The original Michael O’Leary, fighting man and propaganda gift

Cork man awarded Victoria Cross was feted as a war hero but struggled with civilian life

Detail of a   British recruiting poster depicting the face of Sgt Michael O’Leary VC. Photograph: Library of Congress

Detail of a British recruiting poster depicting the face of Sgt Michael O’Leary VC. Photograph: Library of Congress

 

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

Lance Corp Michael O’Leary (24), a former 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.

O’Leary then attacked another machine-gun crew 60 yards farther on, killing three more Germans and capturing two.

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

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

Tomorrow at Glasnevin Cemetery, a paving stone in O’Leary’s honour will be laid underneath the Cross of Sacrifice on the centenary of his action.

Propaganda g

ift

Ireland

Here was an authentic Irish hero, a nationalist from a poor background. O’Leary conformed to all the stereotypes of the fighting Irish. He became a celebrity.

His most enduring legacy was a memorable recruitment poster extolling Irish men 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?”

Reporters came from all over to interview his parents. His father, Daniel, nonplussed by all the fuss, made a statement that was pure stage Irish: “I am surprised he didn’t do more. I often laid out 20 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.”

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

According to the book VCs of the First World War: The Western Front 1915, after the war O’Leary moved to Canada and joined the Ontario provincial police. This is where his troubles began. He ended up in court twice, once for smuggling bootleg and once for smuggling an alien across from the US.

Rather than deport a war hero, the Canadian authorities paid for O’Leary and his family to go home to Ireland, but he opted for Britain instead.

O’Leary, then almost 50, served in the second World War, but was invalided back to Britain. He lived out the rest of his life in England and died in 1961. On Tuesday, the curator of the World War Ireland exhibition at the National Library of Ireland will give a talk on Michael O’Leary’s life at St Patrick’s Cathedral at 7pm