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An Irish landowner and lawyer, O'Connor was elected as M.P. for Cork in 1832. Initially associated with Daniel O'Connell's party, O'Connor was more radical in his support for trades unions, and political, social and economic reform.
He lost his Cork seat in 1835 and from then on became an independent agitator for radical reform in England and in effect the leader of the burgeoning Chartist movement. He founded the Marylebone Radical Association in 1835 and the following year became an honorary member of the London Working Men's Association (LWMA). In 1837 he founded the Northern Star newspaper in Leeds, which published Chartist news and opinions.
In the late 1830s he spoke at countless rallies and meetings to publicise the Chartist cause. He was the chief figure at the National Convention of 1839. He became treasurer of the National Charter Association (NCA) in 1843 and was re-elected until 1851. His advocacy of 'physical force' - direct action and the threat of violence in order to achieve his aims - contrasted with the more moderate line taken by others. The Chartist movement split into factions, most notably by the formation of the more middle-class Complete Suffrage Union in 1841.
In 1840 O'Connor was arrested for sedition and imprisoned in York Castle, serving 15 months. Throughout the 1840s he continued to press for suffrage reform and other radical causes, but he increasingly focused on the question of procuring smallholdings for working men, forming the Chartist Land Co-Operative Society in 1845. The first of five Chartist settlements was opened in 1847. In the same year, O'Connor was elected as M.P. for Nottingham.
In 1848 signatures were gathered for the third Chartist petition, under O'Connor's leadership. At the rally at Kennington Common on 10 April 1848 O'Connor prevented a violent confrontation by persuading the crowd to abandon the proposed procession to the Houses of Parliament. O'Connor himself presented the petition, but the Chartist movement lost credibility when many of the signatures turned out to be fake. Soon afterwards, the land scheme was judged to be illegal and collapsed.
O'Connor continued to work for radical reform until the onset of mental illness in 1851. He was admitted to an asylum in 1852 and remained there until just before his death.