Irishman’s Diary: TP O’Connor

‘HIS PEN could lay bare the bones of a book or the soul of a statesman in a few vivid lines”. These words were written in praise of the man who founded the Sun newspaper: journalist, politician and Irish nationalist, TP O’Connor.

The inscription appears, etched in brass, below a bust of a hirsute O’Connor on an easily missed plaque, halfway down Fleet Street, in central London. The Royal Courts of Justice, where the proprietor of the current incarnation of the Sun (no relation), Rupert Murdoch, has been defending himself at the Leveson inquiry, is just a couple of hundred metres down the street. Between O’Connor’s statue and the courts stands “The Tipperary”, formerly the Boar’s Head, reputedly the first Irish pub outside the island.

O’Connor established the Sun in 1891. As he later admitted, in his Memoirs of an Old Parliamentarian, the paper was started with “insufficient capital” and quickly degenerated into a “Frankenstein of a monster”.

O’Connor “got rid of the struggle and the agony by selling the Sun” a short time later. Despite this setback, O’Connor’s life, and work, had a long-lasting influence on both British journalism and the UK’s Irish community.

Thomas Power O’Connor (better known as TP or Tay Pay) was born in Athlone in 1848. He was the eldest son of Thomas O’Connor, a small tradesman, while his mother hailed from the minor gentry; his second name was in honour of her father, Capt Power, who served with Wellington. A gifted student, he won a scholarship to Queen’s College, Galway, graduating at 18 in history and modern languages.

After a spell at the Dublin daily, Saunder’s Newsletter – which he described as “a good old State-and-Church full-blown Protestant organ” – O’Connor left for London, and Fleet Street, in 1870. That year war broke out between France and Germany; O’Connor’s linguistic skills landed him a lucrative job as a sub-editor on the Daily Telegraph.

A quarrel over money led to a premature exit from the Telegraph. O’Connor spent the next seven years scraping a living as a freelance until, in 1880, his biography of then prime minister Benjamin Disraeli launched an unlikely career as a politician and newspaper owner. In the general election that same year Disraeli was heavily defeated by Gladstone and the Liberals – aided by O’Connor’s critical account of the Tory leader – with TP winning a Home Rule seat in Galway by just six votes.

Five years later, as Parnell won “every seat in Ireland outside eastern Ulster and Trinity College, Dublin”, O’Connor was returned as the Irish Parliamentary Party member for the Scotland division of Liverpool. O’Connor, the only Irish Home Rule candidate elected in England, held the seat continuously until his death, in 1929.

In 1888, at the age of 40, O’Connor founded the paper that made his name: the Star. The rationale behind the paper was simple: “The cause of Home Rule was without any advocate in the evening press of London; I conceived the idea, half in hope, half in terror, that I might start a journal myself in favour of the views of myself and my friends”. Within weeks he had convinced friends and benefactors to invest £40,000 in the new publication.

The halfpenny Star was no partisan Home Rule sheet. Inspired by the “New Journalism” of the American newspapers, O’Connor, a self-styled “radical”, assembled a stellar team of writers and editors: George Bernard Shaw began his career as a leader writer on the Star (although political quarrels later necessitated a move to musical criticism); Henry William Massingham went on to edit the Morning Chronicle and the Nation; Gordon Hewart was later lord chief justice.

Writing of his time at the Star, O’Connor later complained, “some of our biggest things in life turn to bitterness and futility”. Indeed, TP lasted only three years at the newspaper’s helm – staying up late at the Commons, rising early to write leader articles – but he made his mark on Fleet Street. O’Connor was arguably the first newspaper owner to appreciate the power of human-interest stories; his “Mainly About People” proving a huge hit with the Star’s ever-increasingly readership. It was a technique imitated by many of his competitors.

While the fortunes of the Irish Parliamentary Party fell, O’Connor remained a popular Irish voice in the Commons. He became “Father of the House” during the first Labour government and was a columnist for both the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times, another publication now owned by Murdoch’s News International.

A crafty operator, O’Connor was not above journalism’s dark arts. After being erroneously identified as Jack the Ripper by an injudicious Star sub-editor, an East End man known universally as “Leather Apron” demanded £100 in compensation.

Under O’Connor’s permiture, he was given £50 and told where another £50 could be easily found: by approaching another Fleet Street paper that had repeated the Star’s insinuations. “Leather Apron” accepted the offer and took no legal action.

This Irishman’s Diary appeared on July 17.