Thomas 'Tommy' O'Connor transported funds and coded messages between the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland and Clan na Gael in the US in preparation for the 1916 Easter Rising
Editor's Note: Between April 24 to 29 in 1916, the Easter Rising took place, changing the nation of Ireland forever. In the run-up to that historic anniversary, we take a look back at some significant incidents and snippets from that time - from newspapers coverage to little-known facts, individual acts of heroism to how the actions of those who lost their lives changed history.
You would be hard pressed to find an Irish person who does not know the names Pádraig Pearse or James Connolly, but how much do we know about those who fought during the 1916 Easter Rising apart from the leaders and proclamation signatories?
Looking back more than a century on from the Easter Rising, we can identify those less famous figures who made an important contribution to the struggle for Irish independence but who 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 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. In the lead up to the Rising, he became the vital means through which 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.
O'Connor left home at 16 and soon found himself on board the Carpathia, the ship that rescued the survivors of the Titanic. This feat 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 rebel leaders Thomas Clarke and Seán MacDiarmada. 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, once 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 the speculation is 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’Connor was determined to take part in the Rising and fought as Thomas Clarke’s personal bodyguard.
He was captured by the British and interned in Frongoch prison camp 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. Collins called on him after their release asking O'Connor to resume his transatlantic role. This he did until November 1917 when he was arrested in New York with an incriminating document and charged under the Trading with the Enemy Act.
After years of appeals, O'Connor spent 10 months in prison in Georgia (for which he was later granted a Presidential pardon) and was released just as the Irish Civil War was kicking off.
O'Connor sided with the anti-Treaty forces and spent his time in America raising funds and organizing speaking tours for prominent anti-Treaty figures.
He married Frances Marie Manning in 1922. The couple tried to settle in Ireland, but O'Connor was arrested again. When he was released after three months, the couple moved back to the US where they remained until his death in 1955. He was 59-years-old.
Tommy O’Connor’s story is one of the long-lost treasures of the Easter Rising, a tale of secrecy and commitment that has been immortalized in a new video by 'Stories from 1916.'
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.
You can learn more about 'Stories from 1916' on the project's website.
*A version of this article was published in 2015.