Leonard MacNally (1752-1820)


[vars. McNally [err.], M’Nally; reputed author of ‘‘The Lass of Richmond Hill’’]; b. Dublin, 27 Sept. 1752, the son William MacNally, a grocer; ed. TCD; lived in Bordeaux, opened grocer in St. Mary’s Lane, Dublin in 1771; called to Irish Bar, 1776; English bar, 1783; wrote a fictional parody of Sterne in Sentimental Excursions to Windsor (1781); author of successful plays at Covent Gdn., Fashionable Levities (1785), a stage version of Tristram Shandy (1783 and a popular success with Robin Hood, or Sherwood Forest (1784); ed. the Public Ledger; very early sworn member of United Irishmen; fought duel with Barrington in defence of honour of United Irishmen; and defended Tone, Tandy, 1792, and Emmet in court; received annual stipend of £300 from Government for information from 1794, having come to perceive danger in the fact that the United Irishmen had ‘been brought to think alike’ with French Republicans; identified hiding-place of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, 1797 [but vide Francis Higgins, q.v.];
acted with Peter Burrowes as defence counsel for Robert Emmet, and is alleged to have taken £200 [var. £300] from the government for the contents of his brief (i.e., prior information of the intended defence), 1803; kissed Emmet on departing from the court-room after his conviction for high treason; his life as double-agent became known after his death; issued adaptations of Sterne in drama and fiction; verse plays and comic operas include The Apotheosis of Punch (1779); Tristram Shandy (1783); Critic Upon Critic (1792), and songs, incl. “Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill”; he defended the Ribbonmen charged with the Wildgoose Lodge murders of Winter 1817 and afterwards hanged [as related in Carleton’s eponymous story] at the Dundalk Spring Assizes, 1818; he received mention in both Sir John Carr’s Stranger in Ireland (1806, p.468), John O’Keeffe, Recollections (1826, i, pp.44-45); and R. R. Madden’s United Irishmen (ii, 569-81, 586-89; 2nd. edn.);
d. 13 Feb. 1820, at home at 22 Harcourt St., bur. Donnybrook (Co. Dublin) - his son and heir laying claim to a continuance of his pension of £300; his double-dealing remained secret during his lifetime and was only revealed by W. J. Fitzpatrick in Secret Service; though a life-long Protestant and sometime persecutor of Catholics he sought a Catholic priest on his death-bed; one of his operas was set to music by Tommaso Giordani, an Italian musician who taught Lady Morgan; the plays are included in the Larpent Collection (Microcard Facsim. Edn. ed. W. W. Hall); he lived successively at 57 Dominick Street and 22 Harcourt Street (from 1800). ODNB PI DIB DIW DIL FDA OCIL

Note on name: MacNally is variously known and listed as MacNally (Dict. of Irish Biography, RIA) and McNally (Oxford Reference; Wikipedia, et al.) - commonly MacNally among Irish historians and McNally among British drama and music critics. The DIB/RIA entry of 2009 by C. I. Woods cites his father’s name and date of death (1756), suggesting consultation with records [online]. Woods additionally mentions that he began life as a grocer and became bankrupt in Sept. 1772 before turning to law at the Middle Temple (June 1794).




  • The Apotheosis of Punch (London: Wenman 1779), a satirical masque.
  • Retaliation; or, The Citizen a Soldier (London: F. Blyth[e] 1782, 2nd edn. (Dublin: Printed by R. Marchbank for Company of Booksellers), a two-act farce;
  • Tristram Shandy, a Sentimental, Shandean bagatelle in two acts (London: S. Bladon 1783).
  • Robin Hood, or Sherwood Forest (London: Alman 1784), a comic opera.
  • Fashionable Levities (London: G. C. J. & J. Robinson 1785) [also in Mrs Inchbald’s The Modern Theatre, Vol. 10].
  • Richard Coeur de Lion (London: Debrett 1788).
  • Critic Upon Critic: A Dramatic Medley in Three Acts (London: G. Brand 1788).
  • Cottage Festival (London: G. Brand 1796).;
  • Sentimental Excursions to Windsor and other places (London: J. Walker 1781) [political in sentiment]
  • The Claims of Ireland and the Resolutions of the Volunteers Vindicated [...] (London: J. Johnson 1782).
  • Abstract of Acts Passed in Parliament (1786).
  • An Address to the Whig Club (Dublin 1790).
  • Rules of Evidence on Pleas of the Crown (Dublin 1802).
  • The Justice of the Peace for Ireland (1808; also 1812, 1820).



E. W. Pitcher, ‘Leonard McNally: A Few Facts on a Minor Author of the Eighteenth Century’, Notes and Queries, 28 (Aug. 1981), pp.306-08.

