O'Connor, Arthur (1763–1852), politician, revolutionary, and writer on economics, was born Arthur Conner on 4 July 1763 at Connerville, near Bandon, Co. Cork, the youngest son of the five sons and four daughters of Roger Conner (1728–98), army officer, and his wife, Anne Conner (née Longfield; d. 1782), the daughter of Robert Longfield (d. 1778) and only sister of Richard Longfield (1734–1811), Viscount Longueville.
Education and early career Educated at Bandon, Dr Browne's school, Castlelyons, and TCD (BA, 1782), Arthur's life took an unexpected turning with the death of his mother in 1782. Rendered financially independent by the decision of his father shortly afterwards to divide his fortune among his children, the young Arthur spent two years in England, before embarking on the grand tour, during which he visited France and Switzerland; in the latter he was greatly impressed by the egalitarian character of the society he encountered. Following his return from the continent, he entered Lincoln's Inn, London, on 23 May 1785, and, following a further visit to France in 1787, he was called to the Irish bar in 1788. At some time in the 1780s he and his brother Roger (qv) changed their name from Conner to O'Connor.
O'Connor never practised at the Irish bar because his income of £1,500 per annum relieved him of the obligation to make a living. Increasingly drawn to politics, he was guided by a visceral resentment at the disproportionate influence Lord Shannon (qv) exerted on Cork politics, and gravitated towards the alternative and ostensibly reformist independent interest headed during the 1780s by Viscount Kingsborough and his uncle Richard Longfield. Longfield's object was to establish a parliamentary interest in Co. Cork to rival that of Shannon; he was encouraged by successes in the county and city constituencies in the general election of 1783, and was provided with an excellent opportunity to press home his advantage in 1790 by Shannon's failure to support the Irish administration during the regency crisis (1788–9). As a trusted member of the Longfield interest, O'Connor was well placed to profit thereby, and he helped to ensure that the fruits that came his way were appropriately large by assisting Viscount Kingsborough to retain the prestigious seat for Co. Cork. In return O'Connor was enabled, with Kingsborough's and Longfield's assistance, to secure the coveted position of high sheriff of the county in 1791, but this was eclipsed by his uncle's decision in 1790 to purchase a commons seat for him for the borough of Philipstown, King's Co. (Offaly).
Radical politics O'Connor was wont to insist later that he accepted the nomination to sit in parliament on the condition that he was at liberty to vote as he deemed fit. It is not possible either to prove or to disprove this, but if his uncle agreed to this stipulation, it was not behaviour typical of a leader of a borough interest. More significantly, O'Connor's independent stance in the commons in the early 1790s little mattered to Longfield as he was not on good terms with the Westmorland (qv) administration. However, Longfield's intentions, and his ambitions for his nephew, were made manifest in 1792 when he advised the prime minister, William Pitt, to appoint O'Connor chancellor of the Irish exchequer. This was, at very least, a premature suggestion, and the absence of any offer from government meant that O'Connor was at liberty to enunciate his radical views in the commons. He spoke rarely, but his occasional, set-piece orations indicated a vision profoundly at odds with that of most of his colleagues. Thus on 19 March 1791 he observed of ‘the history of the British constitution, transplanted into this country’ that it was ‘nominally . . . monarchical, but virtually aristocratical – during which period, I will confidently affirm, the annals of the world do not afford a worse government’ (Parl. reg. Ire., xi, 351). In February 1792, during the debate on the admission of Irish merchants to trade in the East Indies, he justified his radical conclusion that it was in Ireland's economic interest that restrictions should be placed on foreign trade to promote the optimal usage of limited Irish capital at home.
