O'CONOR, Owen, the O'Conor Don (1763-1831), of Belanagare and Clonalis, co. Roscommon
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Family and Educationb. 6 Mar. 1763, 1st s. of Denis O’Conor of Belanagare and Catherine, da. of Martin Browne of Clonfad, co. Westmeath. m. 20 June 1792, Jane, da. of James Moore of Mount Browne, co. Dublin, 2s. 5da. suc. fa. 1804; kinsman Alexander O’Conor as O’Conor Don 12 Dec. 1820. d. 12 June 1831.1
O’Conor was descended from the ancient kings of Connaught through a younger son of Sir Hugh O’Conor Don (1541-1632) of Ballintubber Castle, sometime Member for county Roscommon. His grandfather Charles O’Conor (1710-91) was a noted antiquary and his father Denis and uncle Charles (1736-1808) of Mount Allen, as heirs to one of the oldest and most extensive Irish landholding families in the province, participated in the Catholic agitation of the late eighteenth century. Owen, who served as a Volunteer in 1782 and was one of the Roscommon delegates to the Catholic convention in 1793, was also active in this campaign and probably became involved with the United Irishmen. However, except for his remark to Wolfe Tone in January 1793 that he was prepared for extreme measures, he steered clear of revolutionary activity, unlike his radical cousin Thomas (of Mount Allen), who in 1801 emigrated to New York; it was there that his son Charles (1804-84) became a prominent Democrat lawyer.2 After the Union, which O’Conor opposed, he joined in the renewed movement for Catholic relief, regularly serving in the delegations sent to lobby ministers in London; the extent of his commitment can be gauged by the large number of requisitions, resolutions, addresses and letters relating to local and national meetings that remain scattered throughout his surviving papers. In 1810 his brother Charles (1764-1828), a Catholic priest and polemicist (who wrote the memoirs of his grandfather and was librarian at Stowe), dedicated Columbanus’s Third Letter to him, and in 1813 the Catholics of Roscommon presented him with a silver cup in recognition of his services. During that decade he became increasingly close to Daniel O’Connell*, who valued him for his integrity, straightforwardness and perseverance. Writing to O’Conor, as he often did, to encourage his presence at a crucial gathering, 15 June 1819, O’Connell stressed ‘the utility of your honesty, conciliatory temper and admitted respectability’.3
Denis O’Conor’s fourth cousin Dominick O’Conor (d. 1795) had left Clonalis to his wife (d. 1814) and then to Owen as future head of the family. This was disputed by Dominick’s younger brother Alexander, who succeeded him as the O’Conor Don and had delusions of establishing himself as a self-styled monarch in a rebuilt Ballintubber Castle; he and his next brother Thomas, who predeceased him, were described by Skeffington Gibbon as ‘men of high and noble birth, but from their eccentric, secluded, pecuniary difficulties and habits, hardly known beyond the walls of the smoky and despicable hovels in which they lived and died’. After protracted litigation that reduced the value of the property, O’Conor purchased Clonalis outright in 1805, and on Alexander’s death in December 1820 he inherited the headship of the Don part of the old Catholic clan of the O’Conors. The following month he wrote a letter to the press to dismiss rival claims to this title, which the king, however, refused to recognize as an official designation through the issuing of supporters to his armorial bearings.4
By the early 1820s the O’Conor Don was one of the most influential of the older generation of reformers in the Catholic Association. For instance, in early 1821 his attendance in Dublin was considered by O’Connell as essential for ensuring Catholic unity on the divisive issue of the proposed royal veto on episcopal appointments, and later that year it was largely at his insistence that the Catholics’ national address to George IV on his visit to Ireland was confined solely to uncontentious expressions of loyalty.5 He continued to play a leading part in the regular petitioning by his co-religionists in Roscommon, where he gave his considerable electoral interest in support of the pro-Catholic county Members. At the general election of 1826, when he seconded Arthur French*, he condemned the unopposed return of the apparently hostile Robert King, and he chaired a meeting of the county’s Catholics that summer, when it was proposed to present him with a piece of plate in gratitude for his unceasing exertions on their behalf.6 In the latter half of 1828, when he became president of the Roscommon Independent Club, he played a prominent part at Catholic gatherings in his own and neighbouring counties, and he apparently extracted a promise from King that he would vote for relief.7 Early the following year O’Connell congratulated him on their eventual success in the struggle for emancipation, commenting that ‘no gentleman had a more useful or honourable share in this contest than you had and that at times when we were abandoned by many of the highest names’.8 He chaired a celebratory meeting of the Friends of Civil and Religious Liberty in Roscommon, 8 June 1829, and opposed the efforts of King’s father Lord Lorton to suppress unrest by invoking the Insurrection Act in the county that winter.9
