O'Leary Surname Meaning, History & Origin

O’Leary Surname Meaning 

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.

O’Leary Surname Resources on The Internet

O’Leary and Leary Surname Ancestry 

  • from Ireland (Cork)
  • to America, Canada and Australia

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 wealthy family.

They lost out during Elizabethan 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.

Michael O’Leary who runs the highly successful low-cost airline Ryanair has origins in Kanturk, a small town thirty miles north of Cork.

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.  John and Elizabeth O’Leary arrived in Nova Scotia from Kilkenny around 1820. Their son Michael later settled in New Brunswick. Michael O’Leary was a later arrival in Prince Edward Island, in 1837.

Henry O’Leary came to Richibucto, New Brunswick from county Cork in 1852, purchased 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.

Australia.  Dennis O’Leary from Cork came with his family on the Prince George to South Australia in 1838.  Other O’Learys, possibly related, came there in the next few years – Johanna in 1838, Andrew and Timothy in 1840, David in 1843, plus Arthur, Patrick and John in that timeframe as well.

Meanwhile Jeremiah O’Leary, also from Cork, came with his family on the Calcutta to Sydney in 1838.  They settled in Yass River, NSW.

Michael O’Leary’s Family Ancestry

Michael O’Leary who runs the low-cost airline Ryanair comes from rural farming stock in county Cork.  Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

O’Leary Surname Miscellany

The O’Learys at Inchigeelagh.  The village of Inchigeelagh (Inse Geimhleach or Island of the Hostages) lies in the Lee valley in SW Cork.  The O’Learys are believed to have arrived here in about 1192, having been driven out of their home place in Ross Carbery.

The ford over the river Lee at Inchigeelagh near the present bridge was defended by a Rath, an earthen enclosure surrounded by a defensive ditch called Mannen.  This became the main home of the O’Leary Chieftain until 1515 when Carrignacurra castle, a tower house, was built about a mile outside the village.  In 1565 the O’Leary’s built a new tower house at Carrignaneela and Donoch O’Leary built a third one at Dromcarra in 1615.

After the Williamite war of 1689-90, the O’Learys lost their properties and their lands were sold by the Hollow Sword Blade Company to a number of new and Protestant landlords. There are still O’Learys in the village, but not in the numbers that there once were. And the Carrignacurra tower house is still standing.

Over the centuries, many O’Learys – including the O’Leary Breacs – were buried in the old cemetery at Inchigeelagh.  However, the O’Leary chiefs were not buried there but in Kilbarry churchyard nearby. 

O’Leary and Leary.  O’Leary and Leary are the two most common spellings today.  O’Leary is mainly found in Ireland, Leary outside.  The table below shows the approximate numbers today.

Numbers (000’s) O’Leary Leary
Ireland   14    –
Elsewhere    9   14

O’Learys from Iveleary to Cork City to South America.  This family was said to have originated in Inchigeelagh (also called Iveleary), which Tadhg-na-Post O’Leary left around 1725.  His son Florence was the first to move to Cork City where he established what was to become a very successful business – buying butter from country farmers and selling it in bulk to ships which took on stores in Cork harbor.

This was good business until 1815 when the war with France finished. There immediately followed a terrible economic slump throughout Europe, with few ships coming in to Cork for provisioning and thousands thrown out of work.

Young Daniel O’Leary was attracted at that time by the advertisements which appeared in the press for recruits to join the war of liberation in South America.  The life of a soldier appealed to him and he left Ireland for South America in 1817. There he soon joined a Venezuelan regiment, the guards of General Anzotegui, where he came under the eye of Simon Bolívar. Bolivar died at Santa Marta in 1830 and Daniel, promoted to General, was at his bedside beside him.

Daniel is perhaps best known today for his Memorias del General O’Leary in 32 volumes, published eventually by his son Simon in 1888.  This now constitutes the major and definitive work on the life and achievements of the “Liberator” whom he so much admired.

