Sunday, 11 October 2009

Book Review: Feargus O'Connor: A Political Life

From LSHG Newsletter No. 33, Autumn 2008.

Feargus O’Connor: A political life
Paul Pickering
Paperback: 240 pp
The Merlin Press Ltd
ISBN 978-0850365610

Feargus O’Connor [1794-1855] was the first modern leader of the British working-class movement. He came from an Irish landowning - he claimed aristocratic - family, and held a country seat in Ireland. He qualified for the bar in London and was elected MP for Cork in 1833. Unseated in 1837 for failing to have the requisite financial status, he became the leader of the Chartist movement and founder and owner of its paper The Northern Star.
O’Connor was a larger than life figure, a ‘gentleman leader’, and had indefatigable energy, touring the country, usually at his own expense, addressing meetings. He was arrested and tried on several occasions for political offences and was jailed at York in 1841. He initiated the Chartist Land Company in 1845 which developed a number of Chartist villages where smallholdings were allocated by lottery. The villages remain to this day. In 1847 he was elected MP for Nottingham, and led the Chartist march on Monday 10th April 1848 at Kennington. However he had contracted syphilis in the early 1830s and by the early 1850s the physical and mental side effects meant he was confined to an asylum in Chiswick. His funeral in 1855 was attended by over 50,000 people.

Paul Pickering has several innovative volumes of radical and labour history under his belt, which have focused on words, dress and symbolism in nineteenth century working-class movements, but always with a firm anchor of class analysis about them. His new biography of Feargus O’Connor continues with this
approach, but the main theme of the book is surely to rescue the ‘Lion of Freedom’ from the enormous condescension of posterity to which he was consigned by Read and Glasgow’s biography almost 50 years ago now.

There has not been a great deal of real substance in the interim. James Epstein produced a useful and insightful volume on O’Connor up to 1842, and the recent history of Chartism by Malcolm Chase has a good deal of up-to-date research on O’Connor which Pickering largely echoes. Where Pickering really scores is in capturing the flavour and spirit of O’Connor as leader of the world’s first working-class movement, and in providing a context to the development of his political approach.

It is by no means a comprehensive biography - such an effort would probably need to run to several volumes - publisher allowing - but Pickering does provide new details of what O’Connor was doing during his first spell in Parliament as MP for Cork from 1833-37 and his period in York Gaol in 1841-2. The balance of the book is weighted towards the earlier years of O’Connor’s life and as an historian of late Chartism I would have liked to have seen more on the last ten years of his life, but that is no criticism of Pickering’s book, merely a hint that there is further scope for research here.

Pickering firmly situates O’Connor’s entire political career in the context not only of his Irish origins but the impact of British imperialism. He demonstrates that the political demands that O’Connor raised when he was elected MP for Cork in 1833 remained largely those that he followed for the next 20 years on both sides of the Irish Sea. However Pickering underlines that in a number of ways O’Connor was the last great figure of eighteenth century radicalism, with political time running out on him as the nineteenth century wore on. So, for example, by the 1840s it was not that Irish Republicans disagreed with his political programme but that they completely disagreed that there was any point in pushing this in a Parliament based in London. They wanted to break the Union entirely. O’Connor by contrast argued that this would be of little benefit without the programme of the Charter being carried.

There is a tension in the book here because Pickering also demonstrates that O’Connor was amongst the first - arguably his hero Henry Hunt came before him - who understood how to lead a mass working-class movement. Pickering discusses the theatricality of O’Connor’s public presence - a familiar issue for politicians in the early twenty-first century- but quite new in the 1830 and 1840s when the idea of a national audience and the means of communication to address it was just developing, whether through the press, the post or the railways. Pickering shows for example how O’Connor on release from York Gaol, and met by a huge crowd, wore a suit of fustian- rough cotton - to identify with the dress of many of his supporters.

There is useful detail in the book on O’Connor’s Parliamentary performances when he was MP for Cork in
the early 1830s and on his activities and writings while in York Gaol, but there is not an overwhelming amount of new research. Rather Pickering tries to provide a sympathetic account of O’Connor the Chartist leader and rather than being critical of his larger than life excesses, as Read and Glasgow are- tries to show how this was mostly a necessary part of being someone like Feargus O’Connor. Any comparison with George Galloway MP is probably entirely accidental, but the book can also be read as a wry and entertaining commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of a certain style of political leadership.
Keith Flett

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