O’Leary Surname Genealogy

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
are the two most common spellings today.
O’Leary is mainly found in Ireland, Leary outside.
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Select O’Leary Ancestry 

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.

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, 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. Michael
was an earlier arrival in Prince Edward Island, in

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

O’Leary Miscellany

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

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.

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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