Cockran, William Bourke (1854–1923), lawyer and US congressman, was born 28 February 1854 in Carrowkeel, Co. Sligo, one of four sons and a daughter of Martin Cockran, landlord and horseman, and Harriet Cockran (née Knight-White). On the death of his father in a fall from a horse (1859), the family land at Carrowkeel was sold and they moved first to Wine St., Sligo, where he attended the local Marist school, and in 1865 to Dublin. He continued his education at Summerhill College, Sligo, and later at the Marist College in Lille, France. Despite an education orientated towards entry into the priesthood, he emigrated to America (1871) and worked in a New York department store, first as a porter and then as a clerk. Through the assistance of friends, he entered the teaching profession as a tutor at a private school, before becoming principal of a large public school in Westchester. While teaching he studied law at night and was admitted to the bar in 1876, practising in Mount Vernon for two years, and then in New York. A lawyer of some ability, he was involved in many of the leading cases of his day, most notably in 1918 when he successfully won the intervention of President Woodrow Wilson to prevent the execution of Thomas J. Mooney by the state of California.
His legal career was constrained by a consuming interest in politics. A magnificent orator, with wit and intelligence backed by a striking physical presence, he rose through the ranks of the Democratic party. Initially a spokesman for the Irving Hall Democracy, who were opposed to Tammany, he came to prominence at the 1881 Democratic state convention at Albany. Within two years, however, he had accepted the invitation of John Kelly, leader of Tammany, to join him, and was made counsel to the sheriff of New York County. He was first elected to congress in 1887, and from then till 1923 he served a total of thirteen years across six terms as a congressman, his representative career being disrupted by intermittent breaks with the Democratic party, disagreements over policy, failure to seek renomination, and defeat in elections. Throughout this period he contributed a number of renowned speeches both within the Democratic party and in congress; the most noteworthy were his denunciations of the ultimately successful presidential nominee, Grover Cleveland, at the 1884 and, especially, the 1892 Democratic national conventions. A supporter of organised labour, he opposed compulsory arbitration and labour injunctions. He campaigned against any restriction on immigration and naturalisation, and was the first public figure to urge US intervention in Cuba, but he strongly opposed the annexation of the Philippines. Although he was reputed to be a man of principle, apparent inconsistencies – such as his support for McKinley against Bryan in the 1896 presidential election, and for Bryan against McKinley in 1900, as well as eventual support for Theodore Roosevelt despite earlier excoriation – left him open to charges that he was paid for his speeches, an accusation he emphatically denied.
In June 1903 he returned to Ireland and was made a freeman of the borough of Sligo. He made a donation to, and laid the cornerstone of, the catholic church in Ballinacurrow. For over thirty years, he was a leading and vigorous supporter of home rule for Ireland. He met many of the leading figures of the national movement, including John Redmond (qv), John Dillon (qv), and Roger Casement (qv), on their arrival in America. One of the principal speakers at the Irish Race Convention in New York (March 1916), he later protested against the execution of the 1916 leaders. In 1919 he issued a pamphlet of his congress speech which condemned the introduction of martial law in Ireland, offered an emotive critique of the role of foreign agents in Ireland from the arrival of Strongbow (qv) in 1172, and made a general appeal for disarmament as the only guarantee of global peace. In a further speech to congress (December 1919), he called for formal American recognition of the nascent Irish republican government.
A daily communicant, he was often called on by catholic prelates to speak at ecclesiastical functions. He was married three times: first to Mary Jackson of New York, who died in childbirth in 1877; second to Rhoda E. Mack, who died in 1895; and finally, in 1909, to Anne L. Ide. He died 1 March 1923, having recently been reelected to congress, and was buried in the Gate of Heaven cemetery, New York, under a large Celtic cross. A collection of his speeches, In the name of liberty, was published in 1925. The Cockran papers are held in the New York Public Library.