John O'Connor: Communal Politician

By Swainson, Donald | Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview
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John O'Connor: Communal Politician

Swainson, Donald, Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal


John O'Connor was a classic example of a nineteenth century communal politician, representing as he did the interests of the Catholic Irish of Ontario. During his brief political career in John A. Macdonald's cabinet in the 1870s, he represented his political constituency briefly but well. His controversial elevation to the bench and untoward petitioning of the Prime Minister for inflated expenses served as a sad footnote to his career. The insights offered by O'Connor's brief career into cabinet formation in late nineteenth century Canada underline the importance of ethnicity in Canadian political history.

John O'Connor est un exemple classique du politicien communautaire du 19e siecle, ayant represente comme il l'a fait les interets des catholiques irlandais de l'Ontario. Au cours de sa breve carriere politique au sein du cabinet de John A. Macdonald pendant les annees 1870, il a bien represente sa circonscription electorale pour une breve duree. Son elevation controversee a la magistrature et sa requete importune aupres du Premier ministre pour une augmentation des depenses ont servi de triste note complementaire a sa carriere. Les introspections offertes dans la formation du cabinet vers la fin du 19e siecle par la courte carriere de John O'Connor souligne l'importance de l'origine ethnique dans l'histoire de la politique canadienne.

Nineteenth-century Conservative politicians were of every conceivable variety. Some, like John A. Macdonald, had an instinctive flair for politics. J.W Crawford represented well defined and obvious economic interests. James O'Reilly was active in public life because he wanted to become a judge. John O'Connor presents yet another type; he became eminent because he represented a communal interest in need of symbolic conciliation and was the only man available at the right time who could serve as an appropriate symbol. It was luck, ambition and timing, not ability or stature, that made O'Connor's career a modest success.

In 1823 John O'Connor Sr. (1) and his wife emigrated from County Kerry, Ireland, to Boston, (2) where John Jr. was born in January 1824. (3) In 1828 the family moved again. This time it settled with a group of Roman Catholic co-religionists in Maidstone township, Essex county, Upper Canada. (4) The O'Connors lived a primitive life in a frontier community, (5) but John, in spite of losing a leg in a farm accident, (6) was able to acquire some education, professional training and useful vocational experience. He attended school in Maidstone and "had further advantage in schooling with Mr. Gordon in Windsor." (7) At some point, probably when he was quite young, O'Connor worked as a journalist "editing newspapers both at Windsor and Sandwich." (8)

His real interest however, was law, and O'Connor obtained a post with a law office in Sandwich. He remained there until the Law Society of Upper Canada admitted him as a student-at-law in 1848. He then joined W.D. Baby's law firm in Windsor where he studied until he articled with a Mr. William Vidal. In addition he spent several terms attending law school in Toronto before being admitted to the bar in 1854. (9) He practised in Windsor. O'Connor was also admitted to the bar of the State of Michigan, but he never practised law in the United States. (10) From 1863-65 he was in partnership in Toronto with John Blevins, and practised there as well as in Windsor. (11) Although John O'Connor was a prominent and successful lawyer, he does not seem to have been held in high esteem within his profession. He never, for example, served as an officer of the Law Society of Upper Canada, and he was already a cabinet minister when he was made a Q.C. in 1872 at the relatively late age of forty-eight. (12)

In April, 1849 O'Connor married Mary Barrett, "eldest daughter of Richard Barrett, of Killarney, Ireland." (13) They had several children. (14)


O'Connor became heavily involved in local politics.

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