Sexton, Thomas (1847–1932), politician, was born in Waterford city, eldest son and second among six children of John Sexton, constable in the RIC, and Mary Sexton (née Phelan). Educated by the Christian Brothers at Mount Sion school, Waterford, he became (aged 12) a clerk with the Waterford and Limerick Railway and soon attained local prominence as a member of the Mechanics' Institute and the Catholic Young Men's Society (where he developed the prowess in oratory for which he was later renowned, hence his sobriquet ‘silver-tongued Sexton’). He was also an occasional correspondent for the Nation, and in 1869 moved to Dublin to join its staff; he was subsequently editor of its sister papers, the Weekly News and Young Ireland.
Encouraged by C. S. Parnell (qv) to stand for parliament, he was MP for Sligo county 1880–85 and for Sligo South 1885–6. One of Parnell's principal lieutenants, in 1881 he played a notable part in the Irish party's obstruction of the government's coercion legislation, speaking for over three hours towards the end of the record forty-one-hour continuous sitting of the house of commons (31 January–2 February 1881). Moreover, he was imprisoned with Parnell in Kilmainham jail in October 1881, though released early because of ill health, and he signed the ‘no rent’ manifesto (18 October 1881). Elected MP for Belfast West in 1886 – his unexpected victory was due mainly to the organising genius of the young Joseph Devlin (qv) – he then enjoyed probably his greatest triumph with his speech on the second reading of the first home rule bill (1 June 1886), described by Gladstone as the most eloquent he had heard in a generation. He received the honorary freedom of Dublin in December 1887. A member of Dublin corporation (1886–92), Sexton was lord mayor in 1888 and 1889, and arranged during his double term in office a highly beneficial restructuring of the municipal debt. Thereafter he was regarded as the Irish party's foremost financial expert, and served on the commission on financial relations between Britain and Ireland (1894–6) and the commission on Irish railways (1906–10).
In the ‘split’, Sexton opposed Parnell on the grounds that his leadership was incompatible with the Irish party's alliance with the liberals on home rule. He was a director of the anti-Parnell paper, the National Press (established in March 1891); and, after it merged with the Freeman's Journal under the latter's more venerable title (March 1892), Sexton was on the board of the merged company and eventually became its chairman (1893). He lost his Belfast West seat in the 1892 general election; but he had also contested Kerry North, was successful, and sat for that constituency until 1896. This period saw a relentless struggle in the anti-Parnell ranks between rival factions led by T. M. Healy (qv) and John Dillon (qv). Sexton tried to remain above the row – a difficult task for him, since the Freeman was supposed to be the organ of the anti-Parnell MPs and the row regularly spilt over into its boardroom.
When Justin McCarthy (qv) quit as leader of the anti-Parnellites (1896), Sexton was his choice as successor. He declined the position; and, once Dillon had been elected instead, he retired from parliament – giving as his reason ‘the state of contention . . . in the Irish party’. Afterwards, he seemed to regret his loss of influence and would use the Freeman's Journal – he remained chairman until 1912 – to try to impose his will on his erstwhile colleagues. He was increasingly out of sympathy with them, and this was reflected in the Freeman. When Dillon complained about the paper's attitude c.1899, Sexton's reply was that ‘the people had lost interest in parliamentary work’ (Dillon to Edward Blake, MP, 8 Apr. 1904 (copy), NLI, Redmond papers, MS 15182(6)).
Relationships worsened with reunification of the Irish party under John Redmond (qv) in 1900, and in 1903 Sexton and the Freeman were in open conflict with the party regarding the land purchase scheme introduced by the chief secretary, George Wyndham (qv). Sexton denounced the financial terms as too generous to the landlords, while nevertheless fearful that the scheme would help the government achieve its avowed objective of ‘killing home rule with kindness’. Unlike Dillon (who had similar misgivings), he was unwilling to moderate his opposition for the sake of party unity or to acknowledge the benefits of the scheme. He had a personal grievance: William O'Brien (qv), the Irish party MP who negotiated the scheme with a group of Irish landlords, had promised to consult Sexton but then failed to do so. After Wyndham's land act passed into law, Dillon joined Sexton in rejecting the policy of seeking further areas of ‘conciliation’ between the party and the landlords – ‘conciliation’ having brought about the land act, was seen by O'Brien and others as the basis for future progress. Redmond, while sympathetic to ‘conciliation’, refused to dissociate himself from the views of Dillon, Sexton and the Freeman: he would not risk splitting from the majority of the party again. So the policy of ‘conciliation’ was effectively at an end, destroyed largely by Sexton and the Freeman.
Sexton had to deal with an attempt by a London-based syndicate to acquire a substantial shareholding in the Freeman in order to change its stance on ‘conciliation’. The syndicate was led by Tipperary-born businessman Edmond J. Frewen (1867–1941), an associate of Wyndham. Sir Thomas Lipton (qv) appears to have put up most of the necessary money. Sexton frustrated the syndicate by blocking registration of the share transfers. O'Brien became involved with the syndicate, though to what extent is unclear; it was one of the issues in his libel action against the Freeman in 1907 (he won, but was awarded derisory damages of one farthing).
The Freeman, during Sexton's chairmanship (1893–1912), was not in good shape financially. The National Press had inflicted grave damage on it, and it continued to face strong competition from the Irish Daily Independent, established in 1891 as a pro-Parnell organ and purchased by William Martin Murphy (qv) in 1900. As a result, it lacked funds for investment; and Sexton, afraid of losing control, would not raise new capital. Accordingly, when Murphy transformed his paper into the modern Irish Independent in 1905, at half the price of the Freeman and in a more popular format, the Freeman was unable to respond to the changed circumstances. Within a short period, it began to incur losses. Sexton hung on for some time, but eventually the Irish party leaders acted to save the paper and forced his resignation (1912). From that point on, the Freeman was subsidised from party sources – until sold off after the party's defeat in the 1918 general election.
Sexton withdrew from politics, but retained business interests as chairman of the Irish Catholic Church Property Insurance Company and Boland's Bakery. He never married. Shy and reclusive (despite his gift for oratory), he was described by F. S. L. Lyons (qv) as ‘a man who almost ceased to exist when he stepped down from the public platform’ (Charles Stewart Parnell (1977), 123). He died in Dublin on 31 October 1932, the last survivor of the talented young men whom Parnell gathered around him in the early 1880s. He had supported Fianna Fáil in the 1932 general election because of its protectionist economic policies, and was later quietly consulted by the new government about the land annuities question and the possibility of a claim against Britain in respect of excessive past taxation.
A portrait of Sexton as lord mayor of Dublin by H. J. Thaddeus (qv), exhibited in the RHA in 1892, was destroyed in a fire in Dublin's City Hall (1908); a replica (c.1910) by Dermod O'Brien (qv) is in the Dublin Civic Portrait Collection.