Review of Clifford D. Conner’s Arthur O’Connor

By Lisa-Marie Griffith

Clifford D. Conner promises a full and exacting review of the life and career of the United Irishman with the title Arthur O’Connor: The most important Irish revolutionary you may never have heard of. As one of the highest ranking members of the United Irishmen Conner argues that Arthur O’Connor suffers from neglect, with just one other biography of O’Connor. This he claims is because unlike Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Theobald Wolfe Tone he survived 1798 and had a long life. Unlike Tone or Robert Emmett, O’Connor was not executed by the government in the afternmath of the 1798 rebellion, was never hailed as a romantic figure and so he has been sidelined by history. Unfortunately many of the significant republicans and politicians of this era are without a full modern biography. Thomas Addis Emmet and James Napper Tandy, both prominent figures in the republican movement, have also been neglected, perhaps because they too survived the 1798 rebellion, possibly because there is not enough surviving correspondence and primary source material to construct detailed biography or, more plausibly still, because despite the wide-spread celebration (and consequently out-pour of publications) of the double centenary of the 1798 rebellion in 1998 there is still a lot of work to be done on the political figures of the period.

While a welcome addition to the historiography of eighteenth-century Ireland and to the biographies of major Irish political and republican figures Conner’s biography falls down on three points. 

Conner is often overly critical of Irish historians for their failure to treat Arthur O’Connor with the importance he deserves, as suggested by his title, and yet he could have dealt more closely with the historiography of this period. His secondary source research is buried in the footnotes at the back and he never addresses the problem of O’Connor’s omission from history to any historian who has written a major work of the period. Does that mean that in the studies we have he has been treated of adaquatley? His main criticism seems to be that O’Connor lacks a major biography.

Conner is heavily reliant on O’Connor’s own memoirs ‘that O’Connor had been writing for at least the last twenty years of his life’ and that had ‘never progressed beyond the roughest of preliminary drafts’. Indeed Conner quotes large sections from these memoirs and is perhaps a little  over reliant on them. I would have liked to see a longer examination of O’Connor’s republicanism, however, because Conner relies on memoirs that were written long after the event he builds on a picture that suggests O’Connor was born a republican and there is less of a sense of O’Connor’s emerging and developing republican ideology.

He puts forward a convincing argument for the reassessment of historiography in favour of greater emphasis of O’Connor’s importance.  He shows that O’Connor made a greater contribution than Tone in persuading the French to make a landing in Ireland in 1796. He argues that O’Connor’s involvement in the Kilmainham treaty of 1798 was less about saving his own hide than preserving the lives of those who had been arrested. While he highlights key and important events in the history of the United Irishmen he does not analyse them extensively and the reader is often left wanting more detail and information about the unfolding events and about who this man was.

Arthur O’Connor may be the most important revolutionary to have been forgotten by historians but after reading this biography you are left with the distinct feeling that you could have become better acquainted with a man who charmed ‘the likes of Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Napoleon Bonaparte’. A welcome addition that fleshes out some of the major events in O’Connor’s life, this biography raises some excellent points but leaves many aspects of O’Connor’s life in need of closer examination.

Clifford D. Conner, Arthur O’Connor: The most important Irish revolutionary you may never have heard of (Bloomington, 2009)

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