Charles Patrick O’Conor: The Irish Peasant Poet

A curious poem entitled ‘God Save The Queen’ by ‘The Irish Peasant Poet’ appears among the O’Donohoe papers.It was published in 1886 and inscribed to William John Evelyn, MP for Deptford, London:


Here’s the Queen, boys, God bless her!
Ah!  Long may she reign
O’er hearts that for England
Must conquer again!
Aye conquer again.
Wherever they roam,
For God, truth, and home!
Still ready, when war calls,
To conquer again.2


A closer look reveals the ‘Irish Peasant Poet’ to be Cork born Charles Patrick O’Conor, who wrote under the pseudonyms of Cairn Thierna (or Cairn Tierna) and Cahal Mor, and resided in Deptford in London.3


O’Conor had gained public attention almost twenty years earlier when he published, at his own expense, a collection of Irish national songs, ballads and poems in weekly numbers:


He is doing a noble work to collect the gems of Irish song and publish them in a form accessible to the masses.  He is a son of toil, and knows what will appeal to their hearts.  The poet is God’s envoy: he sees with the eyes of the soul, speaks as one upon whom the tongue of fire has fallen.4


His own compositions also began emerging in about 1868.5


In 1869, the newly-wed O’Conor, ‘at the request of numerous friends’, consented to give – in Ireland – the first of a series of readings from the national poets of Ireland.  It took place in the hall of the Mechanics’ Institute, Dublin on Monday April 26 1869.6


His readings at the Athenaeum, Cork, caused ‘a nationalist demonstration’:


The audience in the course of the evening sang God Save Ireland, the entire crowd standing.  Some detectives who were present were seriously threatened and considerable excitement prevailed throughout the evening.7


An extract from his song, ‘The Work We’ve Got to do Boys’ –– illustrates the temper of the time:


Look back upon the past, boys,
With pride we call our own,
Fitzgerald, Allen, Emmet, Orr,
O’Brien, and Wolfe Tone.
And all the proud array, boys,
That dared the Saxon crew,
For Ireland and for freedom,
Again their work we’ll do.8


Wreaths of Fancy, his first collection of songs, appeared in 1870.Lady Wilde described his output as ‘truly admirable and spirited’ and A M Sullivan thought him ‘one of the true poets of our land and race’.  A review in the Nation described Wreaths as ’full of patriotic fervour true to popular thought and feeling’:


The national spirit of the author comes out so strongly in most of the compositions that they are scarcely quotable in such a ‘free press’ as now exists in Ireland but Cairn Thierna publishing his volume in London has no fear of the ‘Peace Preservation Act’ and makes good use of his freedom.10


It was also made clear that at this period, the poet was writing under circumstances ‘anything but favourable’ to his development as a writer:


Chas P O’Conor is trying to live in Deptford and finds it a somewhat difficult task.  If philanthropists would start a permanent fund for the help of poor, deserving, and acknowledged poets, a sensible good work would be done.  It seems to me discreditable that while we are admiring the songs and ballads of poor poets, and singing them and saying them in our drawing rooms, we should at the same time allow the poor poets themselves to starve under our very noses.11


These circumstances brought about the appendage of ‘Irish Peasant Poet’.  He was described as a self-educated man whose introduction to literature came from the second-hand book-stalls of Dublin and London.


He was working as a labourer in Deptford when he published Songs of a Life in 1875.  ‘Had the author of Songs of a Life been living in the troublous times of 1798’ wrote a reviewer, ‘his Irish songs would have been sung throughout the length and breadth of his native land’.12


The Blacksmith

God bless you, Patrick Murray, dear, and bless your work so true,
‘Tis your strong arm shall give us strength, good smith, to dare and do.
By your strong arm and ancient craft the Yeoman soon shall see,
Our flag we’ll plant on town and tower: for Ireland must be free.13


The book was also reviewed by Matthew Arnold who found the work reminiscent of Burns.  Matthew Arnold tried unsuccessfully to get O’Conor a job as School Board Visitor in Deptford.  Their friendship was such that O’Conor named one of his sons after Matthew Arnold.14


In 1876, O’Conor suffered a breakdown and was admitted to Barming Heath Lunatic Asylum, Maidstone, Kent.15


By 1877, O’Conor had re-emerged and sought to lecture on the poets and poetry of Ireland.  The Shamrock described him as ‘the uncrowned laureate of Ireland’.16


Some help was afforded O’Conor in 1882 when in consideration of his merit as a poet, and of his narrow means of subsistence, Gladstone selected him to receive £50 per annum from the Royal Literary Fund.17


In 1884, O’Conor and his family left London for Canada where he had gained a position as clerk in the Department of the Interior.18


He had clearly found public support in London for before his departure, a money testimonial was presented to him by an impressive committee which included Matthew Arnold, Right Hon Lord Carlingford, Sir John Lubbock MP; Hon and Rev Canon A Legge, MA and Major Thomas W Marchant.19


In 1886, the same year in which he published ‘God Save The Queen’, O’Conor was described as ‘the Canadian poet’ in a report about his new (untitled) volume of song, ‘fully illustrated by Miss Ellen Edwards and Mr Sydney P Hall’.20


O’Conor’s residence in Canada was short-lived for ill health caused him to return to London.21


From here on, O’Conor seems to have faded from the public gaze.  As far as can be seen, he remained on the Civil List and continued contributing to reading material.22


It is difficult to reconcile ‘God Save The Queen’ with ‘The Work We’ve Got to do Boys’ and his many other highly charged nationalist songs.  It may be that O’Conor’s experiences on both sides of ‘the pond’ left great room for reflection.  However, the racy, marching style of ‘God Save The Queen’ suggests the incorporation of a subtle humour not lost on those who knew him.


