In Ireland’s history the O’Connors are so numerous, eminent and varied that an encyclopaedia would scarcely do them justice. The Dictionary of National Biography lists nineteen O’Connors. It is believed that few families can trace their descent through so many generations of ancestors. Many of their pedigrees and records are stored in the Irish Genealogical Office, and in France, Spain and Austria. Although some live and die by the spelling of the name, i.e. O’Connor, Conor, Connors or O’Conner, no distinction can be made in the spelling of the name today as these spellings have been interchanged at will.
The O’Connors are outstanding in Irish history, highlighting its triumphs and its tragedies. O’Connor – in Irish O Conchobhair or O Conchuir – comes from a personal name meaning champion. O’Connor, O’Conner or O’Conor, is perhaps the most illustrious of all Irish surnames, though this view would, no doubt, be disputed by the O’Neills, the O’Briens, the O’Donnells and one or two other great and famous septs. It is borne by six distinct septs located in different parts of the country of whom four survive in considerable numbers.
O’Connor of Corcomroe in north Clare, close to the Atlantic, descended from a Conchobhar who died in 1002.
O’Connor Faly, meaning of Offaly, boasted a pedigree going back to the second century, to Cathaoir Mor who was King of Ireland. Their territory ranged from the hills of Cavan to the lakes of Westmeath and the boglands of Offaly, where Dangan was the headquarters of their chieftain. Their name comes from Conchobhar (died 979), son of Fionn, lord of Offaly. This sept was constantly engaged in war with the invader until the middle of the sixteenth century when they were vanquished and dispossessed of most of their estates. They were still in Offaly in 1689, as Col. John O’Connor was member for Philipstown in King James II’s Parliament and they were represented by the family of O’Connor-Morris of the same county until quite recently.
O’Connor Kerry, chief of the O’Connors of Munster up to the Norman invasion, commanded an extensive area in County Kerry known as Iraghticonor. Their stronghold was Carrigafoyle Castle. The O’Connors are still very numerous in Kerry.
There was also a strong sept in Ulster known as O’Connor Keenaght. Although they were largely wiped out in battle with the O Kanes, there are still many O’Connors in Ulster. They are mentioned here because, though as a sept they were eliminated, families of O’Connor are still found in that part of Ulster and it may be assumed that they are descended from the once famous O’Connors of Glengiven who were of royal blood, their ancestor being Cian, son of Oilioll Olum, King of Munster in the third century.
The most well known sept of the name was the royal O’Conors of Connacht which eventually separated into three distinct septs: O’Conor Roe, O’Conor Sligo and O’Conor Don. The first two have faded out. The family headed by O’Conor Don remains a uniquely Gaelic family, the most eminent of all the O’Connors. The Connacht O’Conors derive their name from Conchobhar (died 971), King of Connacht. Conchobhar was of a long line of Connacht kings when kings needed to be champions to maintain their supremacy. Two high kings, who were monarchs of all Ireland, descend from him. Conchobhar had to submit to the mighty Brian Boru, King of Munster, who assumed the chief sovereignty and gave Ireland a unity she has not since known. Later the O’Conors contended with neighbouring chieftains, particularly the powerful O Rourkes. Their direct descendant, as certified by the Genealogical Office, Dublin Castle, is the present O’Conor Don and it is interesting to note that this important and aristocratic family consistently maintained its position notwithstanding the fact that they remained inflexibly Catholic. Evidence of this is abundant in all the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century manuscripts.
In 1119, Turlough Mor O’Conor was High King of Ireland. He was not so much a warrior as a statesman. He tried to centralise his government, he built stone bridges and castles and had a fleet of boats on the Shannon and on the Atlantic. He maintained a mint to coin silver money. He also plundered every part of the country, as was the custom. His three marriages endowed him with twenty children. His son, Roderic, succeeded to the high kingship. His reign coincided with the invasion by the Anglo-Normans which led to the Treaty of Windsor in 1175, when Roderic (or Rory) pledged himself to recognise Henry II of England as his overlord. Kings of England now became Lords of Ireland, which meant that Rory held his kingdom of Connacht only as a vassal of English royalty. Like a number of the O’Conor kings, after a life of much strife he retired to monastic seclusion in the Augustinian abbey of Cong. In 1198 he died, the last of the Irish kings, and was buried in Clonmacnoise in County Offaly, the most celebrated of Ireland’s holy places. He lies near the high altar where his father, Turlough Mor, was buried in 1156. Thus ended the royal Gaelic leadership.
