Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Leary, Arthur
O'LEARY, ARTHUR (1729–1802), Irish priest and politician, was born in 1729 at Acres, a townland in the parish of Fanlobbus, near Dumnanway, Co. Cork, his parents being of the peasant class. Having acquired some knowledge of clascical literature, he went to a monastery; of Capuchin friars at St. Malo in Brittany. There he entered the Capuchin order, and was ordained priest. In the course of the war between England and France which commenced in 1756 prisoners of war made by the French were confined at St. Malo; many of them were Irishmen and catholics, and O'Leary was appointed chaplain to the prisons and hospitals. The Duc de Choiseul, minister of foreign affairs, directed O'Leary to persuade the catholic soldiers to transfer their allegiance to France, but be indigantly spurned the proposal. 'I thought It,' wrote O'Leary long afterwards in his 'Reply to Wesley,' 'a crime to engage the king of England's soldiers into the service of a catholic monarch against their protestant sorereign. I resisted the solicitation, and my conduct was approved by the divines of a monastery to which I then belonged, who unanimously declared that in conscience I could not have acted otherwise.' l!e continued to hold the chaplaincy until peace was declared in 1762. Among distinguished personages whose intimacy he enjoyed in France was Cardinal de Luynes, archbishop of Sens.
In 1771 he returned to Ireland, and for Ireland, and for several years he officiated in a small edifice in the city of Cork, long known as Father O'Leary's chapel, when he preached to crowded congregations, his sermons being 'chiefly remarkable for a happy train of strong moral reasoning, bold figure,and scriptural allusion.' In 1775 a Scottish physician named Blair, residing in Cork, published a sceptical and blasphemous work under the title of 'Thoughts on Nature and Religion.' O'Leary obtained permission from Dr. Mann, protestant bishop of the diocese, to reply to this in 'A Defence of the Divinity of Christ and the Immortality of the Soul,' Cork. 1776. O'Leary's next publication appeared about 1777. under the title 'Loyalty asserted; or the now Test-oath vindicated and proved by the disciples of the Canon and Civil Laws, and the Authority of the most Eminent Writers, with an Enquiry into the Pope's deposing Power, and the groundless Claims of the Stuarts. In a letter to a Protestant Gentleman.' In 1779 the hostile French fleet rode menacing and unoppased in St. George's Channel, and much anxiety prevailed regarding the attitude of the Irish catholic body. At this critical moment O'Leary, in 'An Address to the common People of the Roman Catholic religion concerning the apprehended French Invasion,' explained to Irishmen their obligation of undivided allegiance to the Ilritish government. In I779 he issued 'Remarks on the Rev. John Wesley's Letter on the civil Principles of Roman Catliolics and his defence of the Protestant Association,' Dublin, 1760, 8vo. This witty, argumentative, and eloquent treatise elicited from Wesley a reply which was noticed by O'Leary in a few pages usually printed with the 'Remarks.' and entitled ' A rejoinder to Mr. Wesley's Reply.' Some years laterthe two controversialists met. Wesley noted in his 'Journal 'on 12 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 thai I expected, but of an easy, genteel carriage, and seems not to be wanting either in sense or learning.' About 1780 John Howard visited Cork, and was introduced to O'Leary, who was an active member of a society which had for some years been established in that city 'for the relief and discharge of persons confined for small debts.' In after times Howard frequently boasted of sharing the friendship and esteem of the friar.
O'Leary's ablest work was 'An Essay on Toleration; or Mr, O'Leary's Plea for Liberty of Conscience' [1780?']. One consequence of its publication was his election as one of the 'Monks of St, Patrick' or 'Monks of the Screw,' a political association which was started by Barry Yelverton, afterwards lord Avonmore. He was, however, only an honorary member of the association, and did not join in the orgies with which the soi-disant monks celebrated their reunions. In 1781 he collected his 'Miscellaneous Tracts,' and published them at Dnhlin in a single octavo volume (Lowndes, Bibl. Manual, ed. Bolin, iv. 1723).