Charles Patrick O’Conor died on 31 January 1901 at 30 Ardmore Road, Hither Green, Lewisham, London.  He was buried in Ladywell and Brockley Cemetery.23


1 IE MOD/C35.  The four stanza poem was published in The Kentish Mercury, 14 May 1886.  It appeared in Canada earlier in the Daily Citizen, 19 April 1886.

2 See IE MOD/C35 for poem in full.

3 O’Conor, sometimes misspelt O’Connor, son of Hugh, was born in Fermoy, Co Cork c1837, his mother a MacGregor.  He went to England in his youth.  ‘On his father’s mother’s side he is related to John O’Keeffe, author of Wild Oats’ (Gravesend Reporter, 13 December 1890).

4 Irishman, 31 October 1868.  The resulting collection, Ballads and Songs of Ireland (1868) contained a portrait of O’Conor.  His address in 1868 was 13 Copperas Lane, Church Street, Deptford.

5 ‘The Factions’ appeared in the Irishman in September of that year and he began contributing to the Nation, Shamrock and Kentish Mercury newspapers and journals such as Colburn’s New Monthly.

6 He married Annette Dean Smith in London in March 1869.  A daughter was born in Dublin 25 October 1869.

7 Freeman’s Journal, 8 June 1869.   At this period, O’Conor became manager and publisher of a short surviving national paper called The People of Ireland.

8 The Flag of Ireland, 31 July 1869.

9 In 1870 he edited the Irish Leader and Empire Times.

10 Nation 1 April 1871.

11 Isle of Man Times, 10 March 1877.  It was stated that O’Conor could not read or write until he had attained his eighteenth year, ‘This seems wonderful and hardly credible, yet the statement comes to us authenticated by the gentleman himself’ (‘Hours with Irish Poets, No XXVIII Charles P O’Conor’ by Owen Roe, Irishman, 17 March 1877).

12 The Graphic, 5 June 1875.  The volume, published at the offices of the Kentish Mercury, was dedicated to Mrs P A Taylor who was the poet’s friend when he was friendless, according to his tribute. 

O’Conor’s publications are rare.  Other works ascribed to him include Fifty Odes from Horace done into lyrical English; New Irish Melodies; Bird and Flower (1880); Bella Dhu O; Songs for Soldiers by Corporal John (1882/1884?); The Crock of Gold and Other Stories (Crock o’ Goold?).  ‘He has written stories of Irish life … Lives of the Irish Poets … he holds excellent credentials from Matthew Arnold, Lord Tennyson, Swinburne, Rosetti and others … he is engaged collecting his poems for publication.  The work will be illustrated by his talented daughter, Miss Nellie O’Conor’ (Gravesend Reporter, 13 December 1890).

13 ‘Hours with Irish Poets, No XXVIII Charles P O’Conor’ by Owen Roe, Irishman,17 March 1877.

14 Matthew Arnold Herriman O’Conor (1880-1961).  O’Conor junior married in 1906 Rose Emily Matilda Still (1887-1947) and had two sons, Hugh Arnold O’Connor (1907-1980), who married in 1934 Alice May Woodland, and Jack A O’Connor, born in 1911.  He married secondly in 1947 to Winifred Annie Pritchard (1910-1984).  My thanks to Marie Huxtable Wilson, Tralee, for this detail.

15 ‘Previous to his illness Mr O’Conor had been employed in the office of the London Examiner.  When J F O’Donnell had sought out London in order to gain a livelihood there, his staunchest friend was C P O’Conor … And when O’Donnell had dropped into the grave, among the few mourners that gathered around his clay none showed signs of a keener inward sorrow than O’Conor’ (‘Hours with Irish Poets, No XXVIII Charles P O’Conor’ by Owen Roe, Irishman,17 March 1877)

A biographical notice of John Francis O’Donnell (1837-1874) is contained in the O’Donohoe Collection Catalogue, pp632-635.

16 His addresses in 1877 were Heath Cottage, 8 Atlas Street, Royal Hill, Greenwich and May Cottage, 2 Berthon Street, Deptford.

17 O’Conor’s address in 1883 was Innisfallen Cottage, Conduit Vale, Greenwich.

18 He had gained the interest of Sir John MacDonald of Canada who assisted him in gaining this position.

19 Kentish Mercury, 13 June 1884.  See same for full account of committee members.

20 A son was born on 6 April 1885 in the City of Ottawa, Canada.

21 A son was born at Blackheath 14 July 1887.

22 ‘The writer of the notes on Thomas Dermondy is C P O’Conor not C P O’Connor as inadvertently printed in our issue for March 16th.  Although Mr O’Conor is a ‘celt of the celts’ yet he is a native of Kent and is proud of the fact.  He has written poems on Kent and is on the Civil List with Tennyson, Charles Mackey, George Macdonald, &c’ (Gravesend Reporter, 6 April 1889).

A sketch about George Newman, ‘Lloegryn’ has been written by ‘Charles P O’Conor, well known journalist and English literature lecturer’ (Gravesend Reporter, 29 July 1893).

23 His widow, Annette O’Conor, died in 1937.