O'Connor, Sir James (1872–1931), lawyer, was born in Wexford on 1 April 1872, the third son of Michael Joseph O'Connor, builder, rate collector, and county councillor, and his wife, Johanna, the daughter of James Murphy, of Curracloe, Co. Wexford. Educated at St Peter's College, Wexford, and Blackrock College, Co. Dublin, he enrolled as a solicitor in 1894 having obtained a silver medal and third place in the Incorporated Law Society finals. He practised in Dublin at 116 St Stephen's Green and acted as Dublin agent for his brother Michael's practice of M. J. O'Connor & Co. of Wexford until 1899. At his own request he was struck off the roll of solicitors in May 1899 before being called to the Irish bar in Michaelmas term 1900. He then joined the Leinster circuit and built up an extensive and lucrative practice, being briefed by many solicitors whom he had known when a member of their profession. He took silk in June 1908, and his record for appearances before the house of lords is said to have been exceeded only by Stephen Ronan (qv).
O'Connor published two major legal textbooks: The licensing laws of Ireland (1904), consequent on the Licensing Ireland Act, 1902, and The Irish justice of the peace (1911). The review in the Irish Law Times of the second edition of this latter work (1915, running to 2,100 pages in two volumes and citing over 5,000 cases) noted that O'Connor ‘expressed his views fully and explicitly’ and commented that ‘many of the criticisms and opinions he ventured in the first edition have been justified by subsequent decisions’. O'Connor was a ‘great personal friend’ (Wexford People, 4 July 1914) of John Redmond (qv) and followed John Dillon (qv) in delivering a graveside oration at Redmond's funeral in March 1918 (his brother Michael acted as solicitor in the sale of Redmond's estate at Aughavanagh). Although he corresponded with Redmond about seeking a nomination in advance of the 1900 election, he never stood for parliament.
O'Connor's appointment as solicitor general (July 1914), shortly after the death of his father, was well received: the editorial in the Wexford People commented that ‘such positions were usually reserved for Dublin Castle hacks and those who did ugly work for the government’, but O'Connor's career had been ‘thoroughly honourable, reflecting credit on himself and his country’. Thereafter his career was buffeted by events. Unionists had been excluded from preferment since 1896, and O'Connor's promotion to the office of attorney general was twice frustrated as the prime minister, H. H. Asquith, accommodated them in his national government, appointing John Gordon (qv) and James Campbell (qv) successively to that office, both of whom had the advantage of being MPs. When O'Connor was finally appointed attorney general (January 1917) and sworn of the Irish privy council, the political world had changed and the Irish Parliamentary Party was about to suffer a series of electoral defeats.
While still solicitor general, O'Connor pressed his claim (June 1916) to a seat on the bench on the retirement of Christopher Palles (qv), chief baron, and in June 1917 he was assured that his claim would be recognised at the next vacancy. But it was not to be, and the next appointment was of William Moore (qv), unionist MP for North Armagh and later lord chief justice of Northern Ireland. Nationalist Ireland was outraged; T. M. Healy (qv) considered O'Connor to be without political influence in the Castle, but the case against O'Connor's promotion remained as Sir Robert Chalmers (qv), the newly appointed under-secretary, had advised Asquith at the time of Christopher Palles's retirement that there was no nationalist lawyer up to O'Connor's standard available as a replacement.
O'Connor, along with Edward Carson (qv) and James Campbell, opposed conscription and did not wish to enforce it. The German offensive of March 1918 on the Western front forced the position. Without any publicity attaching to the resignation he tendered, O'Connor was appointed a judge of the chancery division on 8 April, and the next day conscription was extended to Ireland.
When Campbell vacated the position of lord chief justice upon his appointment as lord chancellor in June 1918, he was aware his successor would be a nationalist and a catholic, so giving the government a choice between Thomas Molony (qv) and O'Connor. Unionist counsel was divided, with Campbell opposing any promotion for O'Connor. At the end of Trinity term 1918 Molony was appointed lord chief justice and O'Connor as a puisne judge of the court of appeal. Subsequently, in correspondence with Andrew Bonar Law and Walter Long (qv), Campbell bitterly criticised the appointment of O'Connor, possibly with the intention, ahead of the general election, of bolstering his own position as lord chancellor against any subsequent threat from the latter.
As a judge, O'Connor sought to expedite cases and was reticent about adjournments. Between 1919 and 1921 he dissented in four of fifty-eight reported cases and his judgments were generally short. His dissenting judgments in Re Connor an infant ( I IR) and Hepenstall v. Wicklow Co. Council ( II IR) are lengthy, as he argued the minority view on controversial topics of the time. He served as an appeal judge until June 1924 when, on the establishment of the courts of Saorstat Éireann, he was not reappointed.
