The O’Leary Family

O'Leary family crest

(Crest No. 18. Plate 4.)

THE O’Leary family is descended from Milesius, King of Spain, through the line of Heber, third son of that monarch. The founder of the family was Cormac, King of Munster, A. D. 483. The ancient name was Learigh, signifying “Clear King.” The chiefs of the clan were styled Lords of Ue Leary, or Iveleary, and their possessions were located in the present County of Cork.

The O’Learys were of the Lugadian or Ithian race, and possessed in ancient times the City of Roscarbery and its environs. Iveleary, or O’Leary’s country, lay in Muskerry, in the county mentioned, between Macroom and Inchageela, where they had several castles, as those of Carrigafooky, Carrignaneelagh, Carrignacurra, Dundarierk and Drumcurragh.

The O’Learys suffered severely under the Penal Laws, and during the many wars in that part of Ireland. In the Church of the Abbey of Kilcrea, in the County of Cork, is a low altar-tomb bearing the following inscription, which is suggestive of the sufferings and oppression of the penal days in Ireland:

“Lo! Arthur Leary, generous, handsome, brave,

Slain in his bloom, lies in this humble grave.

Died May 4th, 1773, aged 26 years.”

O’Leary was an officer in the Hungarian service, and had returned to Ireland. He had the ill-luck to possess a horse that won a race. Under the Penal Laws no Catholic in Ireland could possess a horse worth more than £5. Anybody offering £5 to a Catholic for his horse could take the animal, even if worth £1,000. The loser of the race in the case referred to walked up to O’Leary and said: “Papist, £5 for your horse!” This led to a fight, after which O’Leary managed to escape. He was declared outlawed, however, and was hunted down and shot. The author of the outrage, one Morris, was shot and killed in his own lodgings by O’Leary’s brother two months afterward. Young O’Leary escaped to America, and was never caught.

Another well-known member of this family was the Rev. Arthur O’Leary, the most celebrated wit of his time, and the friend of Grattan and Curran. The latter once said to him: “I wish you had the keys of St. Peter, Father, for you are so kindhearted I know you would let me into heaven.” “It would be better for you,” retorted O’Leary, “that I had the keys of the other place, for then I could let you out.” On another occasion, when told by a Protestant friend that “the bottom had fallen out of Purgatory, and all the Papists had been precipitated into hell,” he readily rejoined: “Lord save us! What a crushing the Protestants must have got!” To another Protestant friend who had quarreled with the idea of Purgatory, O’Leary suggested that “perhaps he might go further and fare worse.”

A nephew of Father O’Leary’s—Colonel O’Leary—was first Aide-de-Camp to General Bolivar in the war for South American independence. He entered the Patriot army at the age of seventeen, in which he served with high distinction. He was present at every general action fought in Colombia, and was several times wounded. He was also frequently employed on important diplomatic missions, and in charge of great responsibility, in which he always acquitted himself with ability and success.

Rev. James O’Leary of Cork, Ireland, a descendant of this family, who died in New York a few years ago, was the author of many valuable and scholarly works, and one of the most erudite writers and eloquent speakers of his day.