Few possessed, and even fewer MPs were bold enough to express, such opinions, but O'Connor had arrived at these conclusions based on his close study of contemporary economic thinking – Adam Smith's Wealth of nations, most notably – as well as by his own observations and experiences. Persuaded, well before the French revolution began in 1789, of the necessity of a radical economic initiative to lift the Irish peasantry out of poverty, the decision to change his name from Conner to O'Connor in the 1780s signalled his disaffection with the strongly protestant and aristocratic tradition into which he had been born. He certainly admired the example of the French revolution, which he witnessed at close quarters in 1792, and was so appalled when Britain and France went to war in February 1793 that he wrote a pamphlet, The measures of ministry to prevent a revolution are the certain means of bringing it on (1794), in which he warned that the abuse of power that had precipitated revolution in France would produce the same result in England. He was no less convinced of ‘the justice of [Irish catholic] claims to freedom’, for though he gave his ‘silent’ assent to the proposal to admit them to the franchise in 1793 (Parl. reg. Ire., xv, 286), he was so angered by the raising and dashing of hopes consequent on the appointment and dramatic recall of Earl Fitzwilliam (qv) in 1795 that he made a powerful speech in the commons.
Revolutionary action O'Connor's celebrated speech on 4 May 1795 in support of the admission of catholics to sit in parliament was a turning point in his career, since it not only signalled his break (personal as well as political) with his uncle, who had been reconciled with the Irish administration in the well-calculated expectation that it would bring him a peerage (he was ennobled in 1796), it also signalled his decision to abandon the parliamentary arena and embrace revolutionary agitation. He delivered a searing, damning condemnation of the commitment of the protestant elite in Ireland and its British political allies to defend the existing ‘constitution in church and state’, calling it a policy suited to ‘the barbarous ignorant ages . . . gone by’, and presented a radical alternative vision of a society in which ‘civil, political and religious liberty’ was guaranteed and the church and state were ‘separate’ (Parl. reg. Ire., xv, 286–302).
The logic of O'Connor's rhetoric pushed him inexorably in the direction of the United Irishmen and, having concluded on the basis of an analysis of the state of public opinion that the spirit of liberty was most developed in Ulster, he chose to make this the focus of his activities. Since his participation coincided with the reconstitution of the United Irishmen as a revolutionary organisation, O'Connor was soon engaged with Lord Edward FitzGerald (qv), the main aristocratic icon of revolutionary radicalism, in preparations for a rebellion to overthrow the existing political establishment. In common with other leading radicals, he believed that this could be achieved only with French assistance, and to achieve this end Fitzgerald and he set out in May 1796 for France. His immovable belief in his superior abilities and his assumption that he was the natural person to lead Ireland once the revolution was complete led to O'Connor's later claiming credit for the negotiations that prompted the French directory to authorise General Lazare Hoche to lead an expeditionary force to Ireland in the winter of 1796. In reality, this was the doing of Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv), for though O'Connor's 1795 speech ensured him a warm welcome in France it is apparent that the French were not impressed by his volubility, by his argument that government should be vested primarily in presbyterians, or by his disposition to present himself as the Washington of Ireland. This is borne out by the fact that when the French attempted their landing at Bantry Bay, close to O'Connor's home at Fort Arthur, Kinsale, in December 1796, O'Connor was far away in Co. Antrim, ostensibly campaigning in advance of a general election, but in reality promoting the United Irish cause.
Prosecution for treason The failure of the attempted French invasion was thus a major setback for O'Connor's particular ambitions as well as for the United Irishmen generally. He responded in January 1797 with an address To the electors of the County of Antrim, in which he vigorously affirmed the necessity of overturning the existing corrupt political system and sundering the connection with Great Britain. Though O'Connor couched his views carefully to evade prosecution, the tone and content of the address were such that the authorities felt compelled to intervene and he was arrested and charged with high treason in Dublin in February. He strenuously denied the charge, but the gravity of his situation was underlined by his being held in detention for nearly six months, and only released on bail in July 1797 as a result of active lobbying on his behalf. He and Fitzgerald then pressed for an immediate popular uprising, leading to clashes with those such as Thomas Addis Emmet (qv) who believed they should wait for a French invasion, arguing it would be less bloody and more likely to succeed.
