O'Conor, Charles Owen (1838–1906), ‘O'Conor Don ’, politician, was born 7 May 1838 in Dublin, eldest son among seven children of Denis O'Conor (qv), MP for Roscommon, and his wife Mary (d. 1841), daughter of Maj. Maurice Blake of Mayo. The O'Conors, descended from the kings of Connacht, trace their lineage to 971. Charles was educated by Benedictines at Downside school, Somerset, and then proceeded to London University, where he matriculated in 1853 but did not graduate. He entered public life early as liberal MP for Roscommon (1860–80).
O'Conor was an active member of parliament, an effective though not an eloquent speaker, and a leading exponent of catholic opinion. He was deeply involved in the education question, being a critic of the queen's colleges. In 1867 he introduced a measure to extend the industrial schools act to Ireland, which became law the next year. He opposed Gladstone's university bill of 1873, was appointed to the intermediate education board in 1878, and in May 1879 proposed the transformation of St Patrick's College, Maynooth, into a chartered catholic university. He withdrew this in July, following a government bill creating the Royal University of Ireland. He was on the senate of the university for many years, and was conferred with the honorary degree of LLD in 1892. A leading exponent of the Irish language, in 1878 he proposed that it be introduced into secondary schools.
He was a supporter of Isaac Butt (qv) and a keen advocate of land law reform, which led to his proposing in 1870 the extension of Ulster tenant right to the rest of the country. His brother Denis (1840–83), MP for Sligo 1868–83, was a home ruler, but Charles was only ever described as a camp follower. The Nation (18 Oct. 1873) observed that he ‘achieved the feat of speaking for two hours at a home rule meeting in Roscommon without telling his audience if he was a home ruler’. He had concrete criticisms such as the hostility of the northern counties, and wanted to be allowed to take an independent stance, but Butt strongly deprecated his ambiguity. He did stand on the home rule platform in 1874 and 1880, but his tentative sympathy did nothing to protect him from the drive by C. S. Parnell (qv) to establish the Irish parliamentary party. In March 1880 Parnell went to Roscommon to support his candidate J. J. O'Kelly (qv) against O'Conor, who was a popular representative. Parnell called him a ‘sample of West Britonism in Ireland . . . if you deprive him of the representation of Roscommon you strike the greatest blow that has been struck against English misgovernment in Ireland since Isaac Butt was elected for the city of Limerick’ (Kee, 227), which successfully led to O'Conor's being ousted. Ironically, he had briefly been Parnell's landlord when in 1860 he rented a house near Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) to the recently widowed Delia Parnell and her family, including the 13-year-old Charles Stewart.
Appointed to the Bessborough commission into the workings of the 1870 land act some months later, O'Conor answered Parnell by going even further than the commission's proposal to reform land law on the basis of the ‘three Fs’. He supported outright peasant proprietorship as the only effective and lasting remedy. In 1883 he made an attempt to return to parliament as a liberal candidate for Wexford, but was defeated by the home ruler W. H. K. Redmond (qv). Always an inveterate committee member, he spent the last twenty-five years of his life on various committees, including the parliamentary committee of 1885 and the royal commission of 1894 on the financial relations between Great Britain and Ireland. He was elected to Roscommon county council in 1899 and was lord lieutenant of the county from 1888 till his death. In 1881 he was sworn to the Irish privy council.
An ancestor was Charles O'Conor (qv), the noted antiquarian, and he had his own interest in this area. He was a member of the RIA from 1867 and joined the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in 1869, was a fellow in 1888, and president 1897–9. His antiquarian research was largely confined to his own family; in 1891 he published The O'Conors of Connaught, an historical memoir compiled from the manuscripts of John O'Donovan (qv). He died at Clonalis, Castlerea, on 30 June 1906. He married first (21 April 1868) Georgina Mary (d. 1872), daughter of Thomas Perry of Warwickshire; secondly (1879) Ellen, daughter of John Lewis More O'Ferrall of Longford. He had four sons by his first marriage.