The life and troubled times of an authentic Irish war hero

Michael O’Leary VC will be remembered 100 years on from his celebrated act of bravery

On February 1st 1915, the Irish Guards were attacking a stretch of the La Bassée canal in northern France near the Belgian border.

Lance Corporal Michael O'Leary, a 24-year-old ex-policeman from Macroom, Co Cork, ran forward in front of his men, mounted a railway embankment and shot five members of a German machine-gun crew at the barricade.

He then attacked another machine gun crew 60 yards further on. He killed three more Germans. The other two crew surrendered.

His comrades looked on in amazement. One said afterwards: “O’Leary came back from the killing as cool as if he had been for a walk in the park”.

For this near suicidal act of bravery, O’Leary was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) and promoted to sergeant.

O'Leary was evidently a brave man even before he won the VC. Prior to the war he won a gold ring for his role in capturing two armed gunmen in Saskatchewan, Canada, where he worked as a policeman. He was not with the Irish Guards a month on the Western Front before he was mentioned in dispatches.

O’Leary was a warrior with a taste for blood that would be shocking to modern sensibilities. Prior to winning the VC, he wrote home to his schoolteacher Mr O’Dea. The letter was published in The Irish Times. “They (the Germans) know what the Irish Guards are to their grief and they are not so fond of attacking us now. They dread our steel and know to their cost that the Irish Guards are great bayonet fighters.

“Our officers are brave men. When the Germans are advancing you can see them walking up and down the trenches among the men with a smile on their face, saying, ‘Give it to them boys’. Then comes the words, ‘fix bayonets, charge’.”

1 Irishman defeats 10 Germans

His actions in winning the VC were a propaganda gift for the British War Office. Recruitment in Ireland had been slower than in other parts of what was then the United Kingdom, and particularly so in rural Ireland.

Here was an authentic Irish hero, a nationalist from a poor background. His parents were poor farmers from Inchigella near Macroom in Co Cork. O’Leary conformed to all the stereotypes of the fighting Irish.

O'Leary became a celebrity. He was feted by a large crowd in Hyde Park, he had poems and ballads written about him, and even a play by George Bernard Shaw, O'Flaherty VC.

His most enduring legacy was a memorable recruitment poster, now in the Library of Congress, extolling other Irishmen to follow his example. "An Irish Hero!" it exclaimed, "1 Irishman defeats 10 Germans. Have you no wish to emulate the splendid bravery of your fellow countryman?"

O’Leary toured Ireland in support of the British war effort. He was mobbed everywhere he went. When his presence was announced at the Hippodrome Theatre Royal in Dublin, he was reluctant to show himself and only did so “in response to repeated calls and loud enthusiastic cheers on the part of the audience,” according to an Irish Times report.

Press came from all over the English-speaking world to interview his parents. His father Daniel was nonplussed by all the fuss and gave a response to a journalist which was pure stage Irish: “I am surprised he didn’t do more. I often laid out twenty men myself with a stick coming from Macroom Fair, and it is a bad trial of Mick that he could kill only eight, and he having a rifle and bayonet.”

O’Leary joined the Connaught Rangers on returning to active service and spent the rest of the war in the relative backwater of Salonika. Even in this quiet sector he was again mentioned in dispatches.

Civilian life

Like many war veterans, he found returning to civilian life to be a trial. The same bravado which won him the VC led him into all kinds of trouble after the war.

He emigrated to Canada in 1913 to join the Royal Mounted Police (Mounties) and returned to Britain in September 1914 to join the war effort.

According to the book VCs of the First World War 1915, O'Leary returned to Canada to rejoin the Mounties, but, instead, joined the Ontario provincial police where his troubles began. He found himself in court twice, once for smuggling bootleg, the other time for smuggling an alien across from the United States.

Rather than deport a war hero, the authorities in Ontario paid for O’Leary and his family to go home to Ireland, but as an ex-British serviceman he opted for Britain instead. He was in dire financial straits and the British Legion gave him a job in a poppy factory to help him out.

Having served in one war, O’Leary now almost 50, served in the Second World War too but was invalided back to Britain. He took charge of a prisoner-of-war camp.

His twin sons, David and Jeremiah, inherited his sense of derring-do. They both won the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in the same war.

O'Leary lived out the rest of his life in England and died in 1961. He is buried in Mill Hill cemetery in north London.

WWI lives

Michael O'Leary VC is one of four lives from the First World War featuring in the exhibition at the National Library of Ireland which will run until 2018.

On Tuesday the curator of the exhibition Nikki Ralston will give a talk entitled: "Meeting Michael O'Leary". This will focus on the way in which the NLI uncovered the extraordinary story of Michael O'Leary through its collection of newspapers and periodicals.

“He was the right person in the right place at the right time. His story was useful to the British authorities. His family was featured in a way that families weren’t featured anywhere else,” she said.

On Sunday, Glasnevin Cemetery will unveil a paving stone in his honour underneath the Cross of Sacrifice at Glasnevin Cemetery.

The paving stones have been awarded to all VC winners by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times