Jane Stanford writes about John O’Connor Power one of Irish Nationalism’s less well-remembered characters but one who in the 1870s and 1880s was one of the movement’s parliamentary and political leaders.
‘The triumphs of National Freedom and of International peace have been my day-dreams for more than half a century’
John O’Connor Power in his reply to William O’Brien, 26 May 1915.
John O’Connor Power was born 13 February 1846. In the 1911 UK census he gives his birthplace as Clashaganny, County Roscommon, his mother’s home. A few weeks later, St Michael’s church register records that his parents, Patrick and Mary Power, were back in Ballinasloe and present at a family christening.
O’Connor Power learnt of life’s hardships at an early age. He survived the Great Famine and the typhus and cholera epidemics of the late 1840s. An attack of smallpox almost killed him.
At the age of fifteen, he followed his two older brothers to England and worked as a house painter and as a mill hand. One newspaper reporter described him as a stonemason.
He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, recruiting and organising in the north of England, and there were many ‘led into the National fold by his teaching’. In February 1867, he was a leader on the aborted raid on Chester Castle’s arsenal and, the following September, he was at the Manchester Rescue, an attempt to free Fenian officers from a police van. A few weeks later he travelled to America to discuss reorganisation of the IRB and, in early 1868, returned to Dublin to restructure the Supreme Council, the provisional government of the Irish Republic, ‘now virtually established’. He was arrested and, after spending five and half months in Kilmainham, moved, as the S.C. representative for Connacht, to Mayo, where he campaigned for the election of George Henry Moore.
There was already a rapprochement with the Quaker MP, John Bright, William Gladstone’s adviser on the Irish Question. The Liberal leader, speaking of ‘Irish ideas’, believed Ireland’s demands for justice should be granted – the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, land reform, amnesty for Fenian prisoners and local government legislation. It was the beginning of an Irish Liberal alliance.
O’Connor Power and George Moore believed that revolutionary and constitutional Nationalists should work together, and separately, to achieve the goal of an independent Ireland – a ‘New Departure’. Moore, as an MP, and also as a member of the IRB, collaborated with Fenian leaders, initiating a campaign for home government. When Moore died suddenly, O’Connor Power enrolled at St Jarlath’s College, Tuam to await the next election. In 1874, despite the accusation that he was ‘the recognised head of the Fenians in this country’, he won a seat at Westminster as a member of the Home Rule party. In 1880 he would top the poll.
The Liberals lost the 1874 election and the Tories, under Disraeli’s leadership, ignored the Irish party’s requests for remedial measures. In retaliation, a group of Home Rulers used obstruction tactics to delay parliamentary business. ‘Spy’s cartoon of O’Connor Power, a Vanity Fair ‘Men of the Day’, is captioned ‘the brains of Obstruction’.
He rallied the Irish in England, sympathetic Liberal MPs and the emerging power of a diaspora, ‘the exiled Irish race’ and argued Ireland’s case for self-government at Westminster, in Washington and Ottawa, in the English Radical ranks and in the upper echelons of the political elite. He had been the Supreme Council’s ‘accredited agent’, its ‘foreign representative’, now he stormed the bastions of England’s ruling class, invading the corridors of power. He charmed, he cajoled, he menaced and he educated. No likely avenue of access was ignored, no opportunity neglected.
In 1884, he left the Irish party, believing he would be better placed to pursue Irish interests in the company of Irish and English Liberals. In 1885, he failed to be elected in a London constituency, but as an eloquent ‘ex-Irish MP’, a prominent political journalist, a literary critic, a barrister, a lecturer, a human rights activist, he pursued his goals with ‘a dogged tenacity of purpose’.
O’Connor Power spearheaded the campaign for the release of Fenian prisoners. He was the only MP present at the Irishtown meeting, which launched the Land War. At Westminster, he introduced the Compensation for Disturbance Land Bill – in The Fall of Feudalism Michael Davitt emphasised the ‘magnitude and importance of the measure’. The United Irish League honoured him at the centennial celebrations of the 1798 Rising.
His story is not a heavy-hearted narrative of victimhood, but the ‘yes, we will’ of Irishmen who prevailed on the Empire to grant Ireland’s demands – land reform, local government legislation, the 1914 Government of Ireland Act – on the road to independence.
His wife was by his side when he died on 21 February 1919 after a long illness. His bestseller, The Making of an Orator, has been republished and is available online.
That Irishman: The Life and Times of John O’Connor Power by Jane Stanford is published by The History Press, Ireland.