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Arthur O'Connor

 
O'Connor castle
 The restored castle at Le Bignon-Mirabeau
Clever, ambitious, opinionated and opportunistic, Arthur O’Connor (Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, 1763 – Le Bignon-Mirabeau, 1852) had a long relationship with France, stretching from visits before the French Revolution to his death as a notable de province in a small castle south of Paris. 

O’Connor visited France at least twice in the early 1780s—first, in 1784, when he spent several months in Dijon and then again in 1787. In August 1792, O’Connor, by then a member of the Irish parliament, was back in revolutionary France, when he met General Lafayette at Sedan. Four years later, by which time he had become an ardent United Irishman, O’Connor was in France again. Together with Lord Edward Fitzgerald, he met general Lazare Hoche in Angers in August 1796. Seeing himself as the equivalent of George Washington, leading the Irish nation to liberty with French help, O’Connor was later to claim that he rather than Wolfe Tone was the driving force behind the disastrous Hoche expedition to Bantry Bay in December 1796. O’Connor left France after his meeting with Hoche. He was not to turn up there again until late 1802. A large part of the intervening six years were spent in prison in Ireland, England and Ireland.

During these years of scheming and serving prison sentences, O’Connor came to know Thomas Addis Emmet, who quickly developed an intense dislike of his fellow United Irishman. Both men were kicked out of the United Kingdom upon their release from Georgetown prison in Scotland in June 1802 and set route for Cuxhaven in Germany, where Emmet challenged O’Connor to a duel. (A quarrelsome individual, O’Connor was to be challenged to another duel, again unfought, a couple of years later by a Captain MacNeven, an ally of the Emmet's who had enrolled in Napoleon’s Irish Legion). When they arrived in Paris, Emmet and O’Connor vied for the attention of the French military authorities—much to the detriment of the United Irishmen cause they were both supposed to promote. Emmet in his diaries drops broad and unfounded hints that O’Connor was a spy for the British, while O’Connor later returned the compliment by describing Emmet as “a coward, and a man of bad faith”.  


 
O'Connor expulsion
 
O'Connor magazine
Expulsion order for O'Connor  'L'Etat réligieux de la France et de l'Europe", outlet for O'Connor diatribes in his latter years
However, in this battle for influence, O’Connor emerged the winner. O’Connor’s prior dealings with the French combined with Emmet’s Francophobia undoubtedly tipped the balance in O’Connor’s favour. Even before an embittered TA Emmet left Paris for the U.S. in October 1804 without having achieved anything, O’Connor had been appointed as “general of division” for the Irish Legion that was being trained in Brittany in preparation for a fresh French attempt at invading Ireland. As O’Connor had no military experience whatsoever, his appointment caused understandable resentment among other Irish officers, including the Legion’s adjutant-general, Bernard MacSheehy, who was soon to be kicked out of the Legion in controversial circumstances.

 

With any plans for an invasion of Ireland out of the question after the Battle of Trafalgar, O’Connor was at a loose end and by September 1805 he was back in Paris, passing the time at Masonic lodges and other intellectual gatherings. His first address back in Paris was the “maison Helvétius”, home of Anne-Catherine de Ligniville Helvétius in Auteuil, who had helped establish a Masonic lodge called Les neuf soeurs. But in 1807 O’Connor assured for himself a minor place in the French establishment by marrying Eliza de Condorcet, only daughter of the Marquis de Condorcet, a leading figure of the Enlightenment who had fallen victim to factional infighting during the French Revolution. According to Miles Byrne, O’Connor’s marriage to Eliza de Condorcet (who was less than half her husband’s age) “was his greatest ambition”. Soon after their marriage, the O’Connor’s went to live at Le Bignon-Mirabeau, a stately home in a village of the same name about 100 km south-east of Paris.

 


O'Connor tomb
 The O'Connor-Condorcet crypt

However, O’Connor also kept one foot in Paris. At the time of the Bourbon Restoration in 1815, O'Connor gave his address in correspondence at a now-destroyed military barracks at 30, Grande rue Verte (now called rue de Penthièvre, 8th arrondissement) from where he wrote endlessly to the War Ministry requesting a military pension. This was quite a cheeky request, given that O’Connor had offered his  services to Napoleon during the “Hundred Days”. “Dans un tel moment", O’Connor wrote to Napoleon on March 30, 1815, “ce n’est pas assez d’offrir de servir votre Majesté, j’ose le demander."  Letters like this came back to haunt  O’Connor after Waterloo. After Napoléon's defeat, the Corkman proclaimed his unshakable loyalty to the regime of Louis XVIII, even proclaiming in a January 1816 letter that  "Il n’y a pas un officier géneral en France moins attaché à Bonaparte que moi.”  The authorities didn’t buy it.  Far from providing this hypocrite with a pension, Louis XVIII signed his expulsion order the same month. But O’Connor networked like hell to stay in France so that the French authorities rather generously granted him leave to stay in April 1816. O’Connor was still pestering the French authorities well into the 1820s, either for a pension or for naturalisation papers. From 1828 to 1831, his correspondence gives a Paris address of 6, rue Tournon (6th arrondissement), where the mathematician, Pierre-Simon de Laplace died in 1827. Laplace had known O’Connor’s late father-in-law.

 

O’Connor had to borrow money from another United United Irishman called William Putnam McCabe to pay for at least part of Le Bignon, using his own extensive property back in Ireland as a guarantee. O’Connor’s tardiness in repaying the debt to Putnam McCabe (whose investments into cotton spinning in Rouen failed) resulted in a lawsuit.

 

In spite of his revolutionary career and his Bonapartist tendencies, O’Connor managed to be named mayor of Le Bignon-Mirabeau and played the role of local grandee over several decades. He also helped defend the interests of Irish ex-service men and wrote widely. O’Connor and his three sons, who he all lost before his own death in 1852, were buried in the grounds of their home, but were later transferred to a new cemetery on the outskirts of the village, where a somewhat pompous Grecian monument was erected.  The castle at Le Bignon was entirely rebuilt in 1875 and bears little resemblance to O’Connor’s abode, but a giant portrait of the man still hangs over the mantelpiece in one of the reception rooms.

 
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Select bibliography
Arthur O’Connor

Clifford D. Conner (2009)

 

Arthur O’Connor, in Irish Historical Studies, XV (1966)

 

Service Historique de la Défense

File GR/3 Yf 87060 Arthur O'Connor, général de division (dossier individuel)

 

 
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