O'Leary


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O'Leary is an anglicized form of the old Gaelic word O'Laoghaire which translates literally as "keeper of the calves."  Laoghaire was the name borne by a 5th century king of Ireland who reigned at the time of St. Patrick.  It is from him that the O'Leary sept claims descent.

O'Leary and Leary are the two most common spellings today.  O'Leary is mainly found in Ireland, Leary outside. 

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Ireland.  The O'Learys were a Cork clan.  In the 12th century they were recognized as the hereditary wardens of St. Fachtna's monastery in Ross Carbery.  Later they were pushed north and settled in an area south of Macroom called Inchigeelagh.  Here they ruled as chiefs under the MacCarthys of Muskerry.  They appeared in the 16th century as a titled and relatively wealthy family.

They lost out during Elzabethan times in the Nine Years War.  For this their chiefs were attained and their lands parceled out.  But because of the remoteness of their territory it was never carried out and they remained safe for a while, until the Cromwellian confiscations.  In 1642 sixteen O’Learys were attainted, including Connor O’Leary of Carrignacurra and Auliff O’Leary of Cunnowley.  The last O'Leary lord of the old Gaelic order was Donal MacArt O'Leary who died in 1657.

Some O’Learys prospered in the succeeding years.  Florence O’Leary, for instance set up a prosperous wholesale butter business in the city of Cork and a later O’Leary of the family, Daniel O’Leary, became a famous South American General.  But other O'Learys suffered at the time of the Penal Laws.

"In 1773 Art O'Leary refused to sell his prize-winning horse to an Englishman Abraham Morris and was made an outlaw.  At that time Catholics were obliged to sell their horse to Protestants for no more than £5, irrespective of the animal's true value, if demanded to do so.  Morris tracked O'Leary and shot him on his horse." 

Art's wife Eileen composed the famous Lament for Art O'Leary, mourning his death and calling for revenge.

Many O'Learys emigrated.  Those in Ireland are still mainly to be found in county Cork.  In the 1890 birth records, there were 134 occurrences of Leary in Cork and 47 occurrences in Kerry. The celebrated 19th century Irish language writer Peadar Ua Laoghaire was a descendant of the Carrignacurra branch of the family. 

America.  The main country for emigration was America.  Sizeable numbers were to be found in New York, Boston, Chicago, and later California.  John O'Leary had arrived in New York from Kerry in 1879 and, after a brief period in the police force, became a builder in the Bronx and a prominent member of the civic community there.

Catherine O'Leary was alleged to have started the fire in 1871 which became known as the Great Chicago Fire and burnt down a large part of the city.  She had in fact been used as a scapegoat by a Chicago Tribune reporter who later admitted that he had made up the story of a cow kicking over a lantern to start the fire because he thought it would make colorful copy.  The popular refrain went:
"Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Old Mother Leary left a lantern in the shed;
And when the cow kicked it over, she winked her eye and said,
'There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.'"
Her son Jim became a gambling boss and saloon owner in Chicago.  Danny O'Leary meanwhile was a mobster and bootlegger in Philadelphia during prohibition.

Canada.  Henry O'Leary came to Richibucto, New Brunswick from county Cork in 1852, puchased land there, and built a canning plant for lobster and salmon.  Over time his business expanded to sawmills and shipbuilding.  Two of his sons, Henry and Louis, became Catholic bishops at Charlottetown in Prince Edward Island.  Michael O’Leary was an earlier arrival in Prince Edward Island, in 1837.

John and Elizabeth O'Leary had arrived in Nova Scotia from Kilkenny around 1820.  Their son Michael later settled in New Brunswick.

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If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:


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Peadar Ua Laoghaire was a Catholic priest and writer regarded today as one of the founders of modern literature in Irish.
Johnny O'Leary, born on the Cork/Kerry border in 1923, was one of Ireland's most acclaimed accordion players.
Timothy Leary was the controversial American psychologist who in the 1960's advocated the taking of psychedelic drugs.
Michael O'Leary is the head of the low-cost airline Ryanair.

Select O'Learys Today
  • 5,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 14,000 in America (most numerous in Massachusetts) 
  • 18,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

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Ainsworth 
Chambers Hammond 
Middleton  
Stevenson 
Andrews Chandler Hayes Morrison Stone
Arnold Cole Hodgson Norman Sutton
Atkinson Cummings Howe North Tate
Barclay Cunningham Hunt O'Leary Thorpe
Barry Dickinson Innes O'Reilly Townsend
Beattie Dillon Irvine Oliver Underwood
Beck Dodd Jeffries Payne Unsworth
Bentley Doherty Jennings Penn Vance
Bernstein Duncan Kemp Pennington Venables
Bird East Kerr Pettigrew Walton
Boone Edgar Knight Phelan Watkins
Brady Emerson Lawrence Quigley Waugh
Branson Everett Leary Quirk West
Brooks Faulkner Levine Regan Whelan
Buck Fettiplace Levy Reilly Whitney
Burke Ford Lloyd Rhodes Wolfe
Bush Goldberg McIntosh Sharp Woodward
Carr Goodman McLaren Sheehan Yates
Carson Gordon McMillan Sinclair York

For other surnames check the select surname page where there are to be found the history and genealogy of more than 800 common and notable surnames in the English-speaking world.