When Roderic abdicated, he was succeeded by his brother, Cathal Crobhdhearg (meaning of the red hand). Cathal had close contact with two kings of England, King John and King Henry III. The family archives contain letters written by him in Latin. The annals record that he died in 1224, having become a monk in one of the monasteries he had founded. Historians cannot agree as to the exact monastery, Knockmoy in Galway, or Ballintubber, which Cathal had founded in 1216.
The three main branches of the O’Conors of Connacht: O’Conor Roe, O’Conor Sligo and O’Conor Don descend from Turlough. Clonalis is the family seat, near Castlerea in County Roscommon. In the seventeenth century, when the penal laws drove the majority of the Gaelic families abroad, the O’Conors remained with their people and were not persuaded to revoke their Roman Catholicism. They also accumulated a treasure house of family archives, dating back to the sixth century. In 1977, Janet and Gareth Dunleavy of the University of Wisconsin, who had spent six summers working at Clonalis, completed the arrangement of the 100,000 documents from the various O’Conor seats. When they published The O’Conor Papers they included a surname register to help people who have Irish names and are searching for some clue to their origins. Clonalis was built early in the eighteenth century and it contains many portraits and relics of this great family. Despite the inability of the government to ease the financial burden, the O’Conor family is striving to preserve Clonalis. It is the only house open to the public that is wholly of the old Irish, as distinct from most other families who arrived in the wake of the Anglo-Norman invasion. Not a trace remains of Belenagare, their ancient seat, from which the O’Conors moved to Clonalis.
Belenagare was the birthplace of four remarkable O’Conor scholars. Charles O’Conor (1710 – 91), the antiquarian scholar, succeeded to Belenagare in 1749. As a Catholic, he was debarred from many of the aspirations natural to a country gentleman. He had received a classical education from a Franciscan friar, which may also have inspired him to start collecting Irish manuscripts. The blind harpist, Turlough O Carolan, the last of the bards, often stayed in his house, and his harp remains at Clonalis. There are also many letters from Charles O’Conor to distinguished scholars of his day, including Dr Samuel Johnson. His two grandsons were also scholars. The Reverend Charles O’Conor (1767 – 1828) was educated in Rome and, after a short time as a pastor in Roscommon, left to be chaplain and librarian to the Marchioness of Buckingham, who invited him to arrange and translate the collection of manuscripts at Stowe. There he worked intensively and, encouraged by financial help from the Buckinghams, he catalogued important Irish manuscripts and published a learned four-volume work in Latin. Many of these manuscripts, including the famous Stou e Missal, are now in the Royal Irish Academy. Tragically, he suffered a mental illness and returned to die at Belenagare. His brother, Matthew O’Conor (1773 – 1844), was also educated for the priesthood in Rome, but transferred to law. He used family documents to research many historical works. Charles Owen O’Conor Don (1838 – 1905) was educated at Downside in England, and was Member of Parliament for Roscommon until he was defeated by the Parnellites. He sat on many royal commissions and, in 1881, was president of the Royal Irish Academy. He wrote a family history, The O’Conors of Connacht.
Arthur O’Connor (1765 – 1852) was of the Conner family of Manch House, Ballineen, County Cork. He changed his name to O’Connor. He went from Trinity College, Dublin, to the Bar, practised in Dublin and was a Member of Parliament. When he joined the United Irishmen he was arrested, tried for high treason, imprisoned several times and, in 1803, deported to France. He became a general in Napoleon’s army and married Elisa de Condorcet, daughter of the French philosopher and statesman, the Marquis de Condorcet. He was known as General Condorcet O’Connor of the French Service. His wife was a niece of the Marshal de Grouchy who commanded an abortive invasion of Ireland between 1796 and 1797.
