Arthur O’Connor: ‘The most important Irish revolutionary you may never have heard of’

Contributed by Clifford D. Conner

My new biography of Arthur O’Connor advances the claim that he was the most important leader of the United Irishmen in the era of the Great Rebellion of 1798. But histories of the Rebellion have traditionally either mentioned Arthur O’Connor only in passing or not at all. It is almost as if books about the Russian Revolution were to neglect mentioning Lenin.

Why is O’Connor’s name not more familiar? The best-remembered figures of this critical era are Theobald Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward Fitzgerald. But in 1798, if officials of the British government were asked who they considered to be Public Enemy Number One, or if French government officials were asked to identify the primary Irish revolutionary with whom they were collaborating, all would have replied without hesitation, “Arthur O’Connor.”

In trying to focus attention on O’Connor’s contributions, it is definitely not my intention to downplay or undermine the historical reputations of Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward. But I continue to believe that the question of why they have been so well remembered and O’Connor has not is worth an answer.

In fact, the answer is rather straightforward. Those of us who venerate the heroic Irish freedom fighters of the past have tended to mainly remember our martyrs. Both Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward lost their lives in 1798 at the hands of Ireland’s enemies, and they are rightly remembered and revered for their supreme sacrifice. Arthur O’Connor, on the other hand, was not a martyr. He didn’t die in 1798. In fact, he lived more than another half century beyond the Rebellion.

Although he escaped execution, he suffered many years of imprisonment, from Kilmainham in Dublin to the Tower of London to Fort George in Scotland, and ultimately was banished from his homeland for life. O’Connor made great efforts to continue the struggle while living in exile. The post-revolutionary government of France, eventually headed by Napoleon Bonaparte, formed an Irish Legion to liberate Ireland from British rule, and Arthur O’Connor was chosen to command it. The widespread expectation was that O’Connor would have become Bonaparte’s anointed king of Ireland if the French had succeeded in driving the British out. But Bonaparte’s plans to invade Ireland with General O’Connor at the head of a liberation army were never implemented. Instead, Bonaparte diverted his attention toward Egypt, with disastrous results for France.

There are two reasons why I believe O’Connor was the most important revolutionary leader of the era. The organizational framework of the revolutionary upsurge was a rebel army organized under the banner of the United Irishmen. Although O’Connor was not among the original founders of the United Irish Society, he was the foremost engineer of its transformation from a small reformist propaganda group into a powerful underground revolutionary army.

The other aspect of O’Connor’s centrality to the Rebellion was the part he played in 1796 in the attempt to enlist France’s military support for an Irish revolution. He was neither the first nor the last representative of the United Irishmen to engage in negotiations with the French government, but he was certainly the most effective. Again, O’Connor’s diplomatic role has rarely been examined by historians of the Rebellion, but I have thoroughly documented the fact that O’Connor was the principal Irish negotiator.

Readers may judge for themselves whether I have succeeded in making the case that Arthur O’Connor was “the Most Important Irish Revolutionary You May Never Have Heard Of.”

Note on the image: “Citizen Volpone” is the Whig leader Charles James Fox. Arthur O’Connor is depicted over the right shoulder of Mrs. Fox, and Emperor Napoleon I is seated to her right.  Gillray, the most popular caricaturist of the day, was a “Church & Crown” supporter who hated the Whigs.  Although this cartoon was designed as a bitter attack on Fox and his followers as traitors, it also depicts Arthur O’Connor as the most prominent of the Irish revolutionaries in the era of 1798.

CLIFFORD D. CONNER is on the faculty of the School of Professional Studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He has written a biography of Colonel Edward Despard as well as A People’s History of Science, and is on the editorial board of The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest.

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7 Responses to “Arthur O’Connor: ‘The most important Irish revolutionary you may never have heard of’”

  1. Eoin Purcell Says:

    Fascinating stuff Clifford! Made my morning reading this!
    Eoin

  2. Eoin Purcell Says:
  3. Patrick Maume Says:

    O’Connor’s inclusion in the picture may not necessarily bear the meaning Clifford Conner is placing on it. When O’Connor was arrested en route to France in April 1798 and tried for treason Fox and several other prominent Whig politicians gave character evidence at his trial alleging that he was entirely innocent of French sympathies. O’Connor’s subsequent confession that he had in fact conspired with the french was acutely politically embarrassing fr them (cf Gillray’s “evidence as to Character: the portrait of a traitor as given byis friends and by himself”

    By including O’Connor in the picture of Fox meeting Napoleon, Gillray may simply be recalling this episode rather than suggesting O’Connor was the most imprtant United Irish leader.

  4. Clifford D. Conner Says:

    I agree with Patrick Maume that this single cartoon can’t bear the weight of proof that O’Connor was the most important United Irish leader. I do think, however, that it is representative of the political cartoons of the era, and taken together they demonstrate that O’Connor was England’s “Osama bin Laden” of that era. (The link Patrick Maume provided is another fine example.) Although Grattan and other reformers were also targeted by caricaturists hostile to the Irish freedom struggle, O’Connor was, as far as I know, the only revolutionary who they repeatedly pilloried.

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