Written by Barry Lally (Originally Published in June/July issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
It’s one of the quirks of history that some individuals who figured largely in the national politics of their day are, on their demise, promptly forgotten. Such was the fate of John O’Connor-Power, an eminent 19th century parliamentarian and orator who was reared in this parish.
Born the third son of Patrick and Mary Power (née O’Connor), on 13th February 1846 in Clashganny, Tulsk, Co. Roscommon, John’s family home was in Ballygill, Creagh and Patrick was probably a tenant farmer on the estate on Dudley Persse, father of the future Lady Gregory of Coole Park. It was to Ballygill that John was taken shortly after his birth.
In his childhood he contracted smallpox and consequently spent some time in the Ballinasloe Fever Hospital (What remains of this institution can be seen in the grounds of what was formerly the Tesco Supermarket on Sarsfield Road) Though the infirmary was part of the Workhouse complex, his sojourn there should not necessarily be interpreted as evidence of family destitution, because workhouses often provided the only hospital facilities available in the provincial Ireland of this period.
His parents died in the late 1840s, having succumbed perhaps to one or other of the infectious diseases that accompanied the Great Famine, and John was brought up most likely in the household of either of his uncles, John and Thomas Power, both of whom farmed locally.
On the completion of his elementary education, Power left Ballinasloe at the age of 15 to join his brothers in Lancashire where he worked by day as a house painter in the family business, and, in the winter months, in a flannel mill, while continuing his studies at the Mechanics Institute in Rochdale.
Around 1866 he met Michael Davitt and was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (Fenians), a secret organisation whose aim was to secure Irish Independence by force of arms. He was part of a plot to raid Chester Castle for guns and ammunition in February 1867; however, the attempt was called off when it was discovered that the plan had been betrayed to the authorities. The following September he was involved in an attack on a prison van to rescue some I.R.B. leaders. This was the incident that resulted in the execution of the Manchester Martyrs, Allen, Larkin and O’Brien.
Power managed to evade capture and was later sent to the United States to discuss reorganisation of the Fenians. On his return he was arrested in Dublin in February 1868 and spent five months in Kilmainham and Mountjoy jails. Released in July, he moved to Galway as the Connacht representative on the I.R.B. Supreme Council, and helped in arms distribution. While there he developed an interest in constitutional politics when he came under the influence of George Henry Moore, a Catholic landlord and Member of Parliament for Mayo.
Deciding that he needed to complete his formal education, Power enrolled in St. Jarlath’s College, Tuam, in January 1871. In addition to functioning as a diocesan seminary, the College in those years provided third-level courses for mature students. He spent three years in St. Jarlath’s and financed himself by lecture tours in Britain and America.
Power favoured using I.R.B. influence to remould the conservative Home Rule movement in Ireland along more radical lines, the so-called ‘New Departure’ and was a leading speaker at the inaugural convention of the Home Rule in Dublin in 1873. Having won a Parliamentary seat in a Mayo by-election the following year, Power became a pioneer of obstructionist tactics in the British House of Commons, and embarked on several fund-raising tours of the United States, gaining a reputation as the Home Rule movement’s finest orator and a serious rival to Parnell.
However, the R.I.B. came to believe that he was now irrevocably committed to constitutional politics and accordingly expelled him in 1877. This led to his being marginalised by Davitt and Parnell who felt he would alienate physical-force advocates whose support they were anxious to cultivate.
Power nevertheless retained credibility with small tenant farmers and addressed the first meeting of the Mayo Tenants’ Defence League, precursor of the Land League, in 1879. He was the only Member of Parliament invited to or who attended the historic Irishtown meeting.
Topping the poll in the following year’s General Election in Mayo, Power had as running-mate Parnell who was believed to have stood in an attempt to remove him from the political stage. This belief is given added credence when it is recalled that Parnell successfully presented himself for election simultaneously in two other constituencies.
Excluded from the Irish Parliament Party, Power abandoned obstructionist tactics and became a supporter of Gladstone, the British Prime Minister. Failing to defend his Mayo seat in 1885, Power subsequently made three unsuccessful attempts to re-enter Parliament, the last in Bristol South in 1895.
Power, who had been called to the bar in 1881, earned his living by journalism and the practice of law, and in 1893 married Avis Weiss, the widow of a surgeon and the mother of one son.
John O’Connor-Power died at his home in Putney, London, on 21st February 1919 and was buried in Abney Park Cemetery. His final years had been darkened by ill-health and the death of his stepson in the 1914-18 War.