O'Connor, Fergus (Feargus) (1796?–1855), Irish landlord, political agitator, and Chartist leader, was born at Connorville, Kinneigh, Co. Cork, son of Roger O'Connor (qv) and his second wife, Wilhelmina (née Bowen). His earlier years are clouded in obscurity, not helped by his tendency to dramatise and exaggerate his own and his family's heroism and high-mindedness. Both his father and uncle, Arthur O'Connor (qv), were involved with the United Irishmen, and were exiled after the 1798 rising. On Roger's return to Ireland (1803) the family took up residence at Dangan Castle, Co. Meath. Fergus was educated at Portarlington Grammar School and may have advanced from there to TCD, though the registers do not include his name. He entered King's Inns (1819), moved on to Gray's Inn (1826), and was called to the Irish bar (1830), though he never practised law thereafter. Inheriting the radical tendencies of his father and uncle, he imbibed more from his reading of Hansard, Cobbett's Political Register, and Leigh Hunt's Examiner at his home in Dangan Castle. Inheriting Fort Robert near Ballineen, west Cork, from another uncle in 1820, he entered the public arena in a period of agrarian disturbance and increasing popular politicisation in his native county. Within a short time, it appears (if his own sometimes exaggerated claims are to be believed) that he became involved in the Whiteboy agrarian protests in north-west Cork and contiguous areas, and produced a pamphlet entitled A state of Ireland (1820).
O'Connor burst on the political scene again in 1832, when the anti-tithe agitation and the parallel but unrelated campaign for the repeal of the union began to rock the political and social fabric of Irish society. He took a prominent part in the rising anti-tithe agitation, attending tithe cases at petty sessions, addressing meetings, and maintaining a presence at the enquiry into the killing of a number of local people in a tithe-related incident at Rathcormac, Co. Cork. His public profile was further raised by his contesting the Co. Cork election as a repeal candidate in the same year and by his campaigning (unsuccessfully) in favour of another repealer, William O'Neill Daunt (qv), in the Mallow borough election. O'Connor headed the county poll, his flamboyant, rabble-rousing style of campaigning endearing him to the lower levels of the population in both country and town. His volubility on the public stage earned him the nickname ‘the rattler’ from friend and foe alike, while the popular elite regarded him with a mixture of fondness and embarrassment – ably portrayed by his friend O'Neill Daunt in his novel, The wife hunter, where an ill-disguised Fergus was presented as the hero.
In parliament, O'Connor proved an assiduous attender and speaker, but his parliamentary experience was one of disillusionment. He had little patience with or understanding of the pragmatism and compromise needed in parliamentary wheeling and dealing, and he was infuriated with the lukewarmness of Daniel O'Connell (qv) on repeal. Within a very short time he was on bad terms with O'Connell, openly accusing him of betraying not only repeal but also the common people whose support had pushed him to the forefront of political power in Ireland. When O'Connor stood again in the Co. Cork election of 1835, he was successful, but by now the local conservative and anti-repeal element had gathered its wits sufficiently to petition against his return on the grounds of insufficient property qualification. O'Connor was unseated, and his parliamentary place passed to the conservative candidate, Richard Longfield.
At this point, Fergus O'Connor moved into the second phase of his public career. He had already been peripherally involved in English working-class radical politics, and now turned his attention fully to the English political scene. He stood in July 1835 as a candidate for Oldham, the former seat of William Cobbett, but though he only succeeded in splitting the radical vote and facilitating the return of the tory candidate, his career on the English political stage had been effectively launched. He became involved with William Lovett's London Working Men's Association and, more closely, with the Marylebone Radical Association. He travelled throughout the north of England as the Marylebone emissary in 1835 and 1836, speaking in favour of universal suffrage and shorter working hours, and against taxes on newspapers, windows, and houses, and particularly against the new poor law. In 1837 he also became active in the London Democratic Association, and in November of that year helped to establish in Leeds the Northern Star, the newspaper that became the main organ of British working-class radicalism outside London, and eventually the mouthpiece of the chartist movement over the ensuing decade. Indeed, the six points of the charter, first articulated by the London Working Men's Association in 1838, had already been put forward by O'Connor in his tour of the north three years earlier. O'Connor, both in his speeches and in the columns of the Northern Star, strongly supported the chartist convention (February–September 1839) which oversaw the charter campaign and which was seen in radical circles as the potential alternative to parliament.