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Jonah Barrington, Sketches [reissued as Recollections, 1918]):
‘Leonard M’Nally, well known both at the English and Irish bars, and in the dramatic circles, as the author of that popular little piece Robin Hood, etc., was one of the strangest fellows in the world. His figure was ludicrous; he was very short, and nearly as broad as long; his legs were of unequal length, and he had a face which no washing could clean; he wanted one thumb, the absence of which gave rise to numerous expedients on his part; and he took great care to have no nails, as he regularly ate every morning the growth of the preceding day; he never wore a glove, lest he should appear to be guilty of affectation in concealing his deformity. When in a hurry he generally took two thumping steps with the short leg to bring up the space made by the long one, and the bar, who never missed a favourable opportunity of nicknaming, called him accordingly “one pound two.” He possessed, however, a fine eye, and by no means an ugly countenance, a great deal of middling intellect, a shrill, full, good bar voice, great quickness at cross examination, with sufficient adroitness at defence, and in Ireland was the very staff and standing-dish of the criminal jurisdictions. In a word, M’Nally was a good-natured, hospitable, talented, dirty fellow, and had by the latter qualification so disgusted the circuit bar that they refused to receive him at their mess, a cruelty I set my face against, and every summer circuit endeavoured to vote him into the mess, but always ineffectually, his neglect of his person, the shrillness of his voice, and his frequenting low company being assigned as reasons which never could be set aside.’
[There follows an account of a duel between M’Nally and Barrington in which the former is saved by a ‘gallows’ [alias suspenders], and the latter narrowly escapes with a ball through his clothing; this followed by the circumstances of M’Nally’s elopement with the English beauty (but sloven) to whom he addressed “The Lass of Richmond” in his character as a “poetaster”, and their happy marriage.’

Brian Friel, Fathers and Sons (1987): Pavel: ‘MacNally’s story is interesting. He was a key menber of a revolutionary group called the United Irishmen. I’m talking about 60 years ago, in Ireland, obviously. Anyhow, years after McNally was dead and buried, his revolutionary friends made a remarkable discover: that right from the very beginning and all through the revolution McNally had betrayed them - he had been a spy for the English all along. Interesting, isn’t it?’ Further: Katya: ‘I think I know what he’s suggesting. Perhaps that creativity and betrayal are of a piece. Perhaps that loyalty and betrayal are of a piece ... that freedom, real freedom, cannot co-exist with loyalty or with love ... And I think he is also asking what happens when revolutnioary friens fall out. Which is the more important - loyalty to the friendship or loyalty to the revolution? ... And that’s what’s fascinating about Mr McNally. He was faced with neither of those dilemmas - betrayal endowed him with real freedom from those attachments.’ (Fathers and Sons, draft version [typescript pp.77-79], quoted in Richard Pine, The Diviner: The Art of Brian Friel [rev. edn.] (Dublin: UCD Press 2000, pp.325-26.)

W. J. McCormack, ed., Maria Edgeworth, The Absentee (OUP 1988), p.xiii: ‘The speaker immediately following this historically unstable peroration was a barrister, Leonard McNally, author of “Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill”, whose popularity was based on a highly personal blend of amateur and professional audacity. A sworn member of the United Irishmen, he had defended many fellow-members charged with treason, and had also written a dramatised version of Tristram Shandy. Only after his death in 1820, was it to emerge that McNally had also been a consummate double agent: as government informer and spy he had been the original betrayer of comrades he proceeded to defend in court. Difficulties of mutual understanding between England and Ireland can be gauged by this egregious meeting of the young idealistic poet and the maninulator of personae.’ (p.xiii.)

Thomas Bartlett, ‘Britishness, Irishness and the Act of Union’, in Acts of Union: The Causes, Contexts and Consequences of the Act of Union, ed. Dáire Keogh & Kevin Whelan (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2001): ‘Consider the curious case of Leonard MacNally, widely know to Irish historians as both a United Irishman and as a government informer: less well-known as a playwright and composer. In the 1780s he wrote the still-popular song, “The Lass of Richmond Hill” - a ballad so quintessentially English that MacNally’s authorship was periodically disputed in the pages of Notes & Queries during the nineteenth century. MacNally’s writing for the stage is likewise almost entirely bound up with [257] English themes. [Cites Prelude for Covent Garden, 1782, as an exception - with details of its hostile critical reception.] However, the Prelude had been an uncharacteristic foray by MacNally into Irishness: later plays such as Richard, Coeur de Lion, but especially his major “hit” Robin Hood, or Sherwood Forest, dealt with classic English heroes. MacNally’s Irish birth and upbringing were obviously no barriers to his immersing himself in Englishness, or contributing to its invention. Robin Hood has even been accredited with reviving interest in the famous outlaw of Sherwood Forest. In the 1790s MacNally acted as a lawyer for the United Irishmen: at the same time he was an important government informer. He wrote a play extolling union in 1800, but was never performed and has subsequently disappearance. MacNally died in 1820: he had been a Protestant all his life, and he had spent twenty-five years secretly denouncing sundry Catholic committees, Catholic bishops, and clerics: but on his deathbed he summoned a Catholic priest. His life illustrates the point that identities are not always fixed but rather are frequently overlapping and contingent.’ (pp.257-58; Bibl., W. J. Fitzpatrick, The Secret Service Under Pitt, London 1892, chap. 14; Bartlett’s ‘The life and opinions of Leonard MacNally, playwright, barrister, United Irishman, and Informer, in Hiram Morgan, ed., Information, Media and Power through the Ages, Dublin 2001, pp.113-36.)

