Childhood & Early Life
Feargus O’Connor was born on July 18, 1794 to Roger O’Connor in Connorville house in West County Cork. His family was Irish Protestant by faith.
Christened Edward Bowen O’Connor, he attained his first name from his father who preferred calling the young boy Feargus.
O’Connor spent much of his early life at family estates in Ireland including the Dangan Caste. He completed his early education from Portarlington Grammar School before enrolling for a course in law at Trinity College, Dublin.
In 1820, he inherited an estate from his uncle in Cork. Same year, he was called to the Irish bar of which he became a member. His membership at the bar offended his father who eventually disowned him.
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O’Connor’s career commenced during the early 1830s as he emerged as the leading advocate of Irish rights and democratic political reform. He was critical of the British Whig government policies on Ireland.
In 1830, the passage of the Reform Bill raised an agitation in which O’Connor largely participated. Though he was arrested, he escaped detainment. Same year, with the help of Daniel O’Connell, leader of the Irish Radicals, he became a Member of the Parliament in the British House of Commons as a Repeal candidate.
Though O’Connor came into the parliament as a supporter of O’Connell, the two soon turned foes. O’Connor tried replacing the latter as the leader of the Irish Radicals but failed.
In the 1835 general elections, O’Connor was unseated from the parliament as he did not meet the property qualifications. Upon losing his seat, he ran for the late William Cobbett’s seat but only ended up splitting the Radical vote which eventually benefitted the Tories.
Towards the mid-1830s, O’Connor toured the country campaigning for parliamentary reforms. He brought to light universal suffrage, need for equal representation, abolition of property qualification and better working conditions in the industrial districts of England and Scotland.
In 1836, he joined the London Working Men’s Association. The following year, he moved to Leeds, Yorkshire where he founded the radical newspaper, Northern Star. A weekly, Northern Star started as a voice against the Poor Law by the working class but soon transformed to become the most prominent vehicle for Chartist cause. It was hugely successful and by 1839, sold more than 48000 copies per week.
O’Connor soon became active in the Chartist Movement. Blessed with excellent oratory and leadership skills, he travelled the length and breadth of the country, speaking to working men’s organization and leading from front the Chartist movement that claimed six points Charter from the parliament.
Within a span of time, O’Connor became the most active and popular Chartist orators. He was part of the radical side of the movement, and professed for using ‘physical force’ instead of ‘moral force’ to achieve access to democracy for the working class. This led to his 18-month imprisonment in 1840 on charges of seditious libel.
During the early 1840s, O’Connor turned his attention to working people’s alienation from the land. In 1845, he founded the Chartists Cooperative Land Company. Through the company, he aimed at making the working class self-sufficient by turning them from labourers and workers to farmers.
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The objective of O’Connor’s company was to raise money to buy massive agricultural land and subdivide the same into smaller land holdings. Since it was impossible for all the subscribers to acquire a plot, a lottery system was installed according to which people were granted land.
O’Connor’s land scheme failed miserably and was a complete disaster. By 1850, the company became completely bankrupt, resulting in significant losses to investors. Following the downfall of the company, the settlers of the land were subsequently evicted.
Unabated by the failure of the Land Scheme, O’Connor continued to contribute actively in the Chartist Movement. In 1847, he was elected as a Member of the Parliament for Nottingham, thus becoming the first and only Chartist MP.
Following his election as the MP, he organized the Chartist meeting on Kennington Common, London. It was the last Chartist demonstration as following this meeting, Chartism steeply declined due to lack of credibility. O’Connor claimed that the last petition contained 5,706,000 signatures, when in real it had only 1,975,496, of which most of them were forgeries.
O’Connor’s last years marked a substantial change in his behaviour. He became increasingly irrational and speculations of him facing mental breakdown was rampant. The climax came in 1852 at the House of Common when he struck three MPs. He was arrested and sent to a mental asylum at Chiswick.
Personal Life & Legacy
Though O’Connor never legally married, he is said to have been involved in numerous love affairs. He fathered several children from these affairs.
Towards the last years of his life, O’Connor’s mental health became sharply unbalanced as he began to exhibit irrational behaviour. It is speculated that he faced mental breakdown. The situation worsened when he physically assaulted three MP’s due to which he was arrested and transferred into a mental asylum. Possibility of him suffering from early stages of general paralysis of the insane due to syphilis became high.
He breathed his last on August 30, 1855 at his sister’s house in Notting Hill. He was buried ten days later on September 10 at the Kensal Green cemetery.