John Fergus O'Hea (b. Kilkerran, Co. Cork, c. 1838; d. London, 2 September 1922) was a political cartoonist who sometimes published under the pseudonym Spex. He was the son of James O'Hea, a barrister who was active in the Young Ireland movement and had been secretary to Daniel O'Connell.
He first attended the Cork School of Design in 1850, and also received some medical edication in Nice, before dropping out and returning to Cork. He matriculated at the Cork School of Design from 1857 to 1860.
In the late 1860s he became the primary cartoonist for A. M. Sullivan's nationalist Weekly News in Dublin, his drawings usually appearing on the front page. O'Hea's cartoons were part of Sullivan's attack on the 1867 execution of the "Manchester Martyrs", three Fenians who had killed a policeman while springing their comrades from a police van, and he supported his editor when he was arrested for seditious libel for his protests, visiting him in prison several times.
Despite these anti-establishment activities, O'Hea was commissioned to paint Punchestown in 1868, commemorating the visit of the Prince of Wales to Punchestown races. The painting contained likenesses of the royal party, jockeys and patrons of the races, and prints circulated widely.
In 1870 O'Hea and Sullivan founded the humorous magazine Zozimus, an Irish answer to Punch. O'Hea was chief artist and drew the covers, as well as the "Our Niche" feature, a sketch portrait of a notable figure. In its second year Richard Dowling became editor. Other cartoonists who contributed included Harry Furniss and Wallis Mackay. In 1872, after Zozimus folded, he moved to London and contributed to a short-lived magazine called Tomahawk.
Back in Dublin in 1874, O'Hea, Dowling and Edwin Hamilton founded Ireland's Eye. After the style of Vanity Fair, each issue featured a colour caricature of a notable person, drawn by O'Hea under the name "Spex". Two editions of each issue were published, one at 6d with the cartoon in colour, the other at 3d with the cartoon in black and white. Ireland's Eye closed in 1876, after which O'Hea and Hamilton launched Zoz, a weekly paper for which O'Hea drew a full or double page cartoon in each issue. The politics were toned down, and the satire focused on Dublin society figures. It lasted until 1878.
In 1879 O'Hea and Hamilton launched a new magazine, Pat, another satirical weekly, in which O'Hea lampooned English cartoon stereotypes of the Irish, and introduced the character of Pat, the Irish people personified as a handsome, good-natured tenant farmer, sometimes discreetly armed with a shillelagh. Pat temporarily ceased publication in 1880, but reappeared in 1881, O'Hea now creating his cartoons in collaboration with a young protegé, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and finally closed in 1883.
For a time after that, O'Hea was manager of the pictorial department of the Evening Telegraph, and created poster-sized chromolithographs for the Christmas issues of magazines such as The Shamrock, Young Ireland and The Sunshine, and drew cartoons for A. M. Sullivan's newpaper The Nation.
He drew a regular black and white cartoon on the front page of the Weekly Freeman from August 1879 to December 1880, following which his cartoon was printed on card as a supplement to the paper, available in black and white or colour. He quit as regular cartoonist after the Parnell marriage scandal in 1891 (O'Hea remained a supporter of Parnell, while the paper sided against him), succeeded by Fitzpatrick, but occasional cartoons signed "Spex" were published there as late as 1899.
In 1893 he moved to London, where he moved in artistic circles and was celebrated as a raconteur. In January 1897 he delivered an illustrated lecture on "Irish Caricaturists and Cartoonists" to the Irish Literary Society in London. He had a few cartoons published in Punch, and created cartoons in collaboration with Fitzpatrick for the Irish Figaro (1898-1901). Towards the end of his career, in 1914-15, he drew cartoons for Fitzpatrick's magazine The Lepracaun, during Fitzpatrick's final illness, and contributed to The Quiz in 1915. He died after a long illness on 2 September 1922.
O'Hea's talents were highly regarded, even by those who did not share his nationalist politics. In 1883 the conservative British journal St. Stephen's Review described O'Hea as an "out-and-out nationalist", but also as "one of the cleverest artists in the three kingdoms" who "could be making his thousands per annum if he cared to live in London, where he is well known and highly thought of;" instead he "draws his most marvellous cartoons for the most miserable of Irish comic papers." In 1890 William Ewart Gladstone gave "a high testimony to the ability and principle of the Weekly Freeman artist" and described his pencil as "directly guided by a spirit of patriotism".
- "The late Mr. John Fergus O'Hea", The Irish Times, 9 September 1922
- Theo Snoddy, Dictionary of Irish Artists: 20th Century, Merlin Publishing, 2002
- B. P. Bowen, "Dublin Humourous Periodicals of the 19th Century", Dublin Historical Record Vol 13 No 1, 1952, pp. 2-11
- Lewis P. Curtis Jr., Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature, David & Charles, 1971
- Roy Douglas, Liam Harte & Jim O'Hara, Drawing Conclusions: a Cartoon History of Anglo-Irish Relations 1798-1998, The Blackstaff Press, 1998
- Joel A. Hollander, Coloured Political Lithographs as Irish Propaganda, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2007
- Carmel Doyle, "O'Hea, John Fergus", Dictionary of Irish Biography, (Eds.) James Mcguire, James Quinn, Cambridge University Press, 2009
- Athol Mayhew, A jorum of "Punch" with those who helped to brew it : being the early history of "The London Charivari", 1895, p. 149
- Irish News, New Zealand Tablet, 15 September 1893
- Biography at Scoop! (subscription required)
- Collins Collection of Irish Political Cartoons, University of Illinois
- Case Studies in Irish History No 4: The Elections of 1885-86
- Ireland in Schools: The 'Irish card' in the 1885-86 general elections
- Multitext Project in Irish History, Home Rule: the elections of 1885 and 1886, University College Cork