John O’Connor Power – MP for Mayo 1874-1885 – was one of the most remarkable of the late nineteenth century Irish nationalists. He was born in 1846 in Tulsk, County Roscommon and was the third and youngest son of Patrick Power of Ballinasloe.
In his childhood he contracted smallpox and spent some time in the Ballinasloe workhouse. In 1860 he followed his two brothers to England, taking up work as a house painter in a family business and in a flannel mill in the winter months. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was one of the leaders on the aborted raid on Chester Castle and at the ‘Manchester Rescue’. In 1868 he spent six months in Kilmainham Jail.
As a member of the IRB Supreme Council, he collaborated with George Henry Moore, forging an alliance between Fenians and constitutional nationalists – a New Departure. After Moore’s sudden death, he enrolled as a student at St Jarlath’s College in Tuam, continuing his Fenian activities. In 1874, against strong opposition, he won a parliamentary seat, becoming the first man of no property to represent County Mayo. In 1876 he was in Washington for the centennial of American Independence and presented a congratulatory address to the House of Representatives, asking for recognition of Ireland’s claim to independence.
His long campaign for amnesty for Michael Davitt and other political prisoners reached a successful outcome at the end of 1877. He was a prominent obstructionist, and the Spy cartoon, which appeared in Vanity Fair in December 1886, is labelled ‘The brains of Obstruction’. He was the only MP present at the tenant rights meeting in Irishtown, which launched the Land War. In the 1880 general election he topped the poll in Mayo.
He was called to the Bar in 1881 and continued to fight for reform of the prison system. A radical and influential journalist, he wrote on Irish issues in American and English journals and newspapers. In 1885 he moved to the Liberals, believing he would be better placed to promote Home Rule. He worked closely with William O’Brien and Michael Davitt on the formation of the United Irish League. In 1893 he married the widow of a surgeon.
Acknowledged to be one of the great orators of his generation, O’Connor Power’s bestselling ‘The Making of an Orator’ was published in 1906. He died at home in Putney in February 1919.