the most famous Westmeath man ever
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
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
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
It wasnt 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.
OConnor 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 papers 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
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
When the agreed time elapsed he founded The Sun, which after
a promising start couldnt compete with his previous
creation. A later venture called T.P. s Weekly was established
His biographer Henry Hamilton Fyfe, who became editor of
the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror claimed OConnor
was the founder of what became known as New Journalism.
Fyfe was reporter with The Times when he first read OConnors
work and recalls reading the first edition of The Star:
"T.P. OConnor, 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"
OConnor 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 latters relationship with Kitty OShea
An early Gaelic Football team in his native town was called
Athlone T.P. OConnor 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 OConnors 43 .
OConnor 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
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