O'Connor, John (1850–1928), Fenian and politician, was born in 1850 in Mallow, Co. Cork, only son of William O'Connor, a soldier, of Mallow, Co. Cork. He was educated by the Christian Brothers, after which he worked in a grocery business as a van driver and a commercial traveller. Attracted to literary and debating societies from an early age, he became a confident and effective speaker. He was 16 years old when he joined the Fenians, distributing arms in Cork in 1867 and became known in the movement as Mr Whalen. His 6 ft 4 in. stature later earned him the nickname of ‘Long John’. In 1872 he was involved in an unsuccessful effort to rescue a prisoner being sent to Spike Island. Two years later, after expressing opposition to the home rule movement, he was sent to collect funds for the IRB in America. In 1879, by which time he had become a grocer-publican and a leader of the Cork city IRB, he denounced the ‘new departure’ alliance of Fenians, home rulers, and agrarian activists. However, over the following months, he was caught up in the agrarian struggle and grew closer to the Irish parliamentary party, distancing himself from the IRB after he was appointed secretary of the Land League in Cork in September 1880. This volte-face led some Fenians to accuse him of having no fixed principles. After making radical, socialistic speeches on Land League platforms, he was imprisoned in Kilmainham jail from 4 July 1881 until 20 May 1882.
With the foundation of the National League (October 1882), he became its main promoter in Munster. In this capacity he attempted to win IRB men over to C. S. Parnell (qv) through his participation in the newly-founded GAA and by organising events such as the protest against the visit of the prince of Wales to Ireland in April 1885. At Parnell's request he stood for parliament and was elected MP for Tipperary south (1885–92). An enthusiastic agitator during the Plan of Campaign (1886–9), he organised a large street protest in Cork city on 29 November 1886 in support of imprisoned Plan activists. On 7 February 1889 he himself was sentenced to two months imprisonment for encouraging boycotting in the ‘New Tipperary’ scheme; shortly after his release he was imprisoned again for four months for similar activities, and was granted a public testimonial of £220 upon his release. While speaking before The Times commission in London months later, he gave some damaging evidence against the IRB, but refused to describe its objectives as criminal. During the 1880s he had studied law and was admitted to the Middle Temple (9 November 1889), and called to the bar (1893). He became a king's counsel in 1919 at the age of 70 and maintained his legal practice until the end of his life.
He was devoted to Parnell, and sided with him in the split. During ‘committee-room 15’ debates of 1–6 December 1890, O'Connor spoke strongly in Parnell's defence and tried to persuade the party to issue a public statement criticising Gladstone's interference. In March 1891, together with three other MPs, O'Connor was sent by Parnell on a fund raising tour to the USA. He lost his Tipperary seat to an anti-Parnellite candidate in 1892 and was also defeated in Co. Kilkenny. In 1893 he became a member of the Royal Commission for the Chicago Exhibition (British Section) and was also a member of the Society of Arts Council and prior of the Johnson club.
He remained a prominent member of the Irish party, but his political ambitions were disrupted because of his private life. In 1884 he had married a Miss Leonard in a registry office in London. They separated soon afterwards but in 1902 his wife approached him for money. He sued for divorce and she counter-sued. John Redmond (qv) was angry that he had been kept in the dark, and the possibility of scandal caused O'Connor to refuse the parliamentary nomination for Co. Meath. In the event the matter was hushed up and did little long-term damage to O'Connor's career; he became MP for North Kildare (1905–18). A witty speaker and an excellent mimic, he was a popular figure in parliament. In 1914 he and Tom Kettle (qv) arranged to import arms from Belgium on behalf of the Redmondite Volunteers, but the arms were seized by the Belgian government. After his defeat in the 1918 general election by a Sinn Féin candidate, he largely quit public life. He lived mostly at 5 Frognal Mansions, Hampstead, London, where he died on 27 October 1928. Some of his correspondence can be found in the Redmond papers, NLI MS 15,214 and Holiday papers, NLI MS 15,979.