The O’Conor Don, who spoke against the introduction of poor laws to Ireland and the increased Irish stamp and spirit duties at county meetings, 30 Mar. and 12 June 1830, agreed to offer at the general election that summer, when he pledged to support a range of radical reforms and to devote the rest of his life to the Irish cause. Nothing in the end came of a threatened Tory opposition and, benefiting from the able assistance of his sons Denis and Edward as agents, he was returned unopposed as the first Catholic to represent Roscommon since his ancestor Sir Hugh.10 Listed by Pierce Mahony† among the ‘neutrals’ and by ministers among their ‘foes’, he voted against government in the division on the civil list that led to the duke of Wellington’s resignation, 15 Nov. He divided in the minority for O’Connell’s motion for repeal of the Irish Subletting Act, 11 Nov., and the following month, at a meeting of Irish Members, concurred with his decision to introduce their own reform bill.11 On 4 Dec. he joined Brooks’s, sponsored by Lords Althorp* and Duncannon*. He argued that the proposed inquiry into agricultural distress and the game bill should be extended to Ireland, 6, 7 Dec., and spoke in defence of the grand jury system, 9 Dec., and the landed interest, 17 Dec. He presented petitions against the grant to the Kildare Place Society, 10, 16 Dec. 1830, 15, 29 Mar. 1831, when he brought up two others from the Catholics of Kilteeven for repeal of the Irish Vestries Act and abolition of tithes. He declared himself in favour of repeal of the Union at a Roscommon meeting, 14 Jan., and was later thanked by the rope makers of Dublin for his statement that the English were not competent to legislate for Ireland.12 He voted for the second reading of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 22 Mar., when (as on 29 Mar., 18 Apr.) he said that the Irish welcomed reform, and against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. He blamed the unrest in county Clare on the prevailing distress, 13 Apr. 1831.
According to the letters that the O’Conor Don sent home from London, he apparently threw himself into its parliamentary and social life and complained so much of weariness that his family feared for his health.13 He travelled to Roscommon for the general election of 1831, when he and French defeated a Tory anti-reformer, but died at Belanagare in the middle of June, his death being attributed to the effect of changed habits of life and over zealous attention to constituency interests at his advanced age.14 His title, estates and parliamentary seat were inherited by his elder son Denis, to whom O’Connell wrote later that month:
The death of my most respected and loved friend, your father, was to me a severe blow ... How little does the world know of the value of the public services of men who like him held themselves always in readiness without ostentation or parade but with firmness and sincerity to aid in the struggles which nations make for liberty ... I really know no one individual to whom the Catholics of Ireland are so powerfully indebted for the successful result of their contest for emancipation ... His was not holiday patriotism ... No, in the worst of times and when the storms of calumny and persecution from our enemies and apathy and treachery from our friends raged at their height he was always found at his post.15
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Stephen Farrell
- 1. The Times, 17 June 1831.
- 2. C.O. O’Conor, O’Conors of Connaught, 308, 312, 314, 316-18, 321-4; Life of Tone ed. T. Bartlett, 199-200; L. Gibbons, ‘Republicanism and Radical Memory: The O’Conors, O’Carolan and the United Irishmen’, in Revolution, Counter-Revolution and Union ed. J. Smyth, 211-37.
- 3. O’Conor, 324-8; O’Conor Pprs. ed. G.W. and J.E. Dunleavy, pp. xv-xvi, 83-190, passim; G. Costigan, ‘Tragedy of Charles O’Conor’, AHR, xlix (1943-4), 32-54; O’Connell Corresp. i. 338, 504; ii. 571, 754, 757, 772, 803, 839; O. MacDonagh, Hereditary Bondsman, 164-7.