In 1782 O'Leary publicly announced his support of the Irish national volunteer movement, and a body of volunteers known as the 'Irish Brigade 'conferred on him the honorary dignity of chaplain. Many of the measures discussed at the national convention held in Dublin were previously submitted to him. On 11 Nov. 1783 he visited that assembly, and met with a most enthusiastic reception. He was now the idol of his catholic fellow-country-men, who regarded him as one of the stoutest champions of the nationalist cause. But he was at the same time actually in the pay of the government. His biographer, England, gives the following account of his position: During his visit in Dublin a confidential agent of the ministry proposed to him that he should write something in defence of their measures. On his refusal, it was intimated that his silence would be acceptable to the government, and that an annual pension of 150l. was to be offered for his acceptance without any condition attached to it which would be repugnant to his feelings as an Irishman or a catholic. A change in the administration occurred shortly afterwards, and the promise remained unfulfilled. It is doubtful whether this story is quite accurate. Before 1784 he was obviously in receipt of a secret pension of at least 100l. a year, which had been conferred on him in acknowledgment of the value set by the authorities on the loyalist tone of his writings. In 1784 it was proposed to him, in consideration of an extra 100l. per annum, to undertake a new task, namely, to give information respecting the secret designs of the catholics. Lord Sydney, secretary of state in Pitt's ministry, wrote thus to the Duke of Portland, viceroy of Ireland, on 4 Sept. 1784: 'O'Leary has been talked to by Mr. Nepean, and he is willing to undertake what is wished for 100l. a year, which has been granted him;' and on 8 Sept. Orde, the chief secretary, wrote to Nepean thanking him for sending over a spy or detective named Parker, and adding: 'I am very glad also that you have settled matters with O'Leary', who can get to the bottom of all secrets in which the catholics are concerned, and they are certainly the chief promoters of our present disquietude. He must, however, be cautiously trusted, for he is a priest, and, if not too much addicted to the general vice of his brethren here, he ia at least well acquainted with the art of raising alarms for the purpose of claiming a merit in doing them away.' Again Orde writes on 23 Sept.: 'We are about to make trial of O'Leary's sermons and of Parker's rhapsodies. They may be both, in their different callings, of very great use. The former, if we can depend upon 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.' Mr. Lecky remarks that Father O'Leary, whose brilliant pen had already been employed to vindicate both the loyalty and faith of the catholics and to induce them to remain attached to the law, appears to have consented for money to discharge an ignominious office for a government which distrusted and despised him (History of England, vi. 369); while Mr. Froude does not hesitate to describe him as 'a paid and secret instrument of treachery' (The English in Ireland, ii. 4ol). Francis Plowden, O'Leary's friend, ignoring the early date at which O'Leary first placed himself at the government's disposal, asserted that the pension was granted to O'Leary for life in the name of a trustee, but upon the secret condition that he should for the future withhold his pen and reside no more in Ireland (Plowden, Ireland since the Union, 1811, i. 6). The Rev. Mr. Buckley was informed that the pension was accepted on the understanding that Mr. Pitt would keep his word as a man of honour in promising that he would bring about the emancipation of the catholics and the repeal of the penal laws in case O'Leary consented to write nothing against the union of the Irish with the British parliament (Life of O'Leary, 1868, p. 356). In an endeavour to extenuate O'Leary's conduct, Mr. Fitzpatrick says: 'He had already written in denunciation of French designs on Ireland; and what more natural than that he should now be asked to track the movements of certain French emissaries who, the government heard, had arrived in Dublin, and were conspiring with the catholic leaders to throw off the British yoke? This task O'Leary, as a staunch loyalist, may have satisfied his conscience in attempting, especially as he must have known that in 1784 the catholics as a body had no treasonable designs, though doubtless some exceptions might be found' (Secret Service under Pitt, 2nd edit. p. 224). O'Leary's biographer represents that the pension of 200l. was not offered him until 1789, after he had finally 'left Ireland, and, although this is clearly incorrect, some doubt is justifiable as to whether the whole sum was actually paid him until he had ceased to concern himself with Irish politics.
