John O’Leary (1830-1907)

b. 23 July 1830, Tipperary - into a landowning family; ed. Carlow, QUC, and TCD, studied medicine but did not graduate; abandoned law because of oath of allegiance and subsisted thereafter on a private income [from rural tenancies]; became one of the Triumvirate in the Fenian movement; participated in the 1848 Rising at Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary; arrested Clonmel, 1848; vigorous supported of J. F. Lalor; ed. Galway, 1851-53, medicine; sent by Stephens to inform John Mahoney of developments in Ireland; took on editorship of The Irish People for James Stephens after three weeks and co-ed. with Luby and his sister Ellen O’Leary, 1863; betrayed by Pierce Nagle, a ‘spy’ in People office; the paper suppressed [1865 DIH]; sentenced to 20 years servitude on 6 Feb., 1864 [vars. 1865, 1867]; denied an English court the right to sentence him in an eloquent dock speech;
served his sentence in Pentonville and Portland Gaol; released on conditions of expatriation for fifteen years; lived mostly in Paris (though visiting America in 1872 and 1880); boarded at Rue Lacepede [Paris 5ième], a house described by Dumas in Père Goriot, and also occupied by Whistler (whom he met on the boat), Swinburne, Gèrard Dumourier, and Alfred Poyntz, et al.; consulted by Devoy and Parnell, who visited him with Biggar in Aug. 1877; met with Parnell and John Devoy to discuss New Departure, March 1879; equally opposed to parliamentary politics and terrorist extremism; returned to Dublin, 1885, where he was publicly greeted as ‘the veteran patriot’ and ‘the old man’ (though only 55);
President of Supreme Council of IRB, 1885-1907; opposed IPP and National League; professed to hate English rule in Ireland, not England; addressed Literary Society at Cork, “What Irishmen Should Know”, 1886; also and ‘How Irishmen Should Feel’, 1886; contrib. to symposium on “Best Hundred Books” (Freeman’s Journal, 1885), objecting to inclusion of Lady Morgan; prominent member of Pan-Celtic Society in the 1880s; through George Sigerson, Charles Hubert Oldham and the Contemporary Club, formed association with Douglas Hyde, W. B. Yeats, Katharine Tynan, Maud Gonne, and others;
in his Mountjoy Square rooms were held the meetings at which the Irish National Literary Society was conceived; ed. literary section of The Gael, journal of the GAA (est. 1887), receiving contributions from Yeats, Katharine Tynan, Douglas Hyde, and others; owned largest library of Irish books in his day, which he opened to W. B. Yeats and others; introduced Yeats to the poetry of Thomas Dacis and advised him during the compilation of his Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), Stories from Carleton (1889), and Representative Irish Tales (1890); helped finance Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (1888), which was dedicated to him in his capacity as President of the Young Ireland Society; ed. Gaelic Athletic Assoc. journal, The Gael, from 1887, publishing Yeats, Hyde, and others;
supported Parnell after split; pres. of 1798 centenary committee; adds his demand for the resignation of Fred Allan to others when Allan organised children’s fête for visit of Victoria, April 1900; first President of Cumann na Gaedhael, 1900; mbr. of National Council protesting visit of Edward VII, 1903; issued Young Ireland, The Old and the New (1885); What Irishmen Should Know, How Irishmen Should Feel (1886); lectured on Thomas Moore in Cork, condemning his ‘spurious patriotism’; issued an introduction to the Writings of James Fintan Lalor (1895), and Recollections (2 vols., 1896), which Yeats watched him compile, and which disappointed him on publication;
presided over committee celebrating centenary of death of Robert Emmet, 20 Sept. 1903; known as a friend of Kickham and an acquaintance of Turgenev, du Maurier, Whistler and Swinburne; spent his final years in poverty at Mountjoy Sq., Dublin; d. 16 March 1907; bur. in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, with a Nationalist funeral; he is prominently represented in A. M. Sullivan’s Speeches from the Dock; his death was the occasion of an article by James Joyce in Il Piccolo della Serra (Trieste); a photo-portrait appeared printed in Beltaine [Berg Coll., NYPL]; there is a bronze bust by his Oliver Sheppard (1904) - whom he befriended and supplied with pamphlets; he is pre-eminently celebrated by Yeats’s rhetorical ballad, “September 1913”, and was quoted in Dáil Eireann on both sides of the Treaty debate in 1922. ODNB DIW DIB DIH DIL OCIL

[ top ]

  • Young Ireland, The Old and the New, being the inaugural address to the Young Ireland Society, delivered in the Round Room, Rotundo [sic] 19 Jan 1885 (Dublin 1885);
  • contrib. to The Best Hundred Irish Books: Introductory and Closing Essays by “Historicus” and Letters, ed. R. Barry O’Brien [pseud. “Historicus”] (Dublin: privately printed by the Freeman’s Journal, 1886), [pamphl.];
  • What Irishmen Should Know; What Irishmen Should Feel ([Dublin:] Cahill 1886);
  • What Irishmen Should Read (1889);
  • Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism (London: Downey & Co. 1896), and Do. [facs. rep.] intro. Marcus Bourke, 2 vols. (Shannon IUP 1969).
  • Joe Ambrose, ed., The Fenian Anthology (Cork: Mercier Press 2008 incls. a selection of his writings.