Arthur’s elder brother, Roger O’Connor (1763 – 1834), was a barrister and was also a member of the United Irishmen, which led to him serving a term of imprisonment in Fort George, Scotland. His home, Dangan Castle, burned down following a suspiciously heavy insurance cover. He eloped with a married woman. He was tried for robbing the Galway mail train and claimed that he “had but wanted to obtain from it some letters incriminating a friend”. He was outrageously eccentric and took to writing imaginary annals and foolish books.
Of the many politicians in this O’Connor family, the most flamboyant was Feargus O’Connor (1794 – 1859), a son of Roger, the eccentric, and a nephew of Arthur, the Napoleonic general. Feargus, a Protestant Irishman with a lot of energy and the gift of the gab, was born at Connerville, County Cork. He was a barrister and a supporter of the Reform Bill. Although elected as a Member of Parliament, he was unseated for lack of the required property qualifications. He founded a committee of radical unions in England, which led to the setting up of the “physical force” Chartists. He was imprisoned for seditious libels. Later he became a Member of Parliament for Nottingham. He began to deteriorate mentally and, in 1852, he was declared insane and was put in a home. It is said that when he was buried at Kensal Green in London, 50,000 people attended his funeral.
The O’Connor name has been remarkably prominent in painting and sculpture. James Arthur O’Connor (1792 – 1841) was born in Dublin and was at first an engraver, like his father. Finding this insufficiently creative, he transferred to landscape painting, and went to London where his pictures were exhibited at the Royal Academy. They were recognised as possessing extraordinary merit, but he died a poor man. He had worked for some time in Mayo, at Westport House, seat of the Marquess of Sligo of the Browne family. Many fine O’Connor paintings can be seen there. Today an Arthur O’Connor painting commands a high price.
John O’Connor (1830 – 89) of Derry began his career as a call boy in a Dublin theatre, then progressed to painting scenery. Soon he transferred to London where he worked at Drury Lane and other leading theatres. He revolutionised nineteenth-century English theatre with his stage design and scene painting. The scenery for all the leading Shakespearean plays and Greek drama revivals at Cambridge were his inspiration. He was also much in demand with the nobility as a portrait painter.
Andrew O’Connor (1874 – 1941) is the progenitor of a succession of international O’Connors who have been remarkably talented artists. Andrew’s father (also called Andrew) had taken his family to the USA where he fought in the Civil War and was afterwards commissioned in New England to design Civil War monuments. For a while he was a designer for Tiffany’s in New York. Andrew, his eldest son, also a sculptor, worked and exhibited internationally and was a pupil of Rodin. A major commission of his was the Vanderbilt Memorial bronze doors for St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York. In the USA he also sculpted many of the leading military and political heroes. The Christopher Columbus statue at Genoa is his and so is the magnificent Daniel O Connell in the Bank of Ireland in Dublin’s College Green. In Ireland his ecclesiastical sculpture was not in tune with the ideas of the hierarchy: his Triple Cross monument, which they commissioned, was hidden for many years and has only recently been erected at Dun Laoghaire Harbour in County Dublin.
His son, Patrick O’Connor (1909 – 63), served in the Second World War with the 69th Regiment of New York, the “Fighting Irish”. He was a painter and sculptor and, later, curator of the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin. In his youth he was a boxer and wrestler and represented the USA in swimming at the Tailteann Games in Dublin in 1932. His son, Andrew O’Connor (b. 1943), has been a conservator at the National Gallery of Ireland since 1974. He was one of the Executive Committee for his grandfather’s Centenary Exhibition in Dublin in 1974.
Jerome Connor (1876 – 1943) was taken to Massachusetts when he was very young. He ran away from home at 13 and worked at many trades until he found his vocation in sculpture. He held his first exhibition in Philadelphia. He sculpted the Walt Whitman Memorial and the monument to Archbishop Carroll. A cast of his statue of the Irish patriot, Robert Emmet, stands in Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green. He was moved by the Irish rising which began in 1916. He was commissioned to do a memorial to those who died when the Germans torpedoed the Lusitania off Kinsale in 1915. Working on this for fourteen years, he spent much time in Ireland where he also executed designs for the Irish coinage and did relief portraits of the members of the first Irish cabinet. In later years he suffered many frustrations and was afflicted by alcoholism and poverty.