Despite O'Connor's lasting popularity in his own country, and its capacity to draw considerable support from Irish immigrant workers in Britain, chartism made little headway in Ireland, owing to the combination of O'Connell's adamant opposition, the absence of a strong tradition of worker radicalism, and the channelling of all popular hopes into the repeal movement. Even in Britain, O'Connor faced political difficulties as both the charter agitation and the convention brought to the fore some of the long-standing tensions between him and others in the chartist movement, especially the wing linked with the London Working Men's Association. O'Connor had always, despite his involvement with the body, distrusted its cautious reformism, which he saw as a betrayal of the lower ranks of the working class. But he also began to quarrel with those on the more militant wing of the chartist movement, the ill-feeling coming to a head when O'Connor, absent in Ireland during the attempted south Wales rising of November 1839, was accused by the militants of betrayal. In fact, he had apparently warned against the recourse to armed force, and had even advised against the launching of a ‘national holiday’ or general strike in favour of the charter in the same year. His image among the more extreme chartists was restored somewhat by his falling foul of the law in 1840 and again in 1843. On the first occasion he was charged with using the Northern Star to spread seditious libel in the summer of 1839, and on conviction he served eighteen months imprisonment in York castle. On the second occasion he was accused of encouraging seditious conspiracy by his promotion of strikes in 1842, but the intervention of the lord chancellor prevented his conviction from ending in imprisonment.
As working-class support for political chartism faded in the 1840s with the onset of better times in Britain, O'Connor turned his attention to something he had long advocated – the establishment of a chartist land scheme which would enable industrial workers to return to the land through the renting of smallholdings from a specially established body, the Chartist Co-operative Land Company (later entitled the National Land Company). Between 1847 and 1849 land schemes were initiated – Heronsgate, Lowbands, Charterville, Snig's End, and Great Dodford – but were beset by financial troubles from the start, and the final blow fell when parliament refused to register the plan (which was categorised as a lottery rather than a public company or friendly society), forcing the company to fold up in 1851.
The previous year, O'Connor had again entered parliament, this time as MP for Nottingham, and he continued to agitate, both inside and outside parliament, for repeal of the act of union (the cause which had first drawn him into electoral politics) and for the enactment of the six points of the charter. As revolution swept Europe in the spring of 1848, chartism seemed set fair to bring radicalism and conservatism into a head-on collision in Britain. O'Connor, combining the language of physical force with constitutional actions, presided over a mass meeting at Kennington Common in London, but, advising against a mass march on parliament, personally presented the chartist petition to parliament. The petition, reputedly signed by five million individuals, turned out to have less than two million signatures, some of them forgeries. By now, O'Connor's health and mental stability were in a sorry state – possibly through the side-effects of syphilis, possibly because of long-standing mental problems – and his physical attack on another MP in 1852 led to his expulsion from parliament and his lodgment in a private asylum for the mentally ill. His sister removed him from that institution in 1855 and took him to live at her home in Notting Hill, west London. There O'Connor died 30 August 1855, and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery, his funeral attended by a reputed forty thousand people.
O'Connor's career has occasioned much debate, particularly regarding his contribution to English working-class radicalism in general and to chartism in particular. His undoubted egotism and tendency to give and take offence are cited among the reasons for the instability of chartism as a political phenomenon, while the cult of personality that he fostered is seen as having hampered the establishment of a more democratic structure within the movement. On the other hand, he gave to chartism a sense of national cohesion, not only through his personality-centred leadership, but also through the Northern Star, which combined a concentration on locally relevant issues with a broader vision of British working-class radicalism. For the twenty years of his public career, in both Ireland and Britain, O'Connor (not unlike his erstwhile ally, and long-term enemy, O'Connell) gave to those at the bottom of the socio-political ladder a sense of solidarity and worth. His attitudes and methods may have been ‘ungentlemanly’ and, in the long term, unsuccessful, but there is little question of the sincerity of his intentions. ‘Fargus’, as the Cork peasantry knew him in the early 1830s, was outspoken on behalf of those outside the arena of political power, and he was genuinely concerned to improve their lot, whether through suffrage extension, the repeal of the union and the poor law, or the promulgation of peasant proprietorship among industrial workers. He certainly lost more money than he gained through his political campaigning, his newspaper venture, and his land scheme, and while the title coined for him by his supporters – the ‘Lion of Freedom’ – was something of an overstatement, there is little doubt that it was a sincere tribute from those he led.