Leonard McNally

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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MacNally, Leonard, a barrister who distinguished himself in the defence of the United Irishmen, but who, since his death, has been discovered to have been a government spy, was born in Dublin in 1752. Early in life lie abandoned the grocery business, to which he had been brought up, studied law with great assiduity, entered at the Middle Temple, and was called to both the English and the Irish Bar. Practising first in England, he is said to have been induced by Curran to transfer his talents to his native country. He was one of the original members of the Society of United Irishmen, and assisted in the defence of Emmet, Jackson, Tandy, Tone, and many others. He was the trusted friend of Curran — one of the intimates to whom the family felt it proper first to communicate Curran's death. MacNally was the author of twelve dramatic pieces, including the opera of Robin Hood, 1779-96; also of The Claims of Ireland, 1782; Rules of Evidence, 1802; Justice of the Peace for Ireland, 1808; and other works. For two editions of his Justice he received £2,500.

He died at 22 Harcourt-street, Dublin, 13th February 1820, aged 68. Then only did his treachery appear. His heir claimed a continuance of a secret service pension of £300 a year, which his father had enjoyed since 1798. The Lord-Lieutenant demanded a detailed statement of the circumstances under which the agreement had been made; it was furnished after some hesitation, and the startling fact became generally known, not only that he had been in regular receipt of the pension claimed, but that during the state trials of 1798 and 1803, while he was receiving fees from the prisoners to defend them, he also accepted large sums from Government to betray the secrets of their defence. The Cornwallis Correspondence, Madden's Lives of the United Irishmen, and communications from Mr. FitzPatrick in Notes and Queries, 2nd Series, put all this beyond doubt.

Another writer in the same series relates how in the London riots of 1780, MacNally saved the life of Dr. Thurlow, Bishop of Lincoln. Sir Jonah Barrington gives an amusing account of a duel between himself and MacNally, in which he says: "MacNally stood before me, very like a beer-barrel on its stilly, and by his side were ranged three unfortunate barristers, who were all soon afterwards hanged and beheaded for high treason — namely, John Sheares, who was his second,.. and Henry Sheares and Bagenal Harvey, who came as amateurs." In the same connexion, Sir Jonah, who was of course ignorant of MacNally's perfidy, thus describes him: "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 possessed, however, a fine eye, and by no means an ugly countenance; a great deal of middling intellect; a shrill, full, good bar voice... In a word, MacNally was a good-natured, hospitable, talented, dirty fellow."


22. Barrington, Sir Jonah, Personal Sketches of his own Time: Townsend Young, LL.D. 2 vols. London, 1869.

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

87. Cornwallis, Marquis, Correspondence: Charles Ross. 3 vols. London, 1859.
Cotton, Rev. Henry, see No. 118.

146. Gentleman's Magazine. London, 1731-1868.
Gilbert, John T., see Nos. 110, 335.

254. Notes and Queries. London, 1850-'78.
O'Callaghan, John C., see No. 186.

331. United Irishmen, their Lives and Times: Robert R. Madden, M.D. 4 vols. London, 1858-'60.

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