Arthur O'Connor

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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O'Connor, Arthur, a prominent United Irishman, General in the French service, brother of preceding, was born at Mitchels, near Bandon, 4th July 1763. He was educated in Trinity College, Dublin, and in 1788 was called to the Bar; but, inheriting a fortune of about £1,500 a year, never practised. In 1791 he entered Parliament for Philipstown, and next year delivered such an able speech on Indian affairs, that it is said he was offered by Pitt a place as Commissioner of Revenue.

He early attached himself to the popular party, led by Grattan, and joined in demanding Catholic Emancipation and other reforms. Before long, however, he went farther, and in 1796 was in constant intercourse with Lord Edward FitzGerald and the leaders of United Irishmen. In November he formally joined the organization, and soon became one of the most' active members of the Leinster Directory.

He accompanied Lord Edward to the Continent, and had an interview with Hoche on the French frontier, relative to the possibility of obtaining French assistance in asserting the independence of Ireland. Arrested next year, he suffered six months'imprisonment in Dublin Castle. Shortly after his liberation he was mainly instrumental in starting the Press newspaper, the organ of the United Irishmen. It was suppressed in March 1798, after sixty-eight numbers had appeared.

On 27th February 1798, he and his friend Rev. James O'Coigley (or Quigley), a Catholic clergyman, with Binns, Allen, and Leary, were arrested at Margate, on their way to France, on a supposed mission from the United Irishmen. In O'Connor's baggage were found a military uniform, £900 in cash, and the key to a cipher correspondence with Lord Edward FitzGerald.

They were put upon their trial at Maidstone in May. Erskine, Fox, Sheridan, Grattan, the Duke of Norfolk and several other noblemen, testified to O'Connor's character, and their belief that he was innocent of the charges preferred against him. The prisoners were all acquitted but O'Coigley, who was sentenced to death, and executed on Pennington Heath, 7th June, aged 35. He bore himself with singular dignity and fortitude. Interesting notes of his career will be found in the State Trials. Before O'Connor could leave the dock he was rearrested on another warrant, and after a few days detention in the Tower of London, was transferred to Dublin, and committed to Newgate.

The Earl of Thanet and a Mr. Ferguson, for attempting O'Connor's rescue in court, were sentenced to a year's imprisonment in the Tower and a heavy fine. Arthur O'Connor, with the other state prisoners, entered into a compact with Government, under which, on the understanding that the executions should be stopped, and that they should be permitted to leave the country, they agreed to reveal, without implicating individuals, the plans and workings of the society of the United Irishmen.

The examination of O'Connor and his fellow-prisoners before select committees of the Irish Lords and Commons throws the fullest light upon the origin and progress of the movement that led to the Insurrection of 1798. The correctness of a report of this examination was questioned by some of their number in a letter to the papers. This breach of prison discipline, and the refusal of Rufus King, the United States Ambassador, to permit their deportation to America, induced the Government to alter its intentions with regard to them, and in April 1799, the following prisoners were committed to Fort George, in Scotland: John Chambers, Matthew Dowling, William Dowdall, Thomas Addis Emmet, Edward Hudson, Robert Hunter, Arthur and Roger O'Connor, Thomas Russell, Hugh Wilson, (Churchmen); Joseph Cormack, Dr. MacNevin, John Sweetman, John Swiney, (Catholics); George Cuming, Joseph Cuthbert, Dr. Dickson, Samuel Neilson, Robert Simms, William Tennent, (Presbyterians).

They were treated with great consideration by Lieutenant-Governor Stuart; and in June 1802, after a confinement of over three years, were deported to the Continent and set at liberty. Arthur O'Connor proceeded to Paris, in hopes of being able to join in a contemplated expedition for the liberation of Ireland, and in February 1804 was appointed General of Division in the French army.

According to the Biographie Générale, "the openness of his character, and his unalterable attachment to the cause of liberty, rendered him little agreeable to Napoleon, who never employed him." In 1807 he married Elisa Condorcet, only daughter of the great philosopher, and the following year purchased the estate of Bignon, near Nemours (once the property of Mirabeau), devoted himself to agriculture, and became a naturalized Frenchman. In 1834 he was permitted to visit Ireland with his wife, to dispose of his estates, which had been mismanaged by his brother Roger. He was the author of numerous pamphlets and addresses, edited the Journal de la Liberté Religieuse, and in 1849 helped Arago to prepare a complete edition of Condorcet's Works. His Monopoly, the Cause of all Evil, published in 1848, contains a brilliant defence of the policy of the United Irishmen, throws much of the blame of failure upon the clergy, and enunciates his heterodox religious convictions. He was bitterly opposed to O'Connell and his policy.

General O'Connor died at Bignon, 25th April 1852, aged 88, and was interred in the family vault hard by. His portrait will be found in the Lives of the United Irishmen, by Dr. Madden, who says that "no man was more sincere in his patriotism, more capable of making great sacrifices for his country, or brought greater abilities to its cause." An interesting communication relative to his visit to Ireland in 1834, his character, and his opinions, will be found in. Notes and Queries, 1st Series, vol. v.

Sources

34. Biographie Générale. 46 vols. Paris, 1855-'66. An interleaved copy, copiously noted by the late Dr. Thomas Fisher, Assistant Librarian of Trinity College, Dublin.

87. Cornwallis, Marquis, Correspondence: Charles Ross. 3 vols. London, 1859.
Cotton, Rev. Henry, see No. 118.

254. Notes and Queries. London, 1850-'78.
O'Callaghan, John C., see No. 186.

331. United Irishmen, their Lives and Times: Robert R. Madden, M.D. 4 vols. London, 1858-'60.

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