[ top ]

  • W. B. Yeats, ‘Mr. John O’Leary’, review of Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism], in The Bookman (Feb. 1897), rep. in Uncollected Prose of W. B Yeats, ed. John P. Frayne, Vol. 1, 1970, pp.35-38;
  • Marcus Bourke, John O’Leary: A Study in Irish Separatism (Tralee 1967);
  • E. R. R. Green, ‘The Beginnings of Fenianism’ and ‘Charles Joseph Kickham and John O’Leary’, both in The Fenian Movement, ed. T. W. Moody (Cork 1988);
  • Malcolm Brown, ‘Fenianism and Irish Poetry’, in Fenians and Fenianism University Review, ed. Maurice Harmon [Special Issue] (1968), q.pp.;
  • Malcolm Brown, ‘O’Leary and the Irish People’, in The Politics of Irish Literature from Thomas Davis to W. B. Yeats (London: George Allen 1972) [Chap. 12], pp.179-90 [et passim].

Note: W. B. Yeats devotes the opening and ending of his essay “Poetry and Tradition” (1907) to an encomium of O’Leary, writing: ‘We would not, it is likely, have found listeners if John O’Leary, the irreproachable patriot, had not supported us.’ (In Cutting of an Agate [1912] , rep. in Essays and Introductions, p.257.)


See also H. W. Nevinson, Changes and Chances (1923), and John Kelly, et al., eds., The Letters of W. B. Yeats (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1986), for quotations from and remarks on O’Leary [both in text and annotations].

[ top ]

W. P. Ryan, The Irish Literary Revival (1894), The first informal meeting called to resume the work in Dublin was held at Mr John O’Leary’s house, in Mountjoy Square. Messrs O’Leary, W. B. Yeats, John T. Kelly, P. J. McCall and J. P. Quinn were among this opening muster. There was a long discussion about the project with some members of the Young Ireland League – a political and literary organisation founded in 1891 – but it was decided to have the new organisation altogether separate, and quite apart from politics [127]; present at the Rotunda Meeting in June 1892 [127]. John O’Leary, the editor of the Irish People passed as a ‘felon’ from the Irish stage in 1865, passed with a simple dignity and a ready acceptance of suffering for duty’s sake, regarding the whole tragedy as something obvious and commonplace, disdaining the idea of seeing heroism or the epic touch in it. All this is characteristic of the man. Returning after twenty years of suffering and exile, he found the old order changed, and could not take kindly to the new. The literary movement won, however, his early adhesion [esp. the Dublin Society] … stand out in keen contract to some of the leaders … the happy witchery of illusions (using the word in its highest sense) are foreign to him. The faery light … the ariel music that enable the true Celt to cheat Time of so much of his dreariness do not shine or sing for him…. Sober vision and rigid reality are more in his esteem. [144] … The glamour of the Gael is unknown to him. His consequent cold, clear sight differentiates him from the majority of his comrades. His memoirs, now complete, will prove in all likelihood to be one of the most candid and striking works of our time. &c [145].

Report of the Wolfe Tone and United Irishmen Memorial Committee [regarding the public funeral of John O’Leary]: […] To the day of his death he assited in the project which is dear to us all, and it is impossible to adequately express the feelings to which we struggled to give vent when we heard that all was over, the more especially as we knew that amontgst those who were collected around his death-bed was one who was determined to prevent, if possible, a popular manifestation of sorrow and of sympathy with the princples which the old Fenian Chief held. / The day after Mr O’Leary’s death the Committee met in athe morning and remained in session throughout the day sending several deputations to his relatives, asking that the arrangements for the funeral be handed over to us. This request was refused. Your Committee received numerous telegrams from friends in all parts of Ireland, Lodnon, and abroad, requesting to know the position of things, and urging your Committee to insist upon a public funeral [] Finally, it became obvious that there was but one course to pursue, namely, to proceed to the Church, after the Mass, to take quiet possesion of the coffin, carry it to the hearse, wrap it in the folds of the Green Flag of Irland and form a proper funeral procession to Glasnevin. / This was done, and, despite the harsh weather, it was a glorius and inspiriting sight to witness the people of Dublin turning out in their thousands to do honour to the old Leader. [Other Committee matters here discussed.] Signed on behalf of the Committee [sic], P. Devlin / W. O’Gorman / S O’Huadhlaigh, Hon Secs.; 41 Rutland Square, Dublin [n.d.; 3pp.; verso p.3: “Statement of Accounts & Balance Sheet from 1st July 1906 to 31 st July 1907”, giving assets ’ £627; Expend. ’ £362] (Source: the pamph. is part of the William O’Brien Collection of the National Library of Ireland, LO P115; item 26.)

W. B. Yeats proudly calls himself ‘a nationalist of the school of John O’Leary’ (Autobiographies, p.241), and attributed to his O’Leary’s influence ‘all I have set my hand to since.’ (ibid., p.101.) Famously, he apotheosised O’Leary in his poem “September 1913”, grumbling at the Dublin Corporation’s rejection of Hugh Lane’s plan for a gallery of Modern Art: ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone / It’s with O’Leary in the grave’; see “Beautiful, Lofty Things” [‘O’Leary’s noble head’].