Observing on his release that the cause of radicalism had been greatly diminished by the suppression of the Northern Star newspaper, O'Connor was the inspiration behind the foundation of the Press in Dublin in September 1797, which served as the main organ of radicalism until it too was closed down in 1798. He wrote for the Press on occasions, but he reserved his most detailed statement of his views for his pamphlet The state of Ireland, published in Dublin in 1798, in which he developed and integrated his earlier ideas for the economic development of Ireland and a non-aristocratic political order, positing a vision of the future in which a prosperous and harmonious community was constructed on the principle of equality. Prescient, as well as radical in its identification of economic reform as an essential precondition of social equality, this tract reinforced O'Connor's revolutionary credentials. His priority meanwhile was to open negotiations with the French, but he was arrested at Margate in March en route for France, charged with treason once more, and brought to trial at Maidstone in May. Though the evidence against him was more circumstantial than compelling, O'Connor's acquittal of treason was due in large part to the exceptional line-up of character witnesses he was able to assemble. Headed by Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (qv), with whom O'Connor forged a close relationship during visits to England in the 1790s based largely on their shared sympathy for the principles of the French revolution, it also included Thomas Erskine, the earl of Suffolk, the earl of Moira (qv), the duke of Norfolk, Samuel Whitbred, Henry Grattan (qv), and others.
Despite this outcome, the authorities' determination that O'Connor should not be allowed to resume his radical activities prompted them to order his return to Ireland, where he was to spend the next eleven months in various prisons. This obviously precluded his participation in the 1798 rebellion, but as a leader of the United Irishmen he might have been sent for trial once more in its aftermath had the authorities not opted to reach an agreement with the prisoners, known as the Kilmainham pact, whereby in return for their avowal of their revolutionary activities they would be permitted to leave the country. O'Connor's reluctance to accept these terms assisted the prisoners to improve upon them, though he was obliged in return to testify before the secret committee appointed to enquire into the origins of the rebellion. Moreover, the authorities' decision to transfer the prisoners to Fort George, a remote Scottish detention centre, pending the cessation of hostilities with France ensured that he remained incarcerated until 1802. It was not a happy experience as O'Connor's hauteur set him at odds with many of his fellow prisoners, and might have led to a duel with Thomas Addis Emmet had not wiser counsels prevailed. It was thus a matter of some relief to all when he was finally allowed to depart Fort George for the continent at the end of June 1802.
Exile and last years O'Connor settled in Paris, where he was soon embroiled once more in difference and disagreement with his fellow radicals in exile. This can be accounted for in the case of Thomas Addis Emmet by deep-seated personal animosities, but his dispute with Bernard MacSheehy (qv), who commanded the Irish legion, underlines the extent to which O'Connor, who was made a général in the French service by Napoleon in 1804, resented having to defer to others within the movement. The crucial point at issue, significantly, was the leadership of the remnants of the United Irishmen in France, which was a matter of some consequence in the years 1803–5 as Napoleon kept his options open with respect to sending a further expeditionary force to Ireland. O'Connor prevailed in both instances because he retained Napeoleon's favour, but this was of little value once the defeat of the French at Trafalgar in 1805 effectively put an end to any prospect of further military intervention by France in Ireland in the short term.
O'Connor meanwhile befriended members of the liberal idéologue circle in Paris, which brought him into contact with Eliza Condorcet (1791–1867), the daughter of the marquis de Condorcet, whom he married in 1807. He subsequently assumed the name Condorcet-O'Connor. The couple lived at Le Bignon, in the department of Loiret, where they purchased a chateau with money borrowed from William Putnam McCabe (qv), which O'Connor was slow to repay as his brother Roger, who was charged with looking after his interests in Ireland, proved unreliable. Having fallen out successively with Napoleon and the restored Bourbon regime after 1815, O'Connor devoted much of the remainder of his life to intellectual pursuits. He co-edited marquis de Condorcet's works in twelve volumes (Paris, 1847–9), wrote a number of political tracts at the time of the 1830 revolution in France, and pursued a political agenda that was increasingly anti-clerical. His major achievement was Monopoly: the root of all evil, a three-volume engagement with the subject published in English and French in 1848. Variously regarded as impenetrable and brilliant, it echoed concerns that O'Connor had articulated as early as 1791 in the Irish parliament. By the date of its publication, he had effectively been forgotten in Ireland. He died in 1852 at Le Bignon, having been predeceased by his three sons, Arthur, Daniel, and George.