Perhaps the most famous Westmeath man ever

The longest serving member of the House of Commons in his day, a pioneering newspaper editor and the first film censor in Britain, but above all T.P. O¹Connor, who was born in Athlone on October 5, 1848, was deeply concerned about Irish affairs.

Thomas Power O Connor, also known as Tay Pay, made his name with a hostile biography of Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, which was published in 1880, the same year he was first elected to the House of Commons where he gave 49 years unbroken service until his death in 1929.

Born on October 5, 1848 to a family of modest means. His father ran a billiards saloon on Castle Street. His mother believed a good education was her son s best chance of advancement and borrowed 10 to buy a ticket in the Hamburg State Lottery. The 100 she won paid for her son s university education in Galway.

On leaving university, he considered both law and the Civil Service, but turned to journalism. He started out as a cub-reporter on the staff of Saunders Newsletter in Dublin before heading for London in 1870 with 4 in his pocket in pursuit of his ambition to write books.

His knowledge of French and German helped find work on the foreign desk at the Daily Telegraph. Feeling undervalued at 4 a-week, a substantial wage in those days, he left to join the London office of the New York Daily Herald where he got one pound per week more.

Cutbacks at the paper cost him his job there and he was forced to scrape a living as freelance reporter. By this time he was also looking after a brother and sister who had joined him in London.
An admirer of the Liberal Party leader William Gladstone, he decided to write a biography of his great rival and Conservative counterpart, Benjamin Disraeli. O Connor had no time for Disraeli, whom he regarded as an unprincipled, adventurer without conviction or scruple.

In his book T.P. set out to make Disraeli real to the reader and reaction on its publication went along expected lines. The Liberal press loved it while the Tory papers claimed it was unfair and biased. Most importantly it sold well.

He later wrote; "people who know little of my career are under the impression that my life was an unbroken and triumphant procession from boyhood onwards it was not till I had written my biography of Disraeli that I realised I was much above the humble shorthand writer with, perhaps some small ability as a descriptive reporter".

In another display of generosity he sent 95 to his mother out of the first 100 he received from his publishers.

Politically, he was a radical and in 1880 he was elected as MP for Galway on the Home Rule ticket. Around this time he was elected President of the Irish National League of Great Britain and five years later he was approached to run for Parliament in Liverpool, the birthplace of the League.

He decided to forego the chance of retaining his Galway seat on the grounds that Liverpool was closer to London, a place he preferred to the "ghastly loneliness of a small Irish town." He stood in the Scotland Division, which was in the heart of the Irish quarter of Liverpool.

In 1885 he became the only Irish Nationalist to represent a constituency in Britain. The same year he married the American writer Elizabeth Paschal Howard whose works include, Little Thank You (1912), My Beloved South (1912), Dog Stars (1915), The Hat of Destiny (1923) and the autobiographical I Myself (1910). She died in London on September 1, 1931 aged 81.

It wasn’t a particularly happy marriage, but through his wife he made a number of important contacts including influential Liberals who provided the backing for his first great newspaper venture.
O’Connor aim was to make newspaper more accessible as he was concerned that readers were wearied by "unreadable columns of newspapers where the chief point of everything was submerged in a deluge of words."

In 1887, he founded the radical evening newspaper The Star . Though nominally the editor much of that work was done by assistant, H.W. Massingham. The writer George Bernard Shaw was employed by the newspaper as music critic, but it was Ernest Parke s reporting on the Jack The Ripper case that increased the paper’s circulation. The Star also supported the Dockers strike of 1889, the event which inspired Jim Connell from Crossakiel to pen The Red Flag, the song which until the advent of New Labour in the 1990s, was the official anthem of the British Labour Party.

In his two-volume autobiography Memories of an Old Parliamentarian published in 1928, the year before his death, T.P. pays tribute to his assistant at The Star;

"I made an excellent choice of an assistant editor of The Star in the late Mr. H.W. Massingham, who was then in obscurity of a syndicate agency of small importance; and for the first time his brilliant pen got a real scope. He used to talk with rapture of a gentleman whose name neither I nor, indeed, anybody else had ever heard before; his name was George Bernard Shaw, he was appointed one of the assistant leader-writers."

The Star pioneered the political cartoon and continued in circulation until 1960
In 1890 he fell out with the owners and left the paper after agreeing not to start a rival publication for at least three years.

When the agreed time elapsed he founded The Sun, which after a promising start couldn’t compete with his previous creation. A later venture called T.P. s Weekly was established in 1902.
His biographer Henry Hamilton Fyfe, who became editor of the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror claimed O’Connor was the founder of what became known as New Journalism. Fyfe was reporter with The Times when he first read O’Connor’s work and recalls reading the first edition of The Star:

"T.P. O’Connor, a journalist of genius, really was the founder of the New Journalism which ousted those dull morning papers ten years afterwards. His Star offered good reading from many pens, some already famous, some to be. He was bold enough to declare a policy of justice for the under dogs. The rich, the privileged, the prosperous he wrote, need no guardian or advocate, the poor, the weak, the beaten require the work and word of every humane man and woman and woman to stand between them and the world"

O’Connor was an advocate of Irish Home Rule and wrote numerous essays and articles in its favour. He even went on fund raising tours of the USA in support of the cause. In 1886 he published a book entitled The Parnell Movement. Four years later he was one of those who repudiated Parnell s leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party after news of the latter’s relationship with Kitty O’Shea broke.

An early Gaelic Football team in his native town was called Athlone T.P. O’Connor s in his honour. On April 23, 1893 they played two matches on the same day to win the Westmeath Championship. At Robinstown near Mullingar, they beat Woodtown Wrackers in the semi-final and immediately afterwards defeated Mullingar Commercials in the final.

Such was in his interest in Irish affairs that he turned down the chance to become an editor again. Fellow journalists loved him but to newspaper owners he was unbusinesslike. From 1916 until his death he was head of the British Board of Film Censors a self-regulatory body set up by the film industry to prevent outside interference in film-making. In 1917 he drew up a list of rules for British film-makers known as O’Connor’s 43 .

O’Connor remained sympathetic to the Irish cause and it may seem strange to see him pen words of tribute to the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley. But T.P. wrote that he "would always be regarded by every good Irishman with appreciation and gratitude. I regard him as the man who really began the break-up of the Black and Tan savagery and I never recall without admiration and wonder, the courage and self-sacrifice which such an attitude demanded on his part."

In his latter years he returned to The Daily Telegraph where he was a noted obituary writer. After the 1918 General Election he was Father of the House and as his political career drew to a close and supported the first Labour Government under Ramsay McDonald, who was first appointed Prime Minister in January 1924 .

He worked right up to his death and was dictating articles on his death bed. T.P. O Connor passed away on November 18, 1929 less than six weeks after his 81st birthday. Though not an overtly religious man his requiem Mass was held at Westminster Cathedral and he was buried at Kensal Green cemetery. Ramsay McDonald paid him this tribute: "He has died without, I believe, a single hostile thought regarding him in any persons mind."

Taken from Maroon & White 2003