Laurence O’Connor was a middle ranking leader of a secret Society known as the Defenders in the period before the 1798 Rising. They were prominent in defending the rights of small tenant farmers and labours, and were very much influenced by the French Revolution.
The Defenders were founded in Ulster initially to defend Catholics against sectarian attacks, however, by the early 1790’s they had moved from their base in the north and had become quiet numerous in North Kildare and South Meath. They had also adopted a more political philosophy which aimed to regulate rent, wages, tithes and food prices. One reason for their growth in North Kildare was the activity of Laurence O’Connor who lived at Gallow, close to Kilcock, where he worked as a hedge school teacher. He may originally have come from Inchicore where his first employment was as a toll-gate keeper on the Naas to Dublin turnpike road.
In early 1795 there was an upsurge of Defender activity across North Kildare with many people reported as talking the Defender Oaths, which included a reference, ‘to be true to the French’. Because of the war with France at the time, references by a group or an individual favouring the French were considered treasonable by the government. The High Sheriff of the county at the time Sir Fenton Aylmer from Donadea Castle supported by other local magistrates decided that they would have to curb the activities of this group. On Sunday the 12nd of July 1795, O’Connor and another prominent Defender, Michael Griffin were busy recruiting new members in Kilcock. One of the recruits was a soldier, Private Bartholomew Horan of the South Mayo Militia. Horan promptly went to his commanding officer with the information and as a result O’Connor, Griffin and eleven other suspected Defenders were arrested. It is likely that Horan was involved in an elaborate set-up aimed at gathering evidence against the Defenders and O’Connor in particular.
A photo of Naas Gaol, now the Town Hall, prior to 1904. From Stan Hickey, Liam Kenny, Paddy Behan (eds.), Nás Na Riogh (2nd Edition), Naas, 2001.
The prisoners were held overnight in the local Military Barracks. Although there were over 70 soldiers quartered in the town a serious incident occurred when up to six hundred local people demonstrated and demanded the release of the prisoners. According to the authorities intimidation was used and Defender Oath was taken openly. The next day a number of local magistrates including Aylmer with a heavy escort set out with the prisoners for Naas. The Defenders planned a rescue attempt between Kilcock and Clane but Aylmer was forewarned of the attempt and took certain precautions. However, the party arrived safely in Naas and the prisoners were delivered to the ‘New Gaol’ in the Town. This building is still in existence and is now Naas Town Hall.
The accompanying magistrates then made their way back to their respective homes in North Kildare. However, a serious incident occurred when John Ryan, one of the magistrates who worked as a land agent for Lord Cloncurry, was ambushed by Defenders near Kilcock. He was severely wounded with head injuries and was lucky to escape with his life. In response to this outrage the magistrates of the county called a meeting later in the week. The meeting which was chaired by the Duke of Leinster was held in Sallins and resulted in a reward of £300 being offered for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the crime.
Two days later on the 20th of July five suspects from Newtown were arrested and subsequently tried on the 14th of August at Athy assizes. Three of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to death. The two others were acquitted and released. The three convicted men were hanged outside the ‘New Gaol’ in Naas three days later. A Freeman’s Journal reporter who was present at the execution reported that:
…these poor deluded men appeared to be very penitent at the place of execution, and confessed their guilt, adding that the sole object of their pursuit was to get about two acres of land cheep, and to raise the price of workman’s labour.
On the 31st of August Laurence O’Connor and Michael Griffin went on trial charged with High Treason. This was one of the most important trials in County Kildare for some time and was presided over by Justice Finucane. One of the Defence lawyers was Leonard McNally who subsequently defended a number of well-known United Irishmen including Robert Emmet.
The two defendants were accused of conspiracy against the life of the King by enlisting men to assist the French. The prosecution called Private Horan who gave details of how O’Connor assisted by Griffin recruited him into the Defender movement and administered the oath which included a phrase ‘to be true to the French’. McNally for the defence questioned Horan at length before calling on two character witnesses for the defendants. It took the jury two hours to reach a guilty verdict for both of the accused. However, in relation to Griffin they recommended that the court show mercy.
O’Connor then took the opportunity to address the court from the dock. He chose to give a politicised speech explaining the meaning of the papers found on him when arrested and gave explicit details of the principals of Defenderism. He also spoke of taxes and oppressions of various descriptions. One of the grievances related to land-holders refusing to let land directly to cottagers. This point resulted in an exchange of words between Judge Finucane and O’Connor with the Judge indicating that he had always let his land directly to cottagers and not to middlemen, and as a result his tenants prospered. O’Connor then congratulated the Judge in the following manner,
God bless your lordship for that, you will feel the benefit of it, but you must allow there are but few rich men like yourself in the country.
O’Connor was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Griffin was also given the same sentence, however, he was granted a stay of execution for three weeks, and was eventually reprieved. The authorities offered O’Connor provision for his wife and children in return for information on the Defenders but he refused. The Catholic Church automatically excommunicated Defenders and because of this O’Connor was denied the sacraments at the time of death.
The execution of Laurence O’Connor took place outside the entrance to Naas Gaol on the 7th of September and one newspaper at the time published the following graphic account:
O’Connor’s execution at Naas was almost immediate after his coming out on the board, by which means any address to the surrounding populace was avoided. The body after hanging a short time, was let down to a parapet in front of the prison, where the head was severed with no great dexterity, and the other parts of the sentenced executed. An application had been made, but refused by the friends of this misguided man for his remains, the body having been taken into the Gaol and buried in the inner yard.
A subsequent report from the Freeman’s Journal reported that,
The head of that martyr to Defenderism O’Connor was placed on top of Naas Gaol on Saturday last upon an iron spike six or seven feet high—it is so conspicuously situated that it can be seen at miles distance from Naas.
From the point of view of the authorities, the execution of O’Connor and the other Defenders had the desired effect, it curbed the growing power of the movement which subsequently declined in importance. However, the Defenders did not go away and the remnants of the movement were eventually integrated into the United Irishmen in the period preceding the ‘98 rising.
An interesting addendum to the O’Connor saga occurred on the Streets of Dublin on the night of the Emmet Rising in 1803. On that occasion following Emmet’s departure from the scene bands of rebels ran amuck causing several atrocities. The most serious was the piking of Lord Kilwarden the former Arthur Wolfe. Among the rebels that night were former Defenders and many of them particularly from North Kildare bore a grudge against Lord Kilwarden. He was the Attorney General during the Defender troubles of the 1795 period. When Kilwarden’s carriage was stopped by rebels one of them was heard to say ‘that is Wolfe! …remember O’Connor’. According to some reports a rebel named Shannon was the first man to pike Lord Kilwarden. He was the father of a Defender who was executed in the mid 1790’s when Kilwarden was the Attorney General.
Laurence O’Connor was described as ‘the Martyr of Liberty’ in a poem allegedly penned by Thomas Moore. He paid the ultimate price for his noble principals and today his remains rest forgotten in an unmarked grave, in un-consecrated ground, within the grounds of the Town Hall in Naas. To date there is no memorial to his memory.