About 1784 O'Leary was solicited to write a history of the 'No Popery' riots in London under Lord George Gordon. For a short time he entertained the idea, and began to collect materials, but eventually abandoned the design. In 1786 hs wrote his ‘Review of the Important Controversy between Dr. Carroll and the Rev. Messrs. Wharton and Hawkins; including a Defence of Clement XIV.' Appended to it is ‘A Letter from Candor to the Right Hon. Luke Gardiner on his Bill for a Repeal of a part of the Penal Laws against the Irish Catho1ics.’ This was written in 1779, and had appeared in the newspapers of that time. In 1785 and 1786 the peace of the county of Corlt was diaturbed at night by mobs under the guidance of a leader who assumed the nams of ‘Captain Right,' all O'Leary published 'Addresses to the Common People of Ireland, particularly such of them as are called Whiteboys,’ demonstrating in a familiar, eloquent, sad bold mode of reasoning the folly, wickedness, and illegality of their conduct. His personal exertions were further solicited by the magistrates of the county, and he accompanied them to different places of worship, exported the deluded ‘people to obedience to the laws and respect or religion, and was successful in persuading numbers of them to suit the association. He afterwards published ‘A Defence of the Conduct and Writings of the Rev. Arthur O'Leary during the late Disturbance; in the Province of Munster, with a full Justification of the Irish Catholics, and an Account of the Risings of the Whiteboys; Written by Himself in Answer to the False Accusations of Tbeophilus [i.e. Patrick Duigenan], and the Ill-grounded Insinuations of the ight Rev. Dr. Woodward, Lord Bishop of Cloyne.’
The controversies in which his equivocal position involved him induced him to quit Ireland in 1789, when he was appointed one of the chaplains to the Spanish embassy in London, his colleague there being Dr. Hussey, afterwards bishop of Waterford. They afterwards had a dispute, and a ‘Narrative of the Misunderstanding between the Rev. A. 0'Leary and the Rev. Mr. Hussey' appeared in 1791 (Fitzpatrick, p. 255 n.) On his arrival in London, O'Leary was anxiously sought after by his countrymen. Edmund Burke introduced him to the Duke of York, and always spoke with characteristic enthusiasm oi` the good effect of his writings. He uaed to attend the meetings of the English catholic committee, but he opposed its action, and took exception to the absurd appellation of ‘Protesting Catholic Dissenters. Charles Butler, the secretary of the committee, says: ‘The appearance of Father O'Leary was simple. In his countenance there was a mixture of goodness, solemnity, and drollery which fixed every eye that beheld it. No one was more generally loved or revered; no one less assuming or more pleasing in his manner. Seeing his external simplicity, persons with whom he was arguing were sometimes tempted to treat him cavalierly ; but then the so enmity with which he would mystify his adversary, and ultimately lead him into the most distressing absurdity, was one of tha most delightful scenes that conversation ever exhibited’ (Hist. Memoirs of the English Catholics, 1822, iv. 438). Successful efforts were meanwhile made by his friend Plowden to secure the full payment of the pension of 200l., with all unpaid arrears.
