Although not a direct participant in the 1916 Rising, Batt O’Connor was sentenced to be shot by British authorities but was sent to Wandsworth Jail and later Frongoch internment camp in North Wales. During the War of Independence he ran a number of safe houses and hid funds and documents for the IRA. He was a strong proponent of Collins going to London for the Anglo-Irish Treaty talks and supported him after the Treaty signing.
Bartholemew (Batt) O’Connor was born in Brosna, East Kerry on 4 July 1870. Educated at the local national school, and worked with his father and brother as a stonemason. In 1893, he emigrated to the USA and described participating in a Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Providence, Rhode Island as a key moment in his coming to political consciousness:
“I walked in the procession, and in the emotion I felt, walking as one of that vast crowd of Irish emigrants celebrating our national festival, I awoke to full consciousness of my love for my country. That awaking was one of the forces bringing me home, and it led me inevitably to the day when I joined the Gaelic League two years after my return, and to another memorable occasion when a few years later I took my oath to the IRB by the graveside of Wolfe Tone.”
He returned home in 1898 and moved to Dublin. He joined the Gaelic League in 1900 through which he came into contact with many of the future leaders of the Independence movement, including Tom Clarke and Seán Mac Diarmada. He was sworn into the IRB in 1909. O’Connor enrolled in the Irish Volunteers in 1913, the same night as Éamon de Valera. During Easter 1916 he was sent to Kerry to await instructions about the Rising planned in the county. However, upon hearing of the arrest of Sir Roger Casement and the loss of the German guns he returned to Dublin, was recognised and was arrested. He was sentenced to be shot, sent to Kilmainham Gaol then to Richmond Barracks, Wandsworth Prison, and finally to Frongoch internment camp, in North Wales.
On his release in September 1916, O’Connor re-established his business and took up his political activities. During this period, O’Connor describes being asked by Tom Clarke’s widow, Kathleen, to preserve writings on the wall of that house, which she held to be her husband’s last message: ‘We had to evacuate the GPO. The boys put up a grand fight, and that fight will save the soul of Ireland.’ O’Connor had the whole square of plaster cut out intact and encased in a frame with a glass front (now on display in Collins Barracks).
O’Connor was involved with Sinn Féin during the time of the First Dáil, handling money and hiding documents for Michael Collins. O’Connor purchased 76 Harcourt Street for Michael Collins, following a raid on the Sinn Féin Office at no.6. There he installed a secret recess for private papers and means of escape through the skylight. When the recess escaped discovery following a raid, he went on to construct hiding places in many of the other houses used by the movement. In 5 Mespil Road, Collins’ headquarters for over 15 months during the Irish War of Independence, O’Connor fitted a small cupboard in the woodwork beneath the kitchen stairs on the ground floor. Before leaving each evening, Collins would hide his papers here. When it was finally raided in April 1921, it escaped detection.
O’Connor was entrusted with the gold collected from the Dáil loan and buried it under the concrete floor of his house. This was never found despite frequent raids during the War of Independence. He was elected as a Sinn Féin councillor in 1920 and soon became chairman of the council which swore allegiance to Dáil Éireann. His various houses were used as safe-houses during the War of Independence and he himself was on the run throughout 1921. He persuaded Michael Collins to go to London to form part of the Anglo-Irish Treaty delegation.
He remained a councillor for Cumann na nGaedheal after 1922 and was a joint treasurer of the party. He was elected to the Dáil in 1924 and remained a TD until his death in 1935.
Photo: Seán Collins (left) brother of Michael Collins, and Batt O’Connor with wreaths at Wolfe Tone’s grave, Bodenstown, Co Kildare 1920, courtesy of RTÉ