn Féin cumann (UCD) is named after him.
(Pictured: Rory O’Connor addressing members of the IRA’s Dublin City Brigade at Smithfield, April 1922)