The road surface was later described as having been ‘most slippery’ and ‘treacherous’.’ It was Sunday, 11 December 1955 and Johnny Connor, the Clann na Poblachta TD for Kerry North was driving a road in his constituency which was very familiar to him, the main route between Abbeyfeale and Castleisland. Connor was returning from a meeting of the party’s national executive which had been held in Dublin the previous day. Clann na Poblachta was, by 1955, a smaller party than it had been at the height of its powers in the late 1940s and the Kerry North TD was a key and integral member of its national committee.
Shortly after 2pm, Connor’s Ford Consul, of which he was the only occupant, swerved across the centre of the road on a bend near Headley’s Bridge and collided head-on with a Ford Zephyr 6 being driven in the opposite direction by a Tralee ophthalmic doctor, Patrick O’Donnell. The fronts of both cars were ‘bashed in’ and Connor’s breastbone was ‘smashed to pieces’. Connor ‘died within a short time’ at the scene, the last rites administered by a priest from south Kerry who had been travelling on the road and came upon the accident moments after it occurred. It was the first and only time that a TD for Kerry North died in office.
The esteem in which Connor was held in political circles was reflected in the huge attendance at his funeral in St John’s Church, Tralee, several days later. Chief among the political mourners was the Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, John A Costello whose party had led the first inter-party government with, among others, Clann na Poblachta, between 1948 and 1951. ‘The late deputy represented the constituency of North Kerry and during his comparatively short term in the House he endeared himself to everybody with whom he came in contact,’ Costello told the Dáil in paying tribute. ‘He was a big man, in every sense of the word, and was not afraid to give his views whether in this House or in private. Sincerity, integrity and a deep love of his native country were his outstanding characteristics.’
Also among the funeral mourners were ministers General Richard Mulcahy, Oliver J Flanagan and leading figures from all the major political parties as well as the Clann na Poblachta leader and former IRA Chief of Staff, Seán MacBride. At the graveside in Rath cemetery, MacBride told mourners that ‘We have had many fearless fighters in the cause of Independence but we have no more fearless one than Johnny Connor … The mountains and the fields of Kerry, and indeed the seas that surround Ireland, bear silent witness to his courage and integrity. His whole life was devoted to the struggle for Independence and unity of Ireland’.
When tragedy struck, and Johnny Connor died just a fortnight before Christmas in 1955, Kathleen joined her mother, Margaret and her younger brother, Pádraig as the chief mourners at his funeral. For Kathleen, the funeral was to bring a memorable encounter with the Clann na Poblachta leader. Seán MacBride came to the family home to sympathise. ‘He was a towering figure – you knew you were in the presence of greatness with him,’ Kathleen recalled. MacBride broached the subject of the forthcoming by-election which would be held to replace the late TD:
MacBride came to the house and went to my mother to try to get her to stand. She was the obvious choice. There was great pressure on her to go but she wouldn’t. He approached me and said it was his opinion that I had the only chance.
MacBride’s enthusiasm for a member of the family to contest the by-election belied the precariousness of the political situation at the time – the coalition government, supported from the outside by Clann na Poblachta – could not afford to cede a seat to Fianna Fáil. Not only was the government reliant on three Clann na Poblachta votes for its existence, MacBride’s parliamentary party faced the prospect to shrinking to two TDs, placing the party’s very being in further jeopardy. He needed a strong candidate to replace Johnny Connor in Kerry North and the obvious choice was a close relative in keeping with the time-honoured Irish political dynastic tradition – in a similar scenario in Kerry South just ten years previously, Honor Mary Crowley of Fianna Fáil had succeeded her husband, Fred, in the Dáil following his death while in office.
‘You’re our only chance,’ MacBride told Kathleen hours after her father was buried: ‘It was a very personal vote and there was nobody else to stand.’
The 21 year-old Kathleen – who had just taken up a teaching position at Meen national school, in Knocknagoshel, about twenty miles from Tralee – was placed in an unenviable position: ‘I didn’t want to run. I had just qualified as a teacher. I was barely old enough to vote for myself [having just turned 21, then the legal minimum age for voting, it would be several months before she would be included on a new electoral register]. My older brother Brendan had died and my younger brother, Pádraig, was still in school. I thought women were to be seen and not heard. But apart from MacBride, members of Clann na Poblachta were encouraging me to run. And I had great pride in what my father had achieved – he was a hero to me.’
Kathleen O’Connor went on to win the Dáil seat in the by-election on 29 February 1956, becoming the first woman to serve as a TD in Kerry North.
For more on Kathleen O’Connor TD, see: A Century of Politics in the Kingdom: A County Kerry Compendium – Owen O’Shea (owenoshea.ie)