Arthur O'Leary

O'Leary, Arthur, D.D., a prominent politician and writer, was born in 1729, at Acres, near Dunman way, County of Cork. He was educated at St. Malo, in France, where he spent twenty-four years as prison chaplain. Little is known of his life before the year 1771, when he officiated at the Friary of the Capuchins in Cork, where his preaching soon attracted large audiences. His Thoughts on Religion, written in answer to a free-thought publication by a Cork physician named Blair, first brought him prominently before the public outside the pale of his congregation. Several brilliant pamphlets on current topics followed, characterized by learning,, religious feeling, a spirit of toleration, and steadfast allegiance to the British Crown. His biographer, a Catholic clergyman, says: "His eager desire to mitigate the sufferings of his fellow-countrymen, caused by religious bigotry, seduced him into unwarrantable theological concessions — forced him to make rash admissions — to indulge in a freedom of expression unwise as it was unnecessary, and thus expose himself unconsciously to the danger of heterodoxical teaching."[265]

He vehemently opposed the action of the Whiteboys, denounced the French invasion, wrote an essay on toleration, and engaged in a warm controversy with John Wesley for saying that "no government not Roman Catholic ought to tolerate men of the Roman Catholic persuasion." Wesley afterwards wrote in his Journal, 12th May 1787: "A gentleman invited me to breakfast with my old antagonist, Father O'Leary. I was not at all displeased at being disappointed. He is not the stiff, queer man that I expected, but of an easy, genteel carriage, and seems not to be wanting either in sense or learning."

His Essay on Toleration had a large circulation both in England and Ireland. In recognition of his scholarly acquirements and his supposed patriotism and philanthropy, he was elected an honorary member of "The Monks of the Screw," a club formed by Grattan, Curran, and other Irishmen of liberal politics. Numerous instances are recorded of his ready wit and powers of repartee, such as his rejoinder on being told by a Protestant friend that "the bottom had fallen out of purgatory, and all the Papists had been precipitated into hell" — "Lord save us! What a crushing the Protestants must have got!"

He suggested to a Protestant friend who quarrelled with the idea of purgatory, that "perhaps he might go farther and fare worse." Although it was known that Dr. O'Leary was in the receipt of a Government pension during the latter part of his life, and that this was conferred partly to restrain him from writing against the Union (it is believed that he declined the suggestion that he should write in its favour), it was never suspected until lately that he was in receipt of government pay as early as 1784.

In September of that year, says Mr. Froude, "the Irish Secretary applied to the English cabinet to furnish him from their own staff of informers.> Two valuable persons answering to Mr. Orde's description were sent, and the name of one of them will be an unpleasant surprise to those already interested in the history of the time. They were both Irishmen. One was a skilled detective named Parker... The other was no less a person than the celebrated Father O'Leary, whose memory is worshipped by Irish Catholic politicians with a devotion which approaches idolatry. O'Leary, as he was known to the world, was the most fascinating preacher, the most distinguished controversialist of his time — a priest who had caught the language of toleration, who had mastered all the chords of liberal philosophy, and played on them like a master; whose mission had been to plead against prejudice, to represent his country as the bleeding lamb — maligned, traduced, oppressed, but ever praying for her enemies; as eager only to persuade England to offer its hand to the Catholic Church, and receive in return the affectionate homage of undying gratitude. O'Leary had won his way to the heart of Burke by his plausible eloquence. Pitt seemed to smile on him: it is easy now to conjecture why. When he appeared in the Convention at the Rotunda the whole assembly rose to receive him. [They] reached Dublin at the end of September, and were both at once set to work. 'Your experts have arrived safe' wrote the Secretary, reporting their appearance. 'At this moment, we are about to make trial of O'Leary's sermons and Parker's rhapsodies. They may be both, in their different callings, of very great use. The former, if we can depend on him, has it in his power to discover to us the real designs of the Catholics, from which quarter, after all, the real mischief is to spring."[141]

At this very time Grattan spoke of him in Parliament as " a man of learning, a philosopher.. If I did not know him to be a Christian clergyman, I should suppose him by his works to be a philosopher of the Augustan age." In 1789 Dr. O'Leary left Ireland for ever, and took up his residence in London as one of the chaplains to the Spanish embassy. There, as in Ireland, his society was courted by leading politicians of liberal views — by Burke and Sheridan, by Fox and Fitzwilliam. Towards the close of 1801 his health began to decline, and after residing a short time in France, he returned to England, broken down in health and spirits, and died in London on 7th January 1802, aged 72.

It is related by his biographer (writing before Mr. Froude's disclosures) that when dying he more than once exclaimed: "Alas! I have betrayed my poor country." Dr. O'Leary was buried in old St. Pancras churchyard, where a monument was erected to his memory by his friend, Lord Moira. He was nearly six feet high, "a perfect perpendicular, with a kind of rigour in his muscles, that seemed to suffer from bending;" with a full mouth, heavy chin, and "sparkling eyes, overshadowed by bushy eye-brows."


16. Authors, Dictionary of British and American: S. Austin Allibone. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1859-'71.

141. Froude, James A.: The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century. 3 vols. London, 1872-'4.

154. Grattan Henry, his Life and Times: Henry Grattan. 5 vols. London, 1839-'46.

265. O'Leary, Rev. Arthur, Life and Writings: Rev. M. B. Buckley. Dublin, 1868.
O'Hanlon, Rev. J., see Nos. 3a, 192, 267, 274.