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D. J. O’Donoghue, Poets of Ireland (Dublin: Hodges Figgis 1912), ascribes ‘Lass of Richmond Hill’ to James Hook, under Harriet Horncastle Hook. His title to and ‘Donnybrook Fair’ in D. J. O’Donoghue, Poets of Ireland [but see Charles O’Flaherty]. See also Irish Book Lover [Vol. 1, 29]. Note also, R. R. Madden lists 12 plays authored by McNally between 1779 and 1796.

Peter Kavanagh, The Irish Theatre (Tralee: The Kerryman 1946), p.287, gives bio-data: Leonard MacNally [?sic], 1752-1820; when a boy, he had a little theatre set up in his mother’s house, which was frequented by John O’Keeffe (see Recollections, 1, 44); lists The Apotheosis of Punch (Patagonian 1779) [printed 1779], satirical masque, attempts to ridicule Sheridan’s ‘Monody on the death of Garrick’; A New Occasional Prelude (Covent Garden, 16 Sept. 1782) [unpub.]; Retaliation (Covent Garden, 7 May 1782) [printed 1782], well-received farce; Tristram Shandy (Covent Garden, 26 April 1783), [cento] from Sterne, condemned on first night in Dublin; Coalition (Covent Garden, 19 Apr. 1783) [not printed], opera-farce; Robin Hood or Sherwood Forest (Covent Garden, 17 April 1784), comic opera with music by W. Shield; very popular, though wooden, and later reduced to two acts; Fashionable Levities (Covent Garden, 2 April 1785) [printed 1785], 5-act comedy, well received, taken in part from Lewis Machin, The Dumb Knight, printed in Dodsley’s Old Plays; April Fool or the Follies of a Night (Covent Garden, 1 April 1786), held in Larpent MS, with a ‘familiar story’ [Kavanagh]; Richard Coeur de Lion (Covent Garden, 16 Oct. 1786), comic opera adapted from M. J. Sedaine’s play of the same title (Paris 21 Oct. 1784), and overthrown by Burgoyne’s adaptation of the same 8 days later at Drury Lane; Critic Upon Critic [1780], satirical farce in which the char. Attic is Sheridan, printed 1788 and reprinted in 1792 as performed at Covent Garden though not traceable in any theatre records; The Cottage Festival or A Day in Wales (Crow St., 29 Nov. 1796), with music by Giordani.

Encyclopaedia Britannica (1949 edn.), article notes: ‘returning to Dublin he entered on a systematic course of informing against the members of the revolutionary party, for whom his house was the resort.’ Further, ‘He also betrayed to the government prosecutors political clients whom he defended eloquently in the courts. He made a fine defence of Robert Emmet and cheered him in his last hours, although before appearing in court he had given some for £200 the contents of his brief to the lawyers for the crown. After living as a Protestant all his life, on his deathbed he received absolution from a Catholic priest.’

Thomas Pakenham, Year of Liberty (1969), states of the evening Lord Edward was captured, that ‘Lord Camden and his party left the Castle and took their seats in the Theatre Royal for a gala performance of Robin Hood (a comic opera written, oddly enough, by McNally, the Govt. spy). (p.93; quoted Cheryl Herr, For the Land They Loved, 1991, p.47.)

Sundry: Burton’s British Theatre, Appendices (1960), lists Fashionable Levities; La Tourette Stockwell, Dublin Theatre (1968), p.354, supplies a quotation from John O’Keeffe’s Recollections on ‘the dramatist’ Leonard McNally [see under Peter Kavanagh, infra].

W. J. McCormack, ed., Maria Edgeworth, The Absentee (1988), Explanatory Notes with reference to the phrase ‘fashionable levity’: ‘The trial at large on an action for damages brought by earl of Westmeath against the honourable Augustus Cavendish Bradshaw for adultery to which is prefixed an epistle dedicatory to the fashionable world (Dublin: V. Dowling 1796), 48pp., containing the phrases uttered by J. P. Curran, ‘Lord Westmeath comes over to Ireland - and leaving his wife in London exposed to all those temptations which a round of gay life and fashionable levity might be supposed to present [...] complete mistress of her own conduct and propensities [...]’ (p.287). Note that this post-dates McNally’s play.

Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 1, selects only ‘The Lass of Richmond Hill’ [‘Whose charms all other maids surpass/A rose without a thorn/This lass so neat with smiles so sweet/Has won my right good will/I’d crowns resign to call her mine (&c. repeat)’], 1103. And NOTE, 934 [the younger McNally said by Moore to be transcriber of Emmet’s dock-speech [but see under H. B Code, q.v.], and also of subsequent prison cell conversation]; 935 [McNally senior writes to authorities of Emmet’s lack of plans for defence, 12 Sept.; took over from Curran with Peter Burrowes as defence lawyer; McNally, ‘a sworn United Irishman but also a secret agent of the government’, kissed his client farewell in the courtroom]; 939 [Mr. L. McNally’s name subscribed to State Trial in the Ridgeway text]; 1082 [Lass of Richmond Hill, ‘still popular song’; ed. rem., through McNally’s ‘schizoid’ relating of politics to literary sentiment, one gains access to a hidden dimension of the cultural inheritance Moore exonerates in such poems as ‘Oh blame not the bard’], 1099 [Rev. William Jackson, the court-room suicide, spoke his last words to McNally, ‘We have deceived the senate.’ [ODNB under Jackson attributes these were lines to a Caius Gracchus (recte Pierre in Otway’s Venice Preserved, 1682)]; see also FDA1, 930, which states that Curran defended Jackson. FDA, BIOG & WORKS [as supra]. Remarks: McNally Sold Emmet allegedly for £200 and devised his defence; ‘[his] adaptations and parodies, in drama and fiction, Laurence of Sterne indicate ... his cast of mind. Like R. B. Sheridan and R. L. Sheil [he] combined active politics with writing for the theatre. His secret betrayals [...] suggest a far more morbid involvement in the dualities of theatrical spectacle than anything attempted by Sheridan in the impeachment of Warren Hastings [...]. No modern or indeed Victorian study has been attempted.’ [W. J. McCormack, Ed.]. FDA3 [1316, ed. ref. to seq.]; Seamus Heaney’s McNally poem, “The Old Icons” [‘the very rhythm of his name/A register of dear-bought treacheries/grown transparent now, and inestimable’, 1373n]. WORKS [FDA & DIL], Plays, The Apotheosis of Punch (1779); Retaliation (1782); Tristram Shandy (1783); Robin Hood (1784); Fashionable Levities (1785); Richard Coeur de Lion (1786); Critic Upon Critic (1788); Cottage Festival (1796); fiction/prose, Sentimental Excursions to Windsor (1781); political writings, The Claims of Ireland and the Resolutions of the Volunteer Vindicated ... (London 1782); Abstract of Acts Passed in Parliament (1786); An Address to the Whig Club (Dublin 1790); Rules of Evidence on Please of the Crown (Dublin & London 1802); The Justice of the Peace for Ireland (Dublin 1808).

Marianne Elliott, Partners in Revolution: The United Irishmen and the French (Yale UP 1982), 410pp.; index lists significant refs. to McNally at pp.26, 64, 65, 73, 95, 142-43, 189, 193, 197, 212, 241, 247, 275, 315, 317.

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Wildgoose Lodge”: the story of that name by William Carleton concludes with a note to the effect that the malefactors - Paddy Divaun, et al. - were defended in 1818 at the Dundalk Assizes by ‘the notorious Leonard M’Nally, a very able advocate, who was not then suspected by the people of his proved infamous conduct in betraying his clients among the United Irishmen.’ (See Wildgoose Lodge and Other Stories, ed. Maurice Harmon, Mercier Press 1973, p.20.)

Author, author? Maurice Craig (Dublin 1660-1860: A Social and Architectural History, 1952) also cites “The Lass of Richmond Hill” as his work; but note that the authorship of the song is contested on behalf of James Hook, for whom see under Harriet Horncastle Hook [infra].

Kevin Whelan, ‘Origins of the Orange Order’, Bullán: An Irish Studies Journal, 2, 2 (Spring/Summer 1996), p.30, quoting McNally’s shocked account of the Orangeism of judges and barristers at the Maryborough assizes; Letter to E. Cooke [April] 1798; Whelan, p.30-1.)

Tom Bartlett (UCD) poured vitriol on the informer Leonard McNally at “Speaking Ill of the Dead”, a conference convened by Myles Dungan (RTÉ), and held at the National Museum (Collins Barracks), 31-Mrch-1 April 2006, co-sponsored by the National Museum and RTÉ.

Portrait: An oval engraved portrait of McNally, by ‘Maguire, Sculpt.’, held in the Nat. Lib. of Ireland, appears in Cheryl Herr, For The Land They Loved (Syracuse UP 1991), p.177 [facing].

Fair Liberty: See McNally’s remarks on Jonathan Swift [as infra].

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