Sunday, 22 June 2008

Feargus O'Connor: A political life

The publication of Paul Pickering's biography of Feargus O'Connor is an important event for all those who study Chartism.  Given his central position in the movement and in radicalism generally from the 1830s to the mid-1850s, it is perhaps surprising that the only full-length study of his life was published as long ago as 1961 when Donald Read and Eric Glasgow produced their Feargus O'Connor: Irishman and Chartist.  We have James Epstein's excellent The Lion of Freedom but it only covers the decade from 1832 to 1842 in detail paying little attention to O'Connor's life after the climactic strikes of 1842.  In fact, Epstein devoted only nine pages to questions such as the Land Plan, Kennington Common and O'Connor's second period as an MP.   As Pickering points out in his 'bibliographical note', 'it is notable that O'Connor is not included in the first eleven volumes of the Dictionary of Labour Biography.' 

This is not, as Pickering acknowledges, a 'comprehensive biography' covering the daily minutiae of O'Connor's life but a 'sketch' of his career 'to balance...a consideration of his pre-Chartist and later-Chartist activities and to better understand his ideas...'.  In that it succeeds very effectively.  At the core of the book is an examination of the Irish dimension of O'Connor's career by considering his heritage, ideas and public life on both sides of the Irish Sea.  For O'Connor, more than any other contemporary radical leader, bringing the 'working Saxon and Celt' together in their common struggle' lay at the heart of his thinking, something Pickering shows had roots deep in the Irish past.  It was O'Connor's Irishness that provides the leit-motif for his radical career, something that is frequently played down by historians.  The strength of Pickering's book is that he shows that this is the key to understanding O'Connor's involvement in the Chartist movement though, in practice, the Irish dimension only emerged as a key element within Chartism in 1848 and Chartism failed to establish firm roots in Ireland initially because of opposition from O'Connell though O'Connor persisted with his Irish mission until the late 1840s. 

The achievement of the book is its success in establishing O'Connor as a more rounded and less caricatured figure within Irish and British radicalism.  In the absence of a comprehensive biography, it is certain to establish itself as the key study of O'Connor's life and justifiably so. 

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