W. B. Yeats, “Autobiography”, in Memoir, ed. Denis Donoghue (London: Macmillan 1972): ‘The world where I was to do my work was partly familiar to me;, Nationalists I had met in my father’s studio or at the Young Ireland Society and at O’Leary’s house before I had left Dublin, Protestants generally and many Catholic Nationalists of a slightly younger generation met now for the first time. The most important, indeed the one indispensable man, was John O’Leary himself, and I was sure of his support. His long imprisonment, his association with famous figures of the past, his lofty character, and perhaps his distinguished head had given him great authority. I was not to find him an easy ally, and perhaps I should not have had him for ally at all had he not suggested that I book a lodging in the same untidy old eighteenth-century house [Lonsdale Hse., St. Lawrence Rd., Clontarf]. It often took me the whole day to convince [him] of the rightness of some resolution I wanted the Society to pass, and the desirability of some book I had hoped to have published. His once passionate mind, in the isolation of prison and banishment, had as it were dried and hardened into certain constantly repeated formulas, unwieldy as pieces of lava, but these formulas were invariably his own, the result of the experiences of his life. I seldom thought these formulas untrue, but their application wasted many days in argument.’

W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies, Macmillan 1955), Yeats quotes identified O’Leary with ‘the moral genius that moves all young people (Autobiogs., p.95.) ‘[John O’Leary] more clearly than anyone, has seen that there is no fine nationality without literature, and seen the converse also, that there is no fine literature without nationality’ ((Ibid.); further, ‘Sometimes he would say things that would have sounded well in some heroic Elizabethan play. It became my delight to rouse him to these outbursts, for I was the poet in the presence of his theme. Once when he was defending an Irish politician who had made a great outcry because he was treated as a common felon, by showing that he did it for the cause’s sake, he said, “There are things that a man must not do to save a nation.” He would speak a sentence like that in ignorance of its passionate value, and would forget it the moment after. (Autobiographies, p.95-96.)

[ top ]

W. B. Yeats [quotes O’Leary]: ‘Neither Ireland nor England knows the good from the bad in any art, but Ireland unlike England does not hate the good when it is pointed out to her.’ (Autobiographies, p.101; also in “Poetry and Tradition” [1907], rep. in Essays and Introductions, Macmillan 1961, p.150, ftn.; see full text in RICORSO Library, “Irish Classics”, via index or direct.) ‘I shrank from seeing about his grave so many whose Nationalism was different from anything he had thought or that I could share. He belonged … to the romantic conception of Irish nationality … .’ (Essays and Introductions, p.246; all cited in A. N. Jeffares, A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats (1984), p.110]. Yeats also cited O’Leary’s habit of citing the words ‘humanitarian’ and ‘philanthropy’ with sarcasm, presumably as a reaction to the Famine (Ibid., p.128).


Soft wax - According to Yeats, an evening’s debate on nationalism at O’Leary’s house was the event that triggered his interest in the idea of an Irish cultural future: ‘I began to plot and scheme how one might seal with the right image the soft wax before it began to harden. I had noticed that Irish Catholics among whom had been born so many political martyrs had not the good taste, the household courtesy and decency of the Protestant Ireland I had known, yet Protestant Ireland seemed to think of nothing but getting on in the world. I thought we might bring the halves together if we had a national literature that made Ireland beautiful in the memory, and yet had been freed from provincialism by an exacting criticism, a European pose.’ (Autobiographies, Macmillan 1955, pp.101-02.)

W. B. Yeats, “A General Introduction for My Work” (1935): ‘It was through the old Fenian leader John O’Leary I found my theme. His long imprisonment, his longer banishment, his magnificent head, his scholarship, his pride, his integrity, all that aristocratic dream nourished amid little shops and litle farms, had drawn around him a group of young men [...] He gave me the poems of Thomas Davis, said they were not good poetry but had changed his life when a young man, spoke of other poets associated with Davis and The Nation newspaper, probably lent me their books. I saw even more clearly than O’Leary that they were not good poetry. I read nothing but romantic literature; hated that dry eighteenth-century rhetoric; but they had one quality I admired and admire: they were not separated individual men; they spoke or tried to speak out of a people to a people; behind them streatched the generations. I knew, though but now and then as young men know things, that I must turn from that modern literature Jonathan Swift compared to the web a spider draws out of its own bowels. I hated and still hate with an every growing hatred the literature of point of view. [...] Then somebody, not O’Leary, told me of Standish O’Grady and his interpretation of Irish legends. O’Leary sent me to O’Curry, but his unarranged and uninterrupted history defeated by boyish indolence.’ (“A General Introduction for My Work” [1937], in Essays and Introductions, Macmillan 1961 [‘Later Essays and Introductions’], p.510; rep. in Jeffares, ed., Collected Criticism, 1964, p.256; quoted in Peter Costello, The Heart Grown Brutal, 1977, pp.21-22.) Note: The essay begins with an apology for not attending the funeral of O’Leary, where Yeats expected to see so many nationalists of the kind he despised, and ends by assimilating O’Leary to an aristocratic conception of art [as follows].

[ top ]

W. B. Yeats, “A General Introduction for My Work” (1935): ‘[...] Power passed to small shopkeepers, to clerks, to that very class who had seemed to John O’Leary so ready to bend to the power of others, to men who had risen above the traditions of the countryman, without learning those of cultivated life or even educating themselves, and who because of their poverty, their ignorance, their superstitious piety, are much subject to all kinds of fear. Immediate victory, immediate utility, became everything, and the conviction, which is in all who have run great risks for a cause’s sake, in the O’Learys and Mazzinis as in all rich natures, that life is greater than the cause, withered, and we artists, who are the servants not of any cause but of mere naked life, and above all of that life in its nobler forms, where joy and sorrow are one, Artificers of the Great Moment, became as elsewhere in Europe protesting individual voices. Ireland’s great moment had passed, and she had filled no roomy vessels with strong sweet wine, where we have filled our porcelain jars against the coming winter.’ [End; see full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Irish Classics > Yeats”, via index, or direct.]

