This guest blog comes from Dr. Aidan Enright, of Leeds Beckett University, who has recently published a book on the O’Conor Don’s political career, and who has also written the biographical article on the O’Conor Don for our 1832-68 House of Commons project.
Charles Owen O’Conor (1838-1906) was a prominent Irish Liberal Catholic MP who sought to advance Catholic and Irish interests within the Union and the empire while resisting the forces of secularism and nationalism. Born into a wealthy landowning family who could trace their lineage to the last high king of Ireland in the twelfth century, he inherited large estates in counties Roscommon and Sligo, and was more commonly known by the honorary Gaelic title, the O’Conor Don.
First elected to Parliament at a by-election in 1860, the O’Conor Don vowed to follow in the Liberal footsteps of his grandfather, Owen, and father, Denis, both of whom were allies of Daniel O’Connell in the campaign for Catholic emancipation in the 1820s and sat as Liberal MPs for County Roscommon in the 1830s and 1840s. But with his father having also served as a junior lord of the treasury in Lord John Russell’s Whig-Liberal government during the Great Irish Famine, the O’Conor Don was wary of being perceived as a ‘regular Whig or English party hack … waiting to receive office’. Indeed, when Russell offered him the same post in 1866, he turned it down.
Political expediency aside, the O’Conor Don was a fiercely independent and devout Catholic whose Liberalism was inflected with a conservative ultramontanism. He therefore differed from the Liberal Party on the education question, particularly its support for the secular Queen’s colleges in Belfast, Cork and Galway, and its opposition to a charter for the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin. Close to but not subservient to the Catholic bishops, he argued that a truly liberal state ought to provide ‘freedom of education,’ enabling all denominations to offer the type of education they wanted, either in their own universities or colleges, or through one national university with affiliated colleges. Like most Irish Liberal MPs, he thought William Gladstone a great man who would ‘do justice’ to Ireland by disestablishing the Protestant Church of Ireland and tackling the land and education questions. The Liberal Party swept to power on this platform in 1868, delivering disestablishment in 1869 and a land act in 1870. However, Gladstone’s university bill of 1873, which proposed a national university, was defeated due to the absence of funding for its Catholic college. The O’Conor Don opposed the bill on these grounds, warning that the failure of Parliament to address Irish Catholics’ desire for a Catholic education would only strengthen the call for Irish home rule.
He was not, however, speaking as a supporter of home rule. Indeed, the O’Conor Don declined to join Isaac Butt’s Home Government Association in 1870 and opposed his federalist proposals at a national conference in November 1873. Disillusioned with politics, the O’Conor Don considered standing down at the 1874 general election, but his fellow Liberal, William Monsell, convinced him to stay the course. Returned unopposed for a third time, he sat as an independent Liberal, refusing to join Butt’s Home Rule Party while cooperating with Nationalists, Liberals and Conservatives to achieve Irish reforms. In 1876-7, he opposed Butt’s proposals for fixity of tenure for tenant farmers on the basis that it would lead to a form of dual ownership that would satisfy neither landlord nor tenant. Instead, the O’Conor Don argued that the state should facilitate the transfer of land from landlords to tenants through compulsory purchase, thereby making the latter owner occupiers. In 1878 his long-standing support for temperance saw him guide a bill for the Sunday closing of public houses in Ireland through the House, while his lobbying behind the scenes helped put the Irish language on the intermediate education curriculum. In 1879 he introduced a bill for an examining university for Catholic colleges, which prompted Disraeli’s Conservative government to introduce and pass their own bill for an examining university for secular and denominational colleges, namely, the Royal University of Ireland.
Despite these successes, the O’Conor Don’s opposition to home rule and fixity of tenure made him unpopular with nationalists in County Roscommon. But he refused to bend his views to popular opinion, stating publicly that the job of an MP was to represent the interests of his constituents in accordance with his own judgement. During the 1880 general election campaign, Charles Stuart Parnell, the MP for County Meath, denounced the O’Conor Don as ‘a symbol of West Britonism in Ireland’ and ensured there were two nationalist candidates standing against him. He duly lost his seat to J. J. O’Kelly, an anti-clerical republican. The O’Conor Don reluctantly put himself forward to contest a County Wexford by-election for the Liberal Party in 1883 but was comprehensively defeated by the nationalist candidate, William Redmond.
His parliamentary career now over, the O’Conor Don nonetheless used his Dublin Castle and Westminster connections to make the case for land, local government and franchise reform. Repulsed by the agrarian agitations of the Land League and the tacit support for them from Parnell’s Home Rule Party, and, increasingly, the bishops and clergy, he split from Gladstone and the Liberal Party on home rule in 1886. Although ‘no lover of the union’, he opposed home rule again in 1893, employing the orthodox unionist argument that an Irish Parliament dominated by nationalists and republicans would lead to the break-up of the Union and the empire. He was, therefore, a Catholic unionist, despite his discomfort with the often anti-Catholic rhetoric of popular Protestant unionism. He was also a lifelong loyalist, as evidenced by his bearing of the standard of Ireland at the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. But the O’Conor Don was now firmly ensconced in the margins of Irish politics, his eclectic mix of ‘old liberal opinions’ no longer tenable in a society increasingly divided along Protestant unionist and Catholic nationalist lines.
A. Enright, Charles Owen O’Conor, ‘The O’Conor Don’: Landlordism, liberal Catholicism and unionism in nineteenth-century Ireland (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2022).