O'Conor, Charles (1710–91), Irish language scholar, antiquarian, and catholic activist, of Belanagare (Bellanagare), Co. Roscommon, was born at Kilmactranny, Co. Sligo, in early January 1709/10, eldest of six sons and three daughters.
Family His father was Denis (Donnchadh Liath) O'Conor, of a cadet branch of the O'Conor Don family, direct descendants of the kings of Connacht and the last high-kings of Ireland. The family had lost its lands in the confiscations following Aughrim and the Boyne. O'Conor's mother was Mary O'Rourke, daughter of Col. Tiernan O'Rourke of the noble Ó Ruairc family of Breifne. That family too had lost all in the ruin consequent on the banishment of James II (qv) from the British throne, and both families had manifold links with the dispossessed Irish aristocracy dispersed through Europe. Col. Tiernan O'Rourke died fighting in the French service at the battle of Luzzara (1702); his first cousin, Owen O'Rourke (d. 1742), was the Jacobite ambassador at the imperial court in Vienna; an uncle of the young Charles was a canon of Lyons in France, and a brother became an officer in Dillon's regiment in the French service.
By the early 1720s, after many years of litigation, the family succeeded in recovering some 800 acres. A pleasant country house was built at Belanagare in 1727. The household there included O'Conor's maternal grandmother, Isabella, styled ‘the countess O'Rourke’, a former lady-in-waiting at the Jacobite court in Saint-Germain-en-Laye; a great-aunt, Elinor, widow of Counsellor Terence MacDonagh (qv), the noted lawyer; and an uncle, Dr Thaddeus (Tadhg) O'Rourke (qv), bishop of Killala. Bishop O'Rourke was a Franciscan, educated on the Continent. He is stated to have been chaplain/secretary to Prince Eugene of Savoy. As bishop of Killala, he lived with relatives for protection, as bishops and priests often did in the penal times. A census of the diocese of Elphin in 1749 records that the O'Conors had four servants living in, as well as five married couples living in adjacent cottages who were returned as servants also. (The portion of family lands recovered in the 1720s continued to be held under a title subject to a defect in order to circumvent the operation of the penal laws.)
Education As eldest son it was Charles O'Conor's place to inherit and farm the land, whereas by nature his inclination was towards scholarship. He was defensive about his own formal education, which compared unfavourably with that of other family members who studied at Irish colleges abroad or joined the ranks of Irish officers in foreign service on the Continent. One notes in O'Conor almost the last documented example of the education of a Gaelic gentleman. As catholic schools were proscribed by law, O'Conor received education at local hedge schools and at home. This hedge-school education was in the classical mould of the times. He started Latin at the age of seven, and he notes his study of the grammar of Corderius. Authors read included Ovid, Suetonius, and Erasmus. The bishop seems to have taken charge of the young O'Conor's education and directed him in his study of Latin, English, Irish, and the psalms. The young man was taught fencing and dancing also.
One observes at Belanagare reflexes of the traditional patronage by the gentry of members of the aos ealaíon (learned class). These figures played their part in the education of the O'Conor children – following the pattern of the time. The young O'Conors learned the harp, as well brought up children did at the time. O'Conor's diaries record the names of harpers who visited at different times and taught the children while they stayed. O'Carolan (qv) was a frequent visitor. One might also note members of the learned Ó Cuirnín family, and Dominic Ó Duibhghennáin (O'Duignan) of the family of nearby Seanchua – the last of generations of scribes and seanchaithe (traditional historians). Compositions in verse or song have survived dedicated to most of the members of this household, including material addressed to the young O'Conor himself.
O'Conor seems to have been studious – this appears from many notes he made in books and manuscripts. From his early youth O'Conor kept diaries (which are now unique) in Irish, the first language of his home. He acquired manuscripts from the traditional scholars who taught him as a boy and became in time a great collector of such matter. O'Conor was sent to Dublin to study about 1727. Here he was taught mathematics, science, and French by Fr Walter Skelton (1664–1737). The young O'Conor continued his Irish studies in Dublin, becoming a member of the very lively literary circle of Tadhg Ó Neachtain (qv) and his father, Seán (qv), in South Earl St. In this milieu he copied and exchanged manuscripts, and encountered at least some of these gifted and interesting scholars and scribes in Irish, a number of whom had published, or would publish, works in English also. The circle included Dr John Fergus (qv), Aodh Buí Mac Cruitín (Hugh MacCurtin (qv)), and Dermot O'Connor (qv), the translator of Geoffrey Keating (qv).