William Conor (1884 – 1968) studied art in his native Belfast and saved every penny that he earned from manual labour until he was able to further his art studies in Dublin and Paris. He recorded the workers in the mills and shipyards of his native Belfast. Towards the end of his life he was honoured with an OBE and an honorary MA from Queen’s University, Belfast. There is a Conor Room at the Ulster Folk Museum. When asked why he spelled his name with only one N, he would say it was because he “could never make Ns meet!”
As was customary with the Irish, the O’Connors served in the military, administrative, medical and diplomatic services of many countries.
From the Kerry O’Connors came Bernard Connor (c. 1666 – 98). He studied medicine in France and Germany and afterwards travelled through Europe, gaining much experience taking care of the medical needs of important politicians and royalty. For a year he was court physician to Jan Sobieski, King of Poland. In 1694 he went to England where he was so highly regarded that he was made a licentiate of London’s College of Physicians, and a member of the prestigious French Academy. But he could not cure the fever of which he died when only thirty two.
General Luke Smythe O’Connor (1806 – 73) of Dublin served in both the East and West Indies and was Governor of The Gambia in 1852.
Colonel Charles O’Connor of the Irish Brigade was an o6icer in the royalist army in France. Sir Luke O’Connor (1832 – 1915) of Elphin, County Roscommon, enlisted in the ranks of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and won a Victoria Cross and a commission for his bravery at Alma when the Russians were defeated by the Franco-British armies in 1854.
General Gerard O’Connor raised a regiment at his own expense to fight for independence in South America. He fought in the campaigns in Venezuela and New Granada and accompanied Bolivar to Peru where he served as his Chief of Staff.
Charles O’Conor (1804 – 84), who was born in New York City, war senior counsel for Jefferson Davis in his indictment for treason.
Among the many O’Connor ecclesiastics were two brothers of the O’Connor Kerry sept, Michael (1819 – 72) and James O’Connor (1823 – 90), who were both bishops in the USA.
In Britain the O’Connors followed a diversity of callings.
Sir Nicholas Robert O’Conor (1843 – 1908) of Roscommon entered the British Diplomatic Service. He was minister at Peking from 1892 to 1895. As ambassador at St Petersburg he represented Queen Victoria at the coronation of Czar Nicholas. From 1898 until his death he was ambassador to the Sultan of Turkey.
Thomas Power O’Connor (1848 – 1929) of Athlone graduated from University College, Galway, and went to London to work as a reporter. From 1880 to 1885 he was a Nationalist Member of Parliament for Galway. In 1924 he was “father” of the House of Commons in London (the member with the longest continuous service). He made his name in the publishing world as “T.P.” O’Connor and founded and edited many newspapers, including the Star.
John O’Connor (1850 – 1928) had a rudimentary education followed by work as a van driver and commercial traveller. He was both a Fenian leader and a Member of Parliament, but he sacrificed his seat by remaining faithful to the fallen idol, Parnell. Under the Coercion Act he suffered imprisonment a number of times. He applied himself to the law and, perhaps ironically, was called to the English Bar in 1893.
James Charles O’Connor (1853 – 1928) was from Cork. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and then went on to Germany. He had the unique distinction of being a pioneer of the Esperanto movement in the English-speaking world. He translated the Gospel of St John into Esperanto and wrote many standard works on the subject.
Sir James O’Connor (1872 – 1930), a lawyer, came from Wexford. According to The Times he had “a career which was, we believe, without precedent in England or in Ireland. Starting as a solicitor, he was called to the Irish Bar, became successively Law Officer, Judge and Lord Justice, and after retirement most unusually he was re-admitted as a solicitor”.
Roderic O’Conor (1860 – 1940) was one of the Roscommon O’Conors. He studied painting in Dublin and Antwerp. Inheriting his family’s estates enabled him to live on his income and paint in France for the rest of his life. His contemporaries were Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. Gaugin was a particular friend. A film and a biography are a testament to his increasing reputation.
