O'Connor, Charles Andrew (1854–1928), judge, was born in Dublin on 31 December 1854, third son of Charles O'Connor, solicitor, of Acres, Co. Roscommon, and his wife Kate Smyth. A catholic, he was educated at St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg (1865–70), and TCD (BA 1874). There he participated in the College Historical Society, of which he was elected auditor for 1877–8 as a ‘home-ruler’ in a contest which included Edward Carson (qv). He was called to the bar in 1878 and became a member of the Connacht circuit. Neat, amiable, and with a natural courtesy, he was a general favourite at the bar and acquired a large chancery practice. He was appointed QC in 1894 and elected a bencher of the King's Inns in 1896. In March 1907 he was appointed third serjeant, and succeeded as first serjeant in December 1907.
John Dillon (qv) objected to attempts to appoint O'Connor as land judge in 1906, and again in 1909 following the death of Gerald Fitzgibbon (qv), when it was rumoured that O'Connor was to be appointed to the court of appeal. Dillon's objections arose from Lord De Freyne's case against the United Irish League (in which Dillon was sued personally) relating, inter alia, to the Frenchpark estate in Co. Roscommon. O'Connor accepted a brief in the proceedings on behalf of De Freyne, although he is not reported before the house of lords when an appeal by the latter was dismissed.
O'Connor succeeded Redmond Barry (1866–1913) as solicitor general for Ireland to the Asquith government in 1909 and became attorney general and a member of the Irish privy council in 1911. He never stood for parliament. Although it coincided with the third home rule bill, his tenure as attorney general was brief (September 1911–June 1912), and ended on his appointment as master of the rolls in Ireland. That he ascended the bench without further controversy on the eve of political and social upheaval was presumably to the advantage of his later career. He held the office for twelve turbulent years, between the introduction of the home rule bill and the establishment of the courts of the Irish Free State.
O'Connor made his mark as a judge, and the assessment of Maurice Healy (qv) that he did not fulfil his promise on the bench does not stand scrutiny. His judgment in the Galway and Salthill Tramway case continues to be cited in leading textbooks on Irish and English company law, while his child-centred judgment in Re Connor an infant foreshadows later jurisprudence.
Although O'Connor was a privy councillor who acted as a lord justice in 1921, the independence of his judicial decisions following the truce that year challenge the assertion that he was a Castle catholic, a brand perhaps stemming from Dillon's opinion of him and the lingering taste of the MacNeill affair (treated below). O'Connor took an independent line with the Egan and Higgins habeas corpus cases, which embarrassed the government in parliament. It was felt by General Neville Macready (qv) that he thereby acquired merit with Sinn Féin. In November 1922 it was to O'Connor that counsel came on behalf of Erskine Childers (qv), seeking an order of habeas corpus on the grounds that martial law was not validly in force. O'Connor refused the application, but in doing so paid tribute to the lawyers who had argued the case: Hugh Kennedy (qv) with Timothy Sullivan (qv) and John O'Byrne (qv) for the government and Michael Comyn (qv) and Patrick Lynch (qv) for Childers. His rage at the circumstances which had brought about the application leaps from the law report. If Childers did not get his verdict, O'Connor did the provisional government no favours on the eve of the establishment of the Free State. It was not an armed insurrection, as the government would have it, but ‘a state of war’, and he could not restrain the military in those circumstances. Nevertheless these judgments have been criticised as inconsistent inter se and as not challenging the arbitrary and irregular nature of military jurisdiction.
O'Connor was a member of the senate of NUI (1908–14) and of the governing body of UCD (1908–26). While he was never a frequent attender at meetings of the latter, he was a member of the subcommittee which drafted the statutes of the college. The timing of meetings was not always convenient to a practising lawyer, and his legal antennae may have sensed a conflict with his role as a member of the senate of NUI. O'Connor was not present in May 1916 when initial concerns were expressed as to the status of staff under arrest, or in July 1916 when the opinion of Sir Denis Henry (qv) was produced advising payment of Eoin MacNeill's (qv) salary to 29 May 1916. At a governing body meeting on 28 May 1918, O'Connor declined to be a party to any payment to MacNeill, who was the only candidate for appointment to his former chair of ancient and medieval Irish history, on the ground that MacNeill was still suffering from legal disabilities (as a convicted person under the Forfeiture Act, 1870). O'Connor's letter to the secretary to the governing body withdrawing his objection, after being ‘instructed by the Irish government’ that MacNeill had been pardoned by royal warrant, was minuted in July 1918. MacNeill was subsequently elected to the governing body but O'Connor, although nominated to it by the crown (1920) and by the executive council (1923), appears never to have attended again.
O'Connor became a member of the Irish Free State judiciary committee in January 1923 and played a full part in its affairs under the chairmanship of Lord Glenavy (qv). Within days of his office of master of the rolls being abolished in June 1924 he was appointed a puisne judge of the supreme court, having been given a choice between that and the presidency of the high court, to which Timothy Sullivan was then appointed. (O'Connor was not reappointed to the charity commissioners of which, as master of the rolls, he had been ex-officio chairman, much to the regret of his fellow commissioners.) In the supreme court he contributed a number of reasoned judgments, and while his output was small by comparison with his last year as master of the rolls, his twelve years’ experience on the bench contributed to the self-assuredness of the new court. Under the Courts Act, 1924, he could have served as a judge until he was seventy-five, but he chose to retire in April 1925 for undisclosed urgent domestic considerations. His resignation was received by the cabinet with regret and appreciation for his valuable services was minuted.
O'Connor married Blanche, the daughter of James Scully of Shanballymore, Co. Tipperary, in August 1890. They had one son and six daughters, one of whom married Raymond D. Nolan, barrister at law, JP, who was a nephew of the Parnellite MP for Galway North, Colonel J. P. Nolan (qv), and died in action in November 1914. O'Connor was a keen golfer, a player of bridge, and a member of the Reform Club in London and the St Stephen's Green Club. He lived for a time at 50 Upper Mount Street, Dublin, and afterwards leased 28 Fitzwilliam Place from Christopher Palles (qv), chief baron. He moved in retirement to 48 Thurloe Square, London, where he died 8 October 1928.
A transcript of O'Connor's opinion concerning the invalidity of a directors’ meeting to appoint John Dillon as chairman of the Freeman's Journal in April 1892 is with the Dillon papers. A small collection of his private correspondence with Thomas Bodkin (qv), including a photograph, is in the Bodkin papers at TCD.