O'Conor was an avid reader and constantly enquired about and procured books and manuscripts, himself, and through his friends. During the course of his life he acquired or obtained sight of practically every important Irish manuscript in the country. He read the important writers of his time in English and French, while exhaustively exploring the Irish literary tradition, and he frequently quotes Latin classical authors. This broad erudition is reflected in his writings and in his commonplace books and correspondence.
Though O'Conor himself left no account of it, various sources refer to an incident in the early 1740s in which O'Conor is stated to have been the source of material obtained, perhaps by somewhat dubious means, by a Robert Digby and Henry Brooke (qv), with a view to producing a historical book on Ireland. Nothing came of the proposal. Brooke's entrée to O'Conor was through Oliver Goldsmith's (qv) uncle, the Rev. Thomas Contarine, a neighbour and friend.
Scholar and catholic activist From mid-century on, the mature O'Conor comes into view: scholar, pamphleteer, catholic strategist, antiquary, historian, and mediator of the Irish scholarly tradition in enlightenment language. In addition to pursuing his scholarly interests, O'Conor was engaged for many years in attempting to acquire civil rights for catholics, and the second half of his life was devoted to these two concerns. O'Conor was a prolific correspondent and many letters to acquaintances survive. These letters, in the fashion of the time, were written for public consumption, and to accept this public persona as the real or entire O'Conor is to do less than justice to this complex, subtle, resourceful, and deep man.
While the sanctions of the penal laws may have been activated only intermittently, the result of that systematic legal disenfranchisement was that catholics could not assert or defend personal rights, or ownership rights in property, and could not maintain civil, cultural, or religious institutions of any sort. Repeated, intermittent persecution and confiscation of property had also created a culture of reluctance to engage publicly, especially among the remaining catholic landowners. The failure of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and the absence of any insurrection in Ireland in support contributed, however, with the passage of time, to a mellowing of attitudes in Ireland on the part of the dominant protestant party. O'Conor, in fact, was disenchanted early on with the exiled British Stuarts – he described in his diary the retreat in early 1746 of Prince Charles Edward to the Highlands as ‘drithle dhédhionach do choindil taoi dol as re trí fichitt bliadhain mur dtoirmiosgan Dia [the last flicker of a candle that is going out for sixty years, unless God prevent that]’. This realism may reflect his family's personal knowledge of the Stuarts, with their lack of enthusiasm for the promotion of the old Irish families in particular. O'Conor as a landowner saw that the only realistic way forward for catholics in Ireland lay in achieving an accommodation with the present regime. His endorsement of the status quo is rooted in pragmatism, and in his desire to hold the 800 or so acres that remained of his family's patrimony, rather than in any attachment to the British administration in Ireland. He advocated altering protestant opinion by reasoned argument and by profession of loyalty to the present dispensation. He marshalled his formidable abilities towards this end. He proposed fundraising by a national collection such as that later successfully conducted by Daniel O'Connell (qv). The precariousness of a catholic's property rights is seen in O'Conor's own circumstances when as late as 1777 a younger brother, Hugh, conformed to the established church in an attempt to claim his brother's inheritance. The ensuing litigation dragged on until eventually a bruising financial settlement bought off the threat.
O'Conor's contacts with others with similar concerns, particularly Dr John Curry (qv) of Dublin and Thomas Wyse (qv) of Waterford, led to the foundation in Dublin in 1756 of the Catholic Association, the first organised attempt to obtain legal recognition of catholics and of their rights to property. From this group the Catholic Committee evolved in 1760 in Dublin. The members were largely catholic merchants who had managed to acquire wealth through trade. Part of the strategy pursued by O'Conor and his associates involved enlisting protestants such as Henry Brooke to write in support of the catholic interest. He tried unsuccessfully to obtain the services of Dr Samuel Johnson in this cause. He corresponded with Edmund Burke (qv) on the subject too.
O'Conor wrote or coauthored numerous pamphlets anonymously. About 1749 is usually taken as the date of his earliest published pamphlet, but his first such essay may have been as early as the mid-1740s. O'Conor regularly wrote in the guise of a liberal protestant. In 1749 he took part in a pamphlet war generated by an election. Drawing on his knowledge of Irish history, he published anonymously A counter-appeal to the people of Ireland. In 1751 he published Seasonable thoughts relating to our civil and ecclesiastical constitution. The case of the Roman catholics followed in 1755, highlighting especially the inequities visited on catholic merchants by their lack of legal standing. He also penned The protestant interest considered as to the operation of the popery laws in Ireland (1757) and The danger of popery to the present government examined (1761). He took issue in print with David Hume in relation to the 1641 rebellion.
