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.

An Irishman's Diary

In response to the awful fire that ripped through St Mel’s cathedral on Christmas morning I wrote this piece for An Irishman’s Diary in The Irish Times. The piece appeared 04/01/2010.

‘THE ONLY thing the town has had to be proud of is gone”. This terse comment, left on the internet forum, said it all: for the people of Longford, St Mel’s cathedral is not just a place of worship, it is an iconic landmark, a repository of history, and a symbol of the self-less devotion of an impoverished nation.

Nevertheless, the fire that tore through St Mel’s on Christmas morning has eviscerated one of Ireland’s best known cathedrals and cast a shadow across the midlands market town in whose life it has been central for over 150 years.

Like many in Longford, I was awoken on that morning not by the sound of excited children opening presents or family members enjoying Christmas breakfast but by the anxious voice of a neighbour. The call came just after 8am, by then St Mel’s had already been on fire for around three hours. Half asleep, I stood at the back window of my mother’s kitchen staring in horror as – less than a mile away – bright orange flames danced across the cruciform cathedral’s outstretched arms and thick black smoke bellowed into the sky. A few hours later, the building was still smouldering – the walls had survived the conflagration but almost everything inside was destroyed.

Christmas Masses did take place in Longford, although in a nearby community centre, not the town’s magnificent neo-classical cathedral. Given that fire services were tackling the blaze throughout the morning, it was remarkable that the traditional ceremonies were held at all, but that they were speaks volumes for the indefatigable spirit that has characterised St Mel’s from its earliest days.

St Mel’s cathedral was the brainchild of Bishop William O’Higgins, a native of Drumlish, in north Longford, and a fervent supporter of Daniel O’Connell and the Emancipation movement. Even after 1829, Catholics in the midlands continued to face persecution, strengthening O’Higgins’s resolve that the diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise needed its own purpose-built cathedral.

Educated in Paris, O’Higgins found inspiration for his new cathedral in the City of Lights’ famous Madeleine cathedral, as well as the Pantheon and the Basilica of St John Lateran. On May 19th, 1840, more than 40,000 parishioners as well as clergy from a far afield as Australia and the United States were present as the foundation stone, which was taken from the ruined 8th-century cathedral of St Mel in Ardagh, Co Longford, was laid.

It is impossible to overestimate the psychological import of St Mel’s cathedral for the people of Longford and surrounding counties, particularly in its early years. Longford in the middle of the 19th century was a poor market town, the majority of whose inhabitants lived in mud huts and thatched houses, but from the midst of this squalor the cathedral’s massive Doric pilasters began to rise. The local economy also benefited: most of the limestone used in the construction came from west Longford and Knockcroghery in Co Roscommon.

Since opening in 1856 – building work was suspended during the famine – St Mel’s has housed practically every item of historical interest or significance in county Longford. As well as the 10th-century crozier of St Mel and various reliquaries, the Holy Family Altar, which had been rescued from a Roman church that was sacked during the Garibaldi campaign, was lost in the fire.

I left Longford many years ago – had the tragic fire not happened during the holidays I probably would not have been around to witness it – but, like so many others, St Mel’s was a vital presence in my life. It was first and foremost a religious place – I made my communion and confirmation there, and celebrated countless births, marriages and deaths within its now fire ravaged walls – but my strongest memories of it are cultural: almost every trip home incorporated a pit-stop to admire the finest works of art in Longford, the remarkable Harry Clarke windows that adorned the cathedral.

The stained glass, like so much else in St Mel’s, is irreplaceable, and the estimate of €2 million worth of damage quoted in the media has caused dismay on the streets of Longford. As one St Stephen’s Day reveller put it to me, “It will cost that much just to get the cathedral to the point where you can spend money repairing it.” The real cost of repairing St Mel’s is likely to run into eight figures, but in Longford town I found a genuine determination to see the cathedral rebuilt. History is on its side: in 1838 Bishop O’Higgins travelled to all 41 parishes of the diocese, raising £2,000 from ordinary people for the new cathedral.

O’Higgins’s contemporaries have many difficult questions to answer but, for many in Longford and across the Midlands, restoring St Mel’s is about much more than religion.