Father Peadar Ua Laoghaire.  Father Peadar Ua Laoghaire, sometimes known in English as Peter O’Leary, was an Irish writer and Catholic priest who is regarded as one of the founders of modern literature in Irish.  He was born in 1839 in county Cork, a descendant of the Carrignacurra branch of the O’Learys, and grew up speaking Munster Irish in the Muskerry Gaeltacht.

He became a parish priest in Castelyons in 1891 and it was there that he wrote his most famous story, Séadna, and told it as a fireside story to three little girls. It was published in 1904.  The plot of the story concerns a deal that the tailor Séadna struck with “the Dark Man.”  The story is rooted in the folklore the writer heard from shanachies by the fire during his youth and was first published as a serial in various Irish-language magazines.

Apart from Séadna, Ua Laoghaoire wrote an autobiography and translated stories of medieval Gaelic literature into modern Irish, as well as an abridged version of the story of Don Quixote into his local dialect of Irish.

O’Learys in Ireland Today.  A telephone directory survey in Ireland in 1992 revealed 3,000 O’Learys, of which:

  • 48% were in county Cork (where O’Learys have migrated from the country into Cork city).
  • 14% in Dublin
  • 11% in Kerry
  • and 27% elsewhere.

O’Leary, Prince Edward Island.  O’Leary was named after one of the earliest settlers, Michael O’Leary, who came to Prince Edward Island from Ireland in 1837 and settled in West Cape overlooking the Northumberland Strait.  As the closest business centre was in Cascumpec on the opposite shore, Michael blazed a direct trail to this centre.  The trail became known as the O’Leary Road.

In 1874 when the railroad was completed and intersected the O’Leary Road, a railway station was built, which was the first building in O’Leary Station.  People then began to move inland to be closer to the railway.  The O’Leary settlement grew in numbers to around 850 today. O’Leary is the site of the Prince Edward Island potato museum.

John O’Leary and His Family in Chicago.  John O’Leary and his wife came to Evanston, Illinois in the early 1830’s.  They came to Chicago by canal boat and settled on land where Calvary cemetery is now located.  The O’Leary farmhouse was near the entrance to this cemetery.  A huge oak tree stood close to the house and it was under this tree that the first Catholic Mass was said.  A massive table in the possession of St. Mary’s church, draped with linen, furnished the altar.  The O’Learys at one time conducted a tavern at the cemetery address.

The O’Leary family was a large one, the most colorful member being Ellen O’Leary Lynch.  Ellen Lynch passed the century mark by one year.  On her hundredth birthday in 1938, she lighted 100 candles on her birthday cake.  The Chicago Tribune in their story of the birthday party described Mrs. Lynch as matriarchal.

“She wore a festive lace collarette pinned at her breast with a cameo brooch, a pin worn by her mother.  Her hair was described as soft white, knotted on top of her head in a fashion so old it is new again.”

Reader Feedback – O’Learys in Wisconsin.  Many O’Learys and Learys are buried in Custard, Wisconsin at St. Mary’s and also at St. Patrick cemetery just down the road.  Our great great great great Grandpa Moses was one of the first of our family to come over from Ireland and he is buried at St. Mary’s along with the O’Keefes and Doyles.

Megan O’Leary (thatsjewish247@hotmail.com)

O’Leary Names

  • 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.

O’Leary Numbers 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)

O’Leary and Like Surnames 

The Irish clan or sept names come through the mists of time until they were found in Irish records such as The Annals of the Four Masters.  The names were Gaelic and this Gaelic order was preserved until it was battered down by the English in the 1600’s.

Some made peace with the English.  “Wild geese” fled to fight abroad.  But most stayed and suffered, losing land and even the use of their language.  Irish names became anglicized, although sometimes in a mishmash of spellings.  Mass emigration happened after the potato famine of the 1840’s.

Some surnames – such as Kelly, Murphy and O’Connor – span all parts of Ireland.  But most will have a territorial focus in one of the four Irish provinces – Leinster, Munster, Ulster, and Connacht.  Munster in SW Ireland covers the counties of Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford.

Here are some of the Munster surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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