In the absence of a jurisprudence that separated executive from judicial powers, O'Connor as a privy councillor retained his contacts with Dublin Castle and Downing Street and had some close involvement in the peace overtures from December 1920 to May 1921. He acted as a conduit between the government in London and the Irish hierarchy on the one hand and Sinn Féin on the other, and he facilitated the meetings in London on 9 January 1921 between Fr Michael O'Flanagan (qv) and Hamar Greenwood (qv) and Lloyd George. These were unsuccessful in part because it was not clear by what authority O'Flanagan spoke but also, in the view of Mark Sturgis (qv), because of O'Connor's ‘desire to do the talking at the expense of his far more important friend’. However, in later entries in his diary, Sturgis did soften his judgement of O'Connor. On 5 May 1921 it was from O'Connor's house that Sir James Craig (qv) left for his meeting with Éamon de Valera (qv). O'Connor put proposals to Lloyd George for a settlement substantially similar to those that formed the basis of the treaty as revised in 1925, and after the establishment of the provisional government served as chairman of two state commissions.
O'Connor was the only nationalist to hold executive office following the home rule legislation of 1914, while others stood on the sidelines awaiting the conclusion of the First World War. An astute observer of events, O'Connor had a wide and varied range of contacts not confined to the clergy, but as a politician his interventions had limited success. His hasty return from Fairyhouse to visit Archbishop William Walsh (qv) on the evening of Easter Monday 1916 to request a letter ‘calling on the insurgents to desist from their mad enterprise’ was naive and provoked a hostile reaction; his refusal to advise the government to extend the Grand Jury Bill to Ireland left a discredited system in place to be reformed in 1924 the year he retired. Nonetheless he possessed great moral courage in opposing the war of independence. In correspondence with Cardinal Michael Logue (qv) in December 1920 he complained of the disastrous influence of the teaching of some clergy that sought to justify the killing of police and military. In O'Connor's opinion, such teaching gave ‘a false conscience to young and earnest Irishmen who sheltered themselves under it when carrying on this “warfare” ’.
O'Connor was knighted in the 1925 new year honours list. He was admitted to the Middle Temple in May 1925, called to the inner bar later that month, and intended to practise as a KC. His History of Ireland, in which he makes no reference to himself, was first published that same year and contains a lengthy attack on T. M. Healy, who in reply did not accord O'Connor a single favourable reference in his Letters and leaders of my day.
Serious illness compelled O'Connor to abandon his London practice. In early November 1929 he announced in the press his intention to seek readmission as a solicitor in Ireland after his application to be disbarred had been accepted by the English lord chancellor. When the unsophisticated application to be re-enrolled came before him, Chief Justice Hugh Kennedy (qv), who expressed his distaste for the application in the privacy of his diary, recorded ‘the honour to have Sir James O'Connor returning to the fold’, but he was not satisfied with the information given on affidavit and complained about the omission of details of O'Connor's career, even though they were largely noted in the Law Reports. Kennedy also criticised the attitude of the Law Society and the concern he expressed, that O'Connor could argue against his own judgments in advocacy before a court, seems overstated given the restrictions on a solicitor's right of audience in the superior courts and then current practice by solicitors in the circuit court. Kennedy sought an undertaking that O'Connor would not seek personal audience in any of the courts (in Re Solicitors acts and Sir James O'Connor  IR). The undertaking was forthcoming, and the order restoring O'Connor's name to the roll of solicitors was endorsed to that effect on 24 December 1929. He established the firm of Sir James O'Connor at 62 Dawson Street, with James P. J. Smyth, the young solicitor who had brought the readmission application on his behalf. The partnership appears to have been dissolved during 1931 prior to O'Connor's death as neither his nor the firm's name appear in the 1932 law directory (revised to 17 December 1931).
O'Connor married Mary Josephine Kehoe, of Clanaboy, Bray, Co. Wicklow, in 1897. A keen golfer, he succeeded to the presidency of Milltown Golf Club, Dublin, on the death of William Martin Murphy (qv) in 1919 and served until 1924. He was a member of the St Stephen's Green Club and of the Reform Club in London, and was associated with the Society of St Vincent de Paul. He lived in Dublin at 10 and, later, 40 Morehampton Road; St Aidan's, Herbert Avenue, Merrion; and finally at 58 Northumberland Road, before moving after his retirement to 92 Oakwood Court, Kensington, London. In 1931 Thom's Directory records his address as the Salthill Hotel, Monkstown. He died 29 December 1931 at 4 Dulwich Village, London, the home of his son Donald; among those at the funeral were Maurice Healy (qv) and Serjeant A. M. Sullivan (qv). O'Connor was buried at Hither Green cemetery, Lewisham, as was his wife, who died 20 September 1943. They were survived by their two sons, Fergus Laurence, a member of the Irish bar, and Donald, a doctor, and by two daughters, Eileen and Nora, the latter of whom served with the UN Refugee Relief Agency.
A collection of O'Connor's memorabilia is in the former offices of M. J. O'Connor & Co. in Wexford, and some 300 annotated pages (including unpublished material) of the later part of Volume 2 of his History of Ireland are in Wexford County Library. Some papers were deposited in the NLI by León Ó Broin (qv); otherwise correspondence from O'Connor is scattered among the papers of his contemporaries, particularly the Redmond papers at the NLI and the Lloyd George papers at the house of lords record office. At least two authors cited below have confused O'Connor with his contemporary Charles Andrew O'Connor (qv).