THE MYSTERY OF JAMES O’CONNOR
O'Connor coat of arms
The O'Connor Sligo (O Conchobhair Shligigh) were a branch of the O Conchobhair royal family who were Kings of Connacht and descended from the last High King of Ireland, Brian Luighnech O Conchobhair ( 1181). Occupying a prominent position in the affairs of Sligo, town and county, for over three hundred years the O’Connors were Lords of Carbury and Sligo into the 17th century. The head of this ancient clan in the 17th century was Donough O’Connor who died in Sligo in August 1609.
Dispossession of the O'Connor Sligoe
'Wheresoever the body shall be the vultures also are gathered together”, O’Rourke remarks in his History of Sligo (1898)noting that Donough and Teige O’Connor were dispossessed of their properties which were divided up between Cromwellian adventurers and soldiers following the death of Donough.
'At this date,' O’Rourke says, 'the proud name of O’Connor Sligoe drops out of view; nor is there henceforth any written evidence to attest the condition of the family or its genealogical succession, so that history, strictly so called, can give no help towards identifying its present representative… The O’Connors Sligoe having fallen from their social status, public documents took no notice of them; and as they had lost all their property, there could be no occasion of wills or deeds, even if the law allowed Catholics to be parties to such instruments, which, as everyone knows, it did not.'
Notwithstanding this the O’Connor clan subsequently gave numbers of prominent sons to Sligo who contributed in great measure to its business and commerce. There were many forces too that could drive a Sligo man to leave his native region and emigrate. In this article readers are asked to help shed further light on one such emigrant, James O’Connor, as they learn more from the few details sketched here. Investigations in his native Sligo have drawn a blank, nor can any record be found of his ‘printing office’ mentioned below.
The only paper of which there is a record from around that time is the ‘Sligo Journal’, an organ of the British establishment, with offices on Castle St. The earliest copies in existence of that paper date from 1810.
Sligo City at the Courthouse
James O'Connor driven from Sligo
What do we already know of O’Connor? His obituary of 1819 provides a scant outline of his life. Here we read that he and his family lived in Sligo Town where he was born in 1759. After learning the printing trade in Dublin and London, James “returned to his native town, where with the assistance of a friend, he commenced the publication of a paper, coeval with the commencement of the troubles in Ireland. Being inimical to the measures which the government was then prosecuting against his devoted country, he commented on them in such indignant and spirited terms as to draw down upon him the vengeance of the royal party... In those days it was only necessary to point the finger of suspicion in order to insure the immolation of a victim. His printing office was annihilated, and he, together with all his relations in Sligo, were proscribed and compelled to fly from the fangs of despotic power. With a small wreck of his property he procured the means of emigrating to America, and landed in Norfolk some time in the year 1794, nearly destitute of funds.”
A New Life in Norfolk, Virginia
Norfolk, Virginia Civil War period
Norfolk, Virginia was a thriving seaport town of some 3,000 people when James arrived. Within a few months he became co-owner of the Norfolk and Portsmouth Herald, where he was senior Editor for 24 years until his death in 1819 at age 60. James O’Connor took the oath of American citizenship in Norfolk in 1804; one Taaffe O’Connor, possibly a brother, had taken the oath the preceding year.
Another few words from his obituary in the Herald give a small insight into James’s political views. “ The wretched condition of his native Erin caused him many a sigh, and many a melancholy retrospect; but in the land of his adoption he beheld the benefactress of his persecuted countrymen, the kind and affectionate step-mother, whose open arms received them as her natural offspring.”
Would James have learned in Sligo that among Norfolk’s citizens were some forty or so fellow exiles, who had found a safe haven and were leading happy lives? For by the 1790s one John Roarke operated the Exchange Coffee House, Redmond Bourke owned a grocery shop, and on Main Street, Fen-Church Street, and Market Square there was a boarding house, a leather shop, and Catholic church, all owned by Irish people. There was a watch-maker, a surgeon, a bricklayer, a sail-maker, two sea-captains, a brewer, and a rope manufacturer — all Irish exiles.
The songster Tom Moore visited Norfolk in 1804 on his American tour, no doubt full of news about the Risings of 1798 and 1803, and about the heroic legal efforts of John Philpot Curran to defend the insurrectionists in the courts in Ireland. In fact, at our man O’Connor’s death, his junior editor published a poem written by Curran called “The Green Spot That Blooms O’er the Desert of Life” as a poignant memorial to O’Connor’s life and views.
Sligo Abbey, burial place of Donough O'Connor
Of his wife, Eliza O’Connor, we know only of her death in Norfolk in June, 1811, when she was 37 years of age.
Such are the few known details about James O’Connor. Readers are asked to forward any other information about him to SligoHeritage, or to the writer of this article, Kevin Donleavy, who lives in Virginia.
(Note: Kevin can be reached at email@example.com You can also listen on the Web to his monthly radio program of Irish traditional music “Atlantic Weekly Part Two” 10 a.m Virginia time (3 p.m. Irish time). It airs on the first Saturday of every month on www.WTJU.net.)
The Green Spot that blooms o'er the Desert of Life
O'er the desert of life, where you plainly pursued
Those phantoms of hope which their promise disown,
Have you ne'er met some spirit divinely endued
That so kindly could say, You don't suffer alone ?
And however your fate may have smiled or have frowned,
Will she deign still to share as the friend or the wife ?
Then make her the pulse of your heart, for you've found
The green spot that blooms o'er the desert of lie.
Does she love to recall the past moments so dear,
When the sweet pledge of faith was confidingly given,
When the lip spoke the voice of affection sincere,
And the vow was exchanged and recorded in Heaven ?
Does she wish to rebind what already was bound
And draw closer the claim of the friend and the wife ?
Then make her the pulse of your heart; for you've found
The green spot that blooms o'er the desert of life.
--- John Philpot Curran
(Published in 1819 in THE HERALD newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia, on the death of its editor, James O'Connor. Curran, who was the legal counsel for the United Irishmen, died in Ireland in 1817.)
More on James O'Connor:
(28/12/'07) Kevin Donleavey tells me that a small piece in the jigsaw of the "Mystery of James O'Connor" has been discovered: "He did indeed publish a newspaper, the "Sligo Morning Herald," in a shop on Market Street.The reference was found in THE HISTORY OF SLIGO TOWN AND COUNTY, by T.O'Rourke (pg.541, Vol.2). A question now raises its head: did the English authorities connect O'Connor to the militant Defender movement in the 1790s in the Sligo area?"
We will advise you of new discoveries as they unfold on this page.
"A people without knowledge of their history is like a tree without roots"