O'Conor published his Dissertations on the antient history of Ireland in 1753. His eldest son, Denis, married in 1760, and then took over the family lands. O'Conor retired to a smaller house, which he called his ‘hermitage’, and though he continued to farm in a small way, he devoted the rest of his life to his literary and other interests, spending some time in Dublin every year.
O'Conor's political activity also brought him into contact with John Carpenter (qv), a priest, later archbishop of Dublin. Both were associated with Count Nicholas Taaffe (qv) in his representations at the British court against the penal laws – he was a general in the Austrian service, and O'Conor wrote a pamphlet in his name in 1766. Carpenter also shared O'Conor's intellectual interests. The two became very close friends and eventually O'Conor's formal introduction of the then archbishop in 1773 to leading establishment antiquarians in Dublin was noted by O'Conor himself as a ‘revolution in our . . . affairs’ (quoted in Ward, Wrynn, & Ward, Letters, 290).
Antiquarian O'Conor's pamphleteering brought him into early contact with George Faulkner (qv), the notable Dublin printer, who seems to have been sympathetic to the plight of catholics. Though his own aristocratic family background must have been a considerable asset, it appears that through his friendship with Faulkner, O'Conor, from about 1760 onwards, increasingly became familiar with various establishment figures. An interest in Irish culture and antiquities was emerging in such circles, assisted no doubt by the disappearance of the Jacobite threat. Two pioneers in these studies were Francis Stoughton Sullivan (qv) and Thomas Leland (qv) of TCD. Through Leland O'Conor obtained access from 1766 onwards to the library of TCD and to the Irish manuscripts Leland was acquiring for it. This interest in Irish antiquities is also to be seen as a reflex of the romanticism then emerging throughout Europe, a movement to which the inventions of the Scotsman James Macpherson contributed. His so-called translations of alleged Scottish Gaelic epics of the exploits of Fionn mac Cumhaill (qv), and his companions in Irish legend, were hugely popular throughout Europe. O'Conor seems to have been bemused initially that fiannaíocht – to him, as an Irish scholar, merely vulgar, folk traditions – should excite such interest, but then he bestirred himself to expose Macpherson, excoriating him in an appendix to the second edition of his Dissertations on the history of Ireland which appeared in 1766.
The growing interest in Irish antiquities gave rise to a number of shortlived societies. While such had been mooted by O'Conor for years, these early initiatives were due mainly to the exertions of Gen. Charles Vallancey (qv). Vallancey enthusiastically befriended O'Conor and drew on his learning in support of his projects. The interest in antiquities coalesced with other initiatives at the time and led to the foundation in 1785 of the RIA, of which O'Conor was elected a foundation member. O'Conor's guidance can be discerned in activities undertaken by these fledgling societies. His stature and authority as an Irish scholar grew. His command of the Irish sources was equalled by few other contemporary Irish scholars, and his relative prosperity afforded him leisure, a luxury enjoyed by hardly any other Irish scholar at that time.
Increasingly O'Conor became the authority to whom all serious inquiries were directed, and all sorts of people – traditional scribes, establishment figures, foreign correspondents, and seminal writers such as Joseph Cooper Walker (qv) – drew from his store. He seems to have hoped that his grandson, the Rev. Charles O'Conor (qv) (1764–1828), would inherit his scholarly mantle. Shortly before O'Conor died Vallancey arranged a state pension for him; as part of the arrangement many of his manuscripts accompanied his grandson to Stowe in England.
O'Conor died on 1 July 1791 at Belanagare. In 1820, on the failure of the senior line, his descendant inherited the O'Conor Don title and the remnant of the ancestral lands at Clonalis, Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, where many of O'Conor's books and some of his manuscripts remain. Much material from Stowe is now in the RIA but some is in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. Some material is held at the Gilbert library in Dublin. A list of identified writings has been published in Ward, Wrynn, & Ward, on pp. 505–7.
O'Conor married (8 December 1731) Catherine (d. 11 November 1741), daughter of John Fagan (O'Hagan) of Boyle, a merchant. This match, in the fashion of the times, brought him some capital. Two sons and a daughter, born of the marriage, survived to adulthood. A portrait and a pastel of O'Conor are at Clonalis House, and a further portrait in the RIA. An engraving by Henry Brocas (qv) (1762–1837) of O'Conor aged 79 is in the Memoirs (1796).