You would be hard pressed to find an Irish person who does not know the names Pádraig Pearse or James Connelly, but how much do we know about those who fought during the 1916 Easter Rising apart from the leaders and proclamation signatories?
As we approach the centenary of the Rising, we can now look back on those less famous figures who still made an important contribution to the struggle for Irish independence but may not have been remembered to the same extent in the history books.
Thomas David O'Connor is a perfect example of an Irish man who put his life on the line to achieve the Irish republic, and yet many of you may never have heard of his brave feats.
Born in 1895, Tommy O’Connor was the main link and courier between the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Ireland and Clann na nGael in New York, and in the lead up to the Rising he became the vital means through which thousands and thousands of dollars were sent to Ireland to support the cause and the means by which coded messages could be sent between the leaders in the two countries.
Leaving home at 16, Tommy found himself on the Carpathia in 1912 and rescuing survivors of the Titanic, a feat that earned him a medal awarded by the rich passengers who escaped the ship’s sinking.
By 1914 he had returned to Dublin and joined the Irish Volunteers and his rescue medal brought him to the attention of senior members Thomas Clarke and Sean McDiarmid. In need of a safe way to carry money and messages from the US, Clarke believed that O’Connor would be an ideal solution, with his medal showing his worth as a seaman.
Over the next few months, O’Connor would transport many thousands of US dollars back to Ireland in tobacco boxes and even in a cast. It is estimated that between January and April 1916 he transported $100,000 to Ireland, a large sum for the early 20th century.
In April 1916, he brought a message back to Ireland which he told his brother Johnny was “the most important message ever brought to Ireland.” It is still unknown what the message contained but it has been speculated that it contained confirmation of the date of the Rising and the date that the Aud would land with supplies.
It had been arranged that the SS Libau, masquerading as a ship named the Aud, would carry an estimated 20,000 rifles, 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition, 10 machine guns, and explosives from Germany to Co. Kerry where Roger Casement, who had worked to acquire the guns from the Germans, would meet them. The British Navy intercepted the ship before it reached Ireland. however.
Despite being asked to return once more to the US, O’Conner was determined to take part in the Rising and fought as Thomas Clarke’s personal body guard.
Captured by the British, he was interned in Frongoch in Wales where he once again took up his courier role, carrying messages from one camp to the other using the priest’s vestment box.
It was here that O’Connor met Michael Collins and Collins called on him on their release to resume his former transatlantic role, which he did until November 1917 when he was arrested at New York with an incriminating document and charged under the Trading with the Enemy Act.
After years of appeals, Tommy spent 10 months in prison in Georgia (for which he was later granted a Presidential pardon) and was released in January 1921, just as Ireland was entering the Civil War.
Taking an anti-Treaty stance, O’Connor no longer traveled across the Atlantic but raised funds in the US and organized speaking tours for prominent anti-Treaty figures.
Marrying Frances Marie Manning in 1922, the couple attempted to settle in Ireland but Tommy was once again arrested. When he was released after three months, they moved back to the US where they remained until his death at just 59 years old in 1955.
In the short story of O’Connor’s life shown below, we hear the amazing tale of the Transatlantic courier in the words of his son, grandson and granddaughter.
The Stories from 1916 project comes from filmmakers Keith Farrell and Dave Farrell of Tile Media who wish to tell the story of heroic Irish names who are normally forgotten—the stories of regular people at the time of the Rising. The leaders are always remembered but there were over 1,200 rebels who took part.
Does your family have an Easter Rising story to tell? Contact Dave Farrell – Producer - [email protected] or Colin Farrell – Project Manager - [email protected], or visit the website. They can also be reached on Twitter @1916film or on Facebook.