Peter O’Connor of Thurles won a gold medal in the Hop, Step and Jump at the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. When the Union Jack was hoisted at the presentation of the medal he climbed the flagstaff and replaced it with the flag of his native land! This first Irish flag to be flown for an Olympic victory was there to proclaim he had won for Ireland, rather than for Britain. In 1906 he set a world record for the long jump.
Terry O’Connor (d. 1983) advanced music appreciation in Ireland. Her first job was in a cinema playing six hours a day, seven days a week, for £1.25! When Radio Eireann came on the air she was appointed leader of a trio which developed into the Radio Eireann Orchestra. She founded the Dublin String Orchestra and introduced modern composers such as Britten, Bartok and Schoenberg to Ireland.
Cardinal John O’Connor was born in Philadelphia in 1920, one of seven children. His antecedents had connections in counties Cork and Roscommon. His father (b. 1883), a gold leafer in Philadelphia, was the only member of his family not to have been born in Ireland. His mother was of Bavarian origin. He was ordained in the diocese of Philadelphia in 1945 and served as chaplain with the US naval forces in the Caribbean, Europe and the USA. He was awarded several decorations and was appointed Chief Naval Chaplain in 1975. He retired in 1979 with the title of Rear Admiral and was appointed to the Military Vicariate in New York where he was Auxiliary Bishop, and later, Bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Upon the death of Cardinal Cook, he was appointed Bishop of New York and was made a cardinal in Rome by Pope John Paul II. He was on the committee of five bishops who drafted the US pastoral letter on War and Peace in 1983.
John O’Conor of Dublin (b. 1947) is one of a number of accomplished musicians who have come to the fore in Ireland in recent years. He studied in Dublin and Vienna and became known abroad when he won the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna in 1973. He tours extensively throughout the world and fills the National Concert Hall and the Royal Dublin Society’s hall when he plays in his native city.
The O’Connors are leaders in Ireland’s golfing community. In July 1985, at the Royal St George course in Sandwich, Christy O’Connor Jr. shot a first round of 64, the record set in 1934 by the great Henry Cotton.
In dealing with the landed proprietors of Connacht, among the most distinguished members of the O’Conor Don stock four O’Conors of Belnagare are outstanding in the field of culture: Charles O’Conor (1710-1791), antiquary and collector of Irish manuscripts; his two grandsons, Rev. Charles O’Conor, D.D., P.P. (1764- 1828), librarian at Stowe and author, inter alia, of Rerum Hibernicarum Seriptores Veteres, and Mathew O’Conor (1773-1844), author of History of the Irish Catholics etc; and Charles Owen O’Conor, O’Conor Don (1838-1906), President of the Royal Irish Academy and of the Society for Preserving the Irish Language and author of The O’Conors of Connacht.
In the military sphere Cabrach O’Conor (1584-1655) and Hugh O’Conor (d. 1669), respectively son and grandson of O’Conor Don, took a prominent part in the 1641-1652 wars. Three of this sept were outstanding in the Irish Brigade. More recently, one of the Roe branch, General Sir Luke O’Connor (1832-1915), who had enlisted as a private soldier in the British army, won the V.C. and a commission for his remarkable bravery at the battle of Alma.
O’Connor Kerry, as the chief of the Munster O’Connors was called, derives his name from a different Conchobhar. He was lord of an extensive area in north Kerry, but after the invasion of 1170 Anglo-Norman pressure pushed the O’Connors northwards towards the Shannon estuary. However, they still retained a considerable territory, in fact the greater part of the modern barony of Iraghticonor, which is an attempt at a phonetic spelling of Oireacht ui Chonchobhair, i.e. O’Connor’s district of government: their chief stronghold in Iraghticonor. was Carrigafoyle Castle. From this sept came a number of distinguished officers of the Irish Brigade in France, the best known of whom was Arthur O’Connor (1763-1852), United Irishman and later a general in Napoleon’s army; his brother Roger O’Connor (1761-1834), an erratic character who was also a member of the United Irishmen, and the latter’s son, Fergus O’Connor (1794-1855), the chartist. Some of this family changed their name to Conner.