St. Patrick‘s chapel, Sutton Street, Soho Square, was, during the later years of his life, the scene of his labours. His sermons were widely admired, and his auditory included all grades of society. His collections for a projected history of the Irish rebellion of 1798 he presented to Francis Plowden. He published in 1800 an ‘Address to the Ian; Spiritual and Temporal of the Parliament of Great Britain; to which is added an Account of Sir H. Mildmay‘s Bill relative to Nuna.’ This was followed by 'A Memorial in behalf of the Fathers of La Trappe and the Orphans committed to their Gare; which was probably the last of his literary labours. Towards the end of 1801 he went to France for the benefit of his health. He was again in London on 7 Jan. 1802, and died on the following morning at No. 45 Great Portland Street. His ‘Funeral Oration,' pronounced by the Rev. Morgan D‘Arcy, has been printed. The body was interred in Old St. Pancras churchyard, and a monument was placed over tha grave by Earl Moira. afterwards marquis of Hastings (Addit. MS. 27488, L 156), This monument was repaired by public subscription in 1851. Another was erected in St. Patrick's Chapel. When old St. Pancras churchyard was taken by the Midland railway for the extension of their station building, the remains of O'Leary were removed, and on 8 Feb. 1691 they were interred in the catholic cemetery at Kensal Green, in a grave close to that of Cardinal Wiseman (Tablet, 28 Feb. 1891, p. 355).
His earliest biographer, England, in portraying his character, states that 'good sense, unaffected piety, and extensive knowledge gained him the respect and admiration of the learned and grave, whilst by his unbounded wit, anecdotes, and unrivalled brilliancy of imagination he was the source of delight and entertainment to all whom he admitted to his intimacy.' A more discriminating critic, Mr. Lecky, admits that O'Leary was by far the most brilliant and popular writer on the catholic side; 'but, though his devotion to his creed was incontestable, it would be hardly possible to find a writer of his profession who exhibits its distinctive doctrines in a more subdued and attenuated form, and no one appears to have found anything strange or equivocal in the curiously characteristic sentence in which Grattan described his merits: "If I did not know him to be a Christian gentleman, I should suppose him by his writings to be a philosopher of the Augustan age' (Hist. of England, vi. 440). Mr. Froude considers that O'Leary was 'the most plausible, and, perhaps, essentially the falsest, of all Irish writers' (The English in Ireland, ii. 37 n.) A collected edition of his works, edited by 'a clergyman of Massachusetts,' appeared at Boston in 1868, 8vo.
There is a portrait prefixed to England's biography, 'engraved by W. Bond from the scarce print, after a drawing by Murphy' (Bromley, Cat. of Engraved Portraits, p. 364). Another portrait, engraved by T. H. Ellis from a painting by E. Shiel, is prefixed to Buckley's 'Life.'
[England's Life of O'Leary, including Historical Anecdotes, Memoirs, and many hitherto unpublished Documents, London 1822, 8vo; Buckley's Life and Writings of O'Leary, Dublin, 1868, 8vo; Addit. MS. 5876, f. 1686; Barrington's Personal Sketches, ii. 130; Cansick's Epitaphs at St. Pancras, Middlesex, i. 80; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; Croly's Life of George IV, p. 129; European Mag. 1782, pt. i. pp. 192-5; Fitzpatrick's Secret Service under Pitt, 2nd edit. pp. 211-252; Froude's English in Ireland, 1881,ii. 37 n, 450, 451; Gent. Mag. February 1802; Gordon's Personal Reminiscences, i. 110, 236, 242; Kelly's Reminiscences, i. 298; Laity's Directory, 1803; Lecky's Hist. of England, iv. 330 n, 495, vi. 369, 446, vii. 211, 271; Literary Memoirs of Living Authors, 1798, ii. 92; London and Dublin Orthodox Journal, 1842, xv. 117; Lysons's Environs, Suppl. pp. 255, 262, 263; Macdonough's Irish Graves in England; McDougall's Sketches of Irish Political Characters, p. 264; Maguire's Life of Father Mathew, pp. 23-6; Lady Morgan's Memoirs, i. 2; Nichols's Illustr. of Lit. vi. 74, vii. 486, 489 ; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. i. 671 ; Notes and Queries, 25 March 1893 p. 228, 28 Oct. 1893 p. 359; O'Keeffe's Recollections, i.244; Public Characters, 1799, i. 361; Southey's Life of Wesley, 2nd edit. 1820, ii. 546; Tablet, 22 Nov. 1890, p. 821, &c.; Cat. of Library of Trin. Coll. Dublin; Watt's Bibl. Brit, under Leary.]