W. B. Yeats: ‘When Mr. O’Leary died I could not bring myself to go to his funeral, though I had been a close fellow-worker, for I shrank at meeting about his grave so many whose nationalism was so different anything he had taught or that I could share [...]’ (Quoted in A. G. Stock, W. B. Yeats: His Poetry and Thought, Cambridge UP 1961, p.166; cited in Stephen Osborne, PG Dip., UU 2011.)

W. B. Yeats reviewed Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism in Bookman (Feb 1897, p.146 [‘he is that supreme type, almost unknown in our heady generation, the type that lives like the enthusiasts, and yet has no other light but a little cold intellect’]; see Warwick Gould, “Lionel Johnson Comes First to Mind”: Sources for Owen Aherne’, in Yeats and the Occult, ed., George Mills Harper, London: Macmillan 1975, p.263 [arguing that O’Leary is one among other models for Aherne as regards his ‘passion for abstract right’]. He also wrote an article on him in Irlande Libre (June 1898) - ed. by Maud Gonne, et al.

W. B. Yeats: Index references to John O’Leary in Yeats’s Autobiographies (1955) as follows: John O’Leary, and the papal soldier, 100; Yeats’s debt to, 101, 105, 226, 227; introduces Maud Gonne to J. B. Yeats, 123; nationalism, 209; writes to Yeats, 229; as chairman, 361; as first president of National Literary Society, succeeded by Hyde, 396; &c.

John S. Crone, “Willie Yeats and John O’Leary”, Vol. XXVII, No. 5 (Nov. 1940), p.245.

[Crone writes:] After the death of D. J. O’Donoghue, in 1917, his widow sent me a quantity of correspondence which he had inherited from John O’Leary, the old Fenian chief, whose literary executor he was. Much of it had been used by “D.J.” in his “John O’Leary and his Friends”, which ran serially through The Weekly Independent and The Newcastle Weekly Chronicle. I prepared the text of that series for re-publication in volume form, with a prefatory memoir of O’Leary. But unfortunately in transit to a Dublin publisher, the ‘copy’ disappeared and was never heard of again, presumably burnt in a mail train at a time when such an incident was not uncommon. Amongst the unused matter were the following letters from Willie Yeats, as he was then known to us:
3 Blenheim Rd., May 7 (1889).

Dear Mr. O’Leary,

 I should have thanked you before for the Carleton’s, but the day I got them I started for Oxford and only returned the day before yesterday. Down there I had no time to write letters at all, what with copying out in the Bodleian all day and dining with dull college dons—friends of York Powell with whom I stoped [sic]—in the evening. Met one or two people of interest, however—a student on the ground floor had got my book—he was of interest of course—they have it too, in the Oxford Union.
I have started reading Carleton’s Miser, and will write to the Coffeys about what Carleton’s they have as soon as I hear of their return to Dublin. My father will ask the Butts about him. They, or their father knew him well, of course. I have been busy with Blake. You complain about the mysticism. It has enabled me to make out Blake’s prophetic books at any rate. My book on him will, I believe, clear up that riddle for ever. No one will call him mad again. I have evidence, by the way, to show that he was of Irish extraction—his grandfather was an O’Neal who changed his name for political reasons. Ireland takes a most im-portant place in his mystical system. You need not be afraid of my going in for mesmerism. It interests me but slightly. No fear of Madam Blavatsky drawing me into such matter. She is very much against them, and hates spiritualism vehemently—says mediumship and insanity are the same thing.
 By the way their [sic] has been a stir lately among the faithful, Madam Blavatsky expelled Mrs. Cook (Mabel Collins), a most pro-minent theosophist writer and daughter of Mortimer Collins, and expelled also the president of the lodge for flirtation; and expelled an American lady for gossiping about them. Madam Blavatsky is in great spirits, she is purring and hiding her claws as though she never clawed anybody. She is always happy when she has found a Theosophist out and clawed him. She thinks she is the most long suffering person. One day she said ‘forty thousand theosophists are gushing away. I try to stop them, then they scratch’.
 According to her there are about half-a-dozen real theosophists in the world and one of these is stupid (Olcott, I imagine). The rest she classifies under the head ‘flap doodles’. Come to see her when you are in London. She is the most human person alive, is like an old peasant woman and is wholly devoted. All her life is but sitting in a great chair with a pen in her hand. For years she has written twelve hours a day. I have no theories about her, she is simply a note of interrogation. ‘Olcott is much honester than I am’, she said to me one day, ‘he explains things. I am an old Russian savage’, that is the deepest I ever got into her riddle.
 I read a scene of my new play to an actress yesterday. She seemed to think it suitable in all ways for the stage. I think you will like it, it is in all things Celtic and Irish. The style is perfectly simple and I have taken great care with the construction, made two complete prose versions before writing a line of verse. Miss O’Leary wished to keep the review of my book she had. I return those of which I have duplicates. My father is delighted with Miss O’Leary’s poem [“My Own Galtees”] in the Irish Monthly and so am I. It is most simple, delicate and tender. I shall write to her very presently. I have to go out now—have been unwell these last two days through want of exercise I suspect, but am nearly all right again now. Still do not care to write much. Forgive me all this chatter about Madame Blavatsky.
 I hope Miss O’Leary’s health will feel the benefit of this good spring weather.

Yours very sincerely, W. B. Yeats.

—See further letters - as attached.

[ top ]

James Joyce, “Fenianism: The Last Fenian [Il Fenianismo: L’Ultimo Feniano]” (22 March 1907): ‘With the recent death of John O’Leary in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish national holiday, went perhaps the last actor in the turbid drama of Fenianism … (p.188) [gives an account of the movement and its extinction, together with the rise of Sinn Fein]; ‘[…] when the old leader O’Leary returned to his native land after years spent in study while an exile in Paris, he found himself among a generation animated by ideals quite different from those of ’65. He was received by his compatriots with marks of honour, and from time to time appeared in public to preside over some separatist conference or some banquet. But he was a figure from a world which had disappeared. He would often be seen walking along the river, an old man dressed in light-coloured clothes, with a shock of very white hair hanging down to his shoulders, almost bent in two from old age and suffering. He would stop in front of the gloomy shops of the old-book dealers, and having made some purchase, would return along the river. Aside from this, he had little reason to be happy. His plots had gone up in smoke, his friends had died, and in his own native land, very few knew who he was and what he had done. Now he is dead, his country will escort him to his tomb with great pomp. Because the Irish, even though they break the hearts of those who sacrifice their lives for their native land, never fail to show great respect for the dead.’ (Critical Writings, ed. Richard Ellmann and Ellsworth Mason, The Critical Writings of James Joyce, Viking 1959, 1966, pp.188-92; pp.191-92.) Note: On complaining to Prezioso’s Piccolo about the at misspelling of O’Leary [sans O’] in 1907, Joyce was commissioned to produce his Irish lecture-series. According to Eric Bulson - quoting the above [in part] - Joyce was ‘bending the facts’ since O’Leary was publicly acclaimed on his return; see Cambrdige Guide to James Joyce (Cambridge UP 2006.[ top ]

Louis MacNeice, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats (London; Faber 1941), writes of Yeats attachment to O’Leary: ‘the kind of nationalism which he admired, represented by John O’Leary , was in decline. The nationalism dominant seemed to him to involve a shocking waste of energy and to have ruined the lives of a number of his friends. It was vulgar …’. (p.46); quotes Yeats: ‘He cared nothing for his country’s glory, its individuality alone seemed important in his eyes.’ Further [MacNeice], ‘Under John O’Leary’s influence he dreamed of bringing together the two halves of Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, and decided that for himself personal utterance depended upon remembering his Irish background. [59] The kind of nationalism which he admired, represented by John O’Leary, was in decline. The nationalism dominant seemed to him to involve a shocking waste of energy and to have ruined the lives of a number of his friends. It was vulgar … [46] It was partly because under John O’Leary he wished to emulate the passion of the Young Ireland poets while avoiding their pamphleteering vulgarity. [75]; further quotes: ‘From these [Young Ireland] debates, and from O’Leary’s conversation, and from the Irish books he lent or gave me has come all I have set my hand to since ….’ (Autobiographies, p.101.)

Richard Kain, Dublin in the Age of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, Oklahoma UP 1962; Newton Abbot: David Charles 1972), on the politic formation of W. B. Yeats: ‘In addition to the influence of Maud Gonne, there was the noble figure of John O’Leary, veteran of five years in prison and fifteen of enforced exile, a man whose vision was large enough to accept the poetic achievements of the Unionist Sir Samuel Ferguson, and even to forgive those who had imprisoned him: “I was in the hands of my enemy, why should I complain.” Some of the most eloquent pages of Yeats’s autobiography are devoted to this figure whose patriotism was second only to his integrity. The young disciple was often to remember his remark that “There are things a man must not do to save a Nation.” [104] Throughout his life Yeats regarded O’Leary as the ideal Irish patriot.’ (pp.104-05; for longer extracts, see RICORSO Library, “Critics”, infra .)

Marcus Bourke, John O’Leary, A Study in Irish Separatism (Tralee 1967), remarks on O’Leary’s magnificent collection of Irish books; praised by Yeats in 1889 as ‘the best I know’; from it Yeats borrowed Davis, Mangan, Carleton, Banim, Feguson, Kickham, and Mitchel …and discovered that such a thing as Irish literature existed, and that all the themes he had been seeking elsewhere had been treated by his own countrymen’. (p.201). Further, it was O’Leary who organised collection of funds to publish The Wanderings of Oisin (1888). Bourke write of Yeats’s career as a permanent reminder of O’Leary’s broadminded concept of Irish nationality, ‘a concept which, from his own conversion to Irish nationalism in 1846 to his death sixty-one years later, he preached incessantly to Irishmen of all creeds and classes.’ (p.246).

Frank Tuohy, Yeats: An Illustrated Biography (London: Macmillan 1976), ‘It was through the old Fenian leader John O’Leary I found my theme. His long imprisonment, his magnificent head, his scholarship, his pride, his integrity, all that aristocratic dream nourished amid little shops and little farms, had drawn around him a group of young men; […] he gave me the poems of Thomas Davis, said they were not good poetry but had changed his life when a young man, spoke of other poets associated with Davis and The Nation newspaper, probably lent me their books. I saw even more clearly than O’Leary that they were not good poetry … by they had one quality which I admired and admire: they were not separated individual men; they spoke or tired to speak out of a people to a people; behind them stretched the generations […] I hated an still hate with an every growing hatred the literature of the point of view … I wanted to cry as all men cried, to laugh as all men laughed, and the Young Ireland poets when not writing mere politics had the same want, but they did not know that the common and its befitting language is the research of a lifetime and when found may lack popular recognition.’ (‘General Introduction for my Work, II: Subject Matter’, in Essays and Introductions, p.510-11; cited by Tuohy, p.41; with remark, ‘The theme was Ireland’); Yeats refused to attend his funeral, saying ‘so many whose nationalism was different from anything he had taught or that I could share.’ (p.146; Jeffares, Comm. on the Coll. Poems, p.130); Tuohy also notes that O’Leary seemed to anticipate the day of violence at a speech at the dedication of the memorial of James Stephens, ‘This is not a time for making speeches. There is work to be done in Ireland and every one of you knows what it is. Go home and make ready.’ (p.146; also Malcolm Brown, Politics of Irish Literature, 1972, p.7.)

Frank Tuohy (Yeats, 1976) - cont.: ‘extreme, but not dangerous; most enduring characteristics, his pride and his prudence’ appealed to Yeats; his personality and his love of literature; for O’Leary, at their first meeting, Yeats was the only one ‘who will ever be reckoned a genius’; Yeats encountered Ellen O’Leary in her brother’s home, rumoured to have had a tragic love-affair: ‘there was something about brother and sister which I can best describe as virginal. I am not sure that Ellen O’Leary was not the more masculine of the two.’ (p.42; [quoting Conor Cruise O’Brien]).

[ top ]

Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Mask (1948), p.46: ‘[O’Leary] liked to describe himself as “very untransacting” in matters involving immediate, violent action. In so far as he had any hated he directed it not against England but against English rule in Ireland. On occasion he was even known to asset that the English character was better, perhaps, than the Irish , but that the Irish could not turn English. He opposed terrorism and all unfair methods, saying, “There are things that a man must not do to save a nation”. One of his major objectives was to build up national morale, a word he used very often which perhaps attracted him because of his own sense of self-discipline and dignity. /His nationalism was distinctive, also, in that he had a deep and somewhat discriminating interest in Irish literature. Much of his Fenian activity had consisted of editing a Fenian newspaper, and though is own literary style was abominable, he had always tried to maintain high standards in its columns. “We protest against the right of patriots to perpetrate bad verses”, [46] he declared on one occasion…. conceived his mission as primarily an educative one …’ [47] NOTE also, Yeats to John O’Leary, writing of The Secret Rose: ‘it is at any rate an honest attempt towards that aristocratic esoteric Irish literature, which has been my chief ambition. We have a literature for the people but nothing yet for the few.’ (Unpub. letter, NLI; printed in Ellmann, 1948, p.151.)

Richard Ellmann (Yeats: The Man and the Mask, 1948, 1987 Edn.) - cont.: ‘Under O’Leary’s influence he [Yeats] half intended to start upsome day a new Young Ireland movement like that of Thomas Davis forty years before; it would produce nationalist literature, too, but of better quality, and would play a less active role than Davis’s group in practical politics, in which Yeats had no interest (p.102; quoted in Maria Pulida, paper in That Other World: The Supernatural and the Fantastic in Irish Literature: Transactions of the Princess Grace Irish Library Conference, 1998.)

Malcolm Brown, ‘Fenianism and Irish Poetry’, in Maurice Harmon, ed., Fenians and Fenianism (1968): ‘Somebody suggested that a newspaper could replenish the cash-box, so a newspaper was started, called the Irish People. Characteristically, Stephens proposed to write all the copy himself, and John O’Leary, the most literate of all the Fenians, was called in merely to watch over the minor mechanical details. In three weeks O’Leary found himself in full command of the aper. Stephens laboured under great pain and produced three leaden articles, the fell back exhausted. “He relapsed into a silence which I never after urged him to break”, said O’Leary.’ Brown gives an account of O’Leary as being possessed of enough income to study medicine without taking a degree, to travel, and book-collect, a lifelong passion; about 1860 met Stephens in Paris in the same boarding house that has been immortalised by an oddity as le maison Vaiquer. O’Leary’s journalistic model was the old Nation of the 1840s under Davis. […] Opened up the literary front with a poem by R. D. Joyce, brother of the well-known antiquarian [‘A striken plain is good to see / When victory crowns the patriot’s sword / And the gory field seemed fair to me/Won by our arms at Manning Ford …’] … instantly deluged by flood of unsolicited patriotic verse … a contributor was caught trying to palm off one of Davis’s poems as his own. [&c.] Brown concludes, One combination of Fenianism with poetry had made the bad start of ‘a striken plain …’. A luckier combination [O’Leary and Yeats] of the same ingredients created the effervescent mixture called the Irish literary movement. he cites the Yeats poem, ‘… I will go to Caoilte, and Conan, and Bran, Sceolan, Lomiar, / And dwell in the house of the Fenians, be they in flames or in feast.’ (p.57).

Malcolm Brown, Literature of Irish Politics: Thomas Davis to W. B. Yeats (London: George Allen 1972), Chap. 12, containing an account of O’Leary culminating in his arrest and sentencing: ‘[T]he main impact of Fenianism was concentrated in the last two years. O’Leary missed all that and had no special knowledge of it. Since Yeats was dependent on O’Leary’s lead, he lost the Fenian thread at the same point, severing contact with a very lively body of historical folklore. But when he dropped out, other writers came in - especially Joyce, O’Casey, and Brendan Behan.’ (p.190.)

Dominic Daly, The Young Douglas Hyde (1974), John O’Leary [who returned from exile in 1885, n., 202] first occurs in Hyde’s diary at a meeting of 8 May, 1885, ‘O’Leary was a grey-haired old man with a long beard. He spoke bitterly against the [Land] League and I defended it. His politics are O’Brien’s.’ [56-57] O’Leary saw no value in the Irish language outside of scholarship, a view expressed in a speech in Cork, quoted by Hyde in Mise agus Connradh, p.29.’ Quotes Yeats’s portrait of O’Leary: ‘His long imprisonment, his longer banishment, his magnificent head, his scholarship, his pride, his integrity, all that aristocratic dream nourished amid little shops and little farms …’ (Essays and Introductions, p.510) [89]. Also: O’Leary a great collector of books and very generous with them. (Daly, 1974, p.95.)

[ top ]

Mary Helen Thuente, Foreword to W. B. Yeats, ed., Representative Irish Tales [rep. of 1891 1st Edn.], Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1979), cites John O’Leary’s contribution the letters in The Best Hundred Irish Books: Introductory and Closing Essays by “Historicus” [R. Barry O’Brien] and Letters (Dublin: [Freeman’s Journal] 1886). (Thuente, p.20 [bibl.].)

Mary Helen Thuente (W. B. Yeats and Irish Folklore, 1986) - cont.: remarks that Yeats acknowledged his debt to O’Leary numerous times, speaking of his ‘extensive knowledge’ of the literature of Ireland and of his house on Mountjoy Square, which was ‘full of Irish books’ (p.10), and spoke of the Young Ireland movement as having ‘brought a soul back to Eire’ (p.11.) [The foregoing quoted in Ashleigh McDowell, UU Diss., UUC 2011].

Edward Hirsch, ‘The Imaginary Irish Peasant’, in PMLA, 106, 5 (Oct. 1991): ‘In two important speeches - “What Irishmen Should Know” and “How Irishmen Should Feel” - O’Leary forged the link between indigenous folk forms and the cause of nationalism, specifically arguing that literature and nationality were inseparable and interdependent. O’Leary perceived the nearly inexhaustible possibilities for a new Irish literature based on traditional Irish sources, and in directing young Irish writers to that untapped reservoir of materials, he was also pointing the way towards a new [1121] literature.’ (1121-22; - available at JSTOR Ireland - online.)

Rolf & Magda Loeber, A Guide to Irish Fiction, 1650-1900 (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2006), write: ‘The Irish patriot John O’Leary once stated that “there is no great literature without nationality, no great nationality without literature”’ - citing Philip Marcus, Yeats and the Beginning of the Irish Literary Renaissance (Ithaca 1967), pp.1, 3, 14; though the quotation is usually ascribed to Yeats and more particularly to his article, ostensibly on Browning, in the Boston Pilot (22 Feb. 1890).

[ top ]

Fenians & Church: O’Leary told Yeats that ‘in Ireland a man must have the [Catholic] Church for the Fenians on his side and you will never have the Church’ (see under Conor Cruise O’Brien, infra.)

Persian: ‘I have but one religion, the old Persian: to bend the bow and tell the truth.’ ([Quoted in Yeats,] Prefaces and Introductions, NY: 1989, p.2; cited in Terence Brown, W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography, 1999, p.29.)

(Un)constitutional: ‘In leading article, essay, and poem, we read, from week to week, the story of Ireland’s sufferings under English rule; and now and then we head other countries groaning under alien domination, and of their efforts, successful or unsuccessful, to shake it off. At first, perhaps, the teaching the Nation was not directly unconstitutional, though, indirectly it certainly was so from the beginning. From ceasing to “fear to speak of ’98” to wishing to imitate the men of that time the transition was very easy indeed to the youthful mind. Many, if not most, of the younger amongst us were Mitchelites before Mitchel, or rather before Mitchel had put forth his programme.’ (Recollections, 1896, vol. 1, p.4; cited in Oliver MacDonagh, States of Ireland, 1983, p.77.)

Taking sides: O’Leary told Yeats that in Ireland ‘a man must have upon his side the Church or the Fenians, and you will never have the Church.’ (Autobiographies, p.209).

Irish language: ‘I should advise you to leave all this alone … It is one of the many misfortunes of Ireland that she has never produced a great poet. Let us trust that God has in store for us that great gift.’ (What Irishmen Should Know, Cork 1886; address to Irish Literary Society at in Cork in that year; cited in Frank Tuohy, Yeats, 1976, p.19; also in Malcolm Brown, Politics of Irish Literature, 1972, p.8).

Verse & Worse: ‘We have received this week such a pile of verses that, though very tired we are tempted to give what we were gong to call out poetical contributors a few hints. We confess we do this cheifly to save our own time; for though we are usually told that the authors are hard worked, and only write in the intervals of labour, we are afraid they must have too much time to spare, or rather to waste.’ (Irish People, 13 Feb. 1864; cited in Malcolm Brown, The Politics of Irish Literature, 1972, p.182.)

What a rebel can reckon: ‘[It is] clear as the sun at noonday that the heart of the country always goes out to the man who lives and dies an unrepentant rebel. The rebel can reckon upon nothing in life; he is sure to be calumnated; he is likely to be robbed, and may even be murdered, but let him once go out of life, and he is sure of a fine funeral.’ (Quoted in D. George Boyce, Nationalism in Ireland, London: Routledge 1982; 1991 Edn., p.184.)

Robert Emmet Centenary Celebrations: ‘We are not here to talk. Emmet desired that his epitaph should not be written till his country was free, and I hold that the best way we can do honour to his memory is to strive with might and main to bring about the time when the epitaph can be written. I have nothing more to say, but I am all of you have very much to do.’ (Freeman’s Journal report; quoted in Boyce, op. cit., p.274.)

[ top ]

Doherty & Hickey, A Chronology of Irish History Since 1500 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1989), note that he is occasionally confused with Patrick ‘pagan’ O’Leary (?1825- ), a Cork Republican who played a large role in IRB recruitment, was imprisoned in 1867 for administering the Fenian Oath, and held that the worst thing that had happened to Ireland was conversion to Christianity.

Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 2; selects Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism [252-60]; notes and remarks at 117 [confirmed Davis’s influence]; 207 [JF Lalor friendly with O’Leary, T. C. Luby and C. Kickham, and others later in Fenian Brotherhood]; 211 [among Fenians who served long and brutal prison sentences but lived to old age becoming emblematic figures]; 219n [records that Indian troops who mutinied in 1857-58 were supported by many Irish; in Recollections (FDA2, p.255)]; 252, recte 253, see RR Madden], 269 [joint ed. of Irish People with Luby; cited in John Devoy, Recollections]; 281 [recorded specially degrading brutalities of prison system for Fenians]; 785 [Yeats influenced by meeting; Heaney ed.]; 799 [‘… with O’Leary in the Grave’, September 1913]; 822 [among “Beautiful Lofty Things”, O’Leary’s noble head’, Yeats, ], 830 [Yeats biog., friend of the old Fenian], 999 [Ryan wants to know how lack of Irish hinders Nationalists incl. O’Leary], 1002n [Celtic Literary Society founded by William Rooney, 1893, incl. Griffith, John O’Leary, and F. Hugh O’Donnell; transformed into Cumann na Gaedheal, 1900, and Sinn Féin, 1906]; 367-8 BIOG [as above]. Recollections, Chap. VII [of the Pope’s Brass Band]: ‘the emphatically, if not exclusively, Catholic nature of the agitation, and the support given it and its leaders even to the shameful end, by such a large section of the priesthood, with the Pope’s Legate at their head, did not fail to increase a slight anti-clerical feeling left in me as a result of the opposition of the priests to the Young Ireland movement. Not has anything that has occurred since that now distant time made me any way more in love with ‘priests in politics’ … our clerical agitators, while gaining little as politicians, mostly lose much as priests.’

Libraries & booksellers: Belfast Public Library holds ‘unpublished’ letters of Yeats to O’Leary, cited in Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Mask (1948); Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism, 2 vols. (1896). Hyland Books (Cat. 214) lists John O’Leary, Ireland Among the Nations (NY 1874), xiv+208pp.

[ top ]

Bad verses: O’Leary objected to writers who considered they had the right to ‘perpetuate[d] bad verses.’ (See Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks, London: Penguin 1976, p.46; quoted in P. J. Matthew, at ESSE 2000, in Helsinki.)

Sentenced: According to var. sources O’Leary was sentenced to 20 years servitude on 6 Feb., 1864 or 1865 [OCIL], or 1867 [Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks, 1948].

Book Sale: ‘In the auction sale catalogue of John O’Leary’s Library in May, 1906, I see an entry, 216, Fitzgerald’s Londonderry. Can any reader tell me what this book is? (J. S. C. [John S. Crone], ‘Enquiry’, in The Irish Book Lover, March 1910, p.110.)

Portraits of John O’Leary

Photo portraits in W. P. Ryan, Irish Literary Revival (London 1894), facing p.142, and another taken in the open air in 1894 on p.141 facing of C. H. Rolleston, Portrait of An Irishman (1939) [biography of his own father].


port. in oil by John Butler Yeats (1904, National Gallery of Ireland), and the same printed as b&w in Frank Tuohy, Yeats, 1976, p.41, later quoting a phrase from J. B. Yeats on the ‘an old dishevelled eagle’ that the sitter seemed to him (p.145.)


an oval portrait of a heavily bearded and black-haired O’Leary is shown in Encyclopaedia of Ireland (1968), p.355 [n.d.]


A bust by Oliver Sheppard, RHA, is held in the Municipal Gallery of Ireland. (Rep. in A. N. Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet, London: Routledge 1949 & Edns., pls., between pp.182-83. But note also a bust by Oliver Sheppard of 1905 displayed as part of the Hugh Lane Gift (Municipal Gallery 2008).


There is a photo of John O’Leary with John MacBride in Fontenoy, 1905 (rep. in Anthony J. Jordan, The Yeats Gonne MacBride Triangle, Westport